The ADL Is Making It Less Safe to Be a Progressive Jew

In our topsy-turvy reality, the organization most associated with fighting antisemitism, the Anti-Defamation League, has cast its lot with antisemites.

Ben Lorber

Activists with Jewish Voice for Peace held a peaceful rally at The Statue of Liberty calling for a cease-fire on November 6, 2023. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Every morning, when I open my laptop to start the workday, I look at Nazis.

Sometimes I’m tracking young ​“suit-and-tie” white nationalists working to infiltrate conservative campus organizations and spread their worldview. Other times I’m monitoring street-fighting white power groups rallying to terrorize Jewish, Muslim, LGBTQ+, Black and other marginalized folks. Sometimes the work leaves me feeling energized, enraged and defiant. Much of the time, it leaves me feeling numb.

I work as a senior researcher at Political Research Associates, a think tank that monitors right-wing movements and helps people of conscience fight back. My focus is on white nationalism and antisemitism — the groups and ideologies that want me and my Jewish family turned into second-class citizens, expelled from the United States, or worse. I like to think I’m decent at it, too. Last year, HuffPost named me ​“one of the foremost chroniclers of the groypers,” the movement of Gen Z white Christian nationalists whose rabidly antisemitic leader, Nick Fuentes, dined with Trump last Thanksgiving at Mar-A-Lago.

That’s why I, like so many, was outraged—though not entirely surprised—when Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, slammed JVP and IfNotNow as “hate groups, the photo inverse of white supremacists."

I do this work because I want to do my part to help keep my people, and all people safe, and to stop the rise of fascism in the United States and worldwide. That’s also why I’m a member of IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. These are two Jewish-led groups fighting for justice for Palestinians, an end to Israeli apartheid and freedom and dignity for all. These groups have long been active around these issues, but since Oct. 7, they have called for all hands on deck and moved into overdrive, demanding an immediate cease-fire. Right now, even Israel’s staunchest supporters recognize that the state’s current government is the most far-right it has ever been. Combining that with the rise of the far-right in the United States, the two sides of my activism have never felt more conjoined. (I used to work on staff at JVP and some In These Times staffers are active with JVP and IfNotNow.)

That’s why I, like so many, was outraged — though not entirely surprised — when Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, slammed JVP and IfNotNow as ​“hate groups, the photo inverse of white supremacists” on Oct. 18, shortly after they staged a powerful sit-in on Capitol Hill to demand our elected officials call for a cease-fire. 

On its face, many might find this too ludicrous to be true. Somehow, Greenblatt saw little difference between a gathering of rabbis and human rights activists — garbed in tallitot, blowing shofars and evoking values of justice and human dignity — and a murderous movement of mass shooters, race-war fanatics and insurrectionists who champion the smashing of multiracial democracy with genocidal glee. Greenblatt was telling me that when I, a Jewish person who stands for justice, dig through a dark web of Hitler memes and screeds of ​“white genocide” each day, I’m essentially looking in the mirror.

Members of IfNotNow held a peaceful protest on October 19, 2023, in Los Angles outside the home of Vice President Kamala Harris where they called "on those in power to oppose any policies that privilege one group of people over another." Photo by Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

But Greenblatt wasn’t alone in demonizing the Jewish Left — he was joined by far-right Christian nationalists and conspiracists. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) slammed JVP as ​“Israel-hating [and] America-hating,” laughably called the peaceful sit-in at the Capitol organized by JVP and IfNotNow an ​“insurrection,” and demanded that Capitol police surveil them. (​“Believe it or not,” JVP Action wrote in response, ​“a self-described ​‘Christian nationalist’ who believes in ​‘Jewish space lasers’ doesn’t have the best interests of Jewish people at heart.”) One lengthy hit piece, mobilizing antisemitism, insisted the sit-in was ​“Soros-backed,” ominously inviting the reader to ​“pull back the curtain, and you’ll invariably find that all roads lead to Soros.” And one month later, Christian nationalist House Speaker Mike Johnson slammed another JVP and IfNotNow-led protest outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters as a vile display of antisemitism.”

With bedfellows like these, perhaps Greenblatt would do well to look in the mirror.

But never the kind for introspection, Greenblatt keeps doubling down. On Oct. 30, he repeated his ​“photo inverse” analogy on CNN and dropped another tired slogan — ​“anti-Zionism is antisemitism. I mean, that is as plain as day.” And on Nov. 1, Greenblatt went farther. At the ADL’s Los Angeles gala — where the organization crossed a UNITE HERE picket line to raise $5 million dollars amidst fancy dining and a cocktail hour — he claimed that Palestine solidarity activists ​“want a final solution.” So not only are we comparable to the movement responsible for the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history — now, Greenblatt is implying, we are like Nazis.

