On August 13, 2015, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement condemning the West’s nuclear deal with Iran and calling on congressmen and senators to vote against it.
“Given the outstanding questions and our deep reservations about the agreement, we believe Congress should vote no on the deal,” read the statement, signed by the ADL’s then-national chairman and its new national director, Jonathan Greenblatt.
Greenblatt had been on the job just a couple of weeks, after replacing veteran director Abe Foxman. His condemnation of the deal and call on Congress to oppose it was not a simple decision.
Just a few months earlier, Greenblatt was working for president Barack Obama and serving as director of the White House’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. The Iran deal was supposed to be Obama’s premier foreign policy achievement as president, and here was his former assistant – now the head of a leading Jewish advocacy group – coming out against it.
Now fast forward to two weeks ago, when Greenblatt released a statement about the controversy surrounding a commencement speech Linda Sarsour, an Arab-American anti-Israel and pro-BDS activist, was scheduled to give at the City University of New York’s upcoming graduation ceremony.
While Greenblatt rejected “Sarsour’s positions that delegitimize Israel,” he and the ADL came out in support of her right to speak at CUNY. “Despite our deep opposition to Sarsour’s views on Israel, we believe that she has a First Amendment right to offer those views,” his statement read.
It was a pivotal moment. Jewish groups were building up the pressure on CUNY, the governor and other state officials to cancel her speech. ADL’s statement took the wind out of their sails.
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It also drew severe criticism of Greenblatt and the organization he heads. The Zionist Organization of America, known for its right-wing positions, blasted the ADL leader, calling his statement “disgraceful.”
These are just two examples of statements that have put Greenblatt – who will mark two years in his post next month – in hot water.
He also took heat this past November, when Greenblatt said that Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress who was running for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was “a man of good character.”
But two weeks later, an audio recording emerged of a speech Ellison gave in 2010 seemingly feeding into traditional antisemitic claims that the US is controlled by Israel and Jews. As a result, the ADL put out a new statement, calling Ellison’s remarks “deeply disturbing and disqualifying” him to serve as head of the DNC.
Here too, Greenblatt was blasted. One New York Post
columnist wrote that “Greenblatt is destroying the ADL.” Jerusalem Post
columnist Caroline Glick called on people via Facebook to stop donating to the 104-year-old organization. Another columnist at the Jerusalem Post,
Isi Leibler, wrote that Greenblatt “has begun to court the liberal glitterati,” and proceeded to slam the ADL chief for speaking at a J Street conference.
I sat down this week with Greenblatt in Jerusalem to try and understand him, his organization, and his view of the polarization that President Donald Trump has injected into the American-Jewish community.
Greenblatt, 45, who grew up in Connecticut, began his relationship with the ADL as a college student at Tufts. It was 1990, and Greenblatt was spending a semester in Spain. After the Berlin Wall came down, he traveled to eastern Germany and visited his Holocaust survivor grandfather’s hometown of Magdeburg. It left a lasting impression. When he returned to Boston, he called the local ADL office and applied for an internship.
A few years later, his boss there introduced him to his future wife, Marjan Keypour, an American-Iranian Jewish immigrant and the associate director of the ADL office in Los Angeles.
His first foray into government came immediately after graduation in 1992, when he joined the Clinton campaign and then stayed in Washington, where he worked on international economic policy at the Department of Commerce.
He then went into business establishing a number of successful businesses including Ethos, the bottled water company, which was sold to Starbucks.
He returned to Washington after the 2009 elections and began working for Obama on innovation, national service, civic engagement, impact investing and social enterprise. His appointment in 2014 as head of the ADL seemed like a nod to Silicon Valley as well as to Jewish millennials. The ADL board, it seemed, was banking on Greenblatt’s ability to engage with a new generation of Jews and potential donors – the organization has a $50 million annual budget it needs to fund-raise – and to modernize the venerable civil rights organization in an increasingly digital world.
To do that, he has made a number of interesting hires, pulling away top tech executives to run some of the ADL’s key departments. He is also focusing more on new media, announcing in March the establishment of a state-of-the-art command center in Silicon Valley to combat cyberhate.
