The burgeoning hate aimed at Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century was the driving force behind the 1913 formation of the Anti-Defamation League. According to its original charter—as laid out by its sponsoring organization, B’nai Brith, the largest Jewish communal group in the United States—the ADL’s “immediate object” was “to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience, and if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people. Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against, and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.”
Countering organized hate movements was, practically from the start, at the center of the ADL’s mission. The seminal case was that of Mary Phagan, a teenaged factory laborer in Atlanta, who was found murdered in 1913. Leo Frank, the factory’s Jewish superintendent, was framed in what became America’s blood-libel story for budding white supremacists. Frank was abducted from prison in 1915 and lynched. Before he was killed, Frank’s sentence was commuted by Georgia’s governor due in large measure to the argumentation and lobbying of the ADL and associated civil-rights organizations. The horror of Frank’s demise did not vitiate the lesson that organizing and solidarity with other minority groups were the key to political success in protecting Jews.
In 1920, under the banner “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,” Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent began serializing excerpts of the most infamous of all conspiracies: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Having inspired pogroms two decades earlier when first published in Russia, and coming on the heels of the Leo Frank case and the reemergence of the KKK, Ford’s actions sent a shiver up the spine of the Jewish community. A seven-year campaign of pressure, helped by Ford’s mounting financial troubles, succeeded in getting Ford to stop the series and apologize.
The cases of Leo Frank and Henry Ford still resonate, representing the twin pillars not only of anti-Semitism through the ages but of the resurgent anti-Semitism of the 21st century. One sees the Jew as unwanted foreigner, the despoiler of white bloodlines. The other holds the Jew responsible, from afar, for the world’s ills. Today, the Israeli has been substituted for the Jew like a clumsy search-and-replace macro in Microsoft Word. When nations go to war, the conspiracy theorists often blame not Jewish financiers but manipulative Israelis, and the censorial Jew is now the blacklisting Zionist.
Both pillars of anti-Semitism exist all along the partisan spectrum, but the nationalist pillar is, both in ideology and practice, more closely associated with the right, and the “Protocols” pillar with the left. This has rarely posed much of a challenge to groups like the ADL, which found itself able to criticize both. Like every organization, the ADL had its blind spots, but it never had an obstructed view of its own raison d’être—until the summer of 2015.
That was when Jonathan Greenblatt succeeded longtime ADL director Abe Foxman. Greenblatt is a man of the left in the purest sense, and one who holds partisan politics paramount. In the years leading up to his hire, the American left’s relationship with world Jewry had begun a steady decline. This decline was exploited and exacerbated by President Barack Obama—for whose administration Greenblatt worked before taking over the ADL. It is unclear whether the ADL’s reputation can survive Greenblatt’s stewardship.
From 1988 to 2001, the Gallup Poll found that sympathy for Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians didn’t vary greatly between Republicans and Democrats. The gap was nearly nonexistent around 9/11. But the attacks, and the War on Terror that followed, proved to be a political earthquake. Republicans broadly identified Israel as a natural ally in the same fight. Many Democrats weren’t so sure. The partisan gap on the “sympathy” question is now nearly 40 points, with Democrats now under the 50 percent mark when it comes to supporting Israel against its existential foe.
The Iraq War, in particular, exacerbated the growing divide. Opposition to so-called American militarism was now a driving force in left-wing politics—and Israel was considered a partner in that militarism (even though Israel’s leaders were unnerved by the decision to invade Iraq). Western European capitals defied George W. Bush; Jerusalem didn’t. Conspiracism spread quickly among Democrats seeking to delegitimize the war. Conspiracy theories usually end up pointing the finger at the Jews.
This is where the two pillars of anti-Semitism meet and join forces. The nationalists see the hand of the Jew in sending “real” Americans to fight global battles that have nothing to do with them. The ideological descendants of Henry Ford point to the foreign Jew as the rabble-rouser. Patrick J. Buchanan’s line about “the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States” was dusted off and given new prominence and mainstream juice by two leading academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. In a shoddy essay, which was then expanded into an even shoddier book, Walt and Mearsheimer blamed “the Israel Lobby” for using Jewish money to control American politicians on behalf of Israel. It was an important moment in American history, because it covered the old calumny with Harvard ivy.
