Earlier this spring, Jonathan Greenblatt, who took over as director of
the Anti-Defamation League in 2015 after nearly 30 years of Abe Foxman’s
leadership, used his keynote address at the ADL’s annual leadership summit to chart
what sounded to many like a clear break from its past of denouncing hate speech
from both sides of the political spectrum. Greenblatt had virtually nothing to
say about the rise of white Christian nationalism, together with its undeniably
antisemitic “replacement theory” that has mesmerized so many MAGA supporters
and inspired murderous violence against Jews, people of color, immigrants,
Muslims, LGBTQ, and other vulnerable members of the population. Instead, he
focused his ire on what the ADL calls “hostile
anti-Zionist activists groups” like Students for Justice in Palestine
and Jewish Voice for Peace, which loudly criticize and protest against Israel on
America’s college campuses, calling them “the photo inverse of the extreme right.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ron Kampeas called the speech “remarkable for barely mentioning what has, for years, been the group’s focus: the threat from the far right, spurred in part by Trump’s ascendance.” Greenblatt ignored the myriad dog-whistle antisemitic advertisements that have become de rigueur in so many Republican campaigns, and the fact that so many Republican politicians keep turning up at neo-Nazi gatherings
In doing so, Greenblatt ignored the fact that the ADL’s own “Audit of Antisemitic Incidents 2022” found that the groups he focused on were responsible for just 2 percent of the antisemitic actions to which the ADL objected. What’s more, the vast majority of these incidents—53 out of 70, according to Lara Friedman, a Middle East policy expert and frequent critic of the organization—were attributable to a single, marginal group in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In other words, the entire thrust of Greenblatt’s speech was belied by the ADL’s own data, even using its own controversial definition of what constitutes antisemitism.
It’s no secret that as Israel has become a conservative cause in recent years, groups like AIPAC have allied themselves with the right. AIPAC endorsed more than 100 House members who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s election. But the ADL’s turn to the right has so far received little notice. A careful look at the organization’s modus operandi, as well as the privileged treatment accorded it by most mainstream media institutions, demonstrates that the problems with its role in the American political discourse go deeper than just its political leaning as it confuses and perverts our discussion of antisemitism, potentially harming the ways in which we, as a society, can most successfully combat it.
Why the Definition of Antisemitism Matters—in the Fight Against Antisemitism
Founded originally as the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in 1913, the ADL today is a venerable and extremely well-funded organization that polices antisemitism, among other forms of discrimination in our discourse, and acts as the widely accepted repository of the data to support its claims. If you work for virtually any mainstream media institution and you want to discuss antisemitism, you have to quote statistics from the ADL. It’s practically a law. And the group reports an alarming rise in recent antisemitism: a 36 percent jump from 2021 to 2022.
If you read the fine print in the footnotes of the organization’s press releases, though, you will learn that the ADL changed its counting method from previous years by partnering with a number of groups that provide it with more comprehensive data than it has had access to in the past. In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Aryeh Tuchman, a senior associate director at the ADL’s Center on Extremism, “acknowledged that some of the increase in the number of antisemitic incidents recorded is likely due to the ADL’s ongoing effort to expand its sources of information, which include multiple Jewish religious organizations and security agencies ”
There is nothing wrong with improving one’s reporting methods, of course. But pretending that you are using the same criteria as you have in the past and claiming a massive increase as a result calls into question the value of the statistics and, perhaps, the institution’s motives. When I asked about this, an ADL spokesperson replied that “our audit methodology remains unchanged.”
Dov Waxman, who directs UCLA’s Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, points out that even if the ADL had not changed its reporting method, a big jump would not necessarily imply a similar increase in the actual number of incidents taking place. Rather, it could merely mean more and better opportunities to report them and a greater willingness of victims and observers to do so. “Our knowledge of hate crimes depends on people reporting them, but hate crimes have always been historically underreported, particularly when committed against marginalized communities,” Waxman told me. But thanks to the work of various solidarity movements and media institutions, this is changing. Incidents of reported sexual assault and domestic violence have also risen recently.
