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My ADL Problem

What exactly is the famed organization fighting, and whom is it fighting for?

Jonathan Bronitsky
July 14, 2015
Geoff Livingston via Flickr
Geoff Livingston via Flickr
Geoff Livingston via Flickr
Geoff Livingston via Flickr

I’m conservative by most measures, and I’ve long known that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is markedly progressive on most policy issues. But I wasn’t looking for a brawl. I was simply searching for friendship. Relatively new to the Detroit metropolitan area, I was hoping to become more involved in the Jewish community and perhaps as well to partake in interesting discussions about domestic and international topics. That’s why I accepted an invitation from the Glass Leadership Institute, the ADL’s 10-month, nationwide program “designed for a select group of young professionals as an up-close and personal opportunity to expand their knowledge about the nation’s premier human relations organization.”

The thought of publishing something about the ADL didn’t cross my mind until I attended the ADL’s National Leadership Summit in May, about seven months after beginning the program. And even once the thought had crossed my mind, I hesitated in putting pen to paper. I wanted to give the ADL the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I had been too critical—or just too thin-skinned. I decided, however, that I needed to share.

First, I hope this essay persuades the ADL, which is heavily invested in antibullying (e.g., “No Place For Hate” campaign), to consider that it itself has become a bully to conservatives who remain in its ranks. Shutting out right-leaning individuals through crowd intimidation and derision weakens coalitions, which are vital in advocacy work. This behavior also diminishes the organization’s values, which will turn stale and trite when left unchallenged.

Secondly, I want the ADL to revisit and clarify its mission. “The nation’s premier civil rights/human relations agency,” asserts that it “fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry”; not just “all forms of bigotry,” but “anti-Semitism” and then “all forms of bigotry.” Yet as murderous anti-Semitism around the globe has surged in recent years, the ADL has dedicated itself more and more to matters of social justice in America (e.g., immigration, women’s reproductive health, economic “privilege”) that are already being pursued by a plethora of lobbying outlets and activist foundations. This wouldn’t be problematic—or rather, duplicitous—per se. But the ADL loudly and incessantly bemoans the fact that Jews are living in an increasingly dangerous world. “Thirty or forty years ago,” I heard over and over again at the National Leadership Summit, “I couldn’t have imagined that Jews would be getting shot dead in the streets of Europe.”

Well, resources are limited. Is combatting anti-Semitism a “priority” for the ADL? If so, then the organization should put its money where its mouth is. Alas, this outcome seems ever more unlikely as it seeks to enforce group conformity and advance political agendas that have nothing to do with defending the Jewish people.


Unlike the ADL leadership, or those members of the leadership with whom I’ve had contact, I genuinely believe in diversity of opinion and its ability to generate and nurture progress. Having spent a chunk of the past decade in the Ivory Tower, I have witnessed the stultifying effects of ideological uniformity upon scholarship and society. The most rewarding conversations I had during that period were with individuals on the Far Left. (For instance, I learned a lot about the strengths and weakness of philosophies on both ends of the political spectrum from the Cambridge Marxist Discussion Group.) They forced me to revisit and, occasionally, refine some of my principal notions. As a result, not infrequently, my rivals and I discovered common ground.

Part of my frustration with the ADL stems from its blatant intellectual dishonesty, which may arise from the organization’s fundraising ambitions. It’s difficult to convey just how intellectually insulting, how patronizing it was to be repetitively told by winking staff members that their organization is “nonpartisan.” If the ADL, which possesses 501(c)(3) designation, touts a legislative agenda that mirrors that of the Obama Administration, then what organization is partisan? True, the ADL does not participate in Democratic political campaigns and, therefore, keeps its tax-exempt status. But is it really in the spirit of the law/IRS code for the ADL to laud liberalism and disparage conservatism? And how does this conduct aid Jews in Europe and elsewhere who are literally under fire?