Greenblatt is aware of the criticism against him, and to his credit, does not shy away from responding. He believes that everything he has done has been in line with the ADL’s longstanding mission statement – to protect civil rights, defend Jews, and ensure justice and fair treatment for all minorities and peoples.
That is why Greenblatt could on the one hand condemn the Iran nuclear deal (defend Jews), and on the other hand support Sarsour’s right to speak (First Amendment). He could refer positively to Keith Ellison, and then denounce him a few weeks later. In a position like his at a time like this, it is understandable that things are complicated.
A great deal of the criticism against Greenblatt came after the ADL released a statement against President Donald Trump’s travel ban in January. It called the policy “a sad moment in American history,” raising the ire of Republicans and the Right who accused the self-described bipartisan organization of taking a partisan stand.
“We have tried to stay our course, stick to our guns and abide by our values,” Greenblatt told me this week in Jerusalem. The ADL, he said, has worked with all presidential administrations since Woodrow Wilson, and has criticized Republicans and Democrats alike.
“We try very hard,” he said, “not to be political but to be principled... we felt we were upholding our principles.”
The question, I asked, is whether it is possible to be bipartisan in an America that is as polarized as it is today? Greenblatt thinks it is. The ADL, he said, continues to talk to all sides of the political spectrum, and to defend the rights of people – even Sarsour – who have “horrible ideas” but deserve the right to free speech.
“It is not about Left vs Right but right vs wrong,” he explained. “That’s what the ADL has always done.”
It used to be easier though. The ADL was founded in 1913, the same year that Leo Frank, a Jew from Atlanta, was convicted – now assumed unjustifiably by most researchers – of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old female employee. When the governor commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison, a mob dragged him from his jail cell and lynched him close to the girl’s home in Marietta, Georgia. Anti-Jewish sentiments grew in the South, and as World War I broke out negative stereotypes spread across the country.
The mission then was to defend Jews. While difficult, it seems in today’s polarized world that things were a bit simpler back then. The community was more united, less divided and less politicized. The mission was also clearer. In today’s America, where antisemitic incidents are on the rise – according to the ADL there was an 86% increase in the first quarter of this year – Greenblatt is under a microscope with everything he says or does.
To his critics, when Greenblatt criticizes Trump it must mean he is still working for his former boss Obama; and if he supports Sarsour’s right to speak, it must mean that he supports BDS.
I don’t agree with every position Greenblatt has taken, but the above view is simplistic and simply unfair.
It is easy to look at life through a black and white lens, where anything that doesn’t fit into a specific category is labeled as being wrong.
As the editor of this newspaper, I know what “complex” means. We get criticized daily for editorials or columns we publish, sometimes from the Left and other days from the Right. There is no position everyone will agree with. You can try to represent the Center as Greenblatt says he tries, but you will never make everyone happy.
In April, Greenblatt had another complex moment. Earlier this year he was informed by his alma mater that he was being awarded Tufts’s Active Citizenship and Public Service Award.
At first, Greenblatt was honored. But then the day before Passover, the Tufts Student Senate voted for a resolution to divest from companies that do business in Israel. The resolution was announced on a Friday, and Passover Eve was on Monday, meaning that Jewish kids would mostly be away and incapable of fighting the resolution. The university was contacted and refused to intervene.
Greenblatt debated what to do. To speak or not to speak at the award ceremony? To accept the award or not to? In the end, he appeared at the ceremony, accepted the award and then blasted the university leadership whose handling of the vote “deeply troubled” him.
The university administration, he said, alienated and caused anguish among Jewish members of Tufts’ community. It was vital for the university leadership to “step up and model moral leadership,” something it had failed to do.
Some might say that Greenblatt shouldn’t have gone to the ceremony; others would argue that he should have rejected the award. Greenblatt preferred a different approach: he went, received the award, expressed gratitude for it, and then blasted the people who were giving it to him.
A bit complex, no?
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