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Can Jonathan Greenblatt Fill Abe Foxman’s Shoes at the ADL—and Does He Want To?

The new leader of the storied civil-rights defense group tries to navigate Trump, the alt-right, Obama’s legacy, rising anti-Semitism, Israel, and the long shadow of his predecessor

Paul Berger
May 03, 2017
Illustration: Alvaro Dominguez; original photo: Michael Kovac/WireImage
Illustration: Alvaro Dominguez; original photo: Michael Kovac/WireImage
Illustration: Alvaro Dominguez; original photo: Michael Kovac/WireImage
Illustration: Alvaro Dominguez; original photo: Michael Kovac/WireImage

One month before an Israeli-American teenager was arrested on suspicion of making more than 100 bomb threats against Jewish buildings across America, I visited Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League’s new leader, in his midtown Manhattan headquarters. The night before, the ADL’s San Francisco office had been targeted by a bomb threat. The previous week, the New York City office had been evacuated following a similar call. Greenblatt’s predecessor, Abraham Foxman, who ruled over the ADL for three decades, was often accused of hyping the threat of anti-Semitism. Now, just 18 months into his new role, Greenblatt was telling American Jews they were witnessing something in their country that had not been seen since “the 1930s.”

According to the ADL’s own surveys, the percentage of Americans who harbor anti-Semitic views is relatively low. It has fallen from more than 30 percent of the public, in the 1960s, to less than 15 percent today. But the subject burst back into public life during the 2016 presidential election in a way that shocked and surprised many American Jews. Jewish journalists were inundated with anti-Semitic messages on Twitter. Communities across the country reported an uptick in anti-Semitic graffiti and hate speech in schools. “We’ve seen a tsunami of really disgusting anti-Semitic slander on social media,” Greenblatt said. “We’ve seen just a torrent of vandalism, not just desecrating the cemeteries, which is grotesque in and of itself, but we’ve seen swastikas showing up on synagogues and on schools.”

On the day I visited Greenblatt’s 10th-floor corner office, he seemed to be under siege, responding to bomb threats against his own offices and Jewish institutions around the country, fielding calls from reporters and reacting to the fast-changing news cycle. The flat-screen TV mounted to one side of his desk was tuned to CNBC. Leaned against the windows were motivational signs for a bottled water company, Ethos water, with messages such as “Dream Big,” “Inspire Hope,” and “Cultivate Change.” On a nearby shelf was a photograph of Greenblatt with former President Barack Obama.

Although Greenblatt’s career has been varied, an idealistic thread runs throughout. An alumnus of the Obama White House, he began his career working in the Clinton White House as an adviser on commerce and trade. He then co-founded Ethos, a company whose mission was to fund clean-water access in developing countries. The coffee giant Starbucks bought Ethos in 2005 for $8 million. That year, Greenblatt became CEO of GOOD, a media company that included a magazine and a website that had the idealistic aim of making the world better. One year later, Greenblatt founded All for Good, an online aggregator of volunteer listings and social action.

Greenblatt, who is 46, has a hangdog expression and a sober monotone that lends him the air of someone unruffled by the seemingly never-ending demands on his attention. He blamed the outpouring of anti-Semitism on a growing polarization in America and the contentious election. But he reserved particular criticism for President Donald Trump, whose populist campaign had encouraged white supremacists to publically air their repugnant views. In a public statement posted online ahead of Trump’s address to Congress that evening, Greenblatt accused the president of emboldening extremists with his “well-documented reluctance to address rising anti-Semitism,” and he castigated Trump for writing “off hateful threats or bomb scares as ‘empty hoaxes.’ ” This was a sustained and eye-catching assault for a freshman Jewish leader of an organization that prides itself on being nonpartisan.

Less than 20 minutes into our discussion, an assistant walked into Greenblatt’s office carrying a note. Greenblatt read it, excused himself and left the room. When he returned a couple of minutes later, he sat down wearily and turned to his press aide Todd Gutnick and remarked: “Wait until you hear this one.” The note informed Greenblatt of emerging reports that Trump, during a private meeting with a group of attorneys general, had suggested that the bomb threats may have been carried out “to make others look bad.” The statement begged for a response from Greenblatt, who released a statement saying that, if true, it was “astonishing” that the president would make such a claim. He demanded that the president “clarify his remarks.”

