The ADL Wants to Conflate Critiques of Israel with Antisemitism. That Won’t Make Jews Safer.

As conservative pundits mainstream antisemitic tropes, the ADL is instead focused on silencing expressions of Palestinian solidarity.

Samuel Hoadley-Brill

Anti-Defamation League CEO & National Director Jonathan Greenblatt speaking at the ADL National Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in June 2019. Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

On January 10, in an interview with the Israeli television outlet i24 News — founded a decade ago with the express mission of countering criticism of Israel — Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt announced that his organization had tracked a 360% increase in antisemitic incidents” in the United States in the three months after Hamas militants breached Gaza’s border with southern Israel and killed 1,139 people.

The numbers in America are stunning,” he continued, noting that the violence of October 7 had triggered even more violence.” Greenblatt was not lamenting the fact that, in retaliation for the Hamas attacks, Israel has since killed more than 29,000 Palestinians in Gaza, including over 12,000 Palestinian children and amounting to the worst daily death toll of any major conflict in the 21st century. Rather, he meant the ADL’s recent report tallying 3,291 incidents of alleged antisemitism, including 56 physical assaults, 554 cases of vandalism, 1,347 reports of harassment, and, more curiously, 1,307 pro-Palestinian rallies.

Unlike the obviously antisemitic slurs, threats and Holocaust denial present in some of the other categories, the rallies were a new addition and a much more amorphous category. So how does the ADL determine whether a rally counts as an antisemitic incident? In the past, as the Forward’s Arno Rosenfeld reported, the ADL had restricted its annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents” to reports that had a clear victim,” with a high bar for including criticism of Israel.” Two years ago, Aryeh Tuchman, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, explained that his researchers try really hard to make sure incidents involving Israel either include antisemitic tropes or schemes or specifically target Jewish institutions.” But as of last month, the ADL has updated its audit methodology with the blunt assertion that, following October 7th … expressions of anti-Zionism such as the phrases Zionism is terrorism,’ or From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ are now included in the Audit.” And in a January press release, the organization said it now classifies pro-Palestinian demonstrations as antisemitic incidents if they feature not just antisemitic rhetoric” or expressions of support for terrorism against the state of Israel” but expressions of anti-Zionism as well. That is, the ADL’s official position is that rallies that include anti-Zionist advocacy count as antisemitic incidents by definition.

These changes are unsurprising, highlighting tensions within the legacy anti-hate group that date back decades. But they’re still alarming, as the organization’s dogmatic pro-Israel advocacy both contributes to a growing climate of Islamophobic and anti-Arab violence and trivializes the real dangers of a growing antisemitism being inflamed by some of the ADL’s powerful allies on the Right. 

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Founded in 1913, the ADL describes itself as the leading anti-hate organization in the world.” It has long had two primary purposes, embodied in its mission statement, To stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” Well-known for its research on hate groups and other forms of right-wing extremism, the ADL’s work is ubiquitous in media coverage of more than just antisemitism; in 2019, American studies scholar Emmaia Gelman found that more than two-thirds of the 46,000 articles on white supremacists or white nationalists posted in the past year” had referenced the group. But from its inception, the ADL has struggled to balance its professed universal aims of justice and fairness for all and its particular commitment to the fight against antisemitism, which for several decades the organization has defined as including public messaging in defense of Israel’s legitimacy as the rightful nation-state of the Jewish people.”

In truth, the ADL’s claimed commitments to justice and civil rights have frequently taken a back seat to its pro-Israel agenda. This was epitomized by a 1993 scandal over the ADL’s involvement in an illegal surveillance network that infiltrated dozens of supposed extremist groups,” from clear hate groups like the American Nazi Party to mainstream organizations like the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. The ADL also sold information on anti-apartheid activists to intelligence agents working for the South African government. The news surprised many liberal civil rights advocates, who were more familiar with the ADL’s anti-hate work than its history of collaborating with state power, including the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). But as extremism researchers Chip Berlet and Dennis King observed at the time, the scandal was consistent with the ADL’s further rightward shift during the Reagan and Bush years under the leadership of longtime CEO Abe Foxman. In the 1980s and early 90s, Foxman’s public statements suggested that the biggest threats to U.S. Jews came not from the elevation of obvious antisemites to positions of power — such as the election of David Duke to the Louisiana state legislature and Reagan’s appointment of Pat Buchanan as White House communications director — but from Black civil rights activists publicly sympathizing with Palestinians and comparing Israel-Palestine to apartheid South Africa. 

Political posters hanging at Harvard University in December 2023. Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

In 2007, the ADL fired Andrew Tarsy, director of its New England chapter, after Tarsy called on the organization to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. While Foxman quickly reversed course and re-appointed Tarsy, he refused to support a U.S. congressional resolution to officially recognize the genocide. Apparently, friendly relations between Turkey, the United States and Israel were more important to the ADL’s mission than taking a public stand against genocide denial, the organization’s perennial focus on Holocaust denialism notwithstanding.

