What will ADL’s priorities be in a post-Foxman era?

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Credit: ADL.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Credit: ADL.

What message is the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sending to the Jewish community through its recent selection of White House aide and social entrepreneur Jonathan Greenblatt to succeed longtime National Director Abraham Foxman?

While some are praising ADL for thinking outside the box with its hire and trying to appeal to a younger demographic, others are concerned that Greenblatt is too visibly partisan and that his past experience may signal ADL’s de-emphasis of the fight against anti-Semitism in favor of civil rights work. But most agree that replacing Foxman, who will retire in July 2015, is no small task for one of the highest-profile American Jewish organizations.

The 74-year-old Foxman, who has become almost an institution unto himself and is considered by some to be a de facto spokesman for the Jewish people, has been ADL’s national director since 1987.

“When you [as an organization] are coming off of a period that has been so dominated by a leader, the history is that the next person often becomes kind of a human sacrifice,” said Ed Rettig, a consultant for Jewish organizations and former director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office.

ADL’s mission statement says that it “fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals, and protects civil rights for all.” At a time when global anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism (and the convergence of the two) is on the upswing, particularly in Europe, some Jews have criticized ADL for taking too many detours into alternate issues and fear that Greenblatt’s lack of experience in the area of anti-Semitism will exacerbate the trend.

Greenblatt, a 43-year-old grandson of a Holocaust survivor, currently serves in the Obama administration as Special Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the Domestic Policy Council. He also founded the Impact Economy Initiative at the Aspen Institute think tank and co-founded the bottled water producer Ethos Brands, which donated to global clean water programs and was eventually acquired by the Starbucks Coffee Company.

“We had a number of terrific candidates, and it was a difficult decision,” ADL National Chair Barry Curtiss-Lusher told in an email statement. “What set Jonathan apart was his passion for our mission, how he articulated his core values and his Jewish identity in the context of our mission, and his experience (and success) in ‘thinking outside the box’ as a social innovator. We think he represents continuity of purpose and policy, but with a fresh approach.”

Yet the fact that Greenblatt’s area of expertise is “social domestic policy” suggests that ADL “wants to continue moving in the direction of emphasizing liberal social policy positions, as opposed to emphasizing fighting anti-Semitism and defending Israel,” Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) National President Mort Klein told

Charles Jacobs—head of the Boston-based advocacy group Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), which has clashed with the ADL New England Region over what it calls ADL’s rush to exonerate the Newton, Mass., public school district in a controversy over anti-Israel texts in high schools—believes Foxman’s legacy “consists mainly in his refusal to have the ADL shift its focus to take on the ‘new anti-Semitism,’ an ideology created by left-wingers and Muslims engaged in a global campaign against the Jewish state and its supporters.”

“ADL used Jewish donations to push for such things as immigration reform, gay marriage, and women’s rights, seemingly uncomfortable with focusing ADL’s work primarily on fighting to protect Jewish interests, even in these daunting times,” Jacobs told

Echoing that sentiment is Chicago-based attorney Joel J. Sprayregen, a former national vice-chair of ADL who ended his involvement with the organization about a decade ago.

“The ADL has been a great champion for civil rights over the years, but of course it’s a defender of the Jewish people, and I think they’ve blurred that mission in recent years, getting involved with things like bullying which are not part of an essential civil rights or Jewish mission,” Sprayregen told

With the hiring of Greenblatt, Foxman and ADL “have doubled down on this tragic abandonment of Jewish interests in favor of an ill-defined universalism,” said Jacobs.

ADL’s Curtiss-Lusher, however, denied any shift away from the organization’s prioritization of fighting anti-Semitism.

“We do advocate for civil rights for all people, and have done so since our founding in 1913,” he said. “But what makes ADL special is distinctly our focus on anti-Semitism. That is needed in today’s world more than ever, and our succession committee had that in mind when we selected Jonathan.”

Ed Rettig argued that ADL’s multiple priorities don’t come “at the expense of the other.”

“It’s not a zero-sum game between the two, they’re all part of the same picture,” he said.

Dr. Steven Windmueller—a professor of Jewish communal service at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College and the author of an assessment of ADL’s role in American Jewish life for the organization’s centennial in 2013—praised ADL for choosing a successor to Foxman whose “story reflects the new generation of Jewish leaders, whose careers have joined together social entrepreneurship and political activism.”

“With his array of business and political connections, Jonathan should be able to attract a broad circle of millennials and Gen X-ers to the ADL enterprise while retaining the loyalty and commitment of the agency’s existing leadership base,” Windmueller told

“The fact that ADL reached out to an achiever like Greenblatt bodes well for the organization,” said Rettig. “It shows a lay leadership with creativity, willing to reach outside its comfort zone.”

Yet even those who commended ADL’s hire acknowledged the difficulty of this particular succession process.

Giving the example of a synagogue with a rabbi who has served for decades, Rettig said that it is usually not the immediate successor, but rather “only the next person who is able to build something new.”

