Amid troubling reports that President-elect Donald Trump’s administration plans to require Muslim Americans to register as such, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told a New York City gathering he is committed to absolute solidarity with the Muslim community. After all, he said, Jews know “what it means to be registered and targeted.”
“I pledge to you right here and now that because I am committed to the fight against anti-Semitism, if one day Muslim Americans will be forced to register their identities, then this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.”
The remark, which drew loud applause and a standing ovation from many in the audience, set the tone for a day of examining anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments and actions on the Left and Right at “Never is Now,” the ADL’s all-day summit meeting on anti-Semitism, held Nov. 17 at the Grand Hyatt New York.
Without mentioning names, speakers took aim at potential trouble spots in the administration Trump is assembling, based on his appointment of Stephen Bannon as his chief White House strategist and his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric during the campaign. Bannon has denied he is an anti-Semite and has declared himself to be strongly pro-Israel, a claim that was backed up by the Zionist Organization of America. In response, the New Israel Fund, an organization that promotes democracy and equality for all Israelis, released a petition signed by 3,000 American Jews calling on Jewish organizations to cease “rallying around someone who has built the media infrastructure that routinely pushes racist, bigoted, and xenophobic opinion,” according to an NIF press release.
During his keynote address, Greenblatt said that although the American-Jewish community has achieved an unprecedented level of success, many fear that the situation might be about to change.
“There are troubling signs,” he said. “We need to wrap our heads around the threats from the radical Left that seeks to delegitimize Jewish peoplehood and from the radical Right that embraces white nationalism and other racist ideas.
“We need to speak loudly when we see anti-Semitism and bigotry, no matter the source…and we must stand with our fellow Americans who may be singled out no matter how they look, where they’re from, who they love, or how they pray,” said Greenblatt.
This message resonated with two active members of the ADL’s regional New Jersey board who sat in the audience.
Ross Pearlson of Livingston, the organization’s NJ chair, noted that the ADL has been “very judicious” about not attacking the nascent Trump administration. Instead, he said, the organization is “going after the themes that have been unleashed as part of campaign rhetoric. There are also problems with incivility on the part of some on the Left, but some of the themes in the Trump campaign struck a chord with white supremacists. That is what ADL is concerned about.”
Diane Lavenda, a Montclair resident and member of the ADL NJ regional board, told NJJN that although people must be careful about attributing the rise of anti-Semitism or hate to the campaign rhetoric, she is “afraid that hate groups see Trump’s victory as giving them permission to do it. So the message is that people have to stay more vigilant and be aware.”
Responding to Greenblatt’s show of support for the Muslim community, Joshua Cohen, the ADL director in New Jersey, demonstrated that he is on the same page.
“If there is a Muslim registry in this country, which is a shocking thought, I’ll be on line to register, too,” he said. During a break between sessions, Cohen told NJJN “we’ve seen terrible incidents across the country since the election utilizing swastikas and anti-Jewish and racist messages,” including the words “No Jews” spray-painted on a wall in New Jersey. Presumably Cohen was referring to graffiti in front of homes in Pomona last week.
During an onstage conversation with Greenblatt, Darren Walker, the African-American CEO of the Ford Foundation, said, “Anti-Semitism is not just a problem for Jews. It’s a problem for all of us.”
Walker said the myth of inordinate Jewish power exists alongside unfair stereotypes of black men as criminals and women as unfit for high-level jobs. Such stereotypes are triggered by racial and economic inequalities, he said. “Our society is coming apart.”
While discussing the controversial Black Lives Matter movement, Walker listed the atrocities of slavery, segregation, and the use of African-American men as uninformed victims of syphilis experiments. “They speak to the reality that black lives have mattered less,” he said.
However, he lamented the introduction of anti-Zionist rhetoric expressed in one sector of the Movement for Black Lives. “There are forces that seek to divide our communities,” Walker said. “We have to fortify ourselves and meet that head-on so we won’t allow our communities to be divided.”
Community divisions arose again in an afternoon panel on the anti-Israel Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement on American college campuses.
Joining Felix Matos Rodriguez, the president of Queens College, and Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, the executive director of Hillel at Stanford University, were two undergraduate opponents of the BDS movement.
Anthony Berteaux, a gay Asian American at San Diego State University, told the audience he was turned off by the anti-Jewish rhetoric expressed by some pro-Palestinian students in progressive political groups on campus, though the groups supported gender identity and racial justice causes. He said that his Jewish roommate, who was active in pro-Israel advocacy, influenced him to visit the country and learn about Zionism and Jewish history. As a result, “I got very active in pro-Israel activities in campus,” Berteaux said.
He has often seen “issues of anti-Semitism and Jewish identity are not only just left out, but sometimes they are manifest.” He said he has spotted a “troubling trend” that views Jews as a powerful group that has fully assimilated into the white mainstream culture. “They entirely dismiss the history of Jewish oppression,” he said.
Ben Gladstone, a student at Brown University, complained that “there is a very intentional effort coming from the anti-Zionist movement to shut Zionist voices out of progressive circles.”
Referring to the doctrine of intersectionality, which promotes coalitions among progressive political causes, Gladstone said his work to aid Syrian refugees has been frozen out of such alliances. “There have been efforts to shut down events that I do that have nothing to do with the situation in Israel,” he lamented. “They cut Jewish voices out of these conversations.”
Eisenberg said labeling her campus as a “hot spot” might mean Jewish students would be discouraged from applying to Stanford, a dangerous prospect in that it comes at a time when such students are needed to battle the hostile forces on campus.
Forty seniors from Golda Och Academy, the Conservative Jewish day school in West Orange, were in the audience. After the panel discussion, several of the students told NJJN they were prepared for the possible battles over Israel they might encounter during their college years.
Saying that she has had “a lot of training in dealing with this stuff,” Annie Cannon of West Orange said she wants “to go to a campus that has a community of Jews so that I’m not alone in combatting it.”
Kimberley Jo Robbins of Short Hills said she believes “an anti-Israel climate on campus won’t affect where I go because I have a lot of faith in my ability to counteract that sentiment.”
Their fellow student, Matthew Leeds of North Caldwell, said he is “very troubled that progressive movements are shutting out Jewish activists. I hope it is something I don’t face.”
“I think I am going to face a lot of anti-Semitism in college,” said Ari Esrig of West Orange, who said he remains hopeful that he could get along peacefully with non-Jewish students. “Part of being Jewish is understanding being oppressed and having to relate well to others who are oppressed.”