No one knows what Trump knew at that moment. But the FBI and Israeli authorities were weeks away from arresting Michael Kadar, a 19-year-old Jewish Israeli with dual American citizenship, living in Ashkelon, on suspicion of masterminding the bomb threat campaign. Another alleged caller, responsible for fewer than 10 threats, would turn out to be Juan Thompson, an African-American disgraced former journalist from St. Louis who is accused of placing the calls as a way of harassing an ex-girlfriend.

Thompson pleaded not guilty before a federal judge in Manhattan on April 10. Kadar faces dozens of charges in America related to the bomb threats. But he also faces charges in Tel Aviv related to threats against 2,000 institutions in Israel and around the world. According to Israeli media reports, Israel may block Kadar’s extradition to America. Meanwhile, Kadar’s lawyer told reporters she plans to argue that he is mentally ill.

Greenblatt was not alone among Jewish leaders and thinkers who had blamed Trump for fueling the anti-Semitic fire that led to the threats. In the days after Kadar’s arrest, some offered a mea culpa, admitting they had been too hasty. The American Jewish Committee, while noting in a statement that the arrest did not negate the fact that anti-Semitism is a problem, said the episode had been “a lesson in not leaping to assumption[s] about complex links between polarizing politics and anti-Semitic acts.”

Greenblatt, however, offered no hint of soul-searching. His statement made no mention of Trump. Instead, he emphasized that the perpetrators of the cemetery desecrations and other anti-Semitic hate speech had still not been caught and that “anti-Semitism in the U.S. remains a very serious concern.”


The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913, the same year that Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil-factory superintendent in Atlanta, was convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old girl at a trial that whipped up anti-Jewish sentiment in the South. When Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison a couple of years later, a mob kidnapped Frank from his jail cell and hanged him from a tree close to the girl’s home in Marietta. Several months later and about 35 miles to the southeast, the newly reconstituted Ku Klux Klan held its first cross burning atop Stone Mountain.

The ADL’s founder, Sigmund Livingston, a German Jew from Chicago, had a broader ambition for the ADL than solely fighting anti-Semitism, envisaging an organization that would combat all forms of bigotry. From the 1950s onward, while continuing to fight against anti-Semitism and on behalf of the fledgling State of Israel, the ADL became a driving force in the civil-rights movement, campaigning against segregation and racial discrimination and in favor of voting rights and religious tolerance. More recently, it has advocated for federal and state hate-crime laws and fought against Islamophobia and discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.

Abe Foxman declined to speak about Greenblatt, citing the example of George W. Bush, who remained silent throughout the Obama administration.

Greenblatt’s immediate predecessor, Abraham Foxman, assumed the leadership of the ADL in 1987. Foxman soon became the undisputed, if often disputatious, arbiter of anti-Semitism, wading into business, politics, world affairs, and Hollywood, passing judgment on words and actions that carried even a whiff of Jew-hatred. Foxman looked into hearts and souls too, deeming offenses to have been deliberate or accidental, born of malice or of ignorance. To be branded an anti-Semite by Foxman could derail a career. But to be absolved or forgiven could set one back on the path of righteousness. Somehow, by virtue of his outspokenness, his character, and his will—as well as his usefulness to those ensnared in anti-Semitic scandals—Foxman achieved a status reserved for celebrities: first-name recognition. He was simply “Abe.”

The ADL walked a thin bipartisan line under Foxman. He aggravated liberals and conservatives with many of the positions he took, but no one ever questioned the deep emotional connection he had with the Jewish people as a child survivor of the Holocaust and as a Zionist. As Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of the Jewish Week wrote, Foxman “was a beloved figure to several generations of ADL supporters for his warm, down-to-earth manner, shoot-from-the-kishkas style and deep commitment to Israel.”

