How the ADL’s Israel Advocacy Undermines Its Civil Rights Work
Interviews with eight former ADL employees found that CEO Jonathan Greenblatt has repeatedly chosen to support crackdowns on criticism of Israel over protecting civil liberties, putting him in conflict with his own civil rights office.
IN THE SUMMER OF 2016, a handful of senior Anti-Defamation League (ADL) staff members and executives in New York and Washington, DC joined a conference call to discuss a sensitive topic: the organization’s position on what would come to be known as the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. The bill would amend federal civil rights law to employ a controversial definition of antisemitism, which included “delegitimiz[ing]” Israel, blaming Israel for “all . . . political tensions,” and, in the case of international organizations, “focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations.” Those guilty of antisemitism under this definition could be investigated by the Department of Education for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Though it had avoided commenting publicly on the issue, in the months preceding the 2016 meeting, the ADL had arranged private sit-downs with legislative staff on Capitol Hill to explain, quietly, the organization’s opposition to the use of this definition in enforcing civil rights law. The preeminent organization for combating antisemitism in the United States viewed the adoption of this definition of antisemitism as posing a potential conflict with the right to free speech.
But this advocacy came to an abrupt halt at the summer 2016 meeting, according to a former member of the ADL’s Civil Rights Division. There, Jonathan Greenblatt, a year into his tenure as the ADL’s CEO and national director, issued an unexpected directive to the attendees, some of whom had personally been carrying the ADL’s message to the halls of Congress: Stand down. The ADL would no longer encourage legislators to oppose the bill. It was a perplexing about-face. The ADL had already taken a position on the issue, and there had been no revisions to the proposed bill prompting such a shift. What changed?
“A donor was mad at us,” said the former Civil Rights Division employee. As Greenblatt explained to the group, because the ADL’s stance on the bill bothered this donor, who was considering making a substantial donation to the organization, the group’s backdoor advocacy would have to stop. Two former ADL employees familiar with the organization’s internal discussion on the bill said that the donor to whom Greenblatt alluded was Marc Rowan, a private equity billionaire whose anticipated gift would dwarf the $5,000 his family foundation had given the ADL in 2015. For those who had delivered the ADL’s position on the legislation to congressional offices, this sudden shift came as a shock. One staff member was overheard at the meeting remarking bluntly: “With all due respect to sex workers, we’re whoring ourselves.”
Since 2012, according to The Las Vegas Sun, Rowan, in partnership with former Nevada Senator Harry Reid, had pushed for legislation that would expand the definition of antisemitism, an effort that eventually led to the introduction of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. Stephen Cohen, a spokesperson for Rowan, denied that his donations to the ADL had anything to do with the legislation. “Any assertion that Mr. Rowan’s support of ADL was linked to specific policy positions is entirely untrue,” Cohen said. According to Cohen, Rowan’s philanthropy at the ADL was focused on his endowment of the Civil Society Fellowship, the organization’s nonpartisan leadership program, which launched in 2019.
According to its website, the ADL’s mission is twofold: “to secure justice and fair treatment to all”—which has driven a programmatic focus on civil rights and racial justice, among other progressive causes—and “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people,” which, for the ADL, has long included an emphasis on “Israel advocacy and education” and fighting “anti-Israel activity and BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions].” In the case of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, those two missions—Israel advocacy and fair treatment for all—came into conflict. In the end, Israel won out. Indeed, after the ADL had privately discouraged legislators from supporting the bill, federal lobbying records show that the group lobbied in favor of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in the last months of 2016. It would not be the first time Israel advocacy took precedence over civil liberties on Greenblatt’s watch. Our reporting, based on interviews with eight former ADL employees, most of whom requested anonymity to protect their professional standing, found that when confronted with a choice between supporting crackdowns on criticism of Israel and protecting civil liberties, Greenblatt repeatedly chose the former, putting him in conflict with his own civil rights office, which expressed alarm over governmental efforts to interfere with speech critical of Israel.
The tension between the ADL’s civil rights advocacy and its lobbying for Israel has long been an organizational issue, and a prime source of discord between the organization and key would-be partners in the Muslim, Arab, and Black communities. But during the Donald Trump presidency, this tension became even more pronounced. On the one hand, the ADL monitored white supremacist groups, condemned Trump’s Muslim ban, criticized the White House’s ties to Steve Bannon, slammed the separation of immigrant children from their parents while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, and called for Trump’s removal from office after a pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol on January 6th. Positions like these have drawn the ire of groups to the ADL’s right, while shoring up the organization’s reputation as a leader in combating white supremacist hate.
“We view them as an incredibly important advocate and partner. They are a historic civil rights organization and have been the leader on antisemitism and anti-hate advocacy for so long,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of public affairs for the Jewish refugee advocacy group HIAS, which has worked closely with the ADL on immigrant rights issues.
But at the same time, the ADL has endorsed some of the most incendiary moves by American government actors on speech critical of Israel, including not only the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, but also anti-BDS measures in New York, Nevada, and Illinois, and Trump’s 2019 executive order on antisemitism, which fueled investigations into Palestinian rights activists on college campuses. After early optimism from social justice advocates that Greenblatt would further the ADL’s stated mission of securing justice for all, he has maintained the ADL’s antagonistic approach toward outspoken Muslim and Arab critics of Israel, and has deepened the group’s ties to federal and local law enforcement agencies, alienating Black Lives Matter activists and other progressives amid a nationwide reckoning over the ways these agencies violate the rights of communities of color. Overall, Greenblatt’s fight against those who criticize Israel has undercut the ADL’s ability to collaborate with other groups—which the organization itself identifies as central to yielding “gains that could not always be achieved on our own.”
