ADL national director assesses battle against anti-Semitism

Jonathan A. Greenblatt

National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, speaking onstage at the morning session of the ADL Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, California on Nov. 6, 2014.  Photo: Michael Kovac/WireImage via Getty Images

Over the past two years, the Anti-Defamation League, a national nonprofit dedicated to combating anti-Semitism, has been incredibly busy, particularly in Missouri, responding to:

• Desecration at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, where 154 headstones were toppled. 

• Two bomb threats against the two St. Louis Jewish Community Center facilities, and one against the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. (In addition, a St. Louis man has been charged in at least eight of  165 bomb threats against Jewish organizations in the past three months.) 

• A swastika drawn inside the bathroom of a student dormitory, and other concerns about racism and anti-Jewish sentiment, which sparked a student and faculty protest at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Jonathan Greenblatt, who became national director and CEO of the ADL in 2015, has been crafting the organization’s response to those sorts of incidents around the country. In advance of his visit to St. Louis on April 3 and 4, Greenblatt spoke to the Jewish Light about his approach to anti-Semitism.

 

It has felt like St. Louis has, in many ways, been at the epicenter of concerns about anti-Semitism. Do you think there are any unique factors at play in this part of the country?

What we have seen since the election has been an escalation of anti-Semitism and a surge in hate crimes that have affected the Jewish community, although not exclusively the Jewish community. 

I think that there has definitely been a sense that no one is exempt. We have seen (the bomb threats) in the Midwest. We have seen them on the coasts. We have seen them in the South. It’s been pretty alarming for the Jewish community across the country.

I think in St. Louis the cemetery desecration has made people feel a little bit uncomfortable. When I say a little bit uncomfortable, I don’t mean to understate what this is about. I just mean that it’s new for this to be an issue in your community.  

What’s new and indeed encouraging was seeing the interfaith effort to clean up the cemetery and the interfaith effort to raise money for the cemetery. 

 

One of the organizers of the fundraising campaign was Linda Sarsour, a Muslim activist who has been in the news lately for her comments about Zionism and has been a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. What are your thoughts on Sarsour? And how do you think the Jewish community should be engaging with her? Or should it not be engaging with her at all?

We profoundly and strongly disagree with her on her positions vis-a-vis Zionism and Israel. She is involved with the BDS movement, which is a tactic in a broader campaign to delegitimize Israel. It’s troubling when you delegitimize and demonize Israelis. That encourages and spreads anti-Semitism. We actually called her out (in a letter to the editor) on her recent interview in the Nation magazine, where she asserted that feminism and Zionism are incompatible. In fact, we think they are entirely compatible and complementary.

 

What does the fact that she led this fundraising campaign for a Jewish cemetery mean as far as the idea that if you are anti-Israel, then you are also anti-Semitic?

I think it is reasonable for people to disagree with particular policies of particular governments. Nothing unusual about that. What is problematic is when you hold Israel to a double standard, when you delegitimize it and demonize Israelis. I think it’s great to get Muslims around the country to give money to help rebuild the Jewish cemetery. There’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps what might have been even better would be to take some of the money raised to clean up the cemetery and put half of it to repairing headstones and then put half of it to anti-bias education and teach local people — Christians, Jews, Muslims —  about the importance of tolerance for all people and why demonizing or delegitimizing them is not consistent with American values. That’s a kind of clean up; that’s cleaning up the conversation. 

 

The ADL recently criticized Israel for a new ban that prevents BDS supporters from entering the country. Could you explain why your organization took that stance, and your thoughts on the response that ADL has received?

The ADL since 1948 has been a consistent and clear advocate for Israel. We have been and always will be. Period, full stop. That doesn’t mean that from time to time we might call out particular policies with which we don’t agree. We are fundamentally, ferociously opposed to delegitimization.  

I think the policy is quite vague, and that’s why we find it problematic. One of Israel’s greatest strengths is the vibrancy and richness of its democracy. We get uncomfortable with policies that are vague and might mitigate some elements of that democracy.

 

When you took that stance, did you expect that there would be some pushback?

There is pushback with everything we do. There is pushback when I open the curtain. Sometimes people from the left disagree with us. Sometimes people from the right disagree with us. We are the Jewish people. We invented the notion of dissent. We are very accustomed to the notion of debate and dissent with everything that we do. 

 

In December there was an email sent out from the ADL talking about how there was an organized, concerted effort to delegitimize the ADL. Do you still feel that way? [JTA reported that in the email sent to supporters, Greenblatt named only one of ADL’s\critics, the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, which has been a strident critic of Greenblatt since his appointment over a year ago.]

I think it’s fair to say that there have been individuals and organizations that have been deeply opposed to ADL for many years. We get it from certain elements within our community. We get it from certain elements outside of our community. 

My job description is to protect the Jewish people. That’s the only thing I’m focused on. Not fighting with other Jews. Not fighting with other groups. I think when Jews fight with other Jews, it’s the anti-Semites who win. 

 

Have you been encouraged by the fact that since there were concerns about the lack of condemnation of anti-Semitism, that at his address to Congress, President Donald Trump opened by condemning anti-Semitism. Do you think things are moving in a more positive direction as it relates to anti-Semitism?

What happened that evening was unique and remarkable in a positive sort of way. By choosing to open by not talking about any of the campaign slogans or the themes outlined in his inauguration, but by launching a broadside against hate was really important, as it was a week before when Vice President Mike Pence was in your city at the cleanup of the cemetery with Gov. Eric Greitens.

I have had the privilege of talking to senior leadership in the Department of Homeland Security. They are very focused on making sure Jewish institutions are adequately protected. I have had the good fortune of spending time with FBI Director James Comey and his leadership team. And I am very confident that they are applying an incredible amount of energy to try and identify the person or persons responsible for the majority of these threats. 

 

There has been some anti-Semitic activity online that affected students in high schools here in St. Louis. What’s the ADL doing to try and address that?

Last week at the South by Southwest Conference in Texas, I announced that we are launching the Center on Technology & Society in Silicon Valley. ADL under my administration has been very focused on the issue of cyberhate. We run the cyberhate working group with the biggest companies in Silicon Valley participating. We help them develop best practices on takedown procedures for hate speech on their platforms. We are collaborating with Google on a partnership that uses artificial intelligence to try and neutralize cyberbullying and online abuse.