How much the organization can continue to walk that bipartisan line in an increasingly polarized America is unclear. Greenblatt says that the ADL occupies neither the left nor the right, but the “principled center.” Peter Beinart, a prominent left-of-center Jewish writer and a columnist for The Forward, told me that such terms don’t make sense. “The center is not a principled position,” Beinart said. “It’s just a position you situate yourself vis-à-vis other people.” He continued: “J Street can also see itself in the center because [pro-BDS lobbying group] Jewish Voice for Peace is to its left and [pro-Israel lobbying group] AIPAC is to its right.”

As Foxman’s successor, Greenblatt must figure out how to negotiate partisan divides while dragging a legacy organization with a $50 million budget and a staff of hundreds into the 21st century, while also holding onto as much of its donor base as possible. But the baggage of having worked for not one but two Democratic administrations is proving hard to shake. Greenblatt served as a staffer in the Clinton White House right out of college, from 1993 to 1997. After spending 15 years in business, he returned to Washington in 2011 to work as a special assistant to Obama, whose strained relationship with Israel and with the American-Jewish community, culminating in the twilight of his presidency with the Iran nuclear deal and the U.S. abstention on a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli settlement building, tainted Greenblatt as just another pro-Obama, anti-Israel leftist.

In September, when Greenblatt criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for releasing a video accusing Palestinians of ethnically cleansing Jewish settlers, the columnist Jonathan Tobin, writing in the neoconservative magazine Commentary, accused Greenblatt of positioning the ADL “in open opposition” to Israel and called on him to retract his statement “or step down.” In the Jerusalem Post, Isi Liebler, a veteran Jewish communal leader, accused Greenblatt of personifying an “echo chamber of left-wing Democratic politics” and lumped the ADL in with the bête noire of right-wing Zionists, J Street.

Critics point to Greenblatt’s sympathy for Black Lives Matter or concerns about Islamophobia as evidence of the ADL’s lurch to the left. Not only do they feel that liberal Jews care more about African-Americans and Muslims than they do about Jews and Israel, but they accuse Black Lives Matter and many Muslim immigrants of being anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic.

Greenblatt’s staunchest and loudest critic is Morton Klein, the longtime national president of the Zionist Organization of America. Klein rails against the ADL’s concern about Islamophobia. He told me that, strictly speaking, Islamophobia doesn’t exist “because there’s a basis for people being afraid of radical Muslims.” “Islamophobia is really a misnomer,” Klein added. “People have negative views of Muslims because of what they [Muslims] do and say.”

Klein criticizes Greenblatt for opposing the Trump administration’s temporary ban on admitting Syrian refugees. “Why would someone who fights anti-Semitism use the resources and public podium to try and bring more anti-Semites to America? It’s really shocking,” Klein said, citing a Pew survey that he said showed “75 percent to 97 percent of Muslims are anti-Semitic and have enmity to Israel.” (The 2010 survey Klein alluded to looked at countries not included in the Trump immigration ban. However, it did find enormous unfavorability ratings for Jews of up to 98 percent in Muslim-majority countries.)

Klein also critiques the ADL for spending too much energy on “non-Jewish issues,” in particular Black Lives Matter, whose leaders, Klein said, are “viciously anti-Semitic and viciously anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian Arab and support Palestinian aggression toward Jews.” Greenblatt has acknowledged the difficulty of expressing sympathy for groups like Black Lives Matter when some of their supporters express pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli views. But however Greenblatt modifies the ADL’s position, he may never mollify Klein.

Yet Greenblatt would obviously be happy if his only problem were criticism from Mort Klein. The fast-moving and polarized political climate poses a challenge, too—one that may be exacerbated by what Greenblatt’s opponents see as his partisan reflexes. In November, the ADL opposed Steve Bannon’s appointment as White House chief strategist, calling him the “man who presided over the premier website of the alt-right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.” A few days later, while maintaining its critique that Bannon and sections of the alt-right have an affinity for each other, the ADL clarified that it was unaware of any anti-Semitic statements made by Bannon personally. Weeks later, Greenblatt walked back a tepid endorsement of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison as a candidate for Democratic National Committee chair after a 2010 tape emerged of Ellison saying that U.S. Middle East policy is driven by Israel.

