The ADL would be laughable if it weren’t dangerous

Jonathan Greenblatt (screenshot from ADL video)

Emmaia Gelman

Mondoweiss  / May 12, 2022

By attacking young organizers of color and disloyal Jews for antisemitism — declaring us an existential threat — Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL is signaling that it’s okay to target us.

Last weekend, the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt said the quiet part out loud: in a national speech, he declared that the ADL is making war on antiracist organizers in the United States. Greenblatt targeted US Black, immigrant, Palestinian, and Jewish grassroots groups, focusing on some of the youngest and most vulnerable — the college group Students for Justice in Palestine. He also singled out #DropTheADL, the coalition of movement groups that has raised the alarm about the ADL. He compared rising global solidarity work against racism and state violence to QAnon, and blamed it for “absolutely terrifying” antisemitism.

It’s not just rhetoric. Blaming young organizers of color and disloyal Jews for antisemitism — declaring us an existential threat — Greenblatt was signaling to the right that it’s okay to target us. To those of us who are targeted by the ADL, it’s terrifying to see Greenblatt continually platformed as a civil rights expert.

The ADL’s nice white version of civil rights dates back to the Cold War, when it offered US agencies a way to derail Black-led civil rights organizing.

Today, it serves the same purpose. The ADL endorses militarized, hyper-funded police. It tries to discredit meaningful antiracist organizing by labeling it either childish or evil. As the ADL more openly declares war on progressives, it reanimates ever more zombie Cold War rhetoric. Last week Greenblatt charged that antiracist organizers are using “Soviet disinformation” when they critique the Israeli state. It’s no coincidence that Greenblatt is sounding a lot like white supremacists — the ones who think that teaching kids about race is “Marxist.” The ADL is making common cause with them. This from a CEO who came to his national civil rights role straight from selling “ethical” water to Starbucks.

It would be comical if it weren’t so incredibly dangerous.

The ADL’s move to the right is clearly a response to its loss of credibility on civil rights.

How that happened: In 2020, antiracist groups started to push back on the ADL. #DropTheADL started with an open letter from the Movement for Black Lives, United We Dream, Mijente, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Jewish Voice for Peace, and other groups, making clear that the ADL uses civil rights advocacy, including work on antisemitism, as a cover for conservative attacks. It took off. Lately, it appears that ADL’s remaining supporters are largely right-wing Zionists, both Jewish and Christian — and news media, who rely on the ADL for handily-packaged data on hate crimes, and never seem concerned about its quality.

Signaling Greenblatt’s recognition that he’s not playing civil rights leader anymore, this weekend’s speech was marked by unusually bold lies.

Against a military-style command center backdrop, Greenblatt claimed that the global antiracist movement is actually a call for “homicidal violence against civilians.” He said that Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd wrote antisemitic words that he demonstrably didn’t, and that Jewish Voice for Peace tweeted something it didn’t. For context, the ADL previously attacked the same movement for excessive solidarity among Palestinians, people of color, Jews, and queers. The reasoning, if racists need reasoning, is that antiracist groups challenge Israeli apartheid.

It’s also important to know that the fears of antisemitism underlying this speech — fears many of us share — are deliberately escalated by the ADL.

ADL data notoriously mixes real antisemitic incidents with events criticizing Israel, or even just criticizing the ADL. Blurring FBI data with its own reporting, the ADL reports “record anti-semitism” when we protest Israeli apartheid, and leaves us to presume that means we’re surrounded by acts of violence. Jewish journalists have begun to look critically at the ADL’s numbers, but national media have not.

When the ADL tells its violent, right-wing supporters that Black, Arab, and Jewish antiracists are dangerous, the ADL associates itself with the political agenda and violence of the far right.

That’s not just because the ADL is deeply tied to US law enforcement and the Israeli military, who do enormous violence. If we look at history, the ADL’s strategy has run alongside the murderous strategy of other organizations: the Jewish Defense League (JDL) spent decades bombing the Black, Jewish, and Arab targets that the ADL denounced. The 1985 bombing murder of Alex Odeh, West Coast regional director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, is officially unsolved. But the ADL had infiltrated Odeh’s staff, and the infiltrator had keys to the office, and the ADL reportedly shared information with the JDL. The JDL has recently tried to revive itself, enraged at Black Lives Matter — but also, for example, targeting kids at an insufficiently-Zionist neighborhood Hanukah party. (Yes, those are my kids.)

The ADL’s ridiculousness can be laughable — and it’s important to laugh at tyrants. In a new interview with the New Yorker‘s Isaac Chotiner about his fiery speech, Greenblatt literally can’t make his own logic work. He can’t answer how a movement of occupied Palestinians and progressive Jews is like white supremacy. He’s in knots explaining why Palestinians dispossessed by Zionism should be called “antisemitic” for opposing it. When asked whether the ADL is doing antisemites’ work by equating Jews with Israel, Greenblatt groans: “I wish I didn’t have to have this conversation with you or with anyone.” The pratfalls of a bully are funny. For a moment, at least.

If anyone was left on the fence about the ADL, it’s time to get off. With direct and dangerous racist attacks, Cold War paranoia, and “post truth” claims designed to defame social justice leaders, Greenblatt has made clear where he lies on the American political spectrum. QAnon has nothing to fear from him. And the danger he foments is all too real.

Emmaia Gelman teaches in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis at NYU, and is working on a book on the history of the ADL and the role of Zionist institutions in shaping the US racial state