In recent months, criticism of the ADL for its law enforcement partnerships and Israel advocacy has gained newfound traction among progressive activists. In August 2020, a coalition of more than 60 social justice organizations launched the #DropTheADL campaign, calling on progressives to reject a group that “has a history and ongoing pattern of attacking social justice movements led by communities of color, queer people, immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, and other marginalized groups, while aligning itself with police, right-wing leaders, and perpetrators of state violence.” The coalition includes prominent groups leading the charge for racial and immigrant justice across the country, such as the Movement for Black Lives, Dream Defenders, Mijente, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and United We Dream. Since its publication, the coalition’s open letter denouncing the ADL has gained over 100 additional organizational signatories.
“The focus of civil rights organizations should be on critiquing state power and not about targeting those who critique state power,” said Vince Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the letter’s signatories. “If the ADL took the same position with America that it does with Israel, it would support passing laws in Congress that say you can’t say anything bad about America. That just doesn’t jibe with what modern social justice looks like.”
At the dawn of the Biden administration, the ADL is showing no signs of straying from its current course. In a January letter to Joe Biden from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Greenblatt joined other institutional leaders in lobbying the president to expand the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which has raised similar concerns as the definition proposed in the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. The letter stated that the IHRA definition “ought to inform the enforcement of Title VI throughout the government.” (Two weeks later, the ADL joined other Jewish organizations in continuing to advocate for the expanded use of the IHRA definition, though this letter noted that using it “to trigger federal or state anti-discrimination laws . . . could be abused to punish Constitutionally protected, if objectionable, speech.”) But as the American Jewish community’s “pro-Israel” consensus crumbles and the left’s criticism of the ADL continues to mount, the ADL’s ability to maneuver as a self-proclaimed advocate for justice has been significantly challenged.
FOR ALMOST THREE DECADES, from 1987 to 2015, the ADL was nearly synonymous with its leader, Abe Foxman, who won plaudits for turning the organization into a singularly influential voice not only on antisemitism, but on civil rights more broadly. Under Foxman, the organization filed legal briefs in favor of abortion rights, investigated neo-Nazis, and staked out strong, unwavering positions against the growing power of the religious right, which he warned was attempting to “Christianize America.”
Yet Foxman was also considered a pugnacious, one-man arbiter of what was antisemitic, eager to toss bombs at anyone—from Jesse Jackson to Jimmy Carter—whom he thought slighted Jews. His habit of declaring this or that person, or such and such phrase antisemitic led a New York Times magazine article from 2007 to ask, “Does Abe Foxman Have an Anti-Anti-Semite Problem?”, citing a Chicken-Little-esque penchant for false alarms. This eagerness to tar political opponents as antisemites fell particularly hard on Muslim and Arab leaders in the US, undermining the ADL’s universalist, anti-bigotry mission.
Foxman retired in 2015, and Jonathan Greenblatt’s takeover of the ADL that summer was heralded by ADL supporters and segments of the Jewish press as an exciting shift, a chance for the organization to enhance its stated role as a Jewish civil rights organization. Greenblatt had previously worked as an aide to the Obama White House in its Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and before that had co-founded Ethos Water, a bottled water company eventually bought by Starbucks. Though he was not well known in the mainstream Jewish community at the time, the Jewish press painted him as a social entrepreneur who could attract young Jews. Greenblatt, The Forward reported in 2014, was “different in age, background, experience and politics from its outgoing iconic leader” and “embodie[d] the ADL’s wish to open a new era in which young American Jews, currently turned off by the idea of joining membership organizations, will flock back home.”
But despite the hype about a new direction at the ADL, Greenblatt’s specific positions on hot-button issues were hazy. Some of his critics say this lack of a strong political track record actually reflects a lack of political commitment. “Abe Foxman, love him or hate him, you knew where he stood,” said the former member of the ADL’s Civil Rights Division. “I don’t think Jonathan has personal beliefs.” Greenblatt’s squishy politics, critics say, have made room for donors and other influential voices at the ADL to shape the organization’s approach to the vexed Israel/Palestine debate in the US. In particular, Deputy National Director Kenneth Jacobson, the longest-serving ADL employee and a conservative voice on Israel, was uniquely positioned to guide Greenblatt’s agenda. In the words of the former employee, after Greenblatt suggested internally that there could be some inconsistency between engaging in Israel advocacy and fighting for justice, Jacobson “made it very clear to Jonathan that under no set of circumstances would the ADL stop working on Israel stuff in a supportive way.”
Greenblatt has privately suggested that the ADL’s views on Israel/Palestine are more conservative than his own. On a recent Zoom call with members of the ADL-partnered Civil Society Fellowship, multiple participants challenged Greenblatt to reconcile his stated support for the Black Lives Matter movement with the ADL’s failure to advocate for Palestinian human rights. According to three participants on the call, Greenblatt explicitly stated that he personally held different views about Israel and Palestine from the organization he leads, though he was evasive about the nature of those differences.
Some former ADL employees say that even if Greenblatt wished to take a stand for Palestinian human rights, he would have to contend with donors who have no interest in change. “These donors have a huge amount of influence in some ways that are kind of bizarre,” said one former ADL lawyer, who described fulfilling a personal research request from a donor on an issue only tangentially related to the lawyer’s work. Foxman, with his my-way-or-the-highway leadership style, had a reputation within the organization for being unswayed by influencers and their checkbooks, according to two former members of the ADL’s Civil Rights Division. By contrast, according to some of Greenblatt’s former employees, Greenblatt embodies a sense of aimlessness and pliability, which gives donors more leverage.
In contrast to the younger generation of ADL staff members, these influential donors lean conservative. “Their donor base cares about Israel,” said a former ADL staffer who requested anonymity because they signed a non-disparagement clause before leaving the organization. “The more liberal and current the projects are, the harder they are to sell.”