Seth Mandel, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, said that under Foxman, the ADL was often accused of being overzealous. But at least Foxman was consistently overzealous. “The ADL under Jonathan Greenblatt appears to be picking and choosing,” Mandel said.

Mandel called Greenblatt out in mid-April on Twitter for sending a public letter to Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, offering to educate Spicer and his colleagues about the Holocaust after Spicer said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was worse than Hitler because Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons. Mandel told me that Spicer “got deservedly slapped around for” comments that were “indefensible and ahistorical.” But he said that Spicer apologized and no one truly believes that he is a Holocaust denier. The ADL letter, sent after Spicer’s apology, “was the ADL basically signaling to the public that the organization was treating Spicer’s comment as borderline Holocaust denial, and that opens a real can of worms for people,” Mandel said.

Mandel’s tweet read:

This is unhinged & I would appreciate it if @JGreenblattADL would stop spitting on the graves of my relatives for his pet partisan projects.

— Seth Mandel (@SethAMandel) April 13, 2017

The next day, ADL staffers and supporters flooded Mandel with similarly worded tweets, many of which included the same typo: “Not sure how Holocaust education is spitting on our ancestor’s graves. Stop spreading #FakeNews.”

For an organization that has made fighting online harassment a central part of its mission, the optics of what Mandel perceived as a “coordinated campaign” were terrible. ADL spokesman Gutnick denied the tweet storm was a “coordinated campaign.” In an email to Tablet, he said that the tweets were the result of “a staffer who was tired of Mandel’s repeated attacks against our CEO, who took it upon himself to encourage a group of employees and supporters to respond.

“Once we learned of this, we asked the individuals involved to stand down,” Gutnick added.

Tablet has obtained two messages to ADL staff and supporters in an official ADL messaging system called ADL Insiders. The first message instructs followers to tweet at Mandel and gives them two messages they can cut and paste into their Twitter accounts, including the tweet with the typo. The second alert instructs followers not to “engage further with Seth Mandel.”

Based on the timing of the first tweets directed at Mandel and the timestamp on the order to stop, it took the ADL three hours to halt the campaign.

Gutnick said the alert system is run by the staffer who acted without permission, adding that ADL Insiders is part of “a new employee-advocacy platform that we are beta-testing and still working out the kinks!”

Mandel said that he thought the incident “was so ridiculous as to be borderline comical.” As a news reporter in New Jersey, then as an editor of a weekly Jewish newspaper and an assistant editor of Commentary magazine, Mandel said he has spent much of his career writing about anti-Semitism, often working closely with local chapters of the ADL. “Jonathan Greenblatt said months ago this is the most anti-Semitism seen here since the 1930s,” Mandel said. “What are they doing to combat it? Coordinating a Twitter campaign to troll a Jewish journalist who has been fighting anti-Semitism his entire career.”


Greenblatt likes to talk about the influence the ADL has had on his life. His grandfather was a German barber who barely escaped the Holocaust. As a student at Tufts University, during a year abroad in Spain in 1990, Greenblatt visited his grandfather’s hometown of Magdeburg. The experience of finding a town that had been cleansed of Jewish life inspired Greenblatt when he returned to Boston to volunteer at the ADL’s regional office. Years later, after his stint in the Clinton White House, he moved to Los Angeles, where he got in touch with a woman at the local ADL office. She set him up on a blind date with a coworker, Marjan Keypour, an Iranian-Jewish immigrant. The couple has been married for 17 years and has three children.

In other ways, Greenblatt can seem like an unlikely candidate to head the ADL—which is in part what the organization’s board was looking for. Abe Foxman had worked at the ADL for more than 20 years as a staff attorney and then as a deputy national director. But instead of looking internally for his replacement, the ADL looked outward. The board brought in a headhunting firm and pored over almost 500 résumés, including university presidents, congressmen, ambassadors, and Jewish communal officials until, finally, they landed on what seemed to be an extraordinary choice—Greenblatt, a 43-year-old social-innovation entrepreneur with no Jewish communal experience.