On February 26, The Forward reported that the ADL will give Jared Kushner — Trump’s son-in-law and former senior advisor — an award at its forthcoming Never Is Now conference for Kushner’s work brokering relations between Israel and neighboring Middle Eastern states and possibly his behind-the-scenes role in the 2018 move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Critics quickly pointed out that honoring Kushner meant honoring a key aide to the same Trump who had declared there were very fine people on both sides” of 2017’s deadly Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where far-right protesters chanted Jews will not replace us”; who has directly invoked the antisemitic dual loyalty” trope when addressing Jewish voters in 2019; and who throughout his presidency had elevated the same white nationalist ideas and ideologues who have mainstreamed right-wing antisemitism.

The lesson of this history is that the ADL can reliably be expected to prioritize support for Israel over its aspirationally universal values of justice and fair treatment to all.”

The ADL’s dogmatic pro-Israel advocacy both contributes to a growing climate of Islamophobic and anti-Arab violence and trivializes the real dangers of a growing antisemitism being inflamed by some of the ADL’s powerful allies on the Right.

In 2020, more than 200 anti-racist organizations signed onto a #DropTheADL open letter laying out the ADL’s historical alliances with right-wing causes and warning progressives to not be fooled by the organization’s branding. Among the catalysts for the letter was the ADL’s 2019 campaign against Rep. Ilhan Omar, after the Minnesota Democrat — one of the first two Muslim American women elected to Congress — had tweeted criticism of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In response, the ADL compared Omar to notorious antisemites David Duke and Louis Farrakhan and pressured the U.S. House of Representatives to take action” against her. 

Since then, the ADL has taken even more explicit aim at progressive causes, and in particular, at leftist Jewish groups. In 2022, Greenblatt, a veteran of corporate America and both the Clinton and Obama administrations, described the progressive Jewish groups IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) as extremists” and the photo inverse of the extreme right that ADL long has tracked.” 

The same year, at the ADL’s National Leadership Summit, Greenblatt’s remarks indicated the organization would take its pro-Israel agenda to the next level, as he declared, To those who still cling to the idea that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism — let me clarify this for you as clearly as I can — anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” A subsequent Jewish Currents investigation revealed that, after several ADL staffers took issue with their CEO’s statements, Greenblatt advised, “[If] you still feel like you can’t square the fact that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, then maybe this isn’t the place for you.”

Following October 7, Greenblatt only doubled down, calling JVP and IfNotNow hate groups, the photo inverse of white supremacists.” A week later, Greenblatt led the ADL in a joint effort with the Brandeis Center to encourage universities to investigate chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine on baseless felony charges of providing material support” to a designated terrorist organization, prompting a public letter from the American Civil Liberties Union denouncing the ADL’s intimidation tactics and lack of evidence for such serious accusations. 

In an impassioned speech at an ADL gala last November, Greenblatt went further still, charging that weeks of pro-Palestinian demonstrations had clarified and confirmed that fanatical anti-Zionism from the hard left is as dangerous to the Jewish community as rabid white supremacy from the extreme right.” The claim explicitly contradicted the ADL’s long-held position that right-wing extremism represents the biggest domestic terrorism threat to the Jewish community and to U.S. society as a whole. Yet Greenblatt went on to argue that anti-Zionist activists and literal neo-Nazis are both radical movements. They don’t advocate for a two-state solution, or even a one-state solution. They want a final solution.” 

Yes, you read that right: the head of the ADL publicly compared protesters demanding a cease-fire to Hitler’s Final Solution,” which sought explicitly to exterminate every Jew living in Europe. This rhetoric is the logical conclusion of conflating anti-Zionism, or any criticism of Israel, with antisemitism.

Progressive members of Brooklyn's Jewish community hold a rally to protest Israel's continued occupation of Palestine in May 2021. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

As the ADL has grown increasingly strident in condemning Israel’s critics as inherently antisemitic, reports of intra-organizational tension have proliferated and even erstwhile allies are backing away. In January, the liberal pro-Israel nonprofit J Street publicly denounced Greenblatt’s statements equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism. A slate of recent articles in The Daily Beast, VICE, Jewish Currents, Rolling Stone and The Guardian have cited current and former ADL employees discussing the internal discord over the organization’s direction and focus since October 7. After the initial attack on Israel, one former employee told Jewish Currents reporters Mari Cohen and Alex Kane that employees were told to put all their existing work on pause and focus primarily on anti-Zionist discourse,” while a current staffer added that Greenblatt has undermined our credibility and expertise.” Another former staffer concluded that the ADL certainly had its problems for decades, but at least some of the research was credible. Now I don’t know why anyone would take anything the ADL says seriously at all, and that sucks.” 

Yes, you read that right: the head of the ADL publicly compared protesters demanding a cease-fire to Hitler’s “Final Solution,” which sought explicitly to exterminate every Jew living in Europe.