Abraham Foxman saw it. In a 2007 book, The Deadliest Lies, he explained that many in the public would take “the authors’ impressive credentials as a guarantee of quality.” Walt and Mearsheimer argued that “the Israel lobby” had provoked a crisis that, for its kind, had never been faced before: “This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the United States been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state?” Foxman took pains to say he had no idea whether the duo were anti-Semites—what was in their hearts wasn’t the point. But when it came to judging what they wrote, Foxman dropped the hammer: “Walt and Mearsheimer sound all the same notes—not with the crudity we’d encounter from spokespeople for neo-Nazi groups like the National Alliance, but with a subtlety and pseudoscholarly style that makes their poison all the more dangerous.”
Walt and Mearsheimer helped launder this into leftist discourse with their taunting references to “a small band of neo-conservatives” many of whom “had close ties to Israel’s Likud party.” This gave the old dual-loyalty canard an added dimension. The left ate it up, and not just in the academy; suddenly accusations of pro-Israel Americans enforcing loyalty to Israel’s Likud party popped up in Time, the Nation, and the American Prospect. And it echoed an argument already being made by Greenblatt’s future boss: Barack Obama.
Conventional wisdom hails Obama’s 2002 speech against war in Iraq, when he was an Illinois state senator, as prophetic and wise. Obama thought this himself—he rerecorded audio for it for a 2007 ad. The speech, however, was an ugly mishmash of conspiracy theories straight from the fever swamps. He attacked Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, two high-profile neoconservative Jews who were most certainly not the primary drivers of the invasion, as bloodthirsty warmongers. Then he said Karl Rove pushed the war to distract the country from “a rise in the poverty rate.”
When Obama moved into the White House, he showed a surprising Nixon-like conspiracism streak when it came to American Jewry. He was consumed with negative feelings for Jewish Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson: In August 2014, Haaretz reported that “each step or statement made by Netanyahu is a-priori examined by the White House to see if it helps the Republicans or if Sheldon Adelson might be behind it.” In January 2015, the president accused fellow Democrats who were undecided on his Iran deal of being bought off by donors. An editorial in Tablet called it “the kind of naked appeal to bigotry and prejudice that would be familiar in the politics of the pre-civil rights era South.”
It would get far worse that summer, Greenblatt’s last in the Obama administration (he took over for Foxman in late July 2015). In August, Obama went after the monied lobbyists buying off politicians and said that those who sided against him on this were siding against America, while also calling back to the Iraq War. Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev, as sympathetic an ear as the president could hope for, recoiled: “Obama may have also sent some shivers down the spines of many Jewish leaders and activists by reopening old scars and reviving past traumas.” The following month, the New York Times picked up the baton, listing the members of Congress and where they stood on the Iran deal—and color-coded the Jewish lawmakers in yellow.
A Rubicon was crossed. And just at the moment that one of the twin pillars of American anti-Semitism was being laundered through the Democratic Party, Jonathan Greenblatt left the administration that enabled this bigotry to take the helm of the Anti-Defamation League.
Greenblatt took three hallmarks of Team Obama with him when he left: a belief that liberalism and modern morality were synonymous; an obsession with Benjamin Netanyahu; and a rivalrous antagonism toward anyone to his right who called out anti-Semitism.
The liberalism part of that isn’t unique to Greenblatt—the ADL has long supported abortion rights, which is not a “Jewish issue” in any way. But there are two puzzling aspects to Greenblatt’s behavior. First, he makes it personal. Immediately after Trump announced he would nominate to the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh, Greenblatt went on the attack, tweeting that Kavanaugh’s record “does not reflect the demonstrated independence and commitment to fair treatment for all that is necessary to merit a seat on our nation’s highest court.”
