Which of these two individuals do you find more problematic?
Kyrie Irving, a kooky basketball player who believes that the Earth is flat, that JFK was shot by bankers, that the COVID vaccines were secretly a plot to connect all Black people to a supercomputer, and that Jews worship Satan and launched the slave trade?
Or Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, who accepted $500,000 from Irving last week without even meeting or even talking to the all-star—and who was then forced to give back the donation when Irving blatantly refused to apologize?
Let’s think about it for a minute. One of these guys is a weirdo with dumb opinions he may or may not actually believe. The other is running a soulless racket which just made it clear that you can say whatever you want about the Jews and buy your indulgences at a discount price.
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely believe that Irving’s endorsement of a Black nationalist documentary based on an obscure Jew-hating book, to say nothing of Kanye West’s meltdown, will most likely contribute to a surge in antisemitism in America, particularly in the Black community. But we Jews don’t control Kyrie Irving; in theory, we do control the ADL, and we shouldn’t want our chief defense group to behave in a way that advances antisemitic conspiracy theories about shadowy Jews trafficking in money and influence for fun and profit.
All of this leads to one sorry conclusion: It’s time to say goodbye to the ADL. It can’t be killed, so we need to just walk away from this formerly venerable organization, and weaken it before it swerves so far off the road that it takes us with it.
If you think the above is hyperbole, or if you haven’t been paying much attention to the ADL lately and still imagine it as a paragon of the good fight against antisemitism, here’s a sizzle reel of Greenblatt’s years in office. Since leaving the Obama White House and taking over the organization in 2015, Greenblatt has turned the ADL into a partisan attack machine, fueled by corporate cash and increasingly oblivious to any real suffering of any real Jews.
Need some proof? Here we go.
In 2017, the ADL issued a guide to America’s worst antisemites, a 36 (double Chai!) person rogues’ gallery. Louis Farrakhan, the Black supremacist beloved by celebrities, wasn’t on it. Nor was the Oberlin professor who argued that 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy. Nor Linda Sarsour of the Women’s March, who argued you can’t be both a Zionist and a feminist, because the former makes you somehow less than human, and who equated Zionism with neo-Nazism. Instead, the ADL picked a posse of minor right-wing nutjobs and no one else. Unironically, it called its guide “Naming the Hate.”
In 2018, the organization came under scrutiny for flubbing its reporting on antisemitic attacks—the group’s bread-and-butter and a major source of its centurylong trust and prestige—perhaps to further the false impression that Jews were under attack by hordes of white supremacists heartened by the rise and rhetoric of Donald Trump.
In 2020, Greenblatt signed on to a campaign calling on Facebook to censor pro-Trump ads. His partner in this assault on free and political speech? Incredibly, it was Al Sharpton—who has still not publicly apologized for his role in inciting the Crown Heights pogroms in 1991. This politically motivated commitment to curbing free speech continues: Last week, shortly after Twitter was purchased by Elon Musk (the left’s favorite bogeyman du jour), Greenblatt issued a call to companies to suspend all advertising on the social network. The list goes on.
This rank partisanship is understandable: Impactful leaders make political calculations, and even if they err too enthusiastically on one side or another they may be forgiven for playing hardball to promote their organization’s end. But the organization’s end itself has changed under Greenblatt in ways that make the old ADL unrecognizable. Before Greenblatt’s arrival, for example, the ADL defined racism as “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, [and] that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.”
That perfectly sound definition was too much for Greenblatt’s ADL, and so, in 2020, the organization changed its tune to define racism as “the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people”—a definition they needed to change yet again in the wake of Whoopi Goldberg’s 2022 comment that the Holocaust wasn’t “about race.”
Scroll on to the ADL’s homepage these days and you’ll be treated to a love letter to critical race theory, defined merely as a noble tool that “helps us understand how and why racial injustice continues to persist in the U.S.” Parents who object to CRT being taught in their children’s schools, another page cannily suggests, are borderline domestic terrorists or, at the very least, in the sway of white extremist groups.
Besides, sayeth the ADL, have no fear: “there is no evidence that critical race theory is being taught in K-12 schools.” You know, besides the Critical Race Theory Coalition Summit hosted by the Portland Public School District. Or the Loudon County Public School District’s partnership with a group called The Equity Collaborative to train teachers in CRT. Or the California Department of Education endorsing a CRT-based ethnic studies curriculum despite more than 100,000 objections.
