ADL national director Jonathan Greenblatt, coming off an inaugural year after the retirement of longtime leader Abraham Foxman, is not afraid to call the prime minister of Israel out in an international forum. The same can be said for embracing causes that on their face are not inherently “Jewish.”
But whereas some may point to the Obama administration alum’s propensity to speak his mind — even at the expense of Benjamin Netanyahu — as indicative of a new tack for the 103-year-old Jewish organization, Greenblatt himself sees it as part and parcel of what the ADL has always done: advocate on behalf of the Jewish people and their homeland.
“The ADL, throughout its history, has been an ardent advocate for the State of Israel,” Greenblatt said during an interview last week. “In the year I’ve been here, we’ve been out in front, again and again, advocating … with the U.S. government, with foreign governments.
“From time to time, we’ve called out specific policies of the government,” he added. “That happened under the watch of my predecessor, and that’s happened under my watch. Calling out a policy in no way represents a break in our policy of being an ardent advocate.”
Greenblatt, an entrepreneur who went on to the White House as director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, recently penned a piece for Foreign Policy that questioned the logic behind the release of a video by the Israeli prime minister’s office. In it, Netanyahu equates the Palestinian demand for no Israeli settlers to remain in a future Palestinian state with “ethnic cleansing.”
Greenblatt called the tactic raising “an inappropriate straw man regarding Palestinian policy toward Israeli settlements” and wrote that considering settlers’ wishes to extend Israeli sovereignty and protection to their communities, their presence would not be compatible with a sovereign Palestinian state. The critique dovetailed with the objections of the U.S. State Department, which slammed Netanyahu’s video.
The Zionist Organization of America, a frequent critic of the ADL, chose to criticize the Obama administration instead. It released a news release quoting ZOA national president Morton A. Klein as saying, “The Obama administration is ignoring the scandalous, racist [Palestinian Authority] demand for a Jew-free Palestinian state. The Israeli prime minister is right that this demand is outrageous and the international toleration of it no less outrageous.”
In many cases, though, the ZOA reserves its most pointed criticism for the ADL and Greenblatt, accusing him and the organization of, among other things, backing the Black Lives Matter movement despite that movement’s embrace of Palestinian positions.
In a news release invoking Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s characterization of some of his contemporary early 20th-century Jews as “political simpletons,” Klein called ADL educational materials on civil rights, race relations and police powers the “epitome of foolishness.”
For his part, Greenblatt shies away from direct criticisms of leaders of other Jewish organizations, although he did refer to the ZOA in a JTA interview last month.
“We’re a civil rights organization. The ZOA is not,” he said. “We’re an organization focused on combating anti-Semitism and bigotry. The ZOA is not. They’ve been doing this [criticizing us] for over 20 years so you can draw your own conclusions.”
In his interview last week, Greenblatt vowed to “not criticize other Jewish leaders on the left or the right.” “I won’t do it,” he said.
Greenblatt acknowledges a new dynamic in Jewish communal dialogue, whether it’s the apparent readiness of traditional Israel defenders in the United States to go on record in opposition to Israeli policies, or the tenor of debate surrounding such issues as last year’s Iran nuclear deal and the Memorandum of Understanding signed last week. The historic agreement guarantees Israel $3.8 billion in military aid annually for 10 years, but some in the community have accused the deal of not going far enough.
“I am surprised and troubled by the degree of rancor inside the community,” said Greenblatt. “You saw this around the Iran deal, which I did not support. … All in all, it’s really troubling.”
Now that the Iran deal is a reality, he contended, the community can and must find points of agreement.
“Whether people supported the deal or opposed the deal, for us, what was true then is even more true now: Iran is one of the most anti-Semitic, anti-American illiberal regimes in the world.
“They are the single largest state sponsor of terror in the world,” he continued, and “continue to propagate hate against Israel like no other country on the planet.”
But ensuring a strong and secure Jewish state is far from Greenblatt’s only calling. When he speaks of the challenges Jews around the world face, he looks at the long arc of the Jewish people’s history and points out similarities between American anti-Semitism today, the European anti-Semitism of yesterday and the ongoing struggles of the civil rights movement.
The organization was founded around the same time as the lynching of Jewish-American Leo Frank outside Atlanta, Greenblatt pointed out. “The purpose … would be to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment for all.”
While the founding call is “to protect the Jewish people,” he explained, “our organizational mission is this dual approach [that includes] working to secure civil rights and fair treatment” for everyone.
A half century ago, the KKK burned crosses, he said. “In 2016, they’re burning up Twitter.” Back then, “extremists were fielding independent marginal candidates; today we have white supremacists openly supporting a presidential candidate. Fifty years ago, Jewish communities were recovering from the Shoah in Europe. Today those same Jewish communities are retreating from Europe because of fear.”
That, perhaps more than anything else, cements Greenblatt’s belief that while the world may look different in the 21st century, the hatred and inequality of 100, 1,000 and 5,000 years ago has neither changed nor diminished.
And although Greenblatt represents in many ways a departure from Foxman’s almost three-decade tenure — “I’m the first Jonathan Greenblatt,” he said — he sees his own leadership as an evolution, a mere continuation of the ADL’s long fight.
“How do I harness that heritage as I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me?” he asked himself. “The Jewish people have always faced challenges. … The challenges looking ahead are increasingly complex [but] just as serious.”
Joshua Runyan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.