Greenblatt’s interest in leading the ADL surprised some of his friends. They say he had more-lucrative opportunities after he left the White House in 2014. “There were so many people coming to him from the private sector with work at banks and hedge funds,” said Sonal Shah, Greenblatt’s predecessor at the White House. Rob Stein, a Democratic strategist who described himself as one of the friends and advisers that Greenblatt spoke to during the ADL interview process, said he still remembers Greenblatt’s explanation for why the legacy Jewish institution interested him. “He said, ‘This is more than a job opportunity. This is a calling I can’t ignore,’ ” Stein said.

‘The next CEO of ADL should be thinking about social and tech and innovation and earned income and brand and global and millennials.’

When a headhunting firm called Greenblatt in early 2014 seeking his interest in the ADL leadership position, Greenblatt says he thought he was vastly unqualified. He had barely any experience in civil rights and no experience as a Jewish communal leader. Greenblatt says he told himself that the firm must be primarily interested in tapping him for ideas for other candidates, but he would speak to the ADL anyway because he thought it would be “my mitzvah” to help it shape the search. “The next CEO of ADL, I thought, should be thinking about social and tech and innovation and earned income and brand and global and millennials,” Greenblatt told me. In March, soon after meeting with Pope Francis and addressing the U.K. parliament, he traveled to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where he announced the ADL’s intention to open a new office in Silicon Valley to monitor and fight online hate. Greenblatt said the venture has been seeded with “a sizable six-figure donation” from the Omidyar Network, a philanthropy founded by eBay creator Pierre Omidyar.

When Greenblatt talks about the ADL today, he likes to emphasize that the organization’s charter seeks not only to defend the Jewish people but “to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens.” In the corridor leading to Greenblatt’s office is an enormous black-and-white photograph of former ADL National Director Benjamin Epstein standing in the Rose Garden of the White House alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and a host of civil-rights leaders. Greenblatt found the image while researching the ADL’s history online. He had it blown up and placed in the office as a symbol of the group’s historic civil-rights role.

The Trump era has handed Greenblatt a gift in the sense that the election and its result galvanized a portion of the population that until recently took for granted that progress would always head in a certain direction. Many Jewish organizations, even on the left, have remained silent or raised only tepid criticisms of Trump’s statements and policies. A senior Jewish communal professional, who did not wish to be identified, said some groups are circumspect because of a justifiable fear that it will reduce their chances of attracting a senior administration official to their annual conference or that they will lose government funding for their programs. For some, Greenblatt’s charge against Trump is invigorating.

Barry Curtiss-Lusher, the former ADL national chairman who led the committee that hired Greenblatt, said that the ADL saw a huge increase in donations last year—25,000 new donors, compared with an average of about 10,000 new donors in a normal year. He admitted that people were probably partly inspired to give because of a spike in anti-Semitic incidents, but he added that “an awful lot was because of the voice that Jonathan has brought and who he speaks to.”

Yet as Greenblatt positions the ADL in stark contrast with the administration, he risks alienating those who worry that the group is becoming an extension of the Obama wing of the Democratic Party. Marvin Nathan, the ADL national chairman, said that the ADL has lost “a substantial number” of longtime donors. Nathan said the reasons were so varied that he did not want to get into specifics, but they included Foxman’s departure, the ADL’s criticism of certain political candidates, and a feeling that the ADL was not sufficiently supportive of Israel. But Nathan added that Greenblatt had more than satisfied the board’s expectations. “I think he has a level of both intellectual compassion and empathic support for the mission of ADL,” Nathan said. “I think fighting anti-Semitism is in his DNA.”