And what of the Jews? In the wake of some complaining that the group founded in 1913 to protect one of America’s most threatened minorities from prejudice and violence seems much less focused on Jews these days, a senior ADL staffer in charge of Jewish outreach tweeted: “One of these days we need to talk about how the Jewish community’s reactions to antisemitism coming from Black people is inherently tied to (implicitly racist) fears of Black violence.”
The possibility that “the Jewish community’s reactions to antisemitism coming from Black people” might be tied to attacks like this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, or many more like them, was obviously out of bounds. Which was actually of a piece with the ADL’s new recommendation for how Jews globally should react when violence is done to us: “Jews,” tweeted the same senior staffer, “*have* to be ok with Palestinians *explaining* why some turn to terrorism.” In case you’re scratching your head here, let me simplify: The ADL believes that whenever Jews get violently stabbed, shot, blown up, or beaten, our first reaction must be to search our souls for what we must’ve done to deserve it.
Sure, Greenblatt and the gang occasionally murmur some correct condemnation of some real hater, but no one in their right mind can inspect his tenure and deny that he has hollowed out the ADL of any and all connection to its original mandate, instead using its clout to turn it into an effective and stealthy progressive, partisan operation. And this actually puts real Jews in danger, because anyone can now claim that talk of antisemitism on the rise is merely political propaganda. Bad vibes, as the kids say.
Let’s zoom out for a minute and try to understand how we got here.
In 2015, Jonathan Greenblatt was named head of the Anti-Defamation League. Until that point, the organization had been run for nearly three decades by Abe Foxman, a Holocaust survivor who had spent the war hiding with his Catholic nanny. Foxman joined the ADL as a young man and rose through its ranks before taking over as director in 1987. He earned his reputation as a serious moral authority who was unafraid to take unpopular positions.
Most importantly, however, Foxman kept the organization’s focus precisely where it had to be: on its 26 regional chapters staffed by hard-working and dedicated men and women who both diligently collected data about antisemitism on a granular and local level—reporting their findings to law enforcement and keeping Jews safe—and forged meaningful ties with other communities, investing in the education needed to make sure future generations wouldn’t be inflamed with antisemitism’s feverish appeal.
Eight years later, the organization is nearly unrecognizable.
Lots of current ADL critics like to focus on the fact that Greenblatt was a veteran of the Obama political machine. But the rest of his resume may offer even more insight into his views.
In 2002, Greenblatt and his business school roommate founded Ethos Water, a premium bottled water social enterprise later acquired by Starbucks; he also founded All for Good, a volunteerism platform supported by “a coalition of leading companies, non-profits, and government agencies”; was an operating partner at Satori Capital, a private equity firm focused on conscious capitalism (much better than the unconscious kind!); and CEO of GOOD Worldwide LLC, which, among other things, published a broadsheet distributed exclusively at Starbucks. These broadsheets, Greenblatt claimed, were not intended to convince anyone “to vote Democratic or Republican,” insisting his product was ideologically neutral. But the first issue kicked things off with a little lecture on … carbon emissions.
What Greenblatt was an expert in wasn’t antisemitism or bigotry; his real skill—the one every single line on his resume speaks to—was knowing how to launder the expansion of obscene corporate power via costumes of righteousness. This made him a perfect fit for the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, a creation of the Obama administration basically designed to allow the White House to quarterback the donations to, and the investments of, a wide swath of America’s enormous nonprofit sector. Rather than having NGOs operate distinctly, the apparent idea was for the administration to issue marching orders, set agendas, and apply enough pressure for corporations and the donor class to follow suit. If you want to see this synergy of corporate America, social causes, and the Democrat Party in action, just look at the Black Lives Matter movement, which has, to date, raised $49.5 billion in pledged corporate dollars without delivering anything by way of transparency or accountability.
The ADL believes that whenever Jews get violently stabbed, shot, blown up, or beaten, our first reaction must be to search our souls for what we must’ve done to deserve it.
