By Jonathan S. Tobin
(2022 / White Rose Magazine) Are donors to the Anti-Defamation League aware of what they are funding?
Do they know that the organization created to fight prejudice and attacks against Jews is on the record supporting an ideology that grants a permission slip to antisemitism?
Do they know that the group still considered to be the gold standard for monitoring hate crimes is promoting the notion that Jews should be divided along racial lines—an explicit acceptance of radical theories that categorize Jews and the State of Israel as a function of “white privilege”?
Do they know that the organization committed to support Israel has, in recent years, often joined with those sniping at it and hired vicious critics of the Jewish state as staff members, like Tema Smith?
Do they know that a group that prided itself on nonpartisanship and building bipartisan coalitions against antisemitism has cast those principles to the winds and become part of America’s political tribal wars?
Do they know that the organization that always considered defense of civil liberties essential to its mission has now joined hands with Big Tech companies to promote censorship of ideas and organizations?
Perhaps many of those still pouring money into the ADL’s coffers are aware of all this and are supportive of the sea change in the organization. The abandonment of core principles and its job of defending Jews places the ADL on the same side of those it is pledged to fight. This is one more casualty of the shift in culture that has produced toxic divisions tearing apart the fabric of American society.
Most of the many American Jewish organizations and institutions founded in the early 20th century have long since become obsolete. The Jewish hospitals created to find places for unhired Jewish doctors and the Jewish country clubs established to compete with the exclusionary non-Jewish facilities have long since become secular once those barriers evaporated.
Many national organizations that once were considered essential platforms for speaking up for a beleaguered community are now mere shadows of themselves as they struggle to find a purpose as their constituencies changed or disappeared altogether.
But there is still one national Jewish institution that not only still has a job but arguably is faced with an even more daunting task and bigger responsibilities than it did when it opened its doors: the Anti-Defamation League.
Outraged over the antisemitic hate that fueled both the wrongful murder conviction of Atlanta businessman Leo Frank and his subsequent lynching in 1915, the B’nai B’rith organization established the ADL to deal specifically with the plague of antisemitism. The daunting challenges of a century ago—in the form of hate sponsored by auto magnate Henry Ford or populist preachers directly invoking age-old stereotypes about Jewish “aliens and power brokers”—have evolved to reach even wider audiences on the Internet. The delegitimization of the Jews and the Jewish state is louder than ever, and now has become a feature of the increasingly influential left-wing of the Democratic Party, which has embraced radical notions like intersectionality and critical race theory, opening the door to antisemitism.
That makes the ADL, which has become not only independent of its initial sponsor, but an organizational powerhouse with a massive fundraising machine, more important than ever. Its infrastructure of regional offices and large staff perform the task of monitoring acts of antisemitism at a time when attacks on Jews are not only on the rise but essentially mainstreamed under the guise of “criticism” of Israel. As open calls for Israel’s destruction and the stigmatizing of its supporters as racists and oppressors have become commonplace, an effective Jewish defense organization with the clout of the ADL ought to be a vital tool in combating this problem.
But the ADL is failing.
That failure can’t be measured financially since it is raising more money than ever before. Nor is it a communication problem, as the ADL retains its status as a go-to source for comments about Jewish issues as well as the ultimate arbiter in determining what constitutes antisemitism.
Yet, its failure is palpable.
Ever since its current CEO Jonathan Greenblatt succeeded longtime head Abe Foxman in 2015, the former Clinton and Obama administration staffer has largely discarded the group’s non-partisan stance. Greenblatt has effectively turned it into just one more partisan advocacy group supporting Democratic Party talking points on a variety of issues, including those that have little or nothing to do with the defense of Jewish interests. As his grip on the organization solidified, the ADL also became an ally of ideologically driven Big Tech firms seeking to enforce censorship on the Internet. In this way, the ADL has fallen far short of the needs of an increasingly embattled Jewish community.
As worrisome as those actions are, in the past two years the problem has grown even worse. The ADL’s prioritization of its ties with left wing allies has also led to decisions that not only undermine its core mission, such as the sanctioning of partisan weaponizing of the issue of antisemitism, but its willingness to endorse ideas that enable antisemitism and the delegitimization of Jews and Israel has, incredibly, placed it in the position of actually aiding and abetting the very forces it was created to oppose. As a result, it is not simply an example of failing Jewish leadership, but it is a group that now must be considered increasingly part of the problem rather than the solution to the dilemmas faced by American Jewry.
The organization that Greenblatt inherited from Foxman, the ADL’s venerable leader who worked for the group for 50 years and led it for 28, was politically liberal on many issues but still scrupulously non-partisan. Moreover, though it had long since branched out into the business of educating communities on the dangers of all sorts of prejudice, it was still focused on its primary mission of combating antisemitism, including that which is directed at the Jewish state.
