The Nation / May 6, 2022
The organization’s new campaign again anti-Zionist and Palestine-solidarity groups is a clear sign that it lacks the credibility to lead on civil rights issues.
It once seemed that Jonathan Greenblatt, whatever his other shortcomings, knew his right foot from his left. Now, the Anti-Defamation League CEO appears to have become disoriented.
Back in 2017, when former President Donald Trump equated the neo-Nazis and white supremacists at the deadly Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally with the anti-racist protesters who opposed them, Greenblatt rightly issued a strong condemnation. Yet, earlier this week, Greenblatt announced that, in effect, he has embraced the un-logic of false equivalence he once rejected. In a video for the ADL’s Virtual National Leadership Summit, Greenblatt, standing before a glowing control-center map like a man play-acting the director of the CIA, declared that left-wing and Palestine-solidarity groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations are equivalent to white supremacists. These groups, he told the camera, “epitomize the photo inverse of the Extreme Right that the ADL long has tracked”—or, to crib from Trump’s memorably demented phrasing, that there are bad people “on both sides.”
What changed? Well, not as much as it might seem. Greenblatt’s announcement marks much less a break with the ADL’s modus operandi than an open admission of what its leaders used to deny. For the ADL, as its critics have long insisted, is first and foremost an Israel-advocacy organization. Its priority is to defend Israel—which maintains indefinite military rule over millions in the West Bank and a siege on Gaza—from any consequences for its actions. It is worth remembering that in the summer of 2020, as Israel seemed poised to formally annex segments of the West Bank, the ADL was brainstorming how best to soften the US government response should Benjamin Netanyahu’s territorial-maximalist plan go through. It is not easy to square support for apartheid rule abroad with a nominal commitment to civil rights at home.
Greenblatt, perhaps under pressure from some of the ADL’s conservative supporters, has given up any pretense of the balancing act.
This is an old story. Since at least the 1970s, the ADL has used its history as a civil rights organization as a screen for a flagrantly right-wing politics on Israel. In the ’80s, for instance, the ADL worked to mask Israel’s ties to the apartheid regime in South Africa, and in the late ’90s, the ADL settled a lawsuit after US anti-apartheid activists accused the organization of hiring former intelligence agents to spy on them. Abe Foxman, Greenblatt’s predecessor, was famously quick to smear critics of Israel as anti-Semites—including, or perhaps especially, left-wing Jewish academics—and was vituperatively Islamophobic, with a portfolio of bigotry that included defending the US government’s program of domestic spying on Muslim communities and joining in the frenzied opposition to the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero.
In the recent video address, Greenblatt attempted to anticipate criticism of his announcement. It would be “toxic and false,” he said, to claim that the decision to put left-wing anti-Zionist and Palestine-solidarity groups “in the same category as right wing extremists” makes the ADL anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian.
To the contrary: The ADL is, in rhetoric and in practice, an anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian outfit. That is true now; it was true in the past. Greenblatt, who made his name hawking bottled water under a guise of social entrepreneurship before a stint in the Obama administration, gave the organization a face-lift when he assumed the title of CEO in 2015. But in the years since, perceptible changes have remained largely in the realm of the cosmetic. The ADL’s Trump-era rebrand to emphasize fighting “extremism” and “hate” was a skillful PR gambit; its defense of a brutal, deadly occupation in Israel-Palestine continued apace.
Still, there is a grotesque irony in Greenblatt’s smearing of Palestine-solidarity and Jewish anti-Zionist activists as being “in the same category” as the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville or shot up the Tree of Life synagogue. It was not Palestine-solidarity activists who found common cause with the white-nationalist- and neo-Nazi-adjacent Trumpian right but Greenblatt himself. It was Greenblatt, in Jerusalem for the deranged spectacle of Trump’s 2018 move of the US Embassy, who tweeted a selfie with the caption, “Deeply moved to be here.” (Never mind that as he hobnobbed with Trump officials, Israeli forces just a two-hour drive away shot and killed at least 58 Palestinian demonstrators, including several teenagers, and wounded over 2,700 at the Gaza border.)
It was Greenblatt who applauded Trump’s 2019 draconian executive order on anti-Semitism—a move expressly intended, as Jared Kushner himself detailed, to designate strident criticisms of Israeli policies as expressions of racism, and thereby quash Palestine-solidarity activism on campuses. When it was conducive to advancing their agenda on Israel, Greenblatt and the ADL showed no qualms about working with and applauding the very forces that have amplified and normalized white-nationalist politics over the last six years.
What makes Greenblatt’s remarks earlier this week even more troubling is that they are not mere rhetoric. The ADL is an organization with considerable resources and relationships with state and local governments. With its new attention to fighting Palestine-solidarity groups, the ADL will bring its institutional heft to the ongoing, aggressive campaign aimed not just at delegitimizing the cause of Palestinian freedom but also at making support for Palestine-solidarity campaigns and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement punishable by law. As my Jewish Currents colleagues Isaac Scher and Mari Cohen have reported, an increasing number of US states have incorporated the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition of anti-Semitism—which conflates Zionism and Judaism—into their statutes, while other states have passed legislation prohibiting companies from boycotting Israel. Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim activists, on college campuses and beyond, are already facing the brunt of these repressive measures. The ADL’s redoubled anti-Palestine efforts will further tighten the screws.
The ADL and the larger Israel-advocacy apparatus may score temporary victories in this fight. But in the long run, they will not win. Despite pouring substantial resources into pushing back against BDS and Palestine-solidarity campaigns—resources that far exceed anything their opponents have ever been able to muster—the movement for Palestinian freedom, for equality for all people living in Israel-Palestine, is only growing, becoming more mainstream. Indeed, for a rising generation of young people, support for Palestinian freedom is becoming a new baseline principle, no different from commitments to racial and gender equality. This generation also rejects the tired, zero-sum line of argument advanced by the ADL: that support for Palestinian liberation and opposition to anti-Semitism are incompatible.
Last week, the Harvard Crimson editorial board—not exactly a historic bastion of left insurrectionism— endorsed BDS. Two weeks ago, the Princeton University student body voted in favor of a BDS referendum, before a coordinated campaign of right-wing misinformation led the student government to void the decision. The student activists involved in these efforts, a great many of whom are Jewish, are not anti-Semites; Greenblatt and the ADL’s warped insistence does not make them so.
One of the lessons of the Trump era was that the liberal fantasy of the perfect symmetry of evils was not simply a misguided vision of politics but a dangerous one. It obscured where the real threats came from. In effect, it aided and emboldened the far right, who saw opportunity in the inability of the liberal mainstream to make crucial distinctions between outright ethnic chauvinism, racist nationalism, antidemocratic militancy on the one hand, and transformative, egalitarian social movements on the other. Much of the punditocracy continues to make this error by consistently framing reformist campaigns for racial and economic justice as tantamount to totalitarianism.
Greenblatt’s designation of anti-Zionist and Palestine-solidarity groups as equivalent to Nazis is of a piece with a more general myopia, the centrist misapprehension of political reality. It is also a serious lapse of judgment that should remind us of what was clear long ago—that the ADL lacks the credibility to lead on issues of equality, discrimination, and civil rights.
Joshua Leifer is a contributing editor to Jewish Currents and a member of Dissent’s editorial board