A similar strategy has also done well for the ADL. The organization is now a big business: Its revenue for 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, was $91,313,791—almost double that from the year Greenblatt took over. And while the organization does not disclose the identity of its donors, it did recently reveal that these now include Apple, Uber, MGM Resorts, and other behemoths. With these revenue streams rushing forth merrily, it’s unlikely that anyone, from within the organization or without, would succeed in changing course and restoring this organization to its foundational mission.
The logic here is that the ADL is 10 times more powerful as part of the Democratic Party coalition than outside it. A more powerful ADL gains Jews a proverbial seat at the table, while at the same time augmenting the ADL’s bank account with contributions from party donors and large corporations—which, in turn, makes the ADL an even more powerful advocate. In return for permission to hold the Jewish card, the ADL agrees to play that card on behalf of the party. A little circular, but it works for everyone involved.
Everyone, that is, except actual Jews. Jewish interests are abandoned in exchange for permission to run a protection racket. When your raison d’etre is being the go-to guy for blessing or denouncing misbehaving celebrities—depending, of course, on where they fall on the political spectrum and how “contrite” they’re willing to be in public—you can’t actually protect the dentist in Cleveland who wonders why his kid in college just had her mezuzah ripped off her doorpost or the Hasidic kids in Brooklyn now regularly getting their heads bashed in.
To understand why, think, for a moment, about Kyrie Irving. What would the head of a serious version of the ADL have done? It’s actually pretty simple. First call attention to how messed up this situation is, not by issuing pompous statements with corporate logos slapped all over but by doing exactly what a bunch of Jewish kids did at a Brooklyn Nets home game earlier this month: wearing a T-shirt that says “Stop Anti-Semitism” in the front row of the stadium. Those kids probably invested a few hundred bucks, and in return received news coverage all over the world, appearing not as shadowy peddlers of indulgences but as what Jews actually are: outsiders getting pummeled left and right by bigots and haters.
Then, this ADL chief would go on TV and instead of cozying up to Sharpton, America’s greatest living pogromist, simply deliver the following speech: “I feel bad for Kyrie. I admire what seems like his willingness to seek out knowledge and to stand alone for what he thinks is true. But for all his alleged seeking, he still can’t find the right answer. He’s making the same mistake that millions have made throughout history—being smart and curious enough to wonder how the world works, but only finding imaginary Jews at the end of every road. This is the road to ignorance and misery, not to knowledge.”
Except, of course, that you can’t give that speech if your current or hoped-for donors are made up of the real thing Kyrie would uncover if he looked a bit more carefully: the very large corporations who have melded with government to create an almost impregnable, opaque, all-containing blob that controls American life, from dictating public health priorities to changing the way we produce and consume food.
Instead, all you can do is shame people who are confused and undereducated using the brute force you have at your disposal: corporate power. Cancel their contracts! Nix their ad campaigns! Make them bleed cash! Which, as we all saw this week, only amplifies the original noxious allegation.
This is why having no ADL would be so much better than having the one we currently have. Because of its own massive conflicts of interests, the ADL under Greenblatt may very well be , inadvertently or otherwise, contributing to the growth of antisemitism, not its diminishment.
This is as much of a philosophical question as it is a practical one. If your goal is to exterminate antisemitism—make the world’s most ancient and persistent hatred disappear, vanish, go kaput—then what we’ve seen from Greenblatt this week is understandable: Let’s educate or punish one hater at a time, until they’ve all reformed or disappeared. But if you believe, like me, that antisemitism will never go away, this approach is nothing more than a silly game of whack-a-mole. If we believe antisemitism is here to stay (and if you doubt it, do I have a few really good history books for you), then what you need is a real defense organization—one that doesn’t waste time with selling indulgences but instead forms bonds with groups and communities across the American spectrum, remains very vigilant to every attack no matter the perpetrator’s identity, and provides real education in large part by, ya know, speaking the truth clearly and unequivocally.
Here, then, is my solution to the problem that is Jonathan Greenblatt’s ADL: Let’s accept that the ADL is no longer a Jewish organization and ask for a divorce. Greenblatt can keep everything: His anti-racism, AstroTurf organization and all the corporate money trees he shakes on its behalf. We amcha Jews walk away with nothing—nothing, that is, but our dignity and our safety, both improved by no longer being pawns in a profit game that is endangering us more by the day.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.