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
March 12, 2021
A 1951 meeting between ADL leadership and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. From left: President of Paramount Pictures Barney Balaban; Prime Minister Ben-Gurion; ADL Board member Louis Novins; ADL National Chairman Judge Meier Steinbrink; and ADL National Director Benjamin R. Epstein. Photo: ADL.

WHEN THE FBI RAIDED Anti-Defamation League offices in 1993, the civil rights establishment was shocked. The ADL, a prominent anti-hate organization, was known for surveilling white supremacist groups and sharing intelligence with the FBI. But the raid revealed that it was also spying on organizations like the ACLU, the anti-Klan Center for Democratic Renewal, and local Jewish peace groups, which worked against racism and for human rights. The revelation that the ADL viewed these groups as threats “caused confusion for some liberals,” as The New York Times put it; the organization had gone so far as to infiltrate small South African anti-Apartheid committees and Arab American community groups. 

Thirty years after these revelations, the ADL, along with its fellow Jewish advocacy organization, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), continue to “cause confusion” among progressives. Even as they advocate for right-wing causes, the groups present themselves as pillars of the US civil rights movement and exemplars of the Jewish moral tradition, often pointing to their historic allyship with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s. Perhaps for this reason, some left-leaning Jewish organizations are inclined to push them to live up to their claims to work for justice and rights for all. In 2018, Jewish protesters called on AJC to oppose Israeli weapons sales to violent dictatorships and make clear that “this is not who we are.” Last June, when the ADL refused to denounce Israel’s threats to annex the West Bank, activists protested in Brooklyn, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, and other cities, demanding that the organization uphold its avowed democratic ideals. That same month, some celebrated when the ADL signed a letter calling Black Lives Matter “the current day Civil Rights movement”—even though the organization regularly partners with police and opposes many core positions of the BLM movement. (AJC, notably, didn’t sign the letter.) Even today, some staff within the ADL continue to view progressive work as the organization’s central mission, despite institutional policies that push in the opposite direction, as Jewish Currents recently reported

But the ADL and AJC have never been part of Jewish resistance to power: on the contrary, they were founded to subvert Jewish grassroots organizing. When I began researching the ADL and AJC as a political historian, I was surprised by both the substance of this history and the fact that it was so little known on the present-day Jewish left. Alongside the Jewish Federations, the ADL and AJC were established by a wealthy German Jewish capitalist class intent on suppressing the political power of poor, often radicalized Eastern European immigrants. Over the next century, those leaders and their successors courted wealthy donors who reflected their own political leanings, and closed ranks around an insular directorate. In accordance with the conservatism of their leaderships, the institutions allied themselves only selectively with civil rights organizing, even as they labored to undermine more radical movements—such as Black Power and Third World anti-colonialism—and embraced an increasingly right-wing Zionist politics in Israel/Palestine. 

That this history remains largely buried beneath the ADL and AJC’s official narratives isn’t for lack of journalists’ and historians’ documentation. There is also no lack of activist push-back. Most recently, more than 200 anti-racist organizations signed onto last year’s #DropTheADL campaign, which asked progressives to reconsider their relationship with the ADL; I joined that project, partly out of a desire to help establish this history as popular knowledge. But revelations about the nature of the ADL and AJC’s political project, like the 1993 spying scandal, tend to fade from the popular memory, especially in moments when a resurgence of white nationalism or antisemitism allows the institutions to assert themselves as experts. As anti-racist and anti-capitalist movements gain strength in the US, Palestine, and globally, understanding the history of the ADL and AJC is necessary to making sense of their attacks on those movements. Those attempts to subvert progressive efforts are not deviations from the groups’ 1960s civil rights credo, but expressions of their more than century-old mission. 