It particularly sucks because while there’s good reason to be concerned about growing antisemitism on the U.S. Right, one of the most powerful organizations that spreads awareness of these dangers has so muddied the waters that the shape of the threat is hard to see. As journalist Mehdi Hasan recently put it: the ADL’s cynical broadening of the definition [of antisemitism] to include pro-Palestinian activism isn’t just a smear of the pro-Palestine movement but also, dangerously, undermines the definition [and] the struggle against antisemitism.” 

If the ADL took the fight against racist and antisemitic ideas seriously, it would operate from the understanding that the most lethal manifestations of antisemitism have historically been driven by conceptions of Jews as global puppet masters” of world affairs seeking to corrupt nations’ racial purity. And it would then follow that the ADL’s energies should be focused not on smearing pro-Palestine college activists but instead on educating the public about the danger of Republican presidential candidates talking about immigrants poisoning the blood of our country” or voicing support for the racist and antisemitic Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. 

In reality, prioritizing pro-Israel advocacy creates an easy alibi for antisemites and white nationalists who want to avoid the ADL’s scrutiny. The most obvious example of this dynamic is the bizarre relationship between Greenblatt and reactionary tech billionaire and antisemite Elon Musk. 

In 2022, Greenblatt celebrated Musk’s takeover of Twitter (now X) by declaring Musk an amazing entrepreneur” and the Henry Ford of our time.” It was a confounding remark, given Ford’s vicious antisemitism. (In the 1920s, the ADL campaigned against Ford’s prolific defamation of Jews in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent and noxious four-volume booklet The International Jew, and Hitler himself once called Ford my inspiration.”) Though Greenblatt later walked back his comments, the comparison was more apt than he surely wanted. In November 2023, after repeatedly boosting a right-wing #BanTheADL campaign led by self-described raging antisemite” Keith Woods, Musk endorsed a post on X from an account arguing that Hitler was right” by parroting Great Replacement” narratives. In response to the post accusing Jews of fomenting dialectical hatred against whites” and supporting hordes of minorities … flooding their countries,” Musk wrote, You have said the actual truth.”

Prioritizing pro-Israel advocacy creates an easy alibi for antisemites and white nationalists who want to avoid the ADL’s scrutiny.

Greenblatt initially expressed vague disapproval of Musk’s post, but the next day, when Musk pledged to suspend accounts that used pro-Palestinian expressions like from the river to the sea,” Greenblatt immediately shifted his tone, writing, This is an important and welcome move by @elonmusk. I appreciate this leadership in fighting hate.” It doesn’t seem to matter that Musk’s promise to ban pro-Palestinian language from X was clearly empty. The pledge to stand with the ADL against anti-Zionism, no matter how superficial or disingenuous, proved sufficient.

In the months since his last public exchange with Greenblatt, Musk has returned to promoting Great Replacement” rhetoric, and just weeks after visiting Auschwitz with conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, he recently boosted the X accounts of a Hitler-praising antisemite and the white nationalist website VDARE. Whether Greenblatt knows it or not, he has effectively institutionalized the attitude epitomized by a classic tweet from Shapiro bemoaning Ann Coulter’s antisemitic rhetoric as awful, nonsensical,” but noting that Coulter is also super pro-Israel, and has always been so, so I won’t lose sleep.”

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes Elon Musk on a tour of Kibbutz Kfar Aza on November 27, 2023. Photo by Amos Ben-Gershom (GPO) Handout via Getty Images

The truly dangerous rise in American antisemitism since October 7 has nothing to do with activists calling for a ceasefire, or chanting from the river to the sea” or arguing (in concurrence with dozens of scholars in Holocaust and Genocide Studies) that Israel is engaged in genocidal violence against Palestinians in Gaza. The serious threat here, which the ADL under Greenblatt continually deemphasizes, is the proliferation of antisemitic ideology coming from the U.S. Right, where influential figures are rapidly normalizing racist, misogynistic, antisemitic and otherwise bigoted ideas long considered taboo in mainstream political discourse. 

When people like Tucker Carlson, Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens and Elon Musk espouse antisemitic and white supremacist talking points alleging that Cultural Marxism” and white genocide” or anti-white hate” are grave threats to Western civilization, they are literally helping dyed-in-the-wool fascists like Nick Fuentes achieve their goals. As Fuentes himself argued in a November livestream, in the short time since Musk acquired X, the change has been dramatic. How much the window has shifted noticeably on issues like white identity, which apparently is suddenly mainstream … The same thing is true for critique of Jewish power, things like [the hashtag] Ban the ADL.’” 

While Musk and his friends mainstream neo-Nazi talking points, the ADL is not just maintaining its laser focus on pro-Palestine student activism, but expanding it, to now include report cards” evaluating the climate of antisemitism” on individual college and university campuses. With the ADL showing no signs of changing course, it’s time to let go of any residual hope that the organization might live up to its mission to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” and to focus instead on building the social, political and religious infrastructure for Jews whose commitments to civil rights and social justice are truly universal.

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Samuel Hoadley-Brill is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a research and writing fellow at the African American Policy Forum. His research interests include moral, social and political philosophy.

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