What next for the ADL?

Jonathan Greenblatt has replaced Abe Foxman at the helm, but don’t expect any big sudden changes.

Serial social entrepreneur: Jonathan Greenblatt took over as National Director of the Anti-Defamation League in July. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Serial social entrepreneur: Jonathan Greenblatt took over as National Director of the Anti-Defamation League in July.
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
IT WAS the untimely death in 1987 of 64-year-old Nathan Perlmutter, who had been national director of the New Yorkbased Anti-Defamation League since 1979, that propelled the group’s pugnacious associate director Abraham Foxman to the top job. Foxman was to become the embodiment of the ADL brand, which sees itself as “fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry.”
The ADL is like an aircraft carrier. It doesn’t make abrupt course adjustments.
Perlmutter had replaced the mannerly Benjamin Epstein and Foxman had taken over as associate director from the more combative Arnold Forster. The harmonious Epstein-Forster partnership led the ADL for 30 years and jointly authored pathbreaking reports including “The New Anti-Semitism” in 1974. That study showed how Jew-hatred, long associated with the oldright had taken root in the new-left and in the African-American community. It also worried about how Jews were being presented in contemporary literature and on Broadway.
Now, at age 75 and after 30 years at the ADL, the Polish-born Foxman has retired and been replaced by 44-year-old Jonathan Greenblatt. The new ADL chief, an MBA described as a “serial social entrepreneur,” spent most of his work life in the business world. Along the way, he campaigned for former president Bill Clinton in 1992, worked in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, and at the liberal Aspen Institute think tank.
Beyond the generational and stylistic, it is hard to discern outright policy differences between the two men. Still, at a time when only a handful of members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations carry any heft – some are shells of a glorious past, others survive on the largesse of a single billionaire ‒ what happens at the ADL is consequential.
The Anti-Defamation League began as a division of B’nai B’rith, which was founded in 1843 on New York’s Lower East Side. At its peak, there were more than 2,000 B’nai B’rith lodges across the US, Europe, South America and Israel.
The B’nai B’rith established the ADL in 1913 to combat crude anti-Semitism. It may be apocryphal, but the story goes that the impetus was the arrest that year and subsequent show trial of Leo Frank, an Atlanta factory owner charged with strangling his 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan. Frank was kidnapped from jail and lynched by a white mob in Marietta, Georgia, in 1915.
The ADL’s other mandate was to connect with church and civic organizations in promoting tolerance. Its combined mission was “to end the defamation of the Jewish people” and “to secure justice and fair treatment for all citizens alike.”
Greenblatt tells The Jerusalem Report that he wants to renew the ADL’s mission.
He thinks the ADL needs to make itself more visible in its long-standing support for civil and LGBT rights. Doing so will also strengthen the organization’s posture when it comes time to make its case on an issue of consequence to the Jewish community, he says.
Clearly, he knows he needs to engage a new generation of Jews, many of them intermarried and unaffiliated, and find ways to establish credibility with them. At the same time, he recognizes that he needs to tap into the vibrant Orthodox stream. And he needs to figure out how to pull off these goals without alienating either cohort.
Foxman survived Hitler’s war against the Jews under the protection of righteous gentiles.
In contrast, Greenblatt is a post-baby boomer American. He came of age around 1994 in a different world. Violent black anti-Semitism had peaked after the 1991 Crown Heights riots in New York. Both the US and Israel had already established diplomatic relations with the PLO. Some 80 countries had recognized “Palestine.”
At home, most US Jews had transcended acculturation into contented assimilation; demography had become their greatest vulnerability.
Although his grandfather escaped Germany after Hitler came to power, Greenblatt, whose family belonged to a Conservative congregation in Connecticut, cannot reasonably be expected to relate to anti-Semitism in a similar way to Foxman.
Foxman is comfortable being described as a centrist liberal, while Greenblatt describes himself as a pragmatist. That’s probably a distinction without any substantive difference. Foxman himself served on the selection committee that went through 25 candidates before picking Greenblatt. The two men speak regularly and avoid saying anything about each other that could be construed as critical.
Some picture Greenblatt’s appointment as heralding a more left-leaning ADL. But the evidence that Foxman is a right-winger is less than convincing. Michael Salberg, ADL’s international relations chief under Foxman, moved quietly to the President’s Conference in January. The appointment is rumored to please dovish groups who see executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference’s top official since 1986, as too hawkish on Israel.
At the time of his death, Perlmutter was overseeing the ADL’s work in combating widening anti-Semitism among African- American leaders. Al Sharpton was leading protests against an “interloper” Jewish store still doing business in Harlem; Jesse Jackson was calling New York Jews “Hymies,” and Louis Farrakhan was being altogether less circumspect.