One former senior staff member, who spent nearly two decades working on youth education at the ADL, attributed the organization’s tunnel vision regarding Israel to a generation of donors personally affected by the Holocaust. The staff member recalled trying unsuccessfully to incorporate general anti-bias training into the ADL’s antisemitism education in city schools. “The leadership said donors wanted us to focus on [Holocaust education] and antisemitism education,” the staff member said. “That became the priority.”
The ADL’s donors include some of the most prominent “pro-Israel” philanthropists in America today, like Trump backer and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has donated about $145,000 since 2011, and hedge fund manager Seth Klarman, who has given $1.6 million since 2011. Three former ADL employees said that during their recent tenures at the organization, Bernard Marcus, the conservative founder of Home Depot, was an anonymous underwriter of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, outside of his reported, named contributions. (He has publicly given over $100,000 to the Atlanta ADL chapter since 2011.) Marcus, who donated more than $5 million to Republican political campaigns and PACs in 2019 alone, has been an outspoken supporter—and top financial backer—of Donald Trump and a longtime financier of Israel advocacy efforts. According to two former senior staff members, Marcus has repeatedly pressed the Center on Extremism to focus its efforts on the dangers of Muslim extremism; one of those staff members said this was based in part on his express belief that white supremacy is a “non-issue”—even though the Center’s own researchers have repeatedly found that white supremacist violence poses a significant danger in the US, while Islamist violence remains rare. Efforts to reach Marcus for comment were unsuccessful. When Jewish Currents reached out to the ADL for comment on reconciling its civil rights work with donors who funded Trump, the ADL did not address the question in its reply. In response to a series of detailed questions from Jewish Currents, an ADL spokesperson said: “The laundry list of claims and accusations range from patently false to grossly mischaracterized.” Asked which aspects of the article were false, the ADL did not respond.
NOWHERE has the conflict between the ADL’s civil rights division and its leadership under Greenblatt been clearer than in the internal debate over how the ADL should respond to governmental efforts to silence the global BDS movement. Foxman, in May 2015, wrote that “a decision by a private body to boycott Israel, as despicable as it may be, is protected by our Constitution.” But Greenblatt has shown more openness to backing anti-BDS measures.
Perhaps the most notable flare-up between the ADL’s civil rights office and ADL executives came in 2016, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a first-in-the-nation executive order directing state agencies and authorities to divest from any company that supported the BDS movement. The order drew immediate criticism from civil liberties advocates, who believed it violated the First Amendment. “The order not only threatens to punish constitutionally protected political speech but also requires the state of New York to create a blacklist of allies of the movement,” wrote the New York Civil Liberties Union after the order was signed. “Creating a government blacklist that imposes state sanctions based on political beliefs raises serious First Amendment concerns.” The ADL’s national office had itself already advised affiliate offices not to support similar measures promoted by state and local governments. But despite the potential free speech conflicts, Greenblatt was quick to express his support for the order, tweeting: “Bravo @NYGovCuomo for your exec order ag #BDS. Boycotting #Israel isn’t new but always wrong.”
Others in the organization were privately concerned that their national director had, without seeking guidance, just contradicted his office’s own counsel and endorsed an unlawful governmental order. Cognizant of the explosive nature of the issue, the ADL received an outside legal opinion in June 2016 from New York University Law Professor Burt Neuborne on the constitutionality of Cuomo’s order. Neuborne was a logical choice: He was both a famed Jewish defender of civil liberties, previously serving as the ACLU’s National Legal Director, and a longtime ADL ally who had established ties to Israeli academia. In other words, wherever he came down on the issue, his counsel would be hard to dismiss out of hand.
Neuborne’s memo, obtained by Jewish Currents, was unequivocal: “It would . . . be a clear violation of the First Amendment for the government to forbid individuals or companies, however misguided they may be, from resorting to a boycott of Israel aimed at altering government policies in the occupied territories.” In the memo, Neuborne recalled the Supreme Court’s safeguarding of Black civil rights activists’ efforts to boycott white businesses, noting that “[i]f black citizens are empowered by the First Amendment to support a boycott of white business in an effort to alter unfair social conditions, I find it impossible to deny the existence of a similar First Amendment right to supporters of a boycott of Israel aimed at altering the policies of the government of Israel.” Thus, despite Neuborne’s avowed opposition to the BDS movement, he concluded that “the Executive Order violates the First Amendment.”
But Neuborne’s unambiguous conclusion had little influence on Greenblatt, who did not retract his support for Cuomo’s order and who continued to support anti-BDS measures of questionable constitutionality. A year later, Greenblatt again rejected the views of civil liberties defenders, publicly supporting the proposed Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a bipartisan federal bill authored by Senators Ben Cardin and Rob Portman, which would have amended existing law to criminalize the participation of individual Americans in the global BDS campaign. The ACLU warned that the bill would “punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs.” Later that year, the ADL’s Nevada chapter testified in favor of the state’s anti-BDS bill, which barred state agencies from contracting with entities that support boycotts of Israel.
Ultimately, the best that the ADL’s civil rights division could get from Greenblatt was his occasional silence on the issue. Perhaps most notably, the ADL has not filed a single amicus brief on either side of the ongoing, high-profile litigation over anti-BDS laws in Arkansas, Texas, Kansas, Arizona, and Maryland. (J Street, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and Jewish Voice for Peace [JVP] have filed briefs in opposition to such laws, and the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, and the Zachor Legal Institute have filed briefs in their favor.)
But Greenblatt has made it clear that even the ADL’s silence should not be read as neutrality. “We simply have made it clear that ADL will not stand in the way of anti-BDS legislative efforts, and will praise lawmakers who stand up to defend Israel,” Greenblatt told The Forward in 2016. Greenblatt’s failure to defend civil liberties when it comes to BDS and his disregard for legal counsel has left civil rights advocates at the ADL feeling betrayed. “These anti-BDS laws, pretty much every single one of them [is] blatantly unconstitutional,” the former ADL lawyer recalled. “No one in the civil rights team had any doubt about that.”
