Anti-Defamation League head secures bodyguard due to threats - interview

The head of the antisemitism watchdog Anti-Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt shares his concerns about the BDS Mapping Project and rising anti-Zionism.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, also known as BDS. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, also known as BDS.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

BASEL – When Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt arrived at the 125th anniversary celebrations of the World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, last week, he was followed by a bodyguard the whole time.

“I get death threats,” Greenblatt told The Jerusalem Post in an interview. “That’s the reason that that guy is sitting over there,” he said, pointing at his bodyguard, who easily blended in with the audience.

Asked if this new security detail was related to the fact that he was in Europe, Greenblatt said he has security everywhere he goes, except for Israel. “Things have really ratcheted up in the past several months,” he said.

One of the reasons for the extra security around Greenblatt, and ADL institutions in general, is directly related to BDS Mapping Project.

What is the BDS Mapping Project?

The BDS Mapping Project is an interactive map that charted Jewish and Zionist institutions in Boston and framed them as “structurally tied” to US media, police and government. The map ties Zionism to the “harms” of US imperialism, ableism, ecological harm, gentrification, the prison-industrial complex and more.

 South African demonstrators and BDS activists hold placards during a protest in May 2021 outside the Israel Trade offices in Sandton, SA, following a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence (credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS) South African demonstrators and BDS activists hold placards during a protest in May 2021 outside the Israel Trade offices in Sandton, SA, following a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence (credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)

Institutions perceived by the activists as guilty of these “harms” are connected to the network and, subsequently, to Jewish and Zionist establishments.

“The Mapping Project is an initiative put together by a collection of anonymous activists for the sole purpose of intimidating, marginalizing and really terrorizing the Jewish community in trying to create an approach which encourages and really enforces what I’ll call anti-normalization, which is not about Zionism nor about Israel. It’s about Jews,” Greenblatt said.

"The Mapping Project is an initiative put together by a collection of anonymous activists for the sole purpose of intimidating, marginalizing and really terrorizing the Jewish community in trying to create an approach which encourages and really enforces what I'll call anti-normalization, which is not about Zionism nor about Israel. It's about Jews.”

Anti Defamation League head Jonathan Greenblatt

“It’s an effort by a set of activists who, with great intention and tremendous care, have approached us in an anonymous way,” he added.

Greenblatt said he and his team view the actions of the BDS mappers as “incitement,” since “they tell people, ‘You should go to this particular place.’ They’re trying to be ambiguous enough that they should avoid potential legal ramifications.”

Is anti-Zionism antisemitism? In this case, yes

There are many classic antisemitic factors to this new project, which has been intimidating Jewish institutions, and this all has to do with the legacy of the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, Greenblatt said.

“Herzl spoke about his vision, which came to solve [the issue of sovereignty for the Jewish people], and yet the Mapping Project shows us that this Jewish problem remains, since they recycle all these old, tired stereotypes and myths,” he said.

Greenblatt cited examples of antisemitic tropes, including: “The Jews are controlling everything. Blood libels and Jews are committing genocide against Palestinians. This is specious; it’s defamatory. I mean, it’s an abject lie, but it’s also deeply damaging.”

What does ADL think about the Mapping Project?

Asked what ADL New England did when the Mapping Project called for the dismantling of the ADL, Greenblatt said: “We immediately felt it was important to expose this for what it is with elected officials and leaders. We help them frame this and understand how this can be contextualized in terms of modern antisemitism.”

In addition, the ADL took “additional precautions,” he said, and first and foremost, this means “the safety of our people.”

“They totally doxed our board in the New England office, making them potentially vulnerable to being targeted by nefarious actors,” Greenblatt said, adding that the ADL “pumped up” its physical security and its cybersecurity.

“The threats are very real,” he said. “I just got an alert today about one of my board members who has been targeted” and was abused and attacked online.

THE MAPPING Project comes from a “radical left-wing, anti-Zionist frame,” Greenblatt said.

There also are threats from “a radical far-right frame,” he said, citing the Goyim Defense League (GDL), an antisemitic Internet troll and conspiracy theorist network on social media. GDL’s logo is a parody of the logo of the ADL.

“I think the reality, right now, is that the Jewish community is living under an amplified threat level, which is undeniable,” he said.

“I think the reality, right now, is that the Jewish community is living under an amplified threat level, which is undeniable.”

ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt

Greenblatt compared Herzl’s experiences as a Jew in Europe in the 19th century to the current atmosphere around the world.

“I am an unapologetic Zionist,” he said. “I think Zionism is our right as a people. I think Herzl did believe and did endeavor for a world in which you’d have a Jewish state and people would say, ‘Oh, the Jews are just like everybody else.’”

“I think it’s clear that Israel on its own cannot solve all of our problems alone,” Greenblatt said, adding that antisemitism now “dresses up as anti-Zionism.”

“Just as antisemitism was restricted to the Jewish people, antisemites restricted the Jewish state,” he said. “We’ve got to recognize these are part and parcel of the same thing.”

That being said, Greenblatt acknowledged that he lives in the Diaspora.

“I think Jews should have the right in the world in which we live in today, where there is a kind of liberal political liberalism, Jews should be able to live where they want to live and show up as Jewishly as they want to – whether that’s in America, or Switzerland or the State of Israel,” he said.

“I think Jews should have the right in the world in which we live in today, where there is a kind of liberal political liberalism, Jews should be able to live where they want to live and show up as Jewishly as they want to — whether that's in America, or Switzerland, or the State of Israel.”

ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt

Diaspora Jewry succeeded in so many ways, only because there is a strong Jewish state, Greenblatt said.

“I think much of our success in the Diaspora is due to Zionism and the opposite,” he said. “But I think that the confidence with which we walk in the Diaspora, the spring in our step, is a function of Zionism.”

“We are in the worst situation we’ve been in decades, regarding the level of antisemitism in the US and many countries around the world,” Greenblatt said. “The environment is just far more intense today than it’s been in memory.”

When Donald Trump was the US president, Greenblatt was criticized by conservative Americans for only focusing on antisemitism from the extreme Left. Over the past few years, however, he has been receiving criticism and violence from the extreme Left because of his support for Israel.

“We have to keep our head down and do the work, and we have to keep our head up with pride,” Greenblatt said. “It’s almost a badge of honor that ADL is demonized by both sides.”

“It’s a worrisome environment where people seem more and more inclined toward political violence,” he said. “That’s the world in which we’re living within the United States today.”

Asked about the rising trend of anti-Zionism and BDS support among young American Jews, Greenblatt said he agreed that there is “a segment” on “the far Left” who “self-identify as anti-Zionist or non-Zionist.” But this growing group is ”a new minority,” not mainstream, he added.

“I think what’s more concerning is there are some activists in progressive circles who are increasingly kind of vocal about their anti-Zionism, and that’s why they’re very loud,” he said.

Greenblatt said he thinks the situation is actually better than it seems.

“Look, more American Jews are on Birthright [Israel programs] today, more than ever before,” he said. “More American Jews are watching Israeli TV shows, such as Shtisel and Fauda; they’re more in touch with their Israeli cousins. They see Israelis as their brothers and sisters more than ever before. There’s more Israeli shlichim [emissaries] on our campuses than ever before.”