Slandering a respected judge is so far beneath the ADL that Greenblatt’s behavior should’ve been a gut check for the group’s leadership. Additionally, as Jonathan Tobin pointed out atNational Review, “the group’s haste showed that it had planned to oppose anyone nominated by Trump,” thereby making a leap into blind partisanship.
The second difference is an overt hostility to religious liberty—an absolutely dangerous gamble for a Jewish-rights group. It isn’t merely that Greenblatt publicly lamented June’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Christian baker’s First Amendment rights. It’s also the way the organization has embraced liberalism as a form of religion in itself. Thus the ADL in 2016 called opposition to abortion a “right-wing assault on religious diversity in reproductive freedom,” an Orwellian mangling of language and faith.
Greenblatt’s antipathy toward the elected Israeli government is perhaps even more out of character. In 2016, Netanyahu confronted the Palestinian demand that no Jews remain in a future Palestinian state, calling it “ethnic cleansing.” This is quite literally the definition of the phrase. But Greenblatt—again, it bears repeating, as the director of the Anti-Defamation League—took a long swing at Netanyahu with a full column in Foreign Policy magazine. Greenblatt wrote: “Like the term ‘genocide,’ the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ should be restricted to actually describing the atrocity it suggests—rather than distorted to suit political ends.”
This is nonsensical, but it’s worth pointing out the hypocrisy here as well. In late July, Greenblatt tweeted out an ADL video of two Holocaust survivors describing the trauma of being separated from their families by the Nazis. Greenblatt’s point was to draw a parallel to the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from the adults who had carried them across the border. Greenblatt tweeted: “Miriam & Astrid were separated from their parents during the Holocaust. They know the trauma this causes. 38,000+ people signed the petition we delivered to @DHSgov & @TheJusticeDept demanding an end to zero tolerance & to reunite families they tore apart.”
As the Jewish activist Noah Pollak responded to Greenblatt: “ADL spent decades successfully shaming people who appropriated the Holocaust to serve contemporary political agendas,” yet it is now a “leading perpetrator” of this trope. In this case, the analogy is not only false, it is dangerously irresponsible, tying the president of the United States explicitly to Hitler—all after kicking sand at the Israeli prime minister for correctly calling a policy of the expulsion of all Jews from a state “ethnic cleansing.”
This pathological distaste for Netanyahu has proved problematic for the supposed anti-Semitism watchdog. On May 1, Netanyahu gave a televised presentation of Iranian deception regarding its nuclear program, thanks to intel gleaned from a mind-boggling Mossad operation in which agents broke into secret vaults in Tehran, evaded detection, and fled the country with “some 50,000 pages and 163 compact discs” covering “years of work on atomic weapons, warhead designs and production plans,” according to the New York Times.
Tommy Vietor, Obama’s National Security Council spokesman, went so far as to accuse the Jewish state of fabricating intelligence to satisfy its bloodlust, tweeting that “Trump is now cooking up intel with the Israelis to push us closer to a conflict with Iran. A scandal hiding in plain sight.” These horrifying words, retweeted nearly 2,500 times, would have been met with thunder by Foxman’s ADL. Greenblatt’s ADL remained silent. And the poison spreads.
Every so often, Greenblatt’s ADL will rap a Democrat on the knuckles and claim partisan evenhandedness. But the larger problem is that Greenblatt sees right-wing bigotry as a crucial element of conservative ideology, while viewing any such transgressions on the left as isolated anomalies. But the mainstream Democratic Party’s overt embrace of its left flank, which is the source of the nation’s most explicit anti-Israel rhetoric and ideas, has made such assumptions naive to the point of professional malpractice for someone like Greenblatt.
Keith Ellison was probably thrilled when Foxman left his post. The deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee and Minnesota congressman, who is leaving Congress and trying instead to become state attorney general, had a famous run-in with Greenblatt’s predecessor in 2007 after Ellison compared then President George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 to Nazi Germany. Foxman’s ADL called Ellison out. Ellison agreed to put out a statement walking back his comments. When Ellison dragged his feet, Foxman released a statement slamming Ellison, who became furious because he had lost his chance to control the story.
