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Why the Anti-Defamation League’s Opposition to the Iran Deal Matters

The organization’s new director, Jonathan Greenblatt, shows he can use his experience of working in the Obama Administration as an asset—without being beholden to his former employers

Yair Rosenberg
August 14, 2015
Jonathan Greenblatt. Flickr
Jonathan Greenblatt. Flickr

Yesterday, the Anti-Defamation League came out against the Iran nuclear deal. In a 1,300-word statement, ADL national director Jonathan Greenblatt explained that he and his organization “respect and appreciate the commitment of the Administration and Members of Congress who have engaged in a serious and sustained effort over many years to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat.” But, he added, “we are concerned not only that the agreement appears to offer Iran a legal and legitimate pathway to become a nuclear threshold state in just over a decade, but more immediately, standing as a normalized member of the international community.”

This ADL announcement matters, but not for the reasons one might think. The Iran deal is essentially a done deal, with little chance that Congress will be able to muster the votes to derail it. The ADL’s statement certainly won’t tip the scale one way or the other. Rather, it is significant not so much for its content as for its author: former Obama administration official Jonathan Greenblatt.

When Greenblatt was tapped as the new national director of the ADL in November 2014, he was a special assistant to President Obama focusing on social entrepreneurship, a role he’d filled since 2011. The pick was lauded in many circles, but some critics questioned whether Greenblatt would be as willing to critique the White House as his predecessor, Abraham Foxman, or if he would instead shy away from conflict with his former colleagues.

The Iran deal debate, which greeted Greenblatt’s assumption of his duties this past July, has settled this question. Greenblatt has shown he is not afraid to put himself at odds with the Obama Administration on its signature foreign policy initiative. At the same time, he has used his experience working in the Obama White House to calm Jewish fears about the administration, while pressing the latter to be more careful in its rhetoric selling the deal.

Thus, in an op-ed earlier this week in JTA, Greenblatt affirmed that “having worked in the Obama White House, I have the extra benefit of knowing the president and his staff, what motivates them and the values they hold. They are not anti-Semites, and in fact have a record of standing with the Jewish community and supporting Israel even when they have felt pressure not to.”

Having defused this incendiary charge, Greenblatt then went on to offer careful criticisms of the administration’s strident campaign to sell the Iran deal. “As the debate over the Iran deal has gone forward,” he continued, “the administration has at times waded into characterizations that in the eyes of many members of the Jewish community recall malicious accusations about Jews.”

In other words, rather than constraining Greenblatt’s freedom of action, his prior administration experience has enabled him to play a more nuanced mediating role in the political firestorm surrounding the nuclear accord. Whatever one thinks of the Iran deal, that skillful performance is a heartening sign for the ADL going forward.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.