Beforehand, in the early 20th century, the ADL championed anti-discrimination legislation to gain Jews access to restricted neighborhoods, country clubs and schools that had rejected Jewish applicants. It also raised its voice against the vulgar stereotyping of Jews in popular entertainment and newspapers such as automobile tycoon Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, which published the czarist forgery “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
All the while, the ADL helped to defang the Ku Klux Klan and pro-Hitler groups active in the US prior to the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Ever since, the ADL has been a chief bogeyman for rightist conspiracy theory devotees.
Over the decades, the ADL eclipsed B’nai B’rith and incrementally broke away until it became a separate legal entity able to fundraise on its own. Perhaps as a legacy of its B’nai B’rith roots ‒ a membership organization after all ‒ the ADL seemed to be the one establishment organization least out of sync with grassroots Jews.
In fact, like virtually all major Jewish groups, it was run by machers – donors and staffers ‒ whose agenda did not necessarily reflect community sentiments. By the 1960s, for instance, the ADL had joined other Jewish organizations in advocating legislation to advance negro civil rights. It was a stance that discomfited some B’nai B’rith members in the South. Epstein and other ADL leaders marched in March 1965 in Selma, Alabama, with Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
Greenblatt is keen to tap into this legacy.
IN 1972, under Epstein and Forster, the ADL did not oppose plans by liberal New York City mayor John Lindsay ‒ then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination ‒ to build three 24-story buildings with 840 apartments aimed at mostly nonwhite welfare recipients smack in the middle of predominantly Jewish Forest Hills, Queens.
As a result of community protests and a compromise hammered out by Mario Cuomo, a Brooklyn lawyer who went on to become New York State governor in 1983, the project was ultimately downsized to three 12-story buildings with 432 apartments.
The city housing authority further established criteria that limited the number of indigent tenants while upping the number of apartments set aside for the elderly.
Under Foxman’s watch, popular Jewish sentiment wanted the ADL to label as “genocide” the Ottoman Empire’s 1915- 1918 massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians. Foxman resisted. He was not negating the catastrophe, but he was taking the long view of Turkish-Jewish relations, which date back to the 1400s. Even today, with a pro-Hamas Islamist regime in Ankara, Foxman remains hesitant. For him, the issue is one of principle and credibility.
Similarly, in 2014 under Foxman, the ADL refused to join the battle against New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which had decided to stage John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer.” The ADL did not question that the play was strongly anti-Israel. Foxman’s position was that the opera was offensive, but not anti-Semitic ‒ it had been updated so that a revolting scene from the opera’s 1991 debut was cut.
In the early 1970s, the ADL partnered in a new initiative with the American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum and the (now defunct) Synagogue Council of America to engage in ecumenical parleys with leaders of the Catholic and other churches. These were aimed at reversing centuries of theologically based teachings of contempt toward the Jewish people.
Also around that time, the ADL began promoting Holocaust education and opposing the Arab boycott of Israel – the original BDS campaign then headquartered in Damascus. The ADL helped coin the term “new anti-Semitism” to describe holding Jews and Israel to standards not expected of other people or countries.
It also stood as a voice against Diaspora criticism of Israeli security policies. In 1973, for example, groups like Breira began to campaign against the policies of premier Golda Meir. With the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987, Morris Abram, president of the Conference of Presidents, publicly deplored Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin’s aggressive efforts to putting down Palestinian rioting. Leaders of the American Jewish Committee, the Reform movement and even New York City mayor Ed Koch piled on. Not the ADL.
To be credible, Foxman prides himself on being unpredictable. He has criticized US President Barack Obama for leaning on Israel and basically giving the Palestinians a free pass. Yet, he also took to task Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador in Washington, for suggesting that having grown up partly in the Islamic world had made Obama frosty toward the Zionist enterprise.
When actor Mel Gibson, mired in anti- Jewish bigotry, wanted to wipe the slate clean, his agent crafted a letter of apology to Foxman. The appeal fell short of garnering Gibson absolution, but it underscored how Foxman had become the address for (supposedly) penitent Jew-haters. Gibraltarborn fashion designer John Galliano, who in a drunken stupor blurted that he loved Hitler, fared better with Foxman. His apology was sincere. Foxman tells The Report that Jews have an obligation to embrace those who express genuine remorse.
Foxman is a seeker of the middle ground.
While the ADL came out against building a mosque near 9/11’s Ground Zero, Foxman ‒ who has repeatedly spoken out against anti-Muslim bias ‒ suggested the mosque be erected slightly further uptown. Under Foxman, and now under Greenblatt, the ADL has been ramping up its opposition to anti-Muslim bigotry.
