(July 13, 2018 / JNS) When Jonathan Greenblatt replaced Abe Foxman as national director of the Anti-Defamation League in 2015, the shift from a career Jewish professional to a veteran Democratic Party operative with no experience working in the field raised questions about the future direction of the group.
It wasn’t just that after 28 years as the head of the ADL, it was hard to imagine the organization without Foxman. Although he was no stranger to controversy or criticism, Foxman had a keen, instinctive understanding of when the ADL needed to weigh in on an issue and when to keep it out of a dispute if taking a stand would mean threatening its status as a nonpartisan monitor of anti-Semitism.
But after three years at the helm of the ADL, there’s no longer any doubt that not only is Foxman badly missed, his replacement has more or less destroyed the organization’s reputation. By repeatedly involving it in political controversies, it is impossible to pretend that Greenblatt’s vision of the group isn’t fundamentally that of a Democratic Party auxiliary that is increasingly overshadowing and marginalizing its still vital role as the nation’s guardian against anti-Semitism.
The latest proof of this dismal transformation came this week when Greenblatt—a former staffer in the Clinton and Obama administrations—wasted no time in making clear the group’s opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a tweet that was tapped out only seconds after the White House ceremony announcing the pick ended, Greenblatt denounced Kavanaugh as lacking the “independence and fair treatment for all that is necessary to merit a seat on the nation’s highest court.” The tweet, which teased a press release ready to fire the moment Trump spoke that obliquely asked the Senate to reject the nomination, made it clear that there would be no questions or deliberative process. Indeed, the ADL was quicker to oppose the nomination than some of the most hyper-partisan members of the Democratic caucus. Like many on the left, Greenblatt’s ADL was set to oppose anyone nominated by Trump and wasted no time in doing so.
Kavanaugh is not above criticism, and the decision to confirm him as the newest justice has serious implications for the future of American law. But while the ADL has a role to play in the national discussion about constitutional issues, Kavanaugh is not an extremist or a radical. Moreover, the context (whether we like it or not) is primarily not about his fitness for the post or his judicial temperament, but about party affiliation. Opinions about Kavanaugh are, with few exceptions, an indicator of loyalty to the Republicans or the Democrats.
That’s why, in this moment in history, a group like the ADL ought to be even more careful that it might have been in the past to avoid stands that color it as a support group for either political party. Succumbing to the temptation to join the fray against Kavanaugh without a moment’s hesitation wasn’t just a mistake. It was the act of a reckless partisan who doesn’t even feel the need to maintain the pretense that the group he leads has a higher purpose than diving into the daily political scrum.
Nor is this the first such instance of partisanship on Greenblatt’s part.
In early 2017, he didn’t hesitate to directly blame Trump for what was being represented as a surge of anti-Semitic incidents across the United States—largely the result of a spate of bomb threats at Jewish community centers. But it turned out that contrary to the ADL’s charge that it was the work of alt-right extremists inspired or unleashed by the new president, it was a disturbed Israeli teenager who made the threats. The ADL never apologized for its misleading accusations.
In April of this year, Greenblatt doubled down on his determination to steer the ADL into a partisan swamp by not merely opposing the nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state, but joining radical Islamist groups like CAIR in labeling him an anti-Muslim bigot. The charge was false and even condemned Pompeo—a decent man, an ardent friend of Israel and the Jewish people, and an opponent of anti-Semitism—for making statements urging Muslims to denounce terror that were identical to stands taken by the ADL in its pre-Greenblatt era.
Why is Greenblatt getting away with this?
There’s little doubt that anger against Trump is influencing ADL donors like many others in the Jewish world. Even normally levelheaded people have been driven off the deep end by Trump’s consistently inappropriate behavior and statements, leading many to make inappropriate and offensive analogies between Trump’s presidency and the Nazis. But rather than acting, as he should, as a brake on the worst instincts of the anti-Trump “resistance,” Greenblatt is leading the charge over the cliff into an abyss.
Were the Kavanaugh nomination an example of Trumpian excess or extremism, there might be a leg for the ADL to stand on. But Kavanaugh, a respected mainstream conservative, is exactly the sort of person that any Republican would nominate. Joining the Democrats in a futile attempt to portray him as an extremist isn’t merely dishonest, but also sends a signal that the ADL thinks all Republicans and conservatives, even the most sober and responsible, are beyond the pale. How can it possibly do its job on anti-Semitism if that’s where Greenblatt, who might have been in line for a senior position in a putative Hillary Clinton administration, has positioned it?
Perhaps that would be acceptable for other groups whose brief is admittedly partisan in nature. But the ADL’s role as the nation’s anti-Semitism watchdog is too important to be squandered in this fashion. It’s time for the group to reverse course before it’s too late.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.