What’s more, the overall count of alleged antisemitic incidents does not allow for crucial distinctions to be made among them. A tragic massacre like that in October 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh or the Jews held hostage in a Dallas synagogue for 11 hours by a gunman in January of last year, are accorded the same statistical significance in the ADL’s counting as, say, a report of graffiti written on a stairwell in a college dorm. As Waxman, who is currently working on a book on the politics of antisemitism, notes, “An antisemitic insult or comment is hardly as severe a threat as a physical threat, let alone a mass shooting.” But in the ADL’s statistics, they both count the same.
A former senior ADL staffer who spoke to me on background said that the group’s Center for Antisemitism Research became upset over all this and, together with senior staff, objected to the way Greenblatt was portraying the group’s research to the media, believing that he was significantly overstating the problem. As a compromise, staffers were then instructed to use the qualified terms “materially higher” or “significantly higher” when talking to the press or to donors, rather than the misleading claims Greenblatt had been peddling, according to this staffer.
The ADL has a history of exaggerating the degree of antisemitism in the United States. Back in 2003, its then leader, Abe Foxman, insisted that American Jews “currently face as great a threat to the safety and security of the Jewish people as the one we faced in the 1930s—if not a greater one.”
A major reason for the ADL’s addiction to alarmism is the same institutional imperative that drives virtually every other issue-oriented nonprofit: Bad news in the world is good news for the organizations committed to fighting it. Climate change catastrophes fill the coffers of environmental groups. Attacks on choice fill the coffers of Planned Parenthood. The slightest hint of congressional courage on gun control means more expensive vacations for NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre. Journalists who write about the ADL are sufficiently intelligent to understand this phenomenon, but they tend to ignore it when reporting their stories and therefore pass along the ADL’s skewed and self-interested version of the problem as the political equivalent of scripture.
There is a further complication to the discussion and debate of the issue of antisemitism, and its name is Israel. The Jewish State is the ADL’s elephant in every room. The space it occupies has only grown under Greenblatt (who declined to be interviewed for this article). Also, the problematic nature of his position has only intensified with the rise of an Israeli government that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak told The New Republic was now, after the passage of the “reasonableness” law, a “de-facto dictatorship.”
The ADL counts certain sorts of criticism of Israel, including straightforward statements of Palestinian solidarity, in its statistics on antisemitism—even if no mention is made of Jews, and even if those doing the criticizing are themselves Jews. What’s more, the group is not exactly subtle about any distinctions to be made when it comes to this most complicated of issues. In 2022, Greenblatt made the organization’s position crystal clear when he announced: “Anti-Zionism is antisemitism, full stop.” Speaking to an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival more recently, he instructed the crowd that the words “free Palestine,” when said to a Jewish person, were “antisemitic, plain and simple.”
This issue recently became a major political flashpoint when the Biden administration announced it would institute the country’s first ever “national strategy to counter antisemitism.” The prospect of the plan raised the temperature of a debate that had long been heating up between traditional or “legacy” American Jewish groups like the ADL and AIPAC and more progressive ones like J Street, T’ruah (formerly “Rabbis for Human Rights’’), and Ameinu.
The central point of contention between the two sides was whether the White House would fully embrace the working definition of antisemitism that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, promulgated back in 2005 and adopted in 2016. The definition does state that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Yet it finds that such criticism can easily bleed into antisemitism in a number of cases. These include, for instance, when such criticism claims that “the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” which the definition equates with “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.” The alternative for the White House was to embrace a definition that, while recognizing that certain criticisms of Israel do, in fact, sometimes play on antisemitic tropes, leaves considerably more space for the kind of criticism of Israel that has become increasingly common on the part not only of Palestinians and their supporters but also respected human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israel’s B’Tselem and Yesh Din.
Kenneth Stern was the principal drafter of the IHRA definition when he was employed as the antisemitism expert at the American Jewish Committee. He has since become one of the most vocal critics of how it has been abused. He notes it has consistently been used not as intended, but “to chill or suppress pro-Palestinian speech.” Now the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, Stern told me he sees the definition being “used as a blunt instrument in the academy”; one in which some critics were pressured “in part for what texts a professor signed, what speakers were brought to campus, what political activity was alleged to be ‘in violation.’” Stern’s concerns were shared by the members of the American Association of University Professors, who, in writing to oppose the adoption of IHRA, equated it “to the movement to remove books from libraries or restrict teaching about contentious issues like race and gender. It feeds into a destructive binary that can propel antisemitism.”