THE ADL AND AJC were formed at the turn of the 20th century as a conservative effort to overshadow the organizing efforts of the immigrant, working class Jewish left: The AJC was established in 1906, and the ADL followed in 1913. At the time, radical politics were flourishing among new Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the United States. Some had been involved in revolutionary politics in Russia; others had been radicalized by the violence and exploitation they’d fled; many worked in sweatshops and had become involved with unions upon arrival in the US. Propelled by their experiences of American racism and labor exploitation, they organized groups like the socialist Workmen’s Circle, which quickly grew bigger than B’nai Brith, the lodges for German-speaking Jews that had been established 60 years before. They were also inspired by the Bund in Russia, which was organizing Jewish communities in self-defense against a regime of brutal pogroms, and tying its resistance to the larger socialist movement against the Tsar. On the Lower East Side, Reform rabbi Judah Magnes, founder of the Jewish Defense Association, organized a march of 125,000 Jews, and raised funds for the armed resistance. Magnes’ efforts began to solidify an American Jewish ethnic identity; he hoped to create a democratic national organization to unify US Jewry and pursue Jewish rights abroad.

In the eyes of German Jews who had arrived decades earlier—many of whom had started out upper class or had risen there—this new ethnic, politically-dissenting Jewishness threatened the genteel white identity they enjoyed. In response, wealthy German Jewish philanthropists founded the AJC, the ADL, and the (long dormant, recently revived) American Jewish Congress, together called the “Jewish defense organizations.” The Jewish Federations, the umbrella structure for raising and distributing funds in Jewish communities, came together at roughly the same time. These high-society founders were civic-minded men who created libraries and museums, and funded charities that undoubtedly saved immigrants’ lives. But they also set out to ensure that Jewish politics stayed the domain of “backstairs diplomacy” (a term the groups used to describe their preference for quiet intercession rather than public pressure), operated by wealthy Jewish men among their gentile peers. In a strategic coup, the leaders of the AJC managed to entice Magnes to join them, neutralizing his democratic plans and successfully seizing the political momentum from the working-class Jewish left. 

The ADL was created by B’nai Brith to challenge antisemitic portrayals of Jews and seed positive images. But B’nai Brith’s notion of antisemitism was that Eastern European Jews’ behavior—both declassé and politically dissenting—was the kernel of the problem. The ADL’s first president, Sigmund Livingston, argued that the “first duty” of American Jews was “to preserve the good repute of the Jew and Judaism.” (This feeling was shared by other German Jews. The Harmony Club, an iconic German Jewish institution that was closed to Russian Jews, reportedly used a cheerfully snobby slogan: “more polish and less Polish.”) Pursuant to this philosophy, much of the ADL’s work before World War II involved responding to negative portrayals of Jews in the media and interceding with authorities to oppose discrimination. Even as it did so, the ADL constantly sought to marginalize ethnic identification and anti-capitalist politics. For example, a 1915 ADL resolution denounced Jewish political clubs (loose social organizations formed to organize Jewish voters): “Neither religion nor race should be appealed to in American politics . . . There never has been and never will be such a thing as the Jewish vote.” In the 1930s, as Nazis rounded up Jewish communists, the ADL denied them rather than defend them. In 1938, it issued a 30-page pamphlet declaring, “Communism never was Jewish! Communism can never be Jewish!” The ADL’s mission of anti-defamation was, from the outset, also a mission to reshape US Jewry as distinctly white and capitalist in orientation.

EVEN AS THEY AMASSED political power and funding, the defense agencies and Federations existed in a politically diverse Jewish organizational landscape, which included anti-Zionist and communist groups well into the 1950s. Jewish mass-membership organizations were thriving, and Jewish-dominated unions led the national labor movement. In 1950, for instance, the socialist Workmens’ Circle boasted 50,000 members and 38,000 students; and the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, a subgroup of the communist-leaning IWO, had 50,000 members and 100 schools.  

But with the Cold War, the defense agencies saw both a need and an opportunity to sideline leftists. They cooperated with right-wing anti-communist crusaders, including Roy Cohn and Senator Joseph McCarthy, “sharing their files on politically suspect organizations inside and outside the Jewish community,” as Stuart Svonkin writes in Jews Against Prejudice. (In the ADL’s official oral history, ADL director Benjamin Epstein said the organization hoped to win the favor of the right-wing Hearst-owned newspapers, to ensure their editorial support for US aid to Israel.) In the early 1950s, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were on trial, the defense groups denounced any suggestion that the push to convict them was motivated by antisemitism. Judge Kaufman, who sentenced them to death, was in fact a member of the ADL’s national Civil Rights committee at the time. Thirty-five years later, ADL lawyer Arnold Forster admitted in his memoir that the Jewish defense agencies were motivated “more by fear than principle” in supporting the executions: Intent on conveying the message that Jews were not dissenters against the state, they refused to stand up for Jews who were. 