To be sure, the ADL’s National Leadership Summit, held among the swanky Beaux-Arts halls of the Mayflower in Washington, D.C., was almost as much a soapbox for the ADL’s advocacy work as it was a bully pulpit to champion the left and rebuke the right. Indeed, even the staunchest progressive attendees could not avoid blushing due to the number of times that staff members had to take to the microphone to remind everyone present of the ADL’s 501(c)(3) designation. The ADL’s Washington Counsel felt bound to chime in with a disclaimer after a panelist at a breakout session, “Unfinished Business: Voting Rights, Reproductive Rights, LGBT Rights,” encouraged pro-choice exponents to pursue elected office. Similarly, at the plenary luncheon, “Sports in Society: Examining Issues of Diversity & Inclusion,” the ADL’s Leadership Chair was compelled to remind the moderator, Maria Cardona, to be nonpartisan. Cardona, who served as a senior adviser and spokesperson to Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign in 2008, had gleefully welcomed another “historic presidency” in 2016 after that of Barack Obama. Angela Maria Kelley, vice president for campaigns and advocacy with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, confessed at the closing luncheon that House Republicans are not her “favorite group of mainly white men.”

Naturally, the standard progressive paradoxes were also on display. Julie Fernandes, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundations—who served as a panelist on voting rights, no less—garnered emphatic applause for excoriating Big Money in politics after having admitted to receiving her salary from billionaire George Soros. Later, a path to citizenship for America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants was celebrated while attendees commended Roger Cukierman, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, for his stark warnings about the impact of Muslim arrivals on French society.

Candidly, I would have overlooked all of these lapses if the ADL had not also abused my good will. Aware from the outset that I would be in the minority—politically speaking—I maintained a respectful tone throughout the year. Unfortunately, the civility that I proffered was not reciprocated. My opinions and questions were regularly jeered. I couldn’t help but feel that the ADL, by essentially goading young leaders to suffocate dissent, was contributing to the exceedingly partisan atmosphere in America that it fervently laments.

In December, Heidi Budaj, ADL’s Michigan Regional Director, posted an op-ed I had penned for The Detroit News on the ADL Michigan Facebook wall. An ADL Michigan board member (who shall remain anonymous because his email was passed along without his knowledge) fired a riposte to Budaj, complaining that the views I had expressed were not “representative of ADL positions.” What’s more, the board member spurned an amicable invitation to chat. (By the way, I had to extend the invitation through an ADL Michigan staff member because this individual refused to communicate directly.) “There’s absolutely no chance in the universe that he and I are going to agree on anything,” the board member fumed in an email. “Frankly I find his opinions offensive and boil down to use of intellectual sophistry to justify mean-spirited positions. He isn’t going to like me either so why bother.” Is this the temperament the ADL is aspiring to inculcate in its next generation of leaders?

For your edification, my op-ed has since vanished from the ADL Michigan Facebook wall.

It became a Glass ritual for my questions to send fellow members and monthly ADL presenters howling as if I demanded the dissolution of Starbucks. A few examples will suffice. At the fourth session, “Responding to the Call: America’s Terrorist Recruits,” I asked whether the ADL’s support for multiculturalism undermines the organization’s labors to counter Islamic extremism. At the sixth session, “Translating ADL Policy into Action: Building on 100 Years of Advocacy,” I inquired whether the ADL’s plan for immigrant naturalization would, by exerting downward pressure on wages, hurt the organization’s aim of reducing income inequality. At the eighth session, “Domestic Terrorism: Hate Groups and Hate Activity in our Backyard,” I questioned why the ADL’s recent comprehensive report, “Rage Grows in America,” associates “mainstream political attacks” with “anti-government extremists.”

I was not asking anyone to agree with my questions, which were simply questions. But the wrath that I encountered, time and time again, was stunning. Are upper-middle-class, highly educated American Jews so isolated from nonliberal thoughts that even the slightest contestation of their most firmly held beliefs is enough to trigger landslides of emotional chaos? And does Glass typify the “safe” environment that the ADL wishes to create by snuffing out all forms of “prejudice” and “discrimination”? An environment saturated with stilted and pointless dialogue between people who are obliged to hold the exact same positions on everything?


Lo and behold, the ADL suddenly grew very serious once I floated the idea of interviewing Jonathan Greenblatt, its incoming national director, who is currently serving in the Obama Administration. After several unanswered phone calls and emails to ADL HQ in New York City, I received the following message from an anonymous ADL spokesperson, passed on through Heidi Budaj:

Dear Jonathan,
ADL prefers that GLI participants not blog publicly regarding their GLI experiences. Although there is nothing in writing asking our GLI participants to sign regarding this, we do have a policy that journalists are not eligible to participate in the program as much of what is divulged to this insider group is off the record.