Ellison has long been dogged by his past affiliation with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, having even defended the openly anti-Semitic Farrakhan well before he entered Congress. Ellison insisted that he had left Farrakhan behind. But in February, the Wall Street Journalrevealed a Jew-baiting twofer: In 2013, Ellison had dined with Farrakhan at a dinner hosted by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York. Greenblatt was silent for days. When he was finally pressured to make a statement, he denounced Farrakhan…but never mentioned Ellison.
It wasn’t Greenblatt’s first swing-and-a-miss on Ellison. In 2016, after the presidential election, the Democratic National Committee held its election for its new chair. Ellison threw his hat in the ring and won the backing of Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and incoming party Senate leader. Statements by Ellison about Israel, however, placed the congressman yet again in conflict with the Jewish community. On a trip to Hebron, he posted a photo of a sign calling Israel an apartheid state and he called on Israel to lift its blockade of the Hamas terrorists in Gaza. Pressure mounted for Greenblatt to say something. He did. He defended Ellison as a friend to Israel and insinuated that his pro-Israel critics were motivated by racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. Then a tape surfaced of Ellison accusing Israel of controlling American foreign policy, and Greenblatt, egg squarely on face, walked back his support.
This ridiculous dance has become a hallmark of Greenblatt’s mismanagement of the ADL. Progressive activist Linda Sarsour catapulted to liberal fame by organizing and chairing the Women’s March, a national feminist protest movement in response to Trump’s 2016 victory. But Sarsour has long practiced the politics of anti-Jewish hate: She signed a statement declaring Zionism to be racism, declared that “nothing is creepier than Zionism,” embraced Palestinian terrorist Rasmeah Odeh, and claimed that anti-Semitism is “not systemic.” She was invited last year to give the commencement address at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health. CUNY came under criticism for the choice—a public university (in New York of all places) bringing in a hatemonger for its commencement ceremony raised plenty of eyebrows.
When Greenblatt finally commented on the commencement matter, his statement was both absurd and irrelevant: “Despite our deep opposition to Sarsour’s views on Israel, we believe that she has a First Amendment right to offer those views.” Well, sure—no one claimed Sarsour didn’t have a right to speak out loud. But the key fact remained that Sarsour opposes the very existence of the Jewish state. All Greenblatt could muster was “opposition” to what he meekly characterized as her “views on Israel.”
It’s a pattern with Greenblatt. In July 2016, Democratic Representative Hank Johnson called Jews who live beyond Israel’s Green Line “termites.” The ADL responded in milquetoast fashion by calling Johnson’s choice of words “offensive and unhelpful.” When the organization got the pushback it deserved for letting bald anti-Semitism pass with a mere finger wag, Greenblatt eventually wrote a long post for the ADL’s website that was only slightly less mealy-mouthed, and which endeavored to add “context” to Johnson’s dehumanization of Jews.
If Greenblatt is missing the trees, he’s also missing the forest. His ADL has compiled a guide to right-wing hate, “From Alt-Right to Alt-Lite: Naming the Hate,” as well as a running tab of “extremist candidates” for state or national office. All are Republicans.
Greenblatt’s defenders like to point to the occasional times he’s managed to criticize a non-Republican for anti-Semitism, but such criticism usually comes after indefensible silence. The larger point is that under Greenblatt, the ADL paints a picture of the political right’s extremists as connected. But instances of left-wing extremism aren’t given the same treatment; they are depicted as isolated incidents, not dots to be connected. Meanwhile, Ellison is the DNC’s No. 2; Sarsour helped the campaign of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and then ran the Women’s March; and a slew of prominent Democrats have been kicking the Jewish community in the teeth.
