OpinionColumn

The ADL betrays history and the people it pledges to protect

It has formed an alliance with an antisemitic leader whose incendiary rhetoric against Jews helped lead to the worst pogrom in U.S. history.

Rev. Al Sharpton outside of New York City Police Department Headquarters in 1999. Credit: Robert Swanson via Wikimedia Commons.
Rev. Al Sharpton outside of New York City Police Department Headquarters in 1999. Credit: Robert Swanson via Wikimedia Commons.
Ezra Ben-Pesach. Credit: Courtesy.
Ezra Ben-Pesach
Ezra Ben-Pesach is a writer and martial artist; for several years, he led a group that fought campus antisemitism.  

The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913 by the B’nai B’rith following the lynching of Leo Frank. Its founding charter gives as its prime directive “to stop by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people.” Secondarily, the organization seeks to end discrimination against all groups of people.

For decades thereafter, the ADL was widely regarded as an august institution, having fought a large swath of scourges that beset the Jewish people, including Henry Ford’s malign propaganda, as well as Nazis operating in the United States. It was also an active participant in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.

In market contrast, the ADL now under the leadership of CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt has formed an increasingly intertwined alliance with an antisemitic leader whose incendiary rhetoric against Jews in large part led to the worst pogrom in American history.

In 2020, the ADL joined other organizations in the incipient “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign designed to purge social media of hate and what they deemed “disinformation.” To join forces for this endeavor, Greenblatt turned to none other than the Rev. Al Sharpton.

In the wake of the Great Depression, when U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to form the Securities and Exchange Commission, he tapped the inveterate market manipulator and insider trader Joseph Kennedy as one of his commissioners, and who became its first head. The reasoning was said to be that few knew better of the evils that caused the financial markets to crash.

A similar argument could be made for Sharpton. Kennedy’s example is in stark contrast to Greenblatt’s confederate in that he recognized the ruination that he engaged in caused to the nation’s economy. He thus sought to curtail it.

The only change with Sharpton has been on the surface. His appearance is more polished and his language muted as he basks in the elite strata of society that has been accorded him.

The most recent iteration of the ADL’s feigned redemption of Sharpton was the Jewish group’s co-sponsoring his National Action Network’s March on Washington to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. This is especially ironic in that King was genuinely philosemitic and an admirer of Israel as a beacon of democracy.

The latest March on Washington had the additional unfortunate confluence of transpiring during the same week as the anniversary of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in which Sharpton was a central figure.

Presently on the ADL’s website, the March on Washington redux is a featured article. Any reference to the anniversary of the historical tragedy in Crown Heights is conspicuously absent.

The biography of Greenblatt on the organization’s site shows no reference to involvement in Jewish communal matters—much less combating antisemitism—before he took over the helm of this historical institution.

Greenblatt’s predecessor Abe Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, did graduate work at the Jewish Theological Seminary and toiled as a lawyer for the ADL for 22 years before becoming national director of the organization. Though it was well-known that Foxman’s political affinities were liberal, he was widely admired for his generally even-handed approach to running the organization. Still, even Foxman had a blind spot when it came to the Crown Heights conflagration.

Foxman initially failed to perceive the violent rioting for the pogrom it was and unduly delayed the ADL’s defense of the beleaguered Chassidic community. To his credit, Foxman promptly apologized for this error in judgment.

There is no sign that Greenblatt will say that he is sorry for being in league with a man who egged on the shedding of Jewish blood. The head of the ADL also does not appear at all perturbed by his ally’s subsequent vile verbal attack on the Jewish owner of a clothing store in Harlem that inspired a mass murder nor does he seem troubled that when on a trip to Israel said he was in “hell.”

Some of Sharpton’s defenders contend that he has had a change of heart, but there is no evidence to substantiate this assertion. The only semblance of an admission on Sharpton’s part is that he has relayed the anecdote of Coretta Scott King chastising him for using “cheap” rhetoric to get “cheap applause.” He also noted that he was supposedly appalled by the Palestinians’ “pay-for-slay” policy. Why he just realized that is anyone’s guess.

On the Jewish calendar, as we approach Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, we are taught that it is a time to perform teshuvah or “repentance.” It is a requisite of teshuvah that we specifically acknowledge our actions and the harms they have caused.

There is also precious little indication that Greenblatt will engage in teshuvah for the serious harm he has caused the once great organization that he now heads.

During the Crown Heights riots, Rabbi Shea Hecht worked across racial lines to reach a harmonious resolution of the conflict.  He subsequently co-chaired the Crown Heights Coalition with African-American Dr. Edison O. Jackson.

Asked about the ADL’s current partnership with Sharpton, Rabbi Hecht said, “It is shocking, but then again not. The ADL was not there for us when the riots happened. Still, in some ways what is going on now is worse. The great sage Hillel the Elder famously asked, ‘If I am not for me then who will be for me?’ It does not appear that the ADL is fully there for the Jews in Crown Heights. While I believe that anyone can become our ally, it does not appear that this is being done the right way.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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