The IHRA definition had already been adopted by 39 countries globally as well as many state and local governments and the State Department under Trump. Before the White House released its plan, Greenblatt tweeted that “anything” other than embracing IHRA as the “sole definition” of antisemitism “permits antisemitism under the guise of anti-Zionism.” But when the White House plan finally arrived on May 25, Biden and company—surprisingly, given the president’s deep affection for Israel—refused to play along. It barely mentioned Israel or Zionism at all. The 60-page document’s single mention of the IHRA definition described it as the “most prominent” of “several definitions of antisemitism, which serve as valuable tools to raise awareness and increase understanding” of the issue. welcome[d] and appreciate[d] the ‘Nexus Document’ and other efforts.”
The “Nexus” definition, initially hosted by the Knight Program on Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, but now affiliated with Bard’s Center for the Study of Hate, distinguishes between those sorts of anti-Zionist actions that bleed into antisemitism and those that do not. Dov Waxman judges it to be “less susceptible to being misused and weaponized against Palestinians and their supporters.” Greenblatt attacked it as a “pasted-up process organized by activists.” As to the “other efforts” welcomed by the White House, this was likely a reference to the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which was drawn up in the spring of 2021 by a committee of eight scholars and eventually endorsed by 350 of them. It carefully defined those instances in which even the harshest criticism of Israel would escape the antisemitism charge. It insisted on the right of the Jews in the state of Israel “to exist and flourish.” But beyond that it had little in common with IHRA definition.
Attempting to make lemonade from the political lemons the Biden administration had handed it, the ADL tried to claim victory, praising what it misleadingly termed the administration’s “adoption” of the IHRA definition as its own. No less dubiously, Greenblatt told Haaretz, “The White House plan elevates and embraces IHRA as the preeminent definition that it is now using to understand antisemitism in all its forms.” He added: “Whereas previously only the State Department and Department of Education were using it, now it’s the position of the entire administration.”
Greenblatt’s Ping-Pong Ball Approach
Throughout its 110-year involvement in American politics, the ADL, like the American Jewish Committee and most mainstream Jewish organizations, has acted on the moderate, “respectable” liberal side of all the issues it has addressed as long as those positions did not conflict in any significant manner with what its leaders believed to be its constituency’s interests. It was particularly good on civil rights issues, until fights over affirmative action—combined with a turn against Israel among many Black leaders after the 1967 occupation and the perception of rising Black antisemitism, not only in Black Power organizations but also among mainstream Black leaders (Jesse Jackson being the most prominent but hardly sole example)—began pushing it rightward in the 1970s.
The modern era of the ADL came into being when Abraham Foxman was named
director in 1987. Foxman, who was beloved by journalists for his skill at
soundbites, ran the organization as a (relatively) benevolent dictator, but he
took seriously the ADL’s charge on discrimination-related issues. He built up
strong programs and partnerships in support of voting rights and in opposition to the Christian right’s anti-gay, anti-feminist, and
generally chauvinistic agenda. Even so, Foxman had one priority above all. As one of Foxman’s top
lieutenants informed an ADL regional representative in 2009, according to Peter
Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, “Your little Christian-Jewish dialogue
is very nice but remember, whatever you do with your inter-group relations, the end game is always Israel.”
By the end of Foxman’s almost three-decade reign in 2015, he headed up a
powerhouse organization boasting a $60 million budget and a full-time staff of
over 300, with countless consultants and part-timers, national commission
members, and others, which brought the number well into the thousands. And
while these individuals were spread out across 27 separate offices, they were
answerable only to Foxman. When asked for a 2007 New York Times profile who in the organization
besides himself a reporter might interview, Foxman was unable to come up with a
Greenblatt, who took over from Foxman after co-founding a bottled water company and working as a special assistant to Barack Obama, was very much a surprise choice. Virtually unknown in the world of Jewish politics and apparently new to the issue of antisemitism itself, seven years into the job he praised Henry Ford, one of American history’s most notorious antisemites, despite having previously written denunciations of him.