“I’m sure that ADL is aware of this difficulty, but I don’t know how much you can do about it,” he said.

Windmueller explained that fundraising may be a challenge for Greenblatt because donors “identified with Abe and gave to Abe on behalf of their interests in fighting anti-Semitism, or building advocacy for Israel, or dealing with civil liberties issues and other matters that are a focal point of ADL’s agenda.” He said the question for ADL will be, “How will they be able as an institution to hold on to and retain the loyalty and support of traditional donors who were so tied to and so aligned with Abe, so that they can continue to flourish and grow their agenda?”

Jay Ruderman—president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which prioritizes disability issues, Israel-Diaspora relations, and modeling the practice of strategic philanthropy—said Greenblatt might be faced with the challenge of living in Foxman’s shadow.

“I don’t think Abe’s going to disappear,” Ruderman told “I think he’ll be out there on the stage. And [Greenblatt] will probably have to work to redefine the organization. A lot of people are looking to see the direction the organization takes. Organizations do change. There are leadership changes, with staff leadership and lay leadership, and that’s okay. But they have to find their place and their voice, and the role that they play in the community.”

Leading up to ADL’s leadership transition in the summer of 2015, it is Foxman’s voice rather than Greenblatt’s that will likely continue to come under scrutiny. Amid this year’s controversy over the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of “The Death of Klinghoffer”—an opera that Jewish communal observers have protested for its glorification of terrorism and promotion of anti-Semitic stereotypes—Foxman said in June, “While the opera is highly problematic and has a strong anti-Israel bias, it is not anti-Semitic.”

“If ADL can’t recognize the Klinghoffer opera as anti-Semitic, do we really need an ADL?” said  Sprayregen. “Let’s hope Greenblatt can restore ADL’s reputation to what is was under former national executives [Benjamin] Epstein, [Arnold] Forster, and [Nathan] Perlmutter.”

Foxman also took heat for recently saying that the White House, by criticizing an anonymous senior Obama administration official’s “chickenshit” insult of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, brought “closure” to the controversy surrounding the usage of that slur.

“It is wrong for the ADL to seek to silence the rest of the Jewish community by unilaterally declaring that the case is now closed,” ZOA said in a press release on Nov. 7. “ADL does not speak for the Jewish community, only for themselves and their supporters. … This closure statement is really a dereliction of ADL’s sworn duty to fight defamation of Jews and Israel.”

Was ADL’s stance on “chickenshit” a sign of things to come? ZOA’s Klein fears that might be the case, calling it unwise for ADL to hire a visibly partisan figure such as Greenblatt.

“How will he be able to criticize President Obama when he takes over [for Foxman]? He’ll never do it,” Klein told

Further partisan-related concerns have surfaced regarding the ties of the Aspen Institute think tank, Greenblatt’s former employer, to liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The think tank has received at least $400,000 in funding from Soros’s Open Society Institute. Soros has funded a number of anti-Israel organizations that are aimed at delegitimizing Israel globally, shifting U.S. public opinion against Israel, and promoting fringe political opposition groups inside Israel, according to the watchdog group NGO Monitor. Soros also funds the left-wing lobby J Street, which says it exists to bring about a two-state solution but has often come under fire for partnering on programming with anti-Israel organizations such as the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine.

Sprayregen said Greenblatt’s ties to Obama and Soros “are cause for concern, but Mr. Greenblatt is entitled to be judged on what he accomplishes for ADL.”

“We feel strongly about the importance of being non-partisan,” said Curtiss-Lusher. “Many of the candidates had affiliations of various sorts, political and otherwise. Jonathan joins us to lead ADL. There is nothing partisan about that, nor should there be.”

Windmueller said the move from Foxman to Greenblatt might be eased by the fact that ADL’s agenda “is so potent, so significant at this moment.”

“I think that there may well be a natural transition because of the alarm that has gone off with regard to whether or not we’re seeing a kind of resurrection of some new forms of anti-Semitism, or some old forms of anti-Semitism in new coverings,” said Windmueller.

Similarly, Curtiss-Lusher said, “The advent of a new leader creates an opportunity to talk about our strength as the leader in the fight against anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, bigotry, and discrimination.”

Yet according to APT’s Jacobs, ADL has set the wrong priorities in the fight against bigotry by campaigning against “Islamophobia,”which he called “a false concept created to block any criticism of radical Islamic doctrine and behavior.”

“Foxman has said this stance [against ‘Islamophobia’] would prompt Muslims to join Jews in fighting against anti-Semitism,” he said. “This hope has not materialized.”

“ADL will continue to lose relevance,” added Jacobs. “Jews who want to fight against the clear and present dangers of Islamic Jew-hatred and left wing anti-Zionism will step up their support of organizations that seriously engage these threats on the campuses, in our communities, and in the media. Jews will continue to abandon an ADL that has abandoned them.”

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