Letter to the Editor

Can the ADL speak for American Jews on anti-Semitism?

The ADL defends its record on partisanship and advocating against anti-Semitism. An exchange with the editor of JNS.

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.
Esta Epstein

Jonathan Tobin’s passion seems to be to relentlessly attack ADL, regardless of what facts may stand in his way. This is true of his most recent featured column for JNS, “Who Can Speak for American Jews Against Anti-Semitism? Not the ADL” (Nov. 27), as it is of the many articles he has written taking aim at ADL in recent years.

In his most recent piece, Tobin blatantly mischaracterizes the Anti-Defamation League as a partisan organization that no longer fights anti-Semitism and that has turned its full firepower against the Trump administration. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I know this firsthand as someone who has been intimately involved in ADL’s mission both under the past leadership of Abraham Foxman, and as current board chair under the stewardship of CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. Our leadership on anti-Semitism is the same now as it was then, and even more so as we have adapted to the changing times and trends.

We live in perilous times, indeed, and it is unfortunate that Tobin is cherry-picking the facts to arrive at a conclusion that fits with his deeply partisan narrative. The fact is that ADL remains non-partisan and non-political as we have throughout our 106-plus year history. We continue to call out anti-Semitism whether it emanates from the left or the right, and we continue to devote our resources and energy towards combating anti-Semitism in all forms.

First, Tobin accuses ADL of being ineffective and “belated” in our response to the recent wave of hate crimes against Jews in Brooklyn, N.Y. One need not look beyond ADL’s Twitter feed to see that no other group has been as outraged and responsive to this trend than the ADL. And our announcement three weeks ago of an infusion of new funds to double the number of “No Place for Hate” schools in Brooklyn was just the latest in a long history of our involvement in and with that community. ADL has repeatedly called on public officials and law enforcement to take meaningful action. We have offered rewards of up to $10,000 for information that could lead to arrests and convictions for hate crimes committed against the Orthodox Jewish community.

We have participated in community meetings and town hall events for many years, and meet regularly with community leaders. There is perhaps no Jewish organization that has invested more time and resources into working to address the problem of anti-Semitic crimes in Brooklyn, and our New York regional office remains committed to working hand-in-hand with religious and community leaders, as well as local elected officials, to address this problem. We hope the project that we just announced will help K-12 students of all communities come together to fight bias, encourage understanding and build trust.

This work isn’t only happening in New York. ADL’s 25 regional offices around the country are on the ground, day in and day out, responding to anti-Semitic incidents in real time, working closely with law enforcement, bringing anti-bias education programs into public schools, advocating for stronger hate crime laws and legislation focused on hate and harassment online, and helping communities rebuild in the aftermath of anti-Semitic and other hate crimes.

Second, as to Tobin’s retread charges of partisanship, it is simply false to accuse our CEO of being a Democratic partisan. While Jonathan served under President Barack Obama, his role was not a political position; he served in the Office of Social Innovation. He was not, and never has been, a Democratic Party operative. Since his first day at ADL, Jonathan has repeatedly called out anti-Semites and bigotry on both sides of the aisle, as other journalists and commentators have pointed out. The record on this is long and clear. Just as one example, earlier this year, Jonathan spoke out against comments by Democratic Reps. Ilan Omar and Rashida Tlaib when they not-so-deftly migrated from criticisms of Israeli policies to anti-Semitic tropes about money, power and influence of the Jews and even invoking the pernicious dual-loyalty canard.

More recently, ADL has repeatedly called out the anti-Semitism of Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party in the United Kingdom. Ironically, our activism on anti-Semitism from the left and in responding to anti-Semitism in the BDS movement has even prompted some critics to accuse ADL of being too far to the right.

Two weeks ago, ADL hosted “Never Is Now,” bringing together thought leaders, entertainers, journalist, experts and corporate CEOs at the Javits Center in New York City for our fourth annual summit on anti-Semitism. With 1,800 in attendance and thousands more tuning in on the livestream, Jonathan opened the daylong session exhorting that anti-Zionism is “little more than a seemingly polite, 21st century way to describe anti-Semitism.” This is part of his long record of speaking out against anti-Semitism from the left, which, again, Tobin willfully ignores.