The party’s newest rising star is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who parroted Hamas talking points to accuse Israelis of being butchers and occupiers of “Palestine.” The leading candidate for Ellison’s congressional seat is Ilhan Omar, who accused Israel of “evil doings” in Gaza. In Michigan, Democrats are about to send to Congress Rashida Tlaib, an avowed supporter of a one-state solution (i.e., the destruction of the Jewish state) and a “mentor” to Sarsour (in the latter’s characterization). The Democratic nominee for a House seat in Pennsylvania, Scott Wallace, led a fund that shoveled money at groups that support the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). A Democratic congressional nominee in Virginia, Leslie Cockburn, has been a notorious anti-Israel conspiracy theorist going back nearly three decades.
An even more virulent anti-Israel candidate, Mal Hyman, nearly won a Democratic primary in South Carolina. Maria Estrada, a Democrat vying for a California Assembly seat, has made a habit of blatantly anti-Semitic Facebook posts and praises Farrakhan. Another fan of Farrakhan’s is Representative Danny Davis, a Democrat from Illinois. And when Andre Carson, a Democratic congressman from Indiana, was criticized for his association with Farrakhan, he demanded that his American Jewish critics denounce Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, the deep and abiding hostility Jews face on liberal campuses across the country is shaping the next generation of left-wing politicians, activists, and business leaders. And while Greenblatt certainly condemns anti-Semitism on campus, he is like a man who feels a drizzle and insists it’s just a few drops of rain even as the storm clouds gather overhead and block out the sun.
Past ADL directors going back before Foxman would have had no trouble connecting the dots.
The ADL could very easily have done the work and figured out, for example, that Jeremy Corbyn, the viciously unrepentant anti-Semitic leader of the Labour Party who could very well be Britain’s next prime minister, isn’t just a problem for our cousins across the pond. A Labour Party member who worked with Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, Max Crema, told LabourList that Corbyn serves as “an inspiration to the American left,” so much so that Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign echoed Corbyn’s favorite slogan, “For the Many.” Crema’s comments were amplified on Twitter by a Europe-based editor from the American socialist magazine Jacobin. Last year, Crema was a press officer at a conference of the Democratic Socialists of America at which the DSA passed a resolution endorsing the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The leader of America’s socialist resurgence, Bernie Sanders, has praised Corbyn and compared himself to him.
As if it needed to be said, Democratic Party chairman Tom Perez told radio host Bill Press in July that Ocasio-Cortez “represents the future of our party.”
It’s hard to argue with that. The incentive for supporting the Jewish state among new Democratic candidates seems to be evaporating. “Progressive Democrats increasingly criticize Israel, and could reap political rewards,” blared a July headline in ABC News. Chuck Schumer is now his party’s floor leader in the Senate. But he has been unwilling or unable to do anything about this trend. He even backed Ellison’s bid for DNC chairman.
ABC correctly notes that “during the 2016 presidential campaign, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders condemned Israel, arguably clearing a path for Democratic candidates to break with party tradition and criticize the U.S. ally.” In early October, the New York Times checked in on how the anti-Israel insurgents were doing. Quite well, it turned out. This “cluster of activist Democrats,” the Times reports, are mostly young and mostly “cruising toward House seats this fall.” Democrats, according to the Times, “are testing the boundaries” of discourse on Israel—and Democratic leadership and veterans of the Obama White House are silent or egging them on.
The socialists aren’t the only strand of the new left with anti-Semitism in its DNA. American leftism is increasingly organized by the principles of “intersectionality,” used generally to refer to the ways in which different forms of discrimination can overlap. The result is essentially a sort of “pyramid of oppression” that seeks to prioritize minority issues in order of the groups’ level of marginalization. The left sees Jews as white (in contrast to the way blood-and-soil nationalists of the right view them) and Zionists as supporters of “white” colonial oppression. In the intersectionality hierarchy, protecting Jews from others simply doesn’t rate, while protecting others from Jews is a common theme.
Greenblatt should know this firsthand. In April, police arrested two black men in a Starbucks for no apparent reason other than that their presence made whoever called the cops uncomfortable. Starbucks apologized and said it would be providing anti-bias training to all employees. The ADL was announced as one of the partners in this effort. Yet Sarsour and her Women’s March co-chairwoman Tamika Mallory—who had professed support for Louis Farrakhan—objected, calling the ADL “anti-Palestinian.”