Civil rights actors inside the organization were likewise bewildered by Greenblatt’s occasional alignment with the Trump administration’s efforts to weaponize civil rights law against critics of Israel. For instance, two former employees recalled with frustration Greenblatt’s public support for Trump’s nomination of Kenneth Marcus to serve as assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. “Glad that @KLMarcus of @brandeiscenter has been nom’ed for @EDCivilRights ldrshp role at @USEducationDept. Ken is a person of highest integrity who cares deeply about fairness+equality. In this job, Ken undoubtedly will do his best to ensure rights of all commtys are protected,” Greenblatt wrote on Twitter. Yet prior to his confirmation, Marcus’s primary experience with civil rights was in opposing them. Apart from his general hostility toward a more expansive application of civil rights law, Marcus had founded the Brandeis Center, where, as the former member of the Civil Rights Division put it, he brought “garbage cases” against universities for permitting protests of the Israeli occupation, among other manifestations of what the center deemed “anti-Israelism.” Civil rights advocates expected that if appointed, Marcus would simply take his losing strategy and make it the policy of the federal government—which he did. In 2018, as assistant secretary, Marcus reopened an Education Department investigation into Rutgers University for its hosting of an event organized by a campus Palestinian rights group. In doing so, Marcus employed the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which includes certain criticisms of Israel—like calling Israel a “racist endeavor”—among its examples of anti-Jewish bigotry. Greenblatt publicly supported the federal government’s efforts to censure the university.
Greenblatt also supported what was widely seen as Marcus’s crowning achievement: President Trump’s December 2019 executive order on antisemitism, which codified as federal policy Marcus’s previous decision to employ the IHRA definition. Greenblatt said the order was an “important additional tool” in the fight against antisemitism on campus. (Marcus resigned from his government post in July 2020 and returned to the Brandeis Center. Greenblatt again heaped praise on Marcus, tweeting, “Congratulations to Ken Marcus on his return to the @brandeiscenter. In his role, Ken helped to secure a milestone executive order to combat #antisemitism on college campuses. We thank him for his public service.”)
Greenblatt’s support for Marcus shocked education and civil rights staffers at the ADL. It was surprising not just because it meant embracing a man who had spent his career trying to constrict civil rights, but because it demonstrated his willingness to go it alone against the wisdom of allies. The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, a nonprofit coalition of more than 200 groups including the ADL itself, had led the fight to stop Marcus from securing the appointment, citing his opposition to affirmative action and equal opportunity initiatives, yet the ADL had thumbed its nose. Once again, Greenblatt—or those with his ear—had chosen a particular brand of Israel advocacy, despite opposition from inside and out.
Greenblatt’s support for anti-BDS measures and backing of a Trump official who attacked human rights organizers is consistent with other evidence from early in Greenblatt’s tenure that the ADL would deprioritize its civil rights work. At internal strategic planning meetings in 2016, employees were presented with the ADL’s five-year plan, which mapped out its core “Priority Initiatives.” According to a screenshot of the document obtained by Jewish Currents, these included “Law Enforcement” and “Delegitimization (e.g., BDS).” Absent from this list was any mention of the ADL’s civil rights agenda. In response to questions from Jewish Currents on the place of civil rights in the ADL’s work, an ADL spokesperson said: “The idea that civil rights isn’t a priority, when it has been embedded in our mission for over a hundred years is absurd. In fact, the work ‘to secure justice and fair treatment to all’ is a core priority, period. Any claims to the contrary are false or misguided.”
WHILE GREENBLATT’S SUPPORT of anti-BDS laws represents a relatively new development for the organization, the ADL’s commitment to Israel over civil rights has long been on display in its fraught relationships with Arab and Muslim communities—a hallmark of Foxman’s ADL. In interviews, a range of Arab and Muslim scholars, policymakers, and activists described to Jewish Currents how the organization has refused opportunities to collaborate with them and has instead targeted them for censure, often due to their criticism of Israel. The nadir of this dynamic during Foxman’s tenure came in 1993, when a police raid of the ADL’s West Coast offices revealed the group’s widespread surveillance campaign on Arab American activists and others, leading to multiple civil rights lawsuits. The ADL ultimately denied wrongdoing but consented to a court-enforced settlement forbidding it from using illegal means to monitor other groups, and requiring, among other things, a $175,000 payment toward the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and an annual report to the plaintiffs “to ensure that [the] ADL remains in compliance with [the] Settlement Agreement.”
The image of a civil rights organization and its leader targeting Arab and Muslim communities grew even more confounding in the post-9/11 era. In 2004, the ADL criticized Muslim students at University of California, Irvine for planning to wear strips of cloths over their gowns inscribed with the Islamic declaration of faith—“There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”—calling it an “expression of hate” that is “closely identified” with terrorism and “offensive to Jewish students.” (The ADL ultimately offered a qualified apology to the Muslim students.) In 2010, Foxman was widely criticized for coming out against the construction of the Park51 Islamic center in Lower Manhattan because of its close proximity to Ground Zero. “Building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center would unnecessarily cause some victims more pain,” said Foxman.
The ADL’s stoking of anti-Muslim sentiment at a particularly fraught moment stood out, said Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties group. In the post-9/11 era, he said, “some of our strongest defenders and allies were members of the Jewish community.” Meanwhile, the ADL “contributes to the growth and rise of Islamophobia in America,” he said, citing the 2004 UC Irvine incident and the ADL’s targeting of him personally for his past criticism of Israel.