Perhaps Greenblatt’s greatest challenge now is the escape from the long shadow cast by his predecessor, who has undermined him in recent months both privately and publicly. Rumors that Foxman was forced out of ADL and of a less-than-amicable split are rife among Jewish officials, who point out that there was no transition between Foxman and Greenblatt. When I asked Foxman to speak to me about Greenblatt he demurred, citing the example of George W. Bush who remained silent throughout the Obama administration. Curtiss-Lusher, the former ADL national chairman, said Foxman, who retains a consulting role with ADL, agrees with most of what Greenblatt has done, but there have been disagreements, too. “It’s Abe Foxman,” Curtiss-Lusher said. “He lets me know quite clearly when he disagrees. In some cases, I’ve thought he had a point and I’ve raised it internally.”

Foxman still rushes to the ADL’s defense from time to time. When David Friedman, Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, called the ADL “a bunch of morons” and Greenblatt “far left” in December, Foxman released a statement calling the language “ugly” and “unacceptable.” Foxman also raised the alarm several times during the presidential campaign about anti-Semitism. He took several swipes at Trump, such as when the candidate asked the crowd at a rally to raise their right arm as they pledged to vote for him, which Foxman said reminded him of the Nazi salute.

However, after the election, Foxman became more cautious. Speaking in December at a luncheon honoring the Hidden Child Foundation at the ADL’s headquarters, Foxman said that comparing Trump to Hitler was “Holocaust trivialization.” Last month, as the sense of panic over the bomb threats increased, Foxman quietly urged Jewish leaders to stay calm and to soften their criticism of Trump. Foxman reassured them that although Trump’s campaign may have lifted the cover off the anti-Semitic sewer, Trump himself is not an anti-Semite. He told The Forward that anti-Semitism had become a political weapon that was being wielded by Democrats and that the Jewish community should not get involved.

After Trump condemned the bomb threats during his joint address to Congress at the end of February, Greenblatt said that was not enough. He urged the president to launch a host of federal actions, including a civil-rights investigation into the bomb calls and setting up a federal interagency task force to fight hate. He accused Trump of being “irresponsible” for not calling out hate, pointing out that bigots who felt empowered may go on to do much worse than perpetrate bomb hoaxes. As far as Foxman was concerned, Trump’s condemnation of the bomb threats was sufficient. Without identifying any particular group, Foxman rejected Jewish communal calls for the president to combat anti-Semitism.

The kibitzing is getting to Greenblatt. At one point in our conversation, he described Foxman as occupying a mythological place in the Jewish community. Jokingly, I offered: “Like Thor.” Greenblatt, deadpan, replied: “I suppose there are many mythological figures one could point to, but let’s just go with that one.”

Under Foxman’s leadership of the ADL, the anti-Semitic calamity was always just around the corner. When, in a recent phone conversation with Greenblatt, I noted that even Foxman had suggested that the ADL should tone down its criticism of Trump and its warnings of anti-Semitism, Greenblatt bristled. Foxman now runs a newly created center for the study of anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Greenblatt said: “When you are dealing, as I am, with individuals and families and communities who are affected by these issues”—he recounted the groups affected by the bomb threats and the cemetery desecrations—“it affects you. And that’s a lot different than when you are sitting in a museum. I also have something at my fingertips, which is the data.”

The ADL board took a bold bet on Greenblatt. Socially conscious and digitally savvy, he represents what it hopes will attract new generations of liberal Jews to support the group. At a recent midweek speaking event at the JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side, Greenblatt deployed the story of his visit to Magdeburg and pulled a miniature copy of the 1963 White House Rose Garden photograph from his ADL tote bag to illustrate the group’s universal mission. He was careful throughout the event not to rise to the anti-Trump bait tossed his way by the interviewer, former New York Times columnist Randy Cohen. After the talk, a steady procession of people made their way to greet Greenblatt. One woman asked whether the ADL does much work on women’s rights. Another asked about disability rights. A young man, who identified himself as “a Bernie supporter,” was gently defensive of Keith Ellison. They did not appear to be the type of staunch Israel-supporting, Holocaust-fearing crowd that donated heavily to the organization during the Foxman era. They didn’t seem overly concerned that Greenblatt’s warnings regarding the bomb-threat caller had turned out to be misguided. As far as they appeared to be concerned, Jonathan Greenblatt represents them.


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Paul Berger is a journalist based in New Jersey.