In the new left, governed by intersectionality, a century-old civil-rights group is considered too Jewish for comfort. To be clear, then, anti-Semitism is an integral part of the various ideologies underpinning American leftism in 2018. Greenblatt adamantly refuses to confront this, an unconscionable abdication of his responsibilities.
In a piece for Tablet, the journalist Paul Berger noted that Foxman seemed increasingly uncomfortable with Greenblatt’s partisanship. In March 2017, Foxman knocked the obsessive way Trump’s critics twisted themselves into logic pretzels in blaming the president for every anti-Semitic act. “The whole issue has become a political football and that doesn’t serve us,” he told the Forward.
Greenblatt responded by effectively saying that Foxman, now running a center for the study of anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, didn’t know what he was talking about: “When you are dealing, as I am, with individuals and families and communities who are affected by these issues … it affects you. And that’s a lot different than when you are sitting in a museum. I also have something at my fingertips, which is the data.”
But Foxman was undeniably correct: Turning anti-Semitism into a purely partisan cudgel takes an existential threat to the Jewish people and flattens it, sapping the Jewish community of its credibility when making the accusation and of its ability to build coalitions across political and religious lines.
Foxman wasn’t trying to pick a fight with Greenblatt, but he did highlight one of Greenblatt’s glaring weakness: He plays to his base and alienates all but his fellow partisans.
Indeed, one gets the sense that Foxman hoped one lesson of Trump’s victory would be the futility of spurning such broad coalitions. A month after the election, Foxman, in an emotional speech honoring the Hidden Child Foundation, said, “I don’t care how you feel politically: To compare a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, because you don’t like him, to Hitler is Holocaust trivialization.”
This, while not directed at Greenblatt, nonetheless highlighted the second of Greenblatt’s glaring weaknesses: his historical ignorance, which leaves him flailing to accurately describe political outrages, because he has such a shallow grasp of the subject at hand—the way anti-Semitism mutates in order to thrive in each new time and place. This just so happens to be the raison d’être of the organization Greenblatt runs.
Indeed, Greenblatt sees institutional memory itself as an obstacle. In May, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations convened a panel to hear complaints by three member groups: the ADL, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and the Zionist Organization of America. ADL and HIAS brought complaints about the ZOA’s criticism of their work. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Greenblatt “submitted to the Presidents Conference a six-page letter and an Excel sheet with 36 complaints against ZOA dating back to 2007.”
He wanted the Presidents Conference to muzzle criticism of those who said the ADL was losing its way.
ZOA’s complaint was far more serious. It alleged that after a 2016 panel discussion on BDS at the United Nations, Greenblatt was so angry about criticism of his ADL that he physically accosted the ZOA’s Liz Berney. She told JTA that Greenblatt “came up to my right side, put his arm around my back, grabbed me with his left hand on my left shoulder. He starts pushing me with the force of his arm down the hall. I was trying to get away from him, and he was restraining me.” Berney said Greenblatt brought her to the Iraqi and Syrian missions and yelled that they—not ADL—were the real enemy. Greenblatt and the ADL unequivocally denied the allegation, though JTA spoke to six people to whom Berney related the story right after it happened.
Then there’s the case of the Canary Mission, a pro-Israel campus group whose name-and-shame approach to anti-Semites has brought it into conflict with other pro-Israel groups who say its tactics are merely encouraging BDS groups to carry out some of their work in secret. When a group of pro-Israel students at the University of Michigan wrote an op-ed on the tension between these groups, the ADL thanked the “@umich student leaders for exposing Canary Mission’s Islamophobic & racist rhetoric.” Unable to provide a single instance of the Canary Mission’s supposed Islamophobia and racist rhetoric, ADL walked it back: “It was wrong to apply those labels to a group working, like us, to counter anti-Semitism on campus,” a spokesman told JTA. No kidding.