Other individuals targeted by the ADL remarked on the lengths to which the organization has gone to level personal attacks against those who speak out on Israeli human rights abuses. Jim Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab-American Institute, detailed the ADL’s repeated efforts during Foxman’s tenure to discredit him as antisemitic due to his criticism of Israeli military action in Lebanon. “I began to hear, as I would go for a job interview, or for a radio interview, or be invited to a university to speak, that they had gotten a memorandum from the ADL about me,” Zogby said. Publicly, the ADL accused him of being an anti-Israel propagandist—a label that Zogby linked to harassment he has endured over the course of his career.
The privileging of Israel advocacy over civil rights organizing with, and in defense of, Muslim partners has perhaps been clearest in the organization’s opposition to working with CAIR. The ADL maintains that CAIR is linked to Palestinian terrorist organizations, a claim that CAIR disputes in extensive detail on its website. Despite tension between the organizations, some CAIR delegates say they have sought to collaborate with the ADL on interfaith matters, only to be rebuffed. For instance, Jacob Bender, executive director of CAIR’s Philadelphia chapter, described to Jewish Currents how he reached out to the local ADL chapter when he began his tenure at CAIR in 2013. “I wrote a number of letters to Jewish leadership saying, ‘Could we meet, either publicly or privately, to talk about relationships between Jews and Muslims?’ A lot of rabbis and [members of] Jewish leadership said yes, and a couple of organizations said no, one of which was the ADL.” Bender later received word through an intermediary that the local ADL chapter had, in fact, wished to meet with him, but was prohibited by the ADL’s national office, due to his organization’s criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
Even within the ADL itself, some believe that blacklisting CAIR has interfered with the ADL’s ability to fulfill its own mission of advancing civil rights. Kevin O’Grady, the former regional director of the Orange County-Long Beach Regional ADL Office, recalled with frustration how, during his 2004–2012 tenure at the ADL, the “official ADL line” under Foxman’s leadership was that collaboration with CAIR was off limits. “In many ways, the ADL and CAIR’s work was essentially the same—church and state issues, fighting bigotry and discrimination,” O’Grady explained. “It would have been impossible to work on civil rights and hate crime prevention in Orange County without them—it would have been ridiculous—but [the ADL’s position] was CAIR is a terrorist organization and we don’t talk to them.” Cooperation with the Muslim community was such a necessity, according to O’Grady, that he simply ignored the national office’s directive, taking care to keep it a secret. “One time, [the local CAIR chair and I] met at a Chinese restaurant where we didn’t think anyone would see us talking,” O’Grady said.
When Greenblatt took over from Foxman, some Muslim activists held out hope for a change in approach, said Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian American who heads the progressive Muslim organizing group MPower Change. During the 2016 election campaign, when Donald Trump hinted at an openness to creating a new database to track Muslims, Greenblatt declared that if Muslims were forced to register their identities, “that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.” And indeed, under Greenblatt, the ADL has tracked and condemned anti-Muslim hate groups, filed an amicus brief for the Supreme Court case against Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslims, and continued to advocate for mosque building plans that ran into local opposition
But Foxman’s frequent targeting of Muslim and Arab figures has continued under Greenblatt. As under Foxman, some of this targeting occurs at the regional level. For example, between 2015 and 2018, the ADL’s Central Pacific regional office, along with the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), sought to bar the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), a Bay Area group focused on social justice organizing in the Arab community, from participating in the introduction of an Arabic-language curriculum into the San Francisco public school system. In the ADL’s view, this attack on the organization—which provides legal aid to hundreds of low-income immigrants a year, among other services—was justified by the anti-Zionist views of the organization and its Palestinian executive director, Lara Kiswani. Kiswani recognized that the campaign put AROC on a slippery slope toward complete delegitimization. “If they’re saying the city shouldn’t work with AROC on curriculum because we’re a hate group, then that means they can set a precedent,” Kiswani told Jacobin in 2015. “They could take it further and say the city shouldn’t be working with AROC at all.” In a recent interview with Jewish Currents, Kiswani noted that in response to the ADL/JCRC campaign, her organization received a sharp uptick in hate mail and hate calls, leading AROC to overhaul its security protocols and add increased security for Kiswani personally.
Perhaps the most sustained campaign against Muslim and Arab figures under Greenblatt has targeted Sarsour, whose criticism of Israeli human rights abuses has made her a favorite bogeyman of the American Jewish establishment. As Sarsour’s prominence grew after she became a leader of the Women’s March, Greenblatt railed against her on Twitter and in mainstream news outlets. In 2017, Greenblatt argued that Sarsour’s harsh criticism of Israel and endorsement of BDS “encourages and spreads anti-Semitism,” and helped fan controversy around her 2015 speech at a Washington gathering organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. (In November 2018, Sarsour said the Women’s March should have been “faster and clearer” in ensuring that march supporters knew their “commitment to fighting anti-semitism” and that she and her fellow Women’s March leaders are “deeply sorry for the harm we have caused” to Jewish supporters.) In 2019, after Sarsour said Israel was founded on Jewish supremacy, Greenblatt said “the amount of hate in Linda Sarsour’s latest diatribe is shocking,” arguing that she invoked “a centuries-old anti-Semitic trope when she describes [Israel’s founders] as having believed that Jews are ‘supreme to everybody else.’” (In response to the controversy, Sarsour said that her comments were referring to Israel’s Nation-State law, which stripped Arabic of its status as an official state language and explicitly outlined that only Jews have the right to self-determination.)
Greenblatt generally avoids the charged Islamophobic rhetoric that accompanies criticism of Sarsour on social media. And in 2017, amid calls from right-wing groups to cancel a speech by Sarsour at the City University of New York, Greenblatt defended her First Amendment right to speak. But to progressives, Greenblatt’s sustained criticism of her work is a prominent example of how the ADL targets Muslim leaders with charges of antisemitism simply because it doesn’t like what they have to say about Israel. “Although the ADL claims to oppose Islamophobia, their approach to partnership with actual Muslim communities is conditioned on absolute silence when it comes to Palestinian human rights,” said Stefanie Fox, executive director of JVP.