Coinciding with that summit, ADL released the latest installment of its groundbreaking survey of anti-Semitism globally, the ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism. This is just one of numerous research reports that we have undertaken in an effort to quantify and document the level of anti-Semitism in society both in the United States and around the world in 18 countries with the largest Jewish populations.

Yes, as Tobin indicates, ADL has at times been critical of President Trump. But we have never accused him of being responsible for the current wave of anti-Semitism, as Tobin claims. When the president has been inappropriate about white nationalists, globalists or, as he did after the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Va., speak of “fine people on both sides,” ADL responded. And we will continue to do so.

Esta Epstein is chair of the ADL Board of Directors.

* * *

Jonathan Tobin responds:

Esta Epstein’s attempt to portray the ADL as having not budged from its mission, as well as remaining nonpartisan, would be convincing to anyone who hadn’t been watching the way that the organization has operated in the past four years. But those of us who have kept a close on eye on its work understand all too well that the picture she paints of this storied organization doesn’t bear much resemblance to the historical work of the ADL and what it has become today.

That ADL does a lot of things—many of them good—is not in dispute. It ought to do so because it has raised extraordinary sums of money, and has far more staff and regional offices than virtually any other national Jewish group other than the network of American Jewish federations. Unlike a number of other national Jewish groups that have lost whatever relevance they might once have had, ADL also actually has a job: monitoring anti-Semitism and speaking up against it, as well as vocally supporting Israel.

ADL is very good at getting publicity and holding high-profile events like its recent conference at the Javits Center in New York City, although the most notable achievement of that extravaganza was to give a well-meaning actor and comedian—Sacha Baron Cohen—a platform to advocate for a vague but deeply troubling formula for censorship on the Internet, for which neither he nor the ADL had any real guidelines or boundaries.

The problem right now with ADL is that under its current leadership, it has largely abandoned its brief of consistently standing up for Israel and has taken constant detours into partisan politics, such as director Jonathan Greenblatt’s intervention in Supreme Court nominations where no Jewish-, Zionist- or anti-Semitism-related issues were involved.

Epstein’s avowal that ADL has not blamed President Donald Trump for anti-Semitism, and that it only carefully criticizes him when necessary, such as his foolish conflation of opposition to the removal of Confederate statues with a neo-Nazi march, is also disingenuous. Under Greenblatt, there has been a steady barrage of innuendo and barbs thrown at Trump all in order to support the partisan charge that he is enabling anti-Semitism. You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to understand that this pleases liberal ADL donors, who, like most Americans can’t see past the hyperpartisan spirit that has done so much to coarsen our political culture. And like a garden-variety politician, ADL labels as partisans anyone with the temerity to call them on this gambit.

Despite her attempt to claim that ADL is as zealous in combating left-wing anti-Semitism as it is in its campaign against right-wingers, the group has been slow to act against the left, particularly when it involves the way pro-BDS operatives have infiltrated Democratic political campaigns.

As for the surge of anti-Semitism in Brooklyn, N.Y., directed at ultra-Orthodox Jews, here again the record shows that ADL was late to highlight the problem. All it has done so far is to promote programs long on publicity, but short on the kind of tough advocacy Jews need and anti-Semites need to hear.

The reason I wrote that the ADL can’t be trusted to speak up for the Jews on anti-Semitism anymore is that it’s consistent partisanship and attitude towards Israel makes it largely indistinguishable from many other liberal groups. We already have J Street and a few dozen other organizations to take potshots at the Israeli government on issues that the ADL has no business opining on or to troll the administration. We don’t need ADL for that. Meaning, despite its wealth and unquestioned talent at self-promotion, what we need is an ADL that returns to its original mandate: fighting anti-Semitism where it rears its ugly head, at home and abroad.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS–Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates