In late December, Jonathan Greenblatt, who assumed the professional helm of the Anti-Defamation League last summer, wrote a blog post highly critical of Iran. He described the country as “one of the world’s leading human rights violators” and pointed out that “if anything, Iran has stepped up its abuses in recent months.” (The ADL opposed the Iran deal.)
Robert Sugarman, former national chair of ADL, says that when he congratulated the new exec on the essay, Greenblatt said he suspected that some of his former White House colleagues might not be pleased with what he wrote. Indeed, that might apply to Greenblatt’s most recent boss, President Obama, whom he served as special assistant for three years before coming to the ADL.
But as Greenblatt told me during a series of recent interviews, “there,” referring to the White House, “I was working for the president. Here, I am working for the Jewish people.”
Time will tell which is the tougher taskmaster.
Greenblatt, who was director of the office of social innovation and civic participation at the White House, observed that “it was a 24/7 environment, and grueling at times.” But leading a legendary Jewish defense agency now in its second century, and succeeding the iconic Abraham Foxman, who in his five-decade tenure (28 as national director) embodied the institution and became one of the most recognizable Jews in the world, is surely a daunting task.
Greenblatt, though, at 45, and just six months into national Jewish organizational life, seems self-assured. While observers look for signs that might reflect a dramatic shift in the ADL’s focus, given the three-decade age gap between Greenblatt and Foxman, and their very different backgrounds, those who have worked closely with both men suggest otherwise.
“Jonathan is perfectly comfortable saying he is not Abe, and that he won’t be the same as Abe in the job,” Sugarman said. “He reflects a different generation and his social media skills are a real plus going forward. But I believe the direction of the ADL will not change. He is totally committed to our mission.”
Ken Jacobson, deputy national director who has been with ADL 45 years, the last 35 of them working closely with Foxman, noted that with Greenblatt, “the fundamentals are the same, the style is different. Abe went with his instincts and he was usually right. Jonathan makes decisions based on a process of strategic thinking. He is very capable, creative, and a natural in working with and attracting younger people. ”
Jacobson’s advice to Greenblatt is to “build on our legacy” in bringing the ADL’s work into “a new and more complex world.”
Some believe there will be less focus at ADL on Israel, given Foxman’s strong emphasis on the subject. But insiders point out that while a high percentage of ADL public comments and press releases in recent years have dealt with Israel advocacy issues, only a small percentage of the budget goes for Israel programming. It’s but one example of the kind of scrutiny being applied to ADL as it goes through its first transition at the top in three decades.
“There is nothing to indicate” any less emphasis on Israel today, Foxman told me. “Jonathan comes with his own wealth of experiences, and his background and sensitivities will serve him well,” he said. “He is smart, he is committed and he is attuned to the business world,” he added, noting that Greenblatt has an MBA degree.
His title, in addition to national director, is CEO — a first for the ADL.
For his part, Greenblatt acknowledged that he is honored and humbled to follow Foxman. “Abe is truly remarkable,” he said. “The community was well served by his leadership, and I am the better for his counsel.”
Implicit in the ADL lay leadership’s unanimous choice of Greenblatt was a recognition that they could not duplicate an Abe Foxman — a child of the Holocaust driven by his personal experience — to head the organization at a time of global interconnectedness, instant technology and ever-present social media. So they chose a successor who combined a commitment to Jewish community and peoplehood with an expertise in new ways to communicate with his generation.
‘Personal Roots’ In ADL
Sitting in his spacious Midtown office, Greenblatt spoke with passion and precision of how he hopes to advance the ADL’s core mission — combat anti-Semitism, protect Israel and promote fair treatment for all — in part by utilizing a range of 21st-century skills, with an emphasis on social innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Even as we look ahead,” he said, “I am better for having a reverence for the past and learning from it.”
He began by pointing out that his “long, personal roots to the ADL” go back almost 25 years to “the formative experience” he had in 1991 that launched his adult path to help repair the world.
That year, while studying abroad as a 20-year-old college student, Greenblatt visited Germany, which his paternal grandfather fled, and Hungary, the homeland of maternal family members. Many relatives on both sides of his family perished in the Holocaust.
“Traveling alone, I went to Dachau,” he recalled. “I visited the old Jewish ghetto in Prague. I saw the reality of what happened and it inspired me to do something about anti-Semitism, which had never seemed as real to me as when I was there.”
Moved by his European experience, Greenblatt returned to Tufts University for his senior year “determined to make a difference,” he said, “to fight anti-Semitism and to serve my people.” He called the ADL regional office in Boston, seeking an internship. He was told there was no internship program, but Lenny Zakim, the legendary executive director, created one for him — and inspired him to set his sights on transformational change.
Greenblatt said Zakim, a civil rights and interfaith activist who died of cancer at 46 in 1999, taught him to combat anti-Semitism and racism and “to seek coalitions and foster intergroup relations.”
Those lessons have been with Greenblatt ever since, during an impressive and eclectic career that has included politics and public service at the highest level, teaching at a top university, launching and running successful businesses and incorporating charitable giving into the process.
Briefly, he worked on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in Little Rock, Ark., and then served in the White House and the Commerce Department, working on international economic policy.
In 2002, Greenblatt co-founded Ethos Water, a bottled-water company that donated part of its profits to provide free water for children in developing nations. Starbucks bought the company, and Greenblatt became vice president of global consumer products, working to provide clean water to poor countries around the world.
He went on to found All For Good, an open-source platform that offered volunteer opportunities, and he served as CEO of Good Worldwide, which included a publishing company that Greenblatt broadened into a diversified media organization.
In 2011, after teaching social entrepreneurship at UCLA’s School of Management, he took the Obama White House post, thinking that afterwards he would go back to California and the private sector, perhaps to a career combining investments and teaching.
But when approached about the prospect of heading ADL, he was intrigued, in part because of his own — and his wife’s — experience with and admiration for ADL. (Greenblatt met his wife, the former Marjan Keypour, when she was working for the ADL office in Los Angeles. A Harvard graduate, she is a native of Iran who escaped after the Islamic Revolution, first to Paris, and then, with the help of HIAS, to the U.S.)
So fighting anti-Semitism and advocating for human rights is “not just an intellectual pursuit,” Greenblatt told ADL’s national leadership on first being introduced as Foxman’s successor. “It’s personal for me, a deeply held value, one that has been seared into my soul.”
Flair And Substance
As an example of Greenblatt’s business-oriented style and skill set, one of his first initiatives at ADL last summer emphasized social media and collaboration. In his first weeks on the job, he announced #50States Against Hate, an effort launched online in August, in the wake of the Charleston church killings. Its focus is on the remaining five states — Wyoming, Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina — that do not have hate-crime laws. In a collaborative effort, ADL partnered with 30 nonprofit organizations, including the NAACP and a variety of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Latino and Asian groups.
In a recent blog post Greenblatt noted that as part of an effort to “re-energize” the “frayed” black-Jewish alliance, he chose to hold his first ADL “leadership retreat” of top professional staff and lay leaders last month in the American South “rather than hunker down near our headquarters in Manhattan.” The group gathered in Atlanta, visiting