Despite hopes for a softer approach from Greenblatt, these attacks on Muslim and Arab leadership on his watch have continued to undermine the ADL’s ability to forge coalitions with leaders in Arab and Muslim communities. Muslim Advocates, a leading Muslim American group, refuses “to work with ADL or be on letters signed by ADL,” according to an internal ADL memo from 2020 obtained by Jewish Currents. The memo did not explain why, but a source familiar with the Muslim Advocates–ADL relationship, who requested anonymity to preserve their relationship with both groups, explained the rupture as a result of a number of policy disagreements, including the ADL’s backing of a Congressional resolution condemning Rep. Ilhan Omar over comments she made criticizing those who “push for allegiance to” Israel. The source said Muslim Advocates also believes the ADL holds Muslim and Arab officials to a higher standard. “President Trump calls Adam Schiff ‘shifty,’ and the ADL doesn’t have a campaign. It would be a totally different scenario if Ilhan Omar said that,” the source said. The source also noted that the ADL’s hiring of figures who support profiling and surveillance of Muslims has undermined relations between Muslim Advocates and the ADL. For example, in 2017, Greenblatt hired George Selim—who ran the Department of Homeland Security’s “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) program under Barack Obama—to be the ADL’s senior vice president of programs. CVE, which the ADL supports, drew ire from Muslim American groups like Muslim Advocates for spying on local Muslims under the guise of fighting terrorism.
“[Selim’s] hiring is just one example of the revolving door between the ADL and law enforcement agencies (especially federal agencies like [the Department of Homeland Security] and FBI), and evidence of ADL’s longstanding relationships with institutions that target and criminalize our communities,” said Celine Qussiny, a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement, a group affiliated with the Stop CVE National Coalition.
In May of last year, the ADL also hired longtime FBI official Greg Ehrie to enhance the organization’s relationship with law enforcement agencies. Ehrie’s 2003 to 2005 deployment to the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison camp to oversee detainees is conspicuously absent from his official ADL bio.
Arab and Muslim activists say these dynamics have contributed to a growing marginalization of the ADL in the human rights sphere. CAIR’s Ayloush said that when he wants his organization to partner with Jewish groups, “I have Bend the Arc, I have IfNotNow, I have JVP. We trust each other—we’re friends.” As for the ADL, Ayloush said, “they are irrelevant.”
THE ADL’S STRAINED RELATIONSHIP with Muslim and Arab groups is not the only dent in its claim to collaborate across ethnic lines in the fight for justice. Tensions over Israel, among other issues, have also vexed its relationship with Black Americans, and Black leftists in particular.
The ADL takes pride in its long record of allyship with the Black community. In the 1940s, the organization was part of the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practice Committee, a wide-ranging Black and Jewish coalition that fought to make permanent President Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime executive order banning discriminatory hiring practices at government agencies and companies crucial to military efforts. In 1951, the ADL became one of the founding member groups of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which focused on lobbying Congress to pass civil rights laws. At the height of the civil rights movement, the ADL lobbied vigorously for passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. For the ADL, the alliance with the Black struggle for civil rights was a no-brainer: “If the Negro is not safe, the Jew is not safe,” the ADL proclaimed in 1943. “There is no security for one unless there is security for all.”
But 1967 marked a turning point. By the time Israel imposed military rule over more than a million Palestinians, following the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, the Black Power movement had risen in prominence, threatening the influence of liberal Black civil rights leaders who stressed integration rather than revolution. In viewing Black people around the world as a colonized nation, the Black Power movement stressed the importance of joint struggle alongside other colonized nations, making Palestinians a natural ally. The Black Panther Party, for example, condemned Israel in 1968 as an “imperialist, expansionist power” and said that “Zionism in Palestine and fascism here in America” stems from the same cause: “US imperialism.”
Like the majority of the organized Jewish world, the ADL, and its liberal Black allies in groups like the NAACP, took a far more sympathetic view of Israel’s 1967 victory: It was heralded as a great achievement, allowing Jews to visit all of Jerusalem freely and asserting Israel’s military prowess at a time when the US needed Middle East allies to keep Soviet-aligned regional leaders in check. When the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) published an article harshly critical of Zionism in a summer 1967 newsletter—the group had by then jettisoned its liberal roots and embraced Black Power—the ADL called it “pro-Arab, Soviet . . . smack[ing] very heavily of anti-Semitism.”
The sharp divide between the ADL and Black activists, with Israel/Palestine serving as a wedge, has persisted ever since. In 1979, for instance, when Andrew Young, the Black US ambassador to the UN, called the Palestine Liberation Organization’s UN observers “intelligent, decent human beings,” the ADL’s national chairman, Maxwell E. Greenberg, criticized them harshly, “aghast” that Young called “spokesmen for murderers decent human beings.” In 1990, after Nelson Mandela compared the Palestinian struggle to the South African struggle against apartheid, the ADL said it was “disturbed and pained” by the comments.
Under Greenblatt, this dynamic was highlighted anew with the 2016 release of a policy platform by the Movement for Black Lives, a constellation of more than 50 Black liberation groups involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. The platform—which called for cuts in US government funding to the Israeli army, labeled Israel an “apartheid” state, and accused Israel of pursuing “genocide” against Palestinians—was criticized by Greenblatt as “wrong on the facts and offensive in tone,” though he acknowledged the platform’s appropriate focus on “the need to address mass incarceration and a wide range of racial inequities and socio-economic issues facing African Americans.”
