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What’s up with the ADL?

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ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt speaking at a 2022 event in New York.

Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA via AP Images

September 19th, 2023

Throughout September, Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of X—the social media platform formerly known as Twitter—has targeted the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a group he said “has tried very hard to strangle X/Twitter.” Since late 2022, the ADL has opposed Musk’s decision to allow hate speech and white supremacist accounts on the website, pointing out that such groups “[use] Twitter to organize and share propaganda.” In November, the ADL and eight other groups comprising the Stop Hate for Profit coalition called for an advertising boycott of X, and the ADL briefly stopped running its own ads on the platform. And earlier this month, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt met with an X executive to once again express concerns about hate speech on the platform.

The ADL’s actions drew backlash from the far right. Soon after Greenblatt’s meeting with X, white nationalist accounts began calling for the ADL to be banned from the platform, with Musk liking posts demanding the ban. Musk has further fueled the right’s anti-ADL campaign by repeatedly blaming the group for a sharp decrease in X’s advertising revenue, even though it was only one of nine organizations involved in the advertising boycott—and despite advertisers clarifying that it was Musk’s erratic behavior that dissuaded them from spending money on the platform.

In singling out the ADL as the cause of X’s woes, Musk seems to have repurposed an age-old antisemitic conspiracy theory, locating the source of his financial troubles in one of the most prominent Jewish groups in the country. “When Musk blames the ADL for Twitter’s ad revenue problem, he’s not merely making a false claim about his business: He’s positing that a Jewish organization has tremendous behind-the-scenes power and is using it to hurt him, specifically,” wrote Vox’s Zack Beauchamp. “Whether he intends them or not, there are undeniable resonances with classical antisemitic conspiracy theories.” As Greenblatt himself has pointed out, Musk’s actions are particularly “dangerous and deeply irresponsible” because they dovetail with an antisemitic campaign led by white nationalists; Greenblatt said that some white nationalists had even brought swastika flags to a recent Florida march where they chanted “Ban the ADL.”

Many in the US Jewish community have spoken out against Musk’s antisemitism and rallied around the ADL. However, the organization remains divisive among American Jews as well as non-Jewish progressives due to its history of attacking social justice movements, its unconditional support for Israel, and its close ties to law enforcement. Scholar and journalist Marc Lamont Hill tweeted that while it was necessary to “[acknowledge] and [fight] the clearly antisemitic movement” targeting the ADL, it was also important to remember the “many legitimate political and ideological critiques of the ADL, particularly as it pertains to Arabs, Muslims, and particularly Palestinians.” Indeed, the ADL has continued attacking the left even after coming under fire from the far right, with Greenblatt recently comparing the #BantheADL tweets being circulated by white nationalists to the #DroptheADL campaign, a progressive push to discourage partnership with the ADL.

In a moment when the ADL is the target of both legitimately concerning conspiracism from the right and substantive critiques from the left, thorough coverage of the group’s work is essential. Yet despite setting the agenda for Jewish politics in the US for decades, the ADL is rarely subject to journalistic scrutiny. Jewish Currents is one of the only publications that has closely followed the organization. We were the first to examine the dubious sociological methods the ADL uses in generating its yearly antisemitism numbers, which are widely considered the gold standard in assessing US antisemitism. We’re also the only outlet to have obtained multiple leaks from inside the ADL—revealing internal dissent about the organization’s Israel advocacy—in addition to being one of the only magazines to delve deep into the ADL’s checkered civil rights history. In this newsletter, we are offering a roundup of our past coverage of the ADL to provide readers crucial background on the group and its place in US Jewish politics.

If these pieces help deepen your own understanding of the ADL, please consider making a donation to help us continue the important work of reporting on influential Jewish American institutions and their impact on our communities.

The ADL’s Antisemitism Findings, Explained
The organization’s annual audit found a worrisome surge in incidents—but experts say some of its numbers lack context.
Mari Cohen
A Closer Look at the ‘Uptick’ in Antisemitism
The ADL is reporting a surge in antisemitic incidents. But confirming a spike in hate crimes is a notoriously difficult task.
Mari Cohen
The Numbers Game
An interview with sociologist Matt Boxer on what we can and can’t learn from new statistics from the ADL and AJC.
Mari Cohen
The Anti-Democratic Origins of the ADL and AJC
The history of the ADL and AJC reveals that they were created to consolidate the power of wealthy men and stifle the grassroots left.
Emmaia Gelman
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.
Alex Kane and Jacob Hutt
The Unbearable Ignorance of the ADL
The organization uses its moral authority to shield Israel from criticism while spreading misleading information about contemporary antisemitism.
Noah Kulwin
The ADL Doubles Down on Opposing the Anti-Zionist Left
CEO Jonathan Greenblatt argued that Palestine-solidarity groups are “the photo inverse of the extreme right,” and promised that fighting them would become more central to his mission.
Mari Cohen and Isaac Scher
greenblatt at the adl
ADL Staffers Dissented After CEO Compared Palestinian Rights Groups to Right-Wing Extremists, Leaked Audio Reveals
A special meeting called to answer internal critics shows that the ADL’s vocal opposition to the anti-Zionist left is controversial even within the organization.
Mari Cohen and Alex Kane
Internal ADL Memo Recommended Ending Police Delegations to Israel Amid Backlash
The controversial program, now on pause, was characterized by senior staff as high cost and low reward.
Alex Kane and Sam Levin
Leaked Memo Details ADL’s Annexation Response
A leaked memo shows the group hopes to maintain a pro-civil-rights veneer while opposing any policy pressure on Israel.
Joshua Leifer