Greenblatt immediately began re-orienting the organization to be more directly in line with his own partisan instincts. He had previously been a staff member of the Barack Obama White House, which was itself embroiled in a number of disputes with Israel and the Jewish community. President Obama’s determination to pursue a policy of appeasement toward Iran and its nuclear ambitions placed him in conflict with Israel—which viewed Tehran as an existential threat—and put him at odds with American Jews and certain members of Congress, who agreed with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opinion about the disastrous nature of the nuclear deal. In seeking to dismiss those arguments, Obama and his staff—including those who were orchestrating what former national security advisor Ben Rhodes called their media “echo chamber”—were at pains to spin the debate as one between a president pursuing his nation’s interests and a powerful lobby that was buying support in Congress, a trope of traditional antisemitism.
But far from seeking to confront his former colleagues, Greenblatt was more interested in using the ADL to critique Netanyahu. He went out of his way in 2016 to publicly oppose Netanyahu’s claim that the Palestinians’ desire to push Jews out of West Bank communities would amount to “ethnic cleansing.” According to Greenblatt, that was a wrongful use of Holocaust terminology. Yet he was guilty himself of using a similar analogy to criticize enforcement of American laws against illegal immigration.
There is, however, more at play here than mere hypocrisy. Though Greenblatt will occasionally criticize a Democrat for an antisemitic utterance or inappropriate Holocaust analogy, under his leadership, the ADL became focused on aiding the “resistance” to the administration of President Donald Trump, constantly accusing him of supposedly inciting or inspiring a rise in antisemitism on the far right. Indeed, the ADL became a prop for branding Trump a Nazi and/or antisemite.
While Trump’s intemperate and vulgar tone, as well as his willingness to attack opponents and critics was unorthodox, Greenblatt’s repeated attempts to connect the dots between his comments and far-right extremists was rooted primarily in partisanship, not a defense of the Jews. That was apparent when it came to blaming the president for acts of violence against Jews, such as the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, California. But it was also the case with respect to Greenblatt’s willingness to lend the ADL’s prestige to the false claim that Trump had somehow endorsed or expressed moral indifference to the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 because of a comment that was taken out of context about “very fine people” being on both sides of the barricades there. Trump said there were such people who disagreed about the need to clear public squares of all memorials to Confederates and those killed in the Civil War, not in the confrontation with neo-Nazis.
In doing so, the ADL aligned itself with the political views of most of its donors. But in addition to committing itself to a misleading partisan narrative about Trump, Greenblatt also pushed the group into a confrontation with the Trump administration over issues that had nothing to do with antisemitism. For example, Greenblatt tweeted his opposition to the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court within seconds of the announcement, signaling that ADL would oppose any conservative.
The ADL condemned former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a man who was not only a friend to the Jewish community during his time in Congress and as director of the CIA but also helped to make historic breakthroughs for pro-Israel policies at the State Department. During his confirmation hearings, the ADL attacked him as a “bigot” for denouncing antisemitic Islamist radicals. That could be seen in the same context as Greenblatt’s reversal of Foxman’s opposition to the building of a Muslim community center and mosque in the Ground Zero area of Lower Manhattan where the 9/11 attacks took place. The ADL’s stance promoted the false narrative in which the real victims of the attacks were American Muslims, suffering from a mythical backlash.
The ADL also found itself closely aligned with Big Tech companies that it previously criticized for allowing antisemitism on social media. Though some of those firms, like Facebook, initially refused to go along with the ADL’s push for censoring hateful opinions, they soon found that the ADL was a willing partner when it came to justifying Silicon Valley’s shift toward censoring conservative opinions. The ADL’s efforts to steer those who logged onto hate websites to better sources of information actually led to another hate website that was spreading antisemitism. And its alliance with PayPal, intended to help weed out alleged radical groups, put it in the position of endorsing censorship more than actually fighting hate.
Despite the group’s claims to the contrary, the ADL’s leftist tilt caused it to be perceived as having shifted its priorities away from strictly Jewish issues. This led to even more dangerous problems than the disintegration of its gold-standard status as the ultimate authority on antisemitism. The spread of intersectional ideology—which lumps together all groups and peoples who claim to be oppressed because of their color or indigenous background and similarly views all of their opponents as linked by “white privilege”—has convinced many on the American Left that the Palestinian war against Israel is somehow analogous to the struggle for civil rights in the United States.
This has led not only to attacks on Israel as a beneficiary of “white privilege”—the irony that a majority of Israeli Jews trace their origins to the Middle East or North Africa and are therefore “people of color” under the definition accepted by the Left is lost on the Jewish state’s critics—but it has also provided fuel for a rising tide of antisemitism in which assertions of Israel’s illegitimacy are the primary line of attack.
This has proved troublesome for the ADL because of the way Greenblatt has helped to steer it into a position where it is an important ally for a party whose left wing—including its young rock stars of the congressional “Squad”—are not only anti-Israel but in the case of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), are open supporters of the antisemitic BDS movement, which seeks Israel’s elimination. The group’s defense of Omar and Tlaib against criticisms from Trump about their antisemitism undermined their credibility in speaking up against the BDS movement while simultaneously earning them brickbats from the Left.