The ADL’s willingness to place Israel advocacy over allyship with the Black community also surfaces in its close ties to American law enforcement. The ADL’s website proudly advertises its record of working with “every major federal, state and local law enforcement agency” to “combat extremism, terrorism and hate crimes.” It has handed out awards to some of the most controversial law enforcement figures in modern America, including former New York police commissioners Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton, who pioneered the use of “stop-and-frisk” and “broken windows” policing, respectively, and oversaw Muslim surveillance in their departments.
The ADL’s close relationship with law enforcement is unique among civil rights groups. “I know of no other organization that invests so heavily in law enforcement while claiming to hold law enforcement accountable for the harms that it does to the Black and brown community,” Warren, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said. “I think it’s an untenable position.”
Within the ADL, its positions on law enforcement and Black Lives Matter have elicited concern from the organization’s own civil rights office and from other employees. According to the former member of the Civil Rights Division, as Greenblatt was publicly condemning the 2016 Movement for Black Lives platform, several ADL staff members at the national office and from affiliate offices around the country internally expressed their desire for the ADL to sign onto the platform, arguing that the organization’s disagreement with the language about Israel should not keep it from showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Internal flare-ups have also arisen over the propriety of the ADL’s collaboration with law enforcement. According to the former member of the Civil Rights Division, members of the division privately raised concerns about the ADL’s practice of gathering and sharing information on third parties with law enforcement. Some of these information-gathering efforts are now a matter of public record through freedom-of-information requests. For instance, Jewish Currents has reviewed public records, shared by Occupation Free DC (OFDC), a DC-based Palestinian rights coalition that includes JVP and Black Lives Matter DC, revealing that the ADL recently collaborated with the private security firm Soteria’s Alliance to keep tabs on JVP, and by extension, the OFDC. The firm sent information about the coalition to an officer in the DC Metropolitan Police Department. Soteria’s Alliance did not respond to questions about the nature of their surveillance on these groups or the nature of their relationship with the ADL.
Occasionally, these rumblings of dissent from the ADL’s Civil Rights Division have been on full display for the rest of the organization. For example, in 2016, Seth Marnin—at the time the ADL’s vice president for civil rights—sent an email to ADL staff expressing remorse for the tone the organization struck in a statement about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Black men who were killed by police on subsequent days. In the email, which was obtained by Jewish Currents, Marnin wrote, “Our voice was not nearly loud enough over the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Our outrage, our grief, our devastation were absent.” The ADL had issued a separate statement the same day condemning in much stronger terms the killing of five Dallas police officers in retaliation for the police killings of Sterling and Castile. “Our outrage and grief appeared selective,” he wrote. “I do not believe—I do not want to believe—that this is true. But that is how it appeared and that is unacceptable.”
When the Black Lives Matter movement returned to the center of the national conversation after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, the ADL took a notably stronger stance in favor of the movement. “We stand in solidarity with the Black community as they yet again are subject to pain and suffering at the hands of a racist and unjust system,” Greenblatt said in a statement after Floyd’s murder. The ADL also signed on to a statement, along with over 600 Jewish groups, calling Black Lives Matter “the current day Civil Rights movement in this country.”
But many Black activists are not satisfied with the ADL’s rhetorical shift on Black Lives Matter, pointing to their continued commitment to working with law enforcement. “They’re out of step with the movement on the ground,” said Robin D.G. Kelley, a professor of American history at UCLA. “They’re holding onto the idea that they need to be tied to law enforcement, that they have a role to play in training better police officers. As long as they hold onto that role, they’re not on the civil rights side.”
At times, the pro-Israel and pro-law enforcement approaches of the ADL have coalesced. Perhaps the ADL’s most controversial program is its annual training trip bringing US law enforcement to Israel. This trip, known as “Leadership Seminar in Israel: Resilience and Counterterrorism,” provides attendees with “advanced education to prevent, prepare for and respond to terrorist threats and violence.” To date, at least 200 law enforcement agents from local police departments as well as federal agencies like ICE and the US Marshals have taken the ADL-funded trips, meeting with Israeli police officers, former intelligence officers, and soldiers, including those who serve in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The ADL’s annual police training trips to Israel began in 2003, but they received little attention until 2017, when JVP launched its “Deadly Exchange” campaign calling on the ADL and other Jewish organizations to stop bringing American law enforcement to Israel for counterterrorism seminars. The ADL cast JVP’s campaign as antisemitic, claiming that the left-wing group was attributing American police brutality to Israel, thus raising, in the ADL’s eyes, “age-old anti-Semitic canards about Jews using their influence to undermine the societies of the countries in which they live.” (JVP’s campaign did not, in fact, make this assertion. Recent campaign statements caution against shifting blame for American police brutality to Israel, and frame the ADL program as a “mutual exchange of rights violations between like-minded governments.”) Advocacy against the ADL’s law enforcement training program has since expanded beyond JVP. In late November of last year, in the highest special election turnout in Tufts University’s history, the student body voted 1,725–665 in favor of a referendum condemning a former university police chief for participating in one of the ADL’s trips.
In a statement to Jewish Insider, ADL New England regional director Robert Trestan cast the referendum as “based on misinformation and innuendo, twisting the very important issue of police reform and using it as an opportunity to contrive facts, vilify Israel and isolate Jewish students on campus.” Despite some modest wins for the Deadly Exchange campaign—Durham’s City Council passed a resolution banning its police department from participating in military-style police exchange programs, while police departments in Vermont and Northampton, MA have canceled their participation in ADL training trips—the Leadership Seminar in Israel, alongside a host of other law enforcement trainings and partnerships, remains one of the ADL’s “signature programs.”
THE PERSISTENT CLASH between the ADL’s civil rights work and its Israel advocacy prompts a fundamental question: Can the organization refocus to prioritize its civil rights work? Or is it doomed to be an Israel advocacy organization, with a compromised commitment to civil rights?