I had my own surreal run-in with Greenblatt over his fondness for using his organization as a tool of his personal retribution.
In April 2017, then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in an attempt to defend his boss’s appropriately harsh response to Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, made a boneheaded comment to the effect of: Not even Hitler did that. Spicer apologized, but Greenblatt wouldn’t let up and sent an incredibly condescending and obnoxious letter signaling that the ADL was treating Spicer’s comment as borderline Holocaust denial. On Twitter, I took a swing at Greenblatt for it.
Apparently I hit a nerve. I began getting a series of prefab form tweets from ADL officers and others. It was immediately recognizable as an amateurish rapid-response campaign in which the ADL sent word out to supporters to attack me and offered sample tweets they could use. Indeed, the minions ADL brass sicced on me had merely copied and pasted the suggested tweets so that many contained not only the same wording but the same typo. For good measure, the ADL’s sample tweet called me “#FakeNews.”
The ADL attempted to deny the harassment campaign it ordered against me, but Paul Berger obtained the internal communication from an official ADL messaging system proving it.
Here was an organization that had been focusing on tracking and exposing coordinated social-media harassment campaigns against Jewish journalists …caught coordinating a social-media harassment campaign against a Jewish journalist. Combine the penchant for bridge-burning and a flash-bulb anger, and you have a CEO who seems to regard the Jewish establishment around him with great suspicion. It’s a deeply poisonous modus operandi that virtually guarantees the Jewish community will have an establishment against itself for Greenblatt’s tenure at the ADL.
Perhaps that’s by design. Greenblatt seems eager to replace the existing American-Jewish establishment with one far more hostile to its values. According to Tablet, when an ADL-hired headhunting firm contacted Greenblatt about the opening, “he thought he was vastly unqualified. He had barely any experience in civil rights and no experience as a Jewish communal leader.”
Greenblatt thought the firm was simply mining him for ideas someone else would use. He spoke to them anyway. Greenblatt says he told them: “The next CEO of ADL, I thought, should be thinking about social and tech and innovation and earned income and brand and global and millennials.”
This should have been the reddest of red flags. That a prospective CEO would treat an organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism as a playground for tech-bro chatter was confirmation that Greenblatt was right: He wasn’t qualified. He wanted to treat the Anti-Defamation League as a cross between McDonald’s and The Trump Organization.
As childish and superficial as this “branding and millennials” plan for an ADL makeover was, it offers a window into the failures of the new, “cool” Anti-Defamation League. After all, the generation gap on issues directly tied to anti-Semitism—such as Israel and socialism—means you will often have to choose between flattering millennial sensibilities and combating anti-Semitism.
Haaretz summed up the latest Pew poll on Israel in January: “While 56 percent of Americans over the age of 65 say they support Israel more than the Palestinians, the same is true for only 32 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29. Within that age group, 23 percent say they sympathize more with the Palestinians, and 19 percent sympathize with neither side or have no opinion.”
And here’s Gallup in August on socialism: “Americans aged 18 to 29 are as positive about socialism (51 percent) as they are about capitalism (45 percent). This represents a 12-point decline in young adults’ positive views of capitalism in just the past two years and a marked shift since 2010, when 68 percent viewed it positively. … For those 50 and older, twice as many currently have a positive view of capitalism as of socialism.”
The integration of the two into mainstream Democratic Party politics is not a theoretical matter—refer back to the aforementioned Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Democrats’ praise of Corbyn, etc. Or watch the fusion in action: The confirmation of the judge Greenblatt came out so hard against, Brett Kavanaugh, saw a protest in Washington at which Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was introduced glowingly by Linda Sarsour. It’s a mutual-admiration society: Last year in Time magazine, the senator extolled the “courage” of “extraordinary women”—Sarsour, Mallory, and two of their colleagues.
If this is Greenblatt’s idea of “branding,” it’s understandable that those who want to fight anti-Semitism but who have been abandoned by Greenblatt—college students, political conservatives, strident pro-Israel advocates—would look to fill the gap. And it’s certainly reasonable for the existing Jewish establishment to be alarmed at the wrecking-ball revolutionary who wants to replace it with one that finds the very idea of criticizing anti-Semitism outrageous.