Finally, in the mid-1950s, the Jewish defense organizations and many other Jewish groups officially purged their ranks of leftists. (By then, the left, despite being a substantial force in US politics, had been made vulnerable by postwar changes: Eastern European Jews had begun to suburbanize and espouse a middle-class American nationalism, leftist organizations were riven by ideological division, and anti-communist fervor had surged.) In the purges, members of the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order were fired from their jobs in Jewish organizations. At Jewish social welfare agencies—an important site of Jewish employment and culture—workers lost their 82,000-member, social justice-oriented union when the CIO expelled communists from its ranks. The National Jewish Welfare Board instructed local community organizations not to invite Communists or “controversial” speakers. The purges were broadly successful at separating Jewishness from leftism: By 1960, when young Jews flocked to Students for a Democratic Society and other New Left movements, most didn’t identify as Jewish leftists at all.

WHILE THE ADL AND AJC MARCHED with civil rights leaders in the 1960s, they were also strengthening ties to business culture and conservative politics. They took their cue from the Jewish Federations, charities established in the 1920s to minister to the welfare of poor immigrant Jews. In the elite social arena of those organizations, high-dollar giving was rewarded with leadership positions only when paired with conservative politics. “Controversial rabble-rousers,” as a 1960s Federation leader called those who did not toe the political line, were not granted access no matter how generous their donations. The rarified leadership of the defense agencies and Federations soon overlapped, putting all major Jewish communal infrastructure in the hands of the same small donor class. Commenting on the multiplicity of Jewish institutions that flourished despite US Jewry’s relatively small population, ADL director Nathan Perlmutter would later write: “I sometimes think as I visit from organization to organization and as often as not see the same faces that we Jews invented interlocking directorate—how else would there be enough of us to go around?”

Throughout the 1960s, the defense organizations built on practices honed by the Federations—hosting lavish dinners and “parlor sessions” with wealthy invitees who knew each other or did business together—to position themselves as the stage where wealthy Jewish men were socially obligated to demonstrate their prosperity and largesse. The ADL made glitzy Palm Beach a go-to location for meetings, and created a “Society of Fellows” for donors, borrowing the language of academic distinction. Programs for conspicuous contribution grew across national Jewish institutions, and Jewish communities, which had fewer emergency needs and more money to give, funded ever-larger endowments

Despite the conservative leadership of Jewish institutions, many staff members—as in the present—were drawn to the organizations out of a desire to do serious work for racial justice. They infiltrated white supremacist groups and pounded the pavement to test racial housing exclusions. But the ADL and AJC were selective in their advocacy—refusing, for example, to support affirmative action. By the mid-1960s, as historian Marc Dollinger recounts in Black Power, Jewish Politics, Black organizers were upset and disappointed with the defense organizations’ tepid investment in Black-led efforts to secure civil rights. In 1966, Southern Christian Leadership Conference activist Bayard Rustin admonished Jewish civil rights advocates for retreating into whiteness when civil rights demands were too challenging: “If you are going to remain Jews only so long as Negroes remain nice, give it up.” 

In subsequent decades, Jewish institutions’ politics became more overtly oppositional to the left, a stance cemented by their expanding networks of corporate and state alliances. The ADL and AJC sided against the Black-led movement for community control of schools, for example, and supported US efforts to repress popular leftist movements in Central America. To manage the uncomfortable optics of their antagonism toward anti-racism and anti-imperialism, the organizations—and Jewish communities—turned to what historian Matthew Frye Jacobson calls “the Ellis Island narrative”: a self-narration centered around immigrant hardship and overcoming that deflected charges of white privilege. 

