Facing Pressure On All Sides, ADL Storms Ahead
WASHINGTON — Two weeks before the November presidential elections, David Friedman— then campaign advisor for Donald Trump and now the nominee for US Ambassador to Israel— appeared on Israel’s most popular news program with Channel 2’s Yonit Levi. Given only five minutes to present his case right before the campaign concluded, Friedman singled out one Jewish organization. “The ADL (Anti-Defamation League)… has lost frankly all credibility,” he warned, arguing that its national director Jonathan Greenblatt is a “former J-Street advocate.” No Jewish group has arguably faced more controversy during the past year than the ADL, which has taken hits from both Trump supporters and liberals for its stances critiquing anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination.
The ADL has been “ferociously focused on fighting anti-Semitism whether it’s coming from the extreme right or the radical left,” Greenblatt explained in an interview with Jewish Insider. “What that basically means is that I am not interested in partisanship.”
However today’s political divisions reveal just how difficult it is to separate any cause—even a previously considered consensus issue, like combatting anti-Semitism — from endless partisan rifts. Mort Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America, told Jewish Insider that the ADL has become an “extreme-left wing” organization under the new leadership of Greenblatt. (On December 23, the ADL director condemned the Obama Administration for failing to veto the United Nations Security Council resolution blasting Israeli settlements.).
Tevi Troy, former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department Health and Human Services during the Bush Administration, told Jewish Insider that the organization was headed on a liberal path, and “it was indicative of their direction that they hired an Obama White House aide (Greenblatt)” to run the group. ADL’s focus has changed from anti-Semitism to concentrating on Islamophobia and Black Lives Matter, Klein charged. Citing the statistic that Jews are the number one target of religious hate crimes across the country, Troy concluded, “In the Jewish community, we would be better off if that [anti-Semitism] is what they stuck to.”
Tackling all forms of prejudice, in addition to focusing on hatred against Jews, has consistently remained at the core of ADL’s mission for the past 100 years, Greenblatt assured. “Some believed that when Abe (Foxman) spoke out against the apartheid regime in South Africa or spoke up on behalf of marriage equality, that it was a dilution of our mission,” Greenblatt contended. “But Abe believed it was part of our focus.” The ADL National Director also cited the organization’s struggle supporting victims of Joe McCarthy’s campaign or for civil liberties in the famous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education trial. “Our fate is entwined with the fate of others. By fighting for others by making America a better place for all minorities, it is a better place for the Jewish people,” Greenblatt reiterated.
Criticism of the ADL has not only arrived from hawkish circles, but also appeared from within the left. While initially defending Congressman Keith Ellison in his candidacy for the Democratic National Committee Chairman, Greenblatt reversed course on December 1. In a 2010 recording, the Minnesota lawmaker insisted, “The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people… When the Americans who trace their roots back to those 350 million get involved, everything changes.” The ADL quickly issued a statement blasting Ellison and calling his remarks “deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” which played a role in tipping the conversation against the liberal legislator.
The protest against Greenblatt quickly arrived. “The ADL’s bad call on Keith Ellison,” thundered a December 5 Haaretz op-ed. Commenting on Greenblatt’s disapproval of Ellison’s remarks about American Jewry’s role in influencing Middle East policy, Eric Levitz asked in Daily Intelligencer: “Can anyone seriously claim that American foreign policy would be identical if there were as many Palestinian-Americans as Jews in the United States– and if the former population had invested copious resources into funding groups to lobby Congress on behalf of Palestine’s interests?” For Ellison supporters, ADL’s condemnation of the liberal legislator was an inappropriate intervention conflating criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. Dovish officials also criticized the anti-Semitism watchdog regarding the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. With the ADL forcefully opposing the resolution, Lara Friedman, Director of Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now, wrote on Twitter, “Sadly, no surprise: ADL now actively lobbies for the settlements.”
Supporters of the ADL have found comfort in the organization’s willingness to operate outside of party lines. “They’re (ADL) one of the few who have criticized everybody from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders. I don’t think that’s partisan,” praised Norm Eisen, a fellow at the Brookings Institute and former US Ambassador to the Czech Republic. “They have been outspoken, which is what ADL is supposed to be,” especially since “you have seen a resurgence of overt anti-Semitism across the country.”
Nonetheless, most of the tension with the ADL remains tied to conservative circles. The ADL wholeheartedly protested the appointed of Steve Bannon as senior White House advisor. “It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists — is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house,” the ADL wrote in a November statement. The group also attacked the Trump campaign for releasing an advertisement of the Washington establishment’s ties with “global special interests.” According to the ADL, the video “touched on subjects that anti-Semites have used for ages” and evoked “painful stereotypes.”
Yet, there are voices urging caution. “I fear that the ADL’s use of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ — whether referring to individuals or institutions on the Left or the Right — has become excessive, and will end up desensitizing the American public,” Jonathan Bronitsky, a political historian with a PhD from Cambridge University told Jewish Insider. “When genuine enemies emerge that need to be confronted, we might not recognize them soon enough,” he said.
Leon Wieseltier, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, rejected the charge that the organization was acting out of partisan motives. “There were really repulsive expressions of Jew-hatred that turned up in the larger universe of the Trump campaign. I think it was ADL’s proper role and responsibility to decry it.” Wieseltier explained. “I am tired with everything being politicized,” the noted public intellectual insisted. By the eve of the election, Trump’s Israel advisor Friedman called the ADL “morons” to Jewish Insider’s Jacob Kornbluh highlighting the immense anger built up within the Republican candidate’s campaign against the anti-Semitism watchdog organization.
“It should not be made into a political football. The whole purpose of an organization such as the ADL is to offend all sides,” noted Wieseltier. “If it offends all sides, then it is doing its job well. If it pleases only one side, then it is being delinquent in its responsibilities. “