Greenblatt appears to see himself as a “disruptor,” the Silicon Valley self-designation that supposed rebels wear with pride. At a speech on philanthropy in Israel in 2017, he boasted of his work at the Obama White House, where he led the Office of Social Innovation and instituted “outcome-based payments, civic hackathons, and hybrid value chains.” His efforts “catalyzed new public-private partnerships that facilitated the flow of large-scale capital on long-standing problems.”
When he segued into his new responsibilities as head of the Anti-Defamation League, he didn’t leave his inner Elon Musk behind: “The question that animates me every day is, How can I apply what I learned in business and government to the social sector, how can I infuse our work with innovation and impact?”
He warned: “We have crossed a threshold that is less about the micro-economics of individual labor markets and more about the meta-economics of our common humanity. Facing planetary challenges like accelerating climate change, shrinking water and food access, and widening income gaps, we urgently need new response strategies.”
You almost expect Greenblatt to announce how to prevent cemetery vandalism using blockchain. Good luck solving climate change by catalyzing partnerships of civic hackathons that address the meta-economics of our common humanity, I guess. But the Anti-Defamation League isn’t the vehicle for it.
And it is apparently the vehicle for the study of anti-Semitic outburst against journalists only when the journalists share Greenblatt’s ideological presumptions. During the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, a combination of alt-right agitators and Russian trolls began making life online hellish for conservative opponents of Trump. Writers and pundits would be tweeted pictures of their faces imposed on a Jew locked in a gas chamber with Donald Trump about to push the button, or some other explicit Nazi threat. Soon the harassment moved off Twitter. My family was doxxed by a neo-Nazi site. My wife, Bethany Mandel, started getting phone calls of recordings of Hitler speeches. This became a common occurrence, but groups like the ADL seemed to notice only when Trump won the nomination and the harassers turned their attention to liberal journalists like Julia Ioffe. Then, and only then, was the anti-Semitic social-media wave treated as a new and terrifying crisis.
The ADL, which boasts that it “has been a pioneer in confronting cyberhate” since 1985, was revealed to be living in a partisan bubble. It convened a study, released in October 2016, to get to the bottom of the anti-Semitic cyber targeting. It turned out that my wife was one of the 10 most-harassed Jewish journalists during the election. Significantly, the top target—by a mile—was the conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, who received nearly 40 percent of the hate tweets. Conservative Jewish journalists were the ones most in need of a group like the ADL—and they continue to be least served by it.
Can a Greenblatt-led Anti-Defamation League be saved? The ADL has an admirable history of self-correction. In 1913, the anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews in educational materials and newswriting were the focus of the ADL’s work. Then the new organization decided to push for legislation to outlaw the hateful or false depiction of “the Jew” on stage and screen and to lobby for state boards of censorship—and in this case was forced to pull back. A commendably self-critical history of the ADL published in 1965 by B’nai B’rith notes that “the League later realized that its proposed cure was worse than the disease.” In 1962, the ADL expressed its distaste for a New York showing of The Merchant of Venice but was careful to state that it opposed censoring the play: “In its search for methods to protect the Jew, it found its most potent weapon in the democratic ideals of the American society as a whole. These ideals it serves steadily, and in so doing it protects and enhances the status of American Jewry.”
But for a ship to turn around in this way, its captain must be ready to steer in a new direction. Greenblatt’s attack-the-messenger philosophy is discouraging. His tetchy, defensive attitude is his way of ensuring he will not learn from mistakes but instead double down on them. His resentment of the Jewish communal figures who came before him is petty and petulant. His partisanship is toxic. And his hostility toward religious freedom represents a historically ignorant tempting of fate for the leader of a Jewish institution. Perhaps this won’t all lead to disaster. But if we should be so lucky, it will be in spite of Jonathan Greenblatt.
Originally published in Commentary Magazine, re-published with permission