The ADL annoys Christian conservatives by advocating a firewall between church and state. Foxman has said that affirmative action “may be legitimate” but that it runs “counter to the ideal of a society in which everyone, regardless of race, is given an equal opportunity to succeed.”
Foxman and his team have bequeathed an organization that is reported to be in comparatively good financial shape with some $54 million in revenue. Greenblatt seems to be targeting his attentions at a new constituency comprised of millennials (the cohort born between 1980 and 2004) and his own Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980). Foxman broadcast more naturally to baby boomers (born 1946-1964) whose values had been fashioned in the aftermath of WWII.
Greenblatt’s syntax is replete with buzzwords from his entrepreneurial and politically progressive worlds – “scalability,” “inclusivity” and “social impact.” He says he wants to infuse the ADL with 21st century technology and reinvigorate ADL operations by figuring out how to “monetize” programs it wants to develop. In other words, to take the sensibilities of the West Coast hitech world and use them to make the ADL nationally more effective and efficient.
Still, under Greenblatt, the ethos of the ADL is unlikely to change dramatically. He arrived at the ADL offices at 605 3rd Ave. in New York directly from the Obama White House, but his persona was shaped largely by his years as a corporate executive and entrepreneur.
In those roles, he relied on quantifiable measurements of success. He is not especially enamored with big government, he tells The Report.
LIKE OBAMA, he opposes local laws that would require US voters to present proof of identity at the ballot as discriminatory toward minorities. In fact, as a believer in “welcoming asylum seekers,” he opposes Obama’s efforts to deport any illegal immigrants – so long as they do not pose security threats. And, like most US Jews, he is a vigorous supporter of homosexual, transsexual and abortion rights.
Operating well within the American Jewish pro-Israel consensus, Greenblatt opposes all boycotts of Israel from BDS to EU efforts to label products produced over the Green Line. The ADL opposed the Iran nuclear deal reached between the US administration and the mullahs. But with the agreement a reality, he now wants to ensure that Tehran lives up to its obligations.
Greenblatt seems to have no illusions about the Islamic Republic. He is married to Marjan Keypour, whose Jewish family fled Teheran after the 1979 Islamist takeover.
The ADL ‒ like just about every major US Jewish group ‒ embraces the two-state mantra of a demographically Jewish and democratic Israel living side by side with a Palestinian state. Greenblatt says he won’t ask Israel to make sacrifices while the Palestinian leadership is sitting on their hands.
Yet, it’s clear he doesn’t view the conflict in zero-sum terms. He’s already made several trips to Israel as ADL director and says he’s sought out a cross-section of opinion.
On October 13, 2015, 76-year-old Richard Lakin, an educator and coexistence campaigner, was shot in the head and stabbed in the chest by Palestinian terrorists while riding the number 78 bus in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood. Greenblatt, a proponent of coexistence education, paid a shiva call on the Lakin family in Jerusalem.
He says he “gets” what Israel is up against.
Greenblatt says the ADL will work to develop strategies to curtail incitement in social media just as it has operated against incitement ‒ such as Holocaust denial ‒ in print media, without infringing on freedom of expression.
The ADL under Greenblatt opposes Knesset legislation that would require Israeli NGOs funded by foreign governments to declare their income sources.
The pressure groups in question are all left-wing, while right-wing groups backed by foreign individuals would face no similar requirements. Greenblatt has called for a harsh crackdown on far-right Israeli extremists. He lambasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for saying Jerusalem mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini (1897- 1974) played a “central” role in fomenting Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
Greenblatt didn’t break any new policy ground in speaking out against the appointment of Antoni Macierewicz ‒ who had expressed conspiratorial and anti-Jewish sentiments ‒ as Poland’s defense minister.
The new ADL chief, more controversially, supports Germany’s decision to absorb one million, mostly young, male Sunni Muslim migrants escaping war-torn Syria and Iraq.
Foxman revels in his Brooklyn-accent and doesn’t mind if people believe he ran the ADL from his kishkes. The tenor of Greenblatt’s leadership is, by comparison, likely to be low key. Foxman went to law school, Greenblatt to business school.
Foxman eventually earned a respectable $688,280 annually. Greenblatt came to the ADL already a millionaire. Foxman came to know his way around the White House.
Greenblatt worked there.
In selecting Greenblatt, ADL machers went for a chief with demonstrated people, professional and money-raising skills honed in the corporate, entrepreneurial and political worlds. Greenblatt says the ADL’s ultimate purpose remains constant: to protect the Jewish people. 
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based journalist and author of ‘The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness.’ You can follow him on Twitter @JAGERFILE