His inexperience notwithstanding, Greenblatt’s newness gave a number of people hope that the ADL would move a shade to the left. When Trump attempted to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., he jumped to the front of the line of mainstream organizations in full-throated opposition, to that policy as well as to the Trump policy of separating immigrant children from their parents. He even endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement and did so “unequivocally.” In 2021, he expressed regret for ADL’s 2010 opposition to the Ground Zero mosque, when he admirably said: “I believe the stance we took is one for which we owe the Muslim community an apology.”
All this activism earned Greenblatt some grumbling on the Jewish right for the ADL’s alleged “woke ideology” He appeared to rethink matters. According to a former senior staffer speaking to me on background more recently, “The ADL has lurched back and forth in response to attacks from the right and left, first protecting one flank and then the other” in a way that “has caused whiplash among the staff.” The staffer notes for instance that Greenblatt “insists that the organization’s Center on Extremism ‘balance’ its reporting of right-wing extremist candidates or office holders with ‘left-wing’ extremists despite the importance of getting the information out and the fact that there are nowhere near the same ubiquity or threat level of extremist candidates coming from the left at this point in our country’s history.” For instance, according to this source, the ADL’s report on right-wing extremism in the 2022 election was held up by Greenblatt until the ADL could publish an attack on alleged “Radical Anti-Israel Candidates” in the primaries, a document that named the Palestinian American Representative Rashida Tlaib, along with candidates Nina Turner in Ohio and Max Socol in Maryland.
In response, the ADL spokesperson emailed me: “The ADL is nonpartisan and nonpolitical. We have a clear record of calling out antisemitism and hate on both sides of the political spectrum, identifying extremist candidates, and routinely issue reports and fact sheets on extremists on both the far right and the extreme left. The assertion that the Center on Extremism isn’t allowed to report on far-right extremist candidates without an accompanying report on [the] far left is demonstrably false.” The spokesperson noted that the ADL issued a report last year on the far-right Oath Keepers and elected officials sympathetic to the group.
Another former ADL senior staffer makes a different but related point—that the ADL’s responses are a stab at staying relevant. “Playing to the right isn’t an ideological choice, it’s a survival tactic,” this person says. “To keep the edge in such a crowded field, ADL leans hard into rapid response to whatever is trending. Better to misfire and course correct than to be absent. That’s neither left nor right wing, it’s just, ‘Everything, everywhere all at once.’”
The ping-pong ball approach to outside criticism might appear to explain why Greenblatt has occasionally appeared weirdly concerned with the opinions emanating from Fox News. For example, in September 2022, Fox News’ website published a transparently ideology-driven attack on the ADL’s educational materials, castigating the group for including “concepts from critical race theory” and “far-left ideas” that featured material such as gender-neutral pronouns in books about trans and gender nonconforming children, a post praising the Women’s March, and texts by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Greenblatt could easily have laughed off this exercise in MAGA-inspired know-nothingism. Instead, the ADL issued a statement praising Fox for raising “important issues” and promised “to undertake a comprehensive, in-depth review of all of our education programs.”
Behind the scenes, according to an ADL staff member associated with its fundraising, “Jonathan told us that the Fox News Digital attack was potentially an existential threat to the ADL and if not stemmed fast would grow throughout the right-wing ecosphere. He said we stood to lose enormous funding. Our chief growth officer, Fred Bloch, told us that he did not agree, but Jonathan said that he had contacted three of our wealthiest donors to discuss the state of our education materials and the allegations of radical left ‘woke’ content in them.”
Among these donors was Marc Rowan, who, according to this source, “had given the ADL millions of dollars in the past and from whom we were intending to ask for many more six and even seven-figure gifts.” (Rowan, a private equity billionaire, co-founded Apollo Global Management and became its CEO when fellow co-founder Leon Black resigned following revelations of his close relationship with Jeffrey Epstein.) Greenblatt said these asks would have to be put off until the ADL had a “plan in the pipeline,” one that eventually included giving the opportunity of a “first review” of new materials to Kenneth Marcus, a professor, think-tank entrepreneur, and a far-right activist on antisemitism issues whom the Trump administration chose to be its assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education. It also involved, my source said, “a mea culpa response made to Fox in which we said that some of our content did not reflect our values—a response that our education team felt threw them under the bus.”
The ADL spokesperson responded that these claims “are entirely inaccurate,” continuing: “To begin with, ADL does not make decisions on our education materials based on donors. These materials and curricula are developed by anti-bias education experts on our education team and are entirely non-partisan. Additionally, Jonathan has clearly explained here what happened with our definition of racism, and why we asked for the external review of our education materials, which is ongoing.”
