NEW YORK — For more than a century, the Anti-Defamation League has been known as a group that combats anti-Semitism. But one year after taking the group’s helm, Jonathan Greenblatt wants it to focus on more than just the Jews.
Greenblatt’s predecessor as ADL national director, Abraham Foxman, became known during his decades at ADL’s helm as an arbiter of what was and was not anti-Semitic, as well as a pro-Israel advocate who did not hesitate to criticize Jewish groups he saw as damaging Israel. Upon his retirement in July 2015, some called him “The Jewish Pope.”
But to woo millennials to the ADL, Greenblatt wants to stress the group’s work among other minority communities, which has long been a part of its agenda. This emphasis comes as the Jewish community’s relations with minority groups has become strained by anti-Israel sentiment among many left-wing activists. Just this week, the main movement opposing police violence against black communities, Black Lives Matter, released a platform accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians.
While the ADL focuses on many issues Black Lives Matter addresses, it has not collaborated with Black Lives Matter and called the genocide accusation “repellent and completely inaccurate” in a blog post on Medium last week.
As part of its renewed outspokenness on issues beyond those directly impacting Jews, the ADL has emerged in the past year as the only legacy Jewish organization to consistently criticize Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump by name when he makes controversial statements about Mexicans, Muslims or other groups. And Greenblatt wants the ADL to take a leading role in addressing mass incarceration and police violence in black communities.
“By delivering great programs and making an impact in the communities that we serve, by speaking up and using our voice to call out intolerance in any form, I think those things, I hope, will appeal to younger people,” Greenblatt said in an interview in his Manhattan office. “This is one of those institutions with the scale and the scope where you really, truly can make a dent in the universe.”
One issue the ADL is focusing on: using its bonds with both police and anti-racism activists to help stem the string of killings by police in black communities, as well as killings of police, and address mass incarceration. Along with educating against racism across the country, the ADL runs seminars for police officers on counterterrorism and combating violent extremists.
“We’ve been working around a civil rights agenda to help support marginalized communities,” Greenblatt said. “We believe black lives matter in the lowercase letters. We believe it’s fundamental to a 21st-century civil rights agenda.”
But what about uppercase Black Lives Matter’s harsh rhetoric on Israel?
“These points are wrong on the facts and offensive in tone,” Greenblatt wrote. “Importantly, for ADL and many in the Jewish community, such false characterizations and misguided calls to action distract us from the task of addressing other, critically-important justice and equality priorities.”
The ADL has already fielded criticism from within the Jewish community due to its work against police violence. The Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing group that has criticized the ADL on a range of issues for two decades, has accused the ADL of promoting Black Lives Matter despite its anti-Israel statements.
But to Greenblatt, 45, widening the ADL’s reach is more important than an intra-Jewish flame war. In 2003 he co-founded Ethos Water, a bottled water company that funds clean water access in developing countries. He also founded All for Good, an open-source volunteering platform, and GOOD Magazine. Before taking the ADL job, Greenblatt served as director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House.
“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.”
The ADL’s highest profile issue this year, however, has probably been its criticism of Trump. Greenblatt has criticized Trump’s statements against Muslims and Mexicans, but sounded most concerned that Trump’s fellow travelers are sparking anti-Semitism’s return to American political discourse. He called attacks in social media on Jewish journalists “unprecedented,” and said Trump is not doing enough to disavow his anti-Semitic supporters.
The ADL, says Greenblatt, has reached out to the campaign directly several times.
“We think there have been opportunities when he could be doing a lot more to speak forcefully about why anti-Semitism and bigotry has no place in a political campaign,” Greenblatt said. “What we can definitely say with a high degree of certainty is that we’ve seen a mainstreaming of intolerance, and many of the people who are bringing this into the public conversation are self-identified white nationalists and are trafficking in some of the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
Other legacy Jewish organizations have criticized Trump’s controversial remarks against minorities, but have been more circumspect about calling him out directly. An August 3 statement from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said the group was “dismayed at presidential candidates’ statements,” but didn’t say which candidates or which statements.
The ADL has no such qualms. Since Trump launched his campaign, the ADL has released at least a dozen statements criticizing him and urging him to distance himself from his racist supporters, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. In March, due to what Greenblatt called Trump’s “penchant to slander minorities, slur refugees, dismiss First Amendment protections and cheer on violence,” the group redirected $56,000 in past donations from Trump to its anti-racism and anti-bullying programs.
This is not a first for the group. Greenblatt said the ADL criticized segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 campaign. This year, the group has also criticized Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ exaggerating the death toll in the 2014 Gaza war, and Republican candidate Mike Huckabee’s equating President Barack Obama to a Nazi. But Trump, more than anyone, has been the target of the ADL’s political statements.
“Over the years, if you look at the statements we’ve made, including this election, they’re very even-handed,” Greenblatt said. “We spoke out about these things because, again, bigotry in all forms, whether it’s directed against Latinos or immigrants or Muslims or refugees, we find it reprehensible.”
Even with the stirrings of white supremacism around Trump, Greenblatt stressed that overall, anti-Semitism in America is at historic lows. The group recorded 941 total anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in 2015, a significant decline from only a decade ago: 2006 saw more than 1,500 incidents of anti-Semitism.
“American Jews have assimilated remarkably well,” he said. “We have tremendous privilege in this country. Not just one but two presidential candidates have grandchildren with a Jewish parent. That’s really a pretty remarkable thing. Across the board, in industry, in academia, in entertainment, let alone in politics, we’ve achieved at the highest levels.”