Apart from serving as an intern for the Anti-Defamation League during his junior year at Tufts University, Jonathan Greenblatt had virtually no professional connections with the Jewish communal world until last July, when he succeeded Abraham Foxman as the organization’s national director.
Greenblatt’s diverse resume includes serving as an adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, cofounding a bottled water company called Ethos Water, and starting the All for Good website for disaster relief volunteers.
“All of those things are very useful to this job,” Greenblatt, 45, told NJ Jewish News in a Jan. 26 interview at his midtown Manhattan office. “There are lessons I took away from working in those environments about how to make change, how to drive policy, how to negotiate politics, how to grasp issues, and how to engage leaders.
“I am lucky in that I’ve had different experiences, and even if this isn’t a job I expected to have, I feel somewhat well prepared for it.”
His most recent position before being recruited by a headhunter to take the helm at the ADL was as a special assistant to Obama and the director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.
Through all of his varied experiences, he told NJJN, he is “deeply guided by Jewish values, and I care tremendously about issues of Jewish continuity.”
After six months as head of the ADL, he said, “there is a lot of tough stuff we have to deal with here.”
When ADL announced Greenblatt’s appointment in 2014, it was hard to ignore the generational and experiential shift by an organization that Foxman, who survived the Holocaust as an infant, had led for 28 years.
Greenblatt — whose grandfather escaped the Holocaust in Berlin — agrees that things have changed in the century since ADL’s founding in 1913, when social and institutional anti-Semitism was rampant. In its most recent survey of anti-Semitic incidents, released last March, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased by 21 percent in 2014, but still represented “the first time in nearly a decade of declines where the overall number of incidents has substantially risen,” according to ADL.
“The numbers of anti-Semitic attacks have certainly gone down, which is great,” said Greenblatt, “but we still see accusations of dual loyalty to Israel and the United States, accusations of buying senators, and accusations of Jews not being as patriotic as non-Jews.”
High on his list of priorities is defusing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement aimed at Israel.
“BDS is very troubling,” he said. “It is a problem on our campuses. It is a problem in board rooms. It is a problem in cultural environments. We need to be smart about it, and ADL will be engaged. I don’t know that all of the people who get involved in protesting Israel and supporting BDS are anti-Semites, but the BDS campaign is designed with anti-Semitic overtones. Its goal of eliminating the State of Israel is indeed anti-Semitic.”
He acknowledged that BDS is making inroads on the Left, where pro-Palestinian groups make common cause with those who support gay rights, racial justice, and other progressive causes under the banner of “intersectionality.”
“It is often that marginalized groups find different ways to build alliances to amplify their voice. But I am not daunted by that,” said Greenblatt. “We do the same thing. Guess what? We always have.”
Under Foxman, the ADL’s portfolio expanded from defending Jewish interests in this country, and partnering with other civil rights groups, to promoting a robust pro-Israel agenda. That has sometimes led to criticism that the ADL conflates criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism.
Greenblatt told NJJN “it’s easy” to draw the line between criticizing Israel and being anti-Semitic. While he feels there can be legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its policies, “when you do something that is clearly focused on Israel that doesn’t in an equal way consider all the other violators of human rights and holds out singly Israel for criticism — that can be anti-Semitic. Your worst day in Israel for human rights is your best day by a long shot for human rights in Iran.”
In “When Criticism of Israel Becomes Anti-Semitic,” a Jan. 28 blog entry in the Huffington Post, Greenblatt embellished on the subject.
“To be specific, when a person conflates Jews, Israelis, and the Israeli government, it is anti-Semitic. When all Jews and all Israelis are held responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, it is anti-Semitic. When Jews would be denied the right to self-determination accorded to all other peoples, it is anti-Semitic,” he wrote.
“And when protesters chant ‘Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,’ it is appropriately interpreted by most people as a call for the erasure of Israel — and it is anti-Semitic. Giving protestors the benefit of the doubt, it is unlikely that most intend their message to be anti-Semitic. However, regardless of the intent of the protest, the impact matters.”
Greenblatt noted that the ADL’s support of Israeli policy is not unconditional.
“We have been critical of decisions made by the Israeli government,” he said, citing recent opposition to the proposed law that would tighten restrictions on Israeli NGOs that receive support from foreign governments. The ADL said the proposed law “threaten[s] to erode Israel’s very democratic character, and could significantly harm Israel’s international legitimacy.”
The organization also recently decried the way Israeli officials handled the “price tag” attacks by extremist West Bank settlers against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. An ADL statement lamented the Israeli police’s “minimal success” in reining in the violence.
And despite rocky interfaith relations between Jewish and Muslim organizations, the ADL continues to stand up for the rights of Muslims in the United States.
“Islamophobia is a real problem,” said Greenblatt. “Hate crimes against Muslims or Sikhs — who people think are Muslims — is a horrible problem, and we are involved in responding. We work with Muslim organizations and law enforcement when there is an incident. Our mission requires us to act to secure fair treatment for all, Muslims included.”
The newest item on Greenblatt’s agenda is the ADL’s partnership with the European Jewish Congress, which was announced on Jan. 26 (see related story). In November he returned from a visit to Europe with what he called a “deep concern” about the anti-Semitism faced by European Jewry.
“The question is how do we best effectuate our work and be true to our mission and core purpose,” he said.
Greenblatt grew up attending public schools and a Conservative synagogue in the New Haven, Conn., suburb of Trumbull. He earned an undergraduate degree at Tufts University and a master’s in business administration from Northwestern University.
After working in Little Rock, Ark., on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, he joined the administration as an aide in the Department of Commerce, where he developed international economic policy with a focus on emerging markets and post-conflict economies.
He lives on Long Island with his wife, Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, an Iranian-born Jew whose family emigrated after the 1979 Islamic revolution, and their three children.
Asked about Obama’s reaction to his leaving the administration, Greenblatt said the president “was very happy. He knows ADL and he loves ADL. He was pleased that I was going to work on those issues that I care about and on the broader agenda of civil rights.”