Can ADL be a moral voice for millennials?

Can ADL be a moral voice for millennials?

As criticism ramps up from Jewish progressives, group walking a fine line on Israel, civil rights issues

ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt at 2014 annual meeting in L.A.: Steering a course littered with land mines. Courtesy of ADL
ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt at 2014 annual meeting in L.A.: Steering a course littered with land mines. Courtesy of ADL

As the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) prepares for its annual “Never is Now” conference on anti-Semitism next week, in some ways the storied organization’s visibility has never been higher. In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, and more generally as the number of hate crimes have spiked in the United States since the election of President Donald Trump, the group has pumped out audits of anti-Semitic incidents and reports on the rise of white nationalism.

Along the way it has weathered withering criticism from the Jewish right that it has become a full-fledged member of the Trump resistance and turned into a partisan organization.

But a less documented, though still critical, problem is looming on the progressive Jewish left when it comes to Israel and the coalition partners ADL will need in order to speak forcefully and with moral clarity to a younger generation. How nimbly the group can walk the narrow line between being unflinchingly pro-Israel and still attracting millennials on the left will go a long way toward determining its relevance, at least in the near future.

“ADL’s views on Israel are not progressive at all; they do not see human rights as the lens through which they view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Peter Beinart, a contributor to the Atlantic and the Forward and a liberal Zionist writer on Israel. “The ADL’s positions on the United States and its positions on Israel are in conflict.”

That divide could be a thorn in the group’s side going forward.

The ADL has been critical of the right-wing Netanyahu government, notably for the nation-state law that came before the Knesset earlier this year. In 2016, Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL’s CEO and national director, wrote an essay in Foreign Policy pushing back against a comment from the Israeli prime minister comparing a call for settlers to move out of a future Palestinian state to ethnic cleansing.

But critics on the left say the ADL hasn’t gone far enough.

“There are plenty of older American Jews who have that combination of views, which I would say is progressive domestically but let’s call it nationalistic on Israel,” said Beinart. “But in my experience, there are very, very few millennial Jews who have that combination. The ones who are progressive on America are also progressive on Israel, which means they are very opposed to what the Israeli government is doing, and they feel comfortable saying so publicly.”

The question of ADL’s future relevance is not an abstract one — it’s one with financial consequences that will become critical as donors age and the organization seeks new benefactors. (The group currently raises about $50 million a year.) Millennials are one of the most progressive generations in American history and, galvanized by outrage at the Trump administration, have become increasingly active in public life. And they are often inspired by the idea of intersectionality, which suggests that oppression against one minority group cannot be separated from oppression against another minority group. Among young Jewish progressives, frustration with the Jewish establishment’s rhetoric around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has given rise to a new batch of Jewish organizations that are attempting to blunt the clout of Jewish establishment organizations and change the narrative around Israel’s West Bank policies.

“It’s exciting to see liberal Jewish organizations being much more outspoken and getting much more press,” said Sarah Turbow, a Jewish activist and former director of J Street U. “I think more people are looking to T’ruah, to Bend The Arc, to the New Israel Fund for where to spend their money.”

Michele Freed, the ADL’s associate director of national young leadership, acknowledged that generational differences have an impact on the way the organization reaches out to millennials. “If there’s a longstanding institution that has had a long history of expertise and of impact, the history of an organization doesn’t necessarily always translate to modern trust for a person in the millennial generation,” she said. “Transparency, a relationship, and trust with leaders of an organization is something that’s important.”

One of the ADL’s long-running programs, the Glass Leadership Initiative, continues to attract young progressive Jews across the country. The lay leadership training program run by regional offices educates participants about the organization’s work and brings participants to the annual ADL conference in Washington, D.C.

“I think Jonathan has tried to make it a sexier organization and has done a tremendous amount in terms of communications and just the presentation; the way the national meetings go, they’re aesthetically more appealing,” one former ADL staffer, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly about the group, told NJJN. “I think there will always be a slice of the young Jewish community that is supportive of the ADL and its work. I think [the ADL is] missing an opportunity to live up to its mission and its goals of stopping the defamation of the Jewish people and securing justice and fair treatment for all.”

An episode with Starbucks earlier this year illustrates the treacherous terrain the ADL has to navigate when it comes to issues of “justice and fair treatment for all.”

In April, the Seattle-based coffee giant announced that it would include the ADL as one of the architects of an anti-bias training for employees after two black men were kicked out of a Starbucks cafe while they waited for a colleague. The ADL was then demoted to an advisory role in the training after an outcry from activists over the ADL’s criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, and its support for Israel.

In a letter responding to criticism of the organization’s stance on Black Lives Matter, Greenblatt was careful to support the movement in condemning police brutality and mass incarceration of black men, while condemning the movement platform’s explicitly anti-Israel components (the Black Lives Matter platform refers to Israel as “genocidal” and singles Israel out among all the world’s countries for a record of human rights violations). The nuance of Greenblatt’s statement was largely ignored, with critics on either side denouncing the ADL for ignoring the threat to the African-American community or sanctioning the slandering of Israel.

It’s a problem that has plagued the organization whenever it has released statements calling out anti-Semitism, whether among white nationalists or by Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader embraced by leaders of the progressive Women’s March in spite of his anti-Semitic rhetoric.

The emphasis on Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism has especially incensed the ADL’s critics on the left. “Putting the spotlight on Farrakhan right now, while white supremacists are in the White House and Senate and the House, is not just malpractice and is not just going to bleed Jewish support as this generation grows older, but it’s actually putting us in danger,” said Rafael Shimunov, an activist with left-wing groups IfNotNow and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. “The ADL has lost that trust because it’s pointing to other things as Nazis are approaching.”

Simone Zimmerman, an activist with IfNotNow, said, “I see [ADL] distracting, watering down the threat by refusing to take sides. It’s not moral, it’s not impressive, it’s not brave to put the blame on all sides when there’s one side that actually has power and is working to create harm.”

Zimmerman, a former J Street U activist, was thrust into the center of a political fracas in 2016 when she was fired from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign after just a few days. Abraham Foxman, the longtime ADL leader who preceded Greenblatt, called for her firing over an expletive-laden social media post of hers about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Others on the left, however, have praised the ADL for calling out Farrakhan, whom Linda Sarsour, a leader of the Women’s March, recently apologized for supporting.

“What Abe used to say is because we piss them off on the right, we piss them off on the left, and that’s how we know we’re in the correct spot,” said the former ADL staffer, referring to Foxman. “Jonathan started out saying that’s not where I want to be, but in fact that’s where he is.”

Shira Hanau is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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