“Ultimately, what you are not considering is that Jonathan and ADL’s leadership actually had real problems with some of the content being used. As we said, and as Jonathan clearly explained at the time, that was the case.… This is why Jonathan brought in a diverse set of outside reviewers and started a process to review our entire curriculum. It may offend some, including the anonymous sources you quoted who apparently can’t fathom why a person would have a problem with some of this content, but we ask that you consider that Jonathan and ADL simply had a different view of what is acceptable and consistent with ADL values.”
At this Crucial Moment in History
The ADL under Greenblatt has also placed emphasis on criticizing antisemitism on U.S. campuses, as in the group’s critiques, noted above, of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. Sure, there are disturbing anecdotes. I’ve even witnessed a few and heard such insults myself. But anecdotes aside, solid academic evidence suggests that there is no nationwide crisis of antisemitism on American college campuses outside the imaginations of those who profit from, or are overly gullible toward, the organizations and individuals who gain advantage from blowing up these anecdotes into a narrative that the data simply will not support. In 2017, four scholars at Brandeis University conducted an in-depth study of the issue at four high-profile campuses and found that “Jewish students are rarely exposed to antisemitism on campus … Jewish students do not think their campus is hostile to Jews … the majority of students disagree that there is a hostile environment toward Israel on campus.” Scholars associated with the Jewish Studies program at Stanford University found a similar picture of campus life among five California campuses. Students interviewed “reported low levels of antisemitism or discomfort” and by and large agreed that they felt “comfortable as Jews” on campus.
If, however, one defines pro-Palestinian activism as “antisemitism,” then the numbers rise, of course. But even deploying these extremely elastic criteria, the ADL’s own statistics show only a third of Jewish college students claim to have witnessed any examples of antisemitism. Fully 85 percent, moreover, say they have never felt any need to hide their Jewishness for any reason on their college campuses. The widespread exaggeration of this problem is part and parcel of the far right’s attack on higher education generally. The ADL’s hyping of this issue, whether purposely or not, only adds fuel to the phony fire.
One former ADL senior staffer explains Greenblatt’s need to lean into this position thusly: “Groups like ADL believe their credibility rests on appearing politically balanced in calling balls and strikes. Although ADL’s own data and most Jews are clear about who the bulletproof glass is there to protect us from, ADL labels both neo-Nazis and boycotters of Israel or anti-Zionists as antisemitic. So the ADL can claim to call out ‘both sides’ by demonizing a growing number of Jewish day school or camp alumni whose experience has compelled them to challenge or reject Zionism. I disagree with those views, and some who espouse them can be antisemitic. But without that nanosecond of nuance, every ADL professional, lay leader, and funder is essentially looking those Jewish families and educators in the eye to say: ‘You raised Jewish antisemites that we, the foremost experts, deem to be just like Nazis or the Proud Boys. P.S., trust us to protect you.’”
Greenblatt’s transformation of the ADL, however, has so far gone largely unnoticed. To be fair, though, it is part of an extremely old story, one of the power of money in politics. And yet, it’s possible to overemphasize the role of money in determining the ADL’s political direction. It’s not “all about the Benjamins,” as the saying goes. They matter, but so, too, do the fears of so many American Jews, based on a reading of Jewish history that cannot be easily ignored or argued away. Many of these Jews may disagree with the ADL’s politics, or certainly with those of the current government in Israel, which has changed this whole conversation in so many ways. But they feel more comfortable erring on the side of what they consider to be vigilance, even if those feelings are belied by contemporary reality. Emotions are stronger than reality.
The ADL has, at its best, been a great organization that has upheld liberal
values. It did so for decades, even as neoconservatives were doing their damnedest
to try to turn Jews into Republicans. The organization can still do that—it
still has ample credibility, and at this crucial historical moment when our
republic, and American Jewry, face direct threats from the far right, the ADL
can be a vital voice in defense of both if it can drop the illusion that both
extremes constitute equal threats. Greenblatt, the man who apparently forgot
that Henry Ford was an antisemite, might want to familiarize himself with that
nobler history as he contemplates the ADL’s future.
This article has been updated.