In interviews with Jewish Currents, those who saw a more inclusive conception of justice in the ADL’s future pointed to how different Jonathan Greenblatt’s ADL is from Abe Foxman’s. Under Greenblatt, the ADL has developed curricular lesson plans on combating anti-Muslim bigotry, and Greenblatt has repeatedly called out President Trump for promoting anti-Muslim propaganda on Twitter. Greenblatt has also directly criticized Israel for targeting asylum seekers and for its discriminatory Nation-State law.
“In the past few years, the ADL has become a much friendlier place,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute and past director of communications for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, which helped bring the anti-espionage lawsuit against the ADL in the 1990s. Once an outspoken critic of the ADL, Ibish credits the organization with significant progress. “They’re serious about a future without an occupation. I can have serious conversations with them now,” he said.
The other case for optimism stems from a belief that the ADL simply mirrors the perceived consensus of the American Jewish community; if this consensus shifts toward greater criticism of Israeli actions, a trend supported by some recent polling, the ADL may begin to shift as well. Regarding the ADL’s commitment to Israel advocacy, the former member of the Civil Rights Division said, “The more public knowledge there is about the experience of Palestinian people, it’s going to become untenable for the ADL.”
Some activists who have vocally criticized the ADL say that, unlike more hawkish organizations, the ADL does enough good to make it worth fighting for. “I think it’s an institution worth saving,” said Yonah Lieberman, a co-founder of the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow. (His father, Michael Lieberman, previously worked in a senior leadership position at the ADL.) “The ADL does fight hate. They go after white supremacists. And in the future, they can fight hatred in all forms,” Lieberman said.
Others are less sanguine about the prospect of the ADL shifting with the broader Jewish community. Emmaia Gelman, a PhD student who researches the ADL, said that in order to understand the group’s contemporary ethos, it’s important to examine its inception in opposition to the left of that time. In an interview, Gelman described how the ADL was founded in 1913 by German Jewish immigrants who were troubled both by populist antisemitism and by the immigration of Eastern European Jews, seen as a flood of desperate, unkempt foreigners and anti-establishment leftists. In contrast to ADL critics who view it as ideologically aimless, Gelman argues that the ADL has belonged to the political right since its establishment. “The ADL has always embraced US state power as the answer to problems from domestic racism to global wars. ADL positions itself as a civil rights organization, but has a long history of undermining social justice movements—whether because those movements challenge Israel, or because they challenge capitalism, police, or US authority,” said Gelman.
Growing support for this view of the ADL has led to increased scrutiny from the left, exemplified by the #DropTheADL campaign. In response to the campaign, the ADL initially released a condemnatory statement and received public support from a handful of Jewish organizations. But its broader plans to oppose the progressive campaign appear to have fizzled out. In an outreach letter obtained by Jewish Currents, the ADL asked partner organizations to sign onto a “Join With ADL” statement, declaring their support. The letter informs would-be signatories that by signing the statement, “you agree that you or your organization may be listed on JoinWithADL.org,” a website that will “be going live in September.” Yet at the time of publication, the domain name identified by the ADL in the letter is not in use, and the ADL’s website contains no reference to this campaign.
In recent months, the ADL has continued down the parallel tracks of advocating for justice and advocating for Israel. On the one hand, it has filed legal briefs supporting transgender litigants and efforts by universities to employ race-conscious admissions practices. At the same time, the ADL has praised Israel’s diplomatic agreements with authoritarian Arab states and continued its targeting of Palestinians who oppose Israel. In January, after Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib called Israel a “racist state” practicing “apartheid” for not giving the Covid-19 vaccine to Palestinians like her grandmother, Greenblatt chided the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress, telling her: “Describing Israel as ‘apartheid’ is false and hateful, and shuts down constructive engagement. One can be critical of Israel without attacking the Jewish State with incendiary accusations.” And at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is leading institutions across American life to examine their complicity in racist policing and white supremacy, the ADL has made no indication that it plans to reexamine its close relationship to law enforcement.
Meanwhile, the deepening of Israeli military control over the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem is sharpening contradictions for the ADL. In an internal ADL memo obtained by Jewish Currents on the group’s response to potential formal annexation by Israel, the ADL said it must “provide a space for local and national leaders to express their criticism.” However, the bulk of the memo is devoted not to examining the perils of annexation, but to fretting about the damage it would do to Israel’s standing amongst progressives and gaming out how to maneuver around Israel’s decision.
“Annexation will pit ADL on the wrong side of the black lives matter movement,” the internal memo warns, because “if violence erupts, the Middle East will be looked at from the prism of the George Floyd domestic movement,” and “Israel will be painted as akin to an ethno-nationalist country which continues to oppress and subjugate Palestinians.” In response, the memo recommends caution about labeling critics of annexation as antisemitic while it advises employees to remain “vigilant” against “criticism of Israeli policy . . . that rises to the level of demonizing or delegitimizing the Jewish state.”
But at least for now, the crisis that might pressure the ADL to choose between defense of Israel and progressive values has been deferred. In August 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended his plan to officially annex West Bank settlements in exchange for opening diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates. Three months later, the ADL got another break with the election of Joe Biden, a development that allows the organization to turn the page on its habitual support for Donald Trump’s most destructive moves in Israel/Palestine.
In Biden, the ADL will have a much more comfortable president, one who firmly aligns with the organization’s political stance: opposed to BDS, and committed to ensuring that unconditional US support for Israel remains a given in the Democratic Party. But while Biden may delay a reckoning with US support for Israel, the central tension that the ADL has long confronted remains: how to reconcile its promise to “secure justice and fair treatment to all” with support for a state that systematically violates the human rights of Palestinians. As more American Jews question their unconditional support for the State of Israel, rethinking their support for the ADL may be next.
Jacob Hutt is a lawyer based in Oakland, California.