The purpose of the GLI program is for participants to learn and internalize the issues that ADL deals with and the ideals and mission of the League. For the summit in particular, ADL expects that published articles will be written by the media that were invited to certain events at the summit, not that actual participants will share their views via the media.

That being said, if you have 3 or 4 questions that you would like to have answered, I am happy to submit those questions on your behalf.

I hope you understand that ADL’s policy is that the information shared with GLI is meant to be kept confidential and that it is offered in the vein of an insider briefing.

A policy that exists solely in the minds of ADL staff and is disclosed to participants retroactively? Was it not Abraham H. Foxman, ADL’s national director for the past 27 years, who wrote, “[W]e see the protection of free speech under the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights as a core value of a thriving democracy”? Yet the cherry on top of this particular insincerity sundae is that the ADL helped a member of last year’s Michigan Glass Leadership Institute place an article about his National Leadership Summit experiences in The Detroit Jewish News. Apparently, only praise is permitted in Abe Foxman’s Hermit Kingdom. While Jonathan Greenblatt may place less emphasis on his own person than Foxman, the fact that he is a White House political appointee—a special assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, to be specific—inspires little confidence that the ADL will veer away from the polemical course it’s treading.

In case you’re wondering, I did pass along four questions for Greenblatt. Almost two months have passed without word.

Eventually, I started to ask ADL leaders about what their organization offers its patrons on the right. Practically all fixated on the ADL’s “hawkish” posture on Islamic extremism, its “unwavering” support for Israel, and its “intimate relationship” with law enforcement. Yet the connection between foreign policy and the philosophy of conservatism—and the philosophy of liberalism—is not nearly that direct. There’s a notable divide within the GOP over the size of the security state and the desirability of overseas intervention. As for the ADL’s implication that “Jewish conservatism” can be abridged to “support for Israel,” that’s just demeaning.

The ADL was founded by the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization, in response to Eastern European pogroms. Today, the ADL is rapidly substituting its fight against global anti-Semitism—at the very moment that global anti-Semitism is intensifying—with a dizzyingly multifaceted crusade for social justice. In addition to the virtual absence of Torah and Jewish custom, an anecdote captures the way this shift has manifested.

During a Q&A at the National Leadership Summit, a lesbian participant avowed that the opening dinner had unduly stressed Israel and anti-Semitism. She further petitioned that next year’s opening dinner focus on gay rights. Her objection and entreaty produced an enthusiastic applause from the several dozen packed into the Mayflower’s Senate Room. Clearly, it wasn’t nearly enough that Mara Keisling, a transwoman and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, was a featured speaker at the summit’s introductory plenary.

My year with the ADL has led me to conclude that the organization has become yet another victim of a regrettable and perennial Jewish trend wherein a universalistic obsession with sensitivity eclipses a particularistic reverence for tradition. While “assisting” Jews in need, it’s spending terribly precious time denouncing Michael Oren, Pamela Geller, and Shmuley Boteach alongside the Nation of Islam, the Ku Klux Klan, and the New Black Panther Party.

Simply put, the ADL is repeating a tragic error long committed by Jews craving acceptance. The error is having blind faith that if Jews self-abnegate (i.e., acculturate), ranking the interests of all others before their own, then all others will see the Jews as “enlightened” and reward them with love. Could the ADL have avoided this trap? Unlikely, because once pledged to the potent precept of “tolerance,” the act of making a group concern a “priority” becomes untenable. For in the shadow of inclusivity, who’s to say that protecting Jews from harm is more imperative than addressing the pressing matters facing, for example, “residents without legal immigration status”?

So the ADL, a Jewish-ish advocacy body, is left attempting to convince us that it can confront global anti-Semitism as successfully as it ever has while concurrently expending its resources to tackle “all forms of bigotry.” Given that we as individuals do have priorities, why donate a dime to the ADL? Why should someone who cares first and foremost about gay rights not give their money instead to the Human Rights Campaign? Why should someone who cares first and foremost about a pathway to citizenship not give their money instead to the National Council of La Raza?

Regardless of what direction the ADL chooses, it ought to, for the sake of its own viability and credibility, allow “outsiders” to partake in conversations about the future and strive to ensure that these conversations are cordial, transparent, and authentic.


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Jonathan Bronitsky is a Washington, D.C.-based political historian. His Twitter feed is @jbronitsky.