“Believe it or not, a self-described ‘Christian nationalist’ who believes in ‘Jewish space lasers’ doesn’t have the best interests of Jewish people at heart.”

This warped worldview practically spits on the graves of all those lost to antisemitic persecution and far-right violence in the past, while simultaneously leaving many in our communities perilously unsafe in the present. But unfortunately, while most commonsense people reject these falsities out of hand, the ADL seems to maintain friends in high places. The Biden administration seemed to agree that ​“anti-Israel protesters” were ​“extremists” in line with Unite the Right attendees in Charlottesville, as White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre offered little pushback when pressed by a reporter on Oct. 30.

And now, Greenblatt is providing cover to the most powerful white nationalist antisemite in the world in exchange for a boost to his anti-Left crusade. On Nov. 15, Elon Musk endorsed an antisemitic post on X (formerly Twitter) offering that Jews ​“have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them” as ​“the actual truth.” The global outcry in response to Musk’s embrace of the white nationalist great replacement” conspiracy theory was swift, with major brand advertisers promising to pull spending on X amidst a statement from a diverse group of more than 160 Jewish leaders (including both I and In These Times Executive Editor Ari Bloomekatz) condemning rising antisemitism on the platform. But just two days later, when Musk announced that the terms ​“decolonization” and ​“from the river to the sea,” used by critics of the Israeli state, are ​“euphemisms [that] necessarily imply genocide” and threatened they will result in suspension,” Greenblatt tweeted that ​“This is an important and welcome move by @elonmusk. I appreciate this leadership in fighting hate.” 

There’s no limit, apparently, to the kind of antisemitism Greenblatt will overlook, as long as you name the right enemies.

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This is but the latest lurch in the ADL’s steady shedding of credibility in its mission ​“to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” as it proclaims on its website. For years, the group has smeared Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and Black organizers and human rights groups with weaponized antisemitism charges, and supported a range of unconstitutional measures to suppress speech critical of Israel. These moves have tarnished its civil rights credentials in the eyes of many of its social movement partners, and the general public (as well as the media, as some publications either refuse to use the ADL’s statistics or are nervous to do so).

The group’s reactionary proclivities stretch back further still. In the post-9/11 ​“War on Terror” era, the ADL joined the Islamophobic chorus opposing the opening of a mosque near Ground Zero, and rationalized calls for widespread surveillance against Muslim Americans. A 1993 police and FBI investigation revealed that, for decades, the ADL collaborated with police departments to spy on progressive groups ranging from the NAACP and ACLU to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and United Auto Workers. In the 1950s, the organization shared its files with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) — notorious in part for the ruthlessness of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) — which fueled the persecution of Leftists at the height of Cold War hysteria.

With this track record, being targeted by Greenblatt and the ADL might actually be, in a way, a badge of honor.

Nonviolent protesters at a demonstration for a cease-fire in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building at the Capitol on October 18, 2023. Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As the ADL continues to betray its stated civil rights principles, it meets increasing backlash. The last time Greenblatt announced ​“anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” debuted his trite ​“photo inverse” one-liner and promised to go after JVP and other Palestine solidarity groups at last year’s National Leadership Summit, ADL staff protested this misguided pivot — and similar internal protests have occurred at other times, including in 2020 (the same year a coalition of leading progressive organizations launched the #DropTheADL campaign) and 2016.

This time around, the dissent has been more pronounced. On Oct. 19, one ADL senior researcher publicly resigned, announcing on social media that ​“I couldn’t square my morals and politics with the direction I saw the org going in” and claiming many other staffers felt similarly.

With this track record, being targeted by Greenblatt and the ADL might actually be, in a way, a badge of honor.

The critique the organization has long faced within its own field, too, is louder than ever. After his embrace of Musk, a chorus of prominent anti-extremism journalists and researchers condemned Greenblatt’s moral bankruptcy.” 

One thing is for sure,” exclaimed Nandini Jammi, cofounder of Check My Ads, an independent watchdog agency for the digital adtech industry, we’re never citing ADL as a source again.” And when Greenblatt attacked JVP and IfNotNow last month, many slammed the ADL’s ​“false equivalency” as ​“discrediting & beyond the pale,” and ​“absolutely infuriating and disingenuous.” Indeed, at a time when leading researchers and spokespeople at groups like Southern Poverty Law Center are signing Gaza solidarity statements — and getting hit with racist attacks from the Right for doing so — the ADL is increasingly out of step in the anti-extremism field it claims to lead.