After Israel’s 1973 Yom Kippur War, when US strategic interest in Israel waned, the ADL and AJC directed more energy toward fortifying US investment in Israel. Here, too, their relationships with Jewish and non-Jewish elites helped them accomplish their foreign policy goals. In one instance, through the Business Roundtable—a group of the US’s most powerful corporate executives that included ADL supporter Irving Shapiro—the groups passed legislation to prevent US businesses from boycotting Israeli companies. In another, ADL director Ben Epstein was tapped through a friend in the Democratic National Committee to recruit “a top Jewish businessman” for President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet; the position went to an ADL donor, and included the condition that Carter would check in with him “on any matter related to Jews and Israel.” 

In the early 1960s, the ADL and AJC’s alliances with the civil rights movement had created the appearance of a move to the left. Within a decade, though, their escalating corporate alliances and foreign policymaking underscored the reality that they considered themselves accountable not to progressive partners, nor to rank-and file staff hoping to pursue social justice, but to the values of the class that constituted the “interlocking directorate.” Epstein expressed the prevailing position in an interview in the late 1980s: “I believe, whether we want to say it publicly or not, that the power structure of this country is still in the hands of big business. And big business wants to work with the Jewish community . . . because they see the Jewish community as a powerful lobby, and they see the Jewish community having aims and desires that are not too far from theirs.”

DESPITE HAVING much less cash and political access, progressive Jews have always organized in opposition to the institutional consensus. Some have been successful at loosening the grip of the big players. In the early 1980s, for instance, the national leftist group New Jewish Agenda organized against Israeli settlements and for Palestinian rights, presenting a model of an inclusive, democratic Jewish organization with a queer leadership. Most notably, they helped counter an ADL-seeded narrative that Sandinistas in Nicaragua were appropriating Nicaraguan Jewish sites. Other dissenting organizations, including Breira and Jews Against the Occupation, have also organized in every decade since the 1960s—even as they have mostly remained on the margins of Jewish political consciousness, leaving each generation of leftists to re-excavate the history. Today, groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow organize much larger numbers of US Jews than New Jewish Agenda ever did, using confrontational tactics to challenge the right-wing establishment, and facing similar obstacles to their leftist predecessors in battling the influence of a conservative-leaning donor class. 

The marginalization of the Jewish left has been a hundred-year project—but even so, American Jewry has never fully conceded to the oligarchs, and in the present moment, the institutional consensus is especially fragile. In a 2017 report, the ADL and the Reut Institute described “the frustrating 20x problem”: they see an erosion of Israel’s moral standing despite a 20-fold increase in spending to shore it up. (On the list of “challenges” they identified: intersectional anti-racist organizing that “has successfully been able to frame the Palestinian struggle against Israel as part of the struggle of other disempowered minorities, such as African-Americans and the LGBTQ community, and therefore to include itself in the loose-coalitions [sic] of these groups that support each other’s causes.”) Money also can’t solve the problem of the legacy organizations’ own diminished reputations among civil rights advocates. The Reut report notes that Black, Muslim, and Latinx organizers no longer welcome them in coalitions; the #DropTheADL project makes this refusal more explicit. 

At the time of the report’s release, the ADL and Reut authors openly wondered whether the antisemitism of the Trump era would make Zionist Jewish groups more appealing partners for anti-racist organizers of color due to a sense of “shared threats.” This has largely not come to pass. The ADL and AJC have seemed more concerned with fending off calls to defund police, and with implementing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which equates criticism of Israel’s government with anti-Jewish hate speech, than they are with building bridges. Their most recent focus on ramping up domestic terrorism laws again puts them at odds with racial justice organizers.

Last August, the #DroptheADL campaign published a primer on the institution’s anti-left history titled “The ADL is not an ally.” Comprehending “this largely unpublicized history,” they argued in an accompanying letter—which was signed by the Movement for Black Lives, Mijente, MPower Change, Democratic Socialists of America, Showing Up for Racial Justice, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and a litany of national and local groups—is key to understanding the conclusion the coalition had reached: “We cannot collaborate with the ADL without betraying our movements.” For these groups, forming a new vision of the present required a clear view of the past. It remains to be seen whether this reckoning makes a lasting change in public consciousness, but we can start by preventing the history from being reburied this time.

Emmaia Gelman is a post-doctoral lecturer at New York University in American Studies and a Jewish queer/anti-racist activist in New York City.