Just as important, when the Black Lives Matter movement rose to prominence in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd, the ADL was swept along with the rest of the country’s leftists into supporting its demands. The antisemitic connections of the radicals behind BLM and the vicious attacks on Israel in its platform should have placed the ADL first among the movement’s critics. But in the moral panic about race that has infected America’s leftist elites, the ADL felt compelled to endorse the movement, defend it against its critics, and, crucially, take a supportive position about the critical race theory indoctrination that was linked to the protests.
In the past year, Greenblatt has felt compelled to note that antisemitism is a problem on the Left as well as the far-Right, especially once incitement against Israel during the conflict with Hamas terrorists in May 2021 led to an outbreak of violent attacks against Jews in the United States. This incitement was led by left wing Democrats like Omar, Tlaib, and their popular colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who were appealing to intersectional ideology to justify their stance, libeling Israel and letting Hamas off the hook for firing thousands of rockets and missiles. The ADL was put in an awkward position, and was forced to push back against the delegitimizing smears heard on the floor of Congress, as well as from far-Left and Islamist-friendly groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Yet that didn’t cause Greenblatt or his group to rethink their endorsements of CRT. To the contrary, as was revealed after Greenblatt intervened to provide cover for “The View” host Whoopi Goldberg after she spouted racialist nonsense about the Holocaust in which she claimed it was merely a case of whites attacking other whites.
A definition of racism had been posted on the ADL website (in which racism was limited to prejudice against persons “of color”) that actually was similar to the gross comments for which Goldberg had to apologize with Greenblatt’s assistance. After the rise of BLM, the group’s definition was altered from one that stated that “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another,” and that “a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.” The new definition held that: “The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.”
As soon as the Goldberg controversy occurred, the ADL scrubbed the intersectional definition from its website and restored the old entry, although appending to it a lengthy note reportedly by Greenblatt, claiming that the group’s focus on the racism of whites was “true but not the whole truth.”
This Orwellian turn on the part of the ADL is noteworthy. Yet it’s also an element of another controversy in which it has recently become embroiled when it hired activist Tema Smith as its new director of Jewish outreach and partnerships. Smith has a long history as a bitter critic of Israel and left wing Twitter troll. In an earlier time, it would have been unimaginable for a group that was as solidly pro-Israel and reflexively centrist as ADL to hire such a person, but she was the perfect job candidate for the Greenblatt era.
The most serious problem with the hire is not what she might have posted on Twitter in the past but her current assignment. While outreach is important for the entire Jewish world in a time of rising assimilation and a Jewish population that is largely disconnected from the community and a sense of Jewish peoplehood, Smith’s brief is focused on “Jews of color.” That Jews who are not white sometimes face discrimination within the community is deplorable and should be condemned. Jews come in all different colors and from many places of origin (something that the non-Jewish Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t seem to understand). The idea of dividing Jews by skin color can never be accepted any more than bias against converts should be tolerated.
In its eagerness to get in on the fashion of racialist rhetoric on the Left and in the Democratic Party, the ADL is embracing the cause of “Jews of color.” Yet in doing so, it and others on the Left have lumped in a variety of communities including those Jews from Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and North African countries, most of whom do not identify with the term. As such, the ADL is not only undermining a basic concept of Jewish unity, it is also utilizing the same intersectional playbook used by Israel-haters to brand the Jewish state and its supporters as possessing “white privilege.”
Jews should not be defined by skin color; no one should. The point of the civil rights movement was to discard the obsession with race that fueled segregation. America should aspire to a colorblind society, and yet CRT and intersectionality demand that it be treated as the most important element in defining any person. Joining with its left-wing allies to apply this idea to Jews across the board, the ADL is again undermining the cause for which it was founded and providing useful cover to those who are seeking to harm the Jewish people, here and in Israel.
At a time when both the statistics that the ADL compiles about hate and the tenor of the national conversation confirm that anti-Semitism is on the rise, the need for an effective Jewish defense agency focused on anti-Semitism is real.
The ADL now finds itself a rare Jewish organization with a mission that is at least as relevant to Jewish life today as when it was founded 109 years ago. That should make it a group whose continued efforts are not only necessary but deserving of support from the broadest cross-section of Jewish life.
Far more important is the way the ADL’s embrace of BLM extremists and CRT gives a boost to the very forces on the Left, who, because of their influence in Washington and among a younger generation of Democrats, now pose the most important threat to Jewish life in America. That is not merely a setback for ADL. It is an abandonment of the very purpose of its existence.
It is ironic that this is happening at a time when ADL’s influence and financial clout are greater than ever. But it is also a paradigm of how Jewish leadership is failing American Jewry’s best interests all the while claiming to be defending them.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.org, a senior contributor to The Federalist and a columnist for Newsweek and the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin
This article was originally published in the White Rose and can be viewed here.