The ADL is abdicating principled leadership at a time when it’s needed more than ever. In the aftermath of Oct. 7, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian bigotry and antisemitism are on the rise across the country and around the world. But as usual, instead of reaching towards a shared horizon for fighting these bigotries together, groups like the ADL are using fear of antisemitism as a political weapon in order to repress the movement for Palestinian rights– and helping foment Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian bigotry in the process. They’re calling on universities to shut down or defund SJP chapters, which at least three universities have already done, and to investigate them for ties to terrorism — baseless claims and unconstitutional moves that pose a dire threat to free speech. Right-wing senators and presidential candidates are clamoring for further crackdown, and the Biden administration is mobilizing federal agencies in that likely direction. This escalating McCarthyist climate is hitting Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students, and students of color the hardest, and instead of joining groups like the ACLU in fervently defending constitutional rights to free speech, the ADL is helping lead the pile-on.

This doesn’t keep Jews safe. Mischaracterizing a broad range of Palestine solidarity organizing as antisemitic muddles our attempt to make sense of the threats we face in this moment, and strains our relationship with other marginalized communities at a time when those relationships are needed more than ever. But many of the actors at the helm of this McCarthyist crusade don’t care about keeping Jews safe — they’re using this moment to advance their longstanding goal of silencing critics of U.S. foreign policy and Israel’s unjust oppression of Palestinians.

This McCarthyism is rebounding inside the Jewish community, too— and Greenblatt isn’t the only voice slamming the Jewish Left as beyond the pale.

Dan Elbaum, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Head of North America and President & CEO of Jewish Agency International Development, stated JVP and IfNotNow activists are deserving of ​“cherem,” formal excommunication from the Jewish people. William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, claimed we ​“do not represent the Jewish people, and one suspects their Jewishness primarily exists to be wielded against other Jews.” Avi Mayer, editor-in-chief of the right-leaning publication The Jerusalem Post, absurdly argued that ​“while they may still technically be Jewish due to their parentage or conversion, while they may lead superficially Jewish lives, we can no longer consider them part of Klal Yisrael [the Jewish people].” Elsewhere, the editorial staff of The Jerusalem Post claimed we are ​“as Jewish as the Westboro Baptist Church is Christian.”

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The smears that we don’t represent the Jewish community are false. Recent polling from the Jewish Electorate Institute suggests that sizeable portions of American Jews between the ages of 18 and 35 — the young constituency that represents the literal future of our community — are skeptical of U.S. military aid to Israel, U.S. vetoes of UN ceasefire resolutions, and Biden’s overall handling of the war. But these smears track with the antisemitic MAGA Right’s barbed accusations that liberal Jews are not ​“really” or ​“authentically” Jewish due to our progressive politics or lack of support for the Israeli Right — a smear that conveniently helps the Right disavow its antisemitism. ​“If progressive Jews are not really Jews and if left-wing Jewish values are not really authentically Jewish,” wrote scholar Eliyahu Stern in 2019, describing this twisted logic, ​“then it follows that opposing these types and values does not indicate any particular anti-Jewish animus.”

A nonviolent protest in Washington D.C. on October 16, 2023 with many members of IfNotNow and JVP. Actor Wallace Shawn joined alongside the activists in calling for a cease-fire. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Whether the claim is that we are antisemites, or Soros-funded, that we are fringe, or un-Jews”—the function is, much like classical antisemitism, to slander us as dangerous subversives to the respectable social order.

In our topsy-turvy reality, the organization most associated, in the public imagination, with fighting antisemitism has cast its lot with antisemites as it doubles down in defense of the Israeli government in its unending crimes against Palestinian humanity and dignity. In this time of great communal grief and fear in the American Jewish community, the ADL is weaponizing that fear to go after the Jewish Left and broader justice movements. While the ADL fosters division, smothers free speech and slanders me and my friends as the ​“photo inverse of white supremacists,” we’ll keep doing the actual work, on the front lines, of fighting white supremacy through building the solidarity we need to survive and thrive. While the ADL collects Israel solidarity statements from business leaders across the home furnishings industry — an absurd gesture that shows how out of touch it is in this moment — we’ll keep calling for the cease-fire we desperately need.

BEN LORBER works as senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank monitoring right-wing movements, where he focuses on white nationalism and antisemitism. His book Safety through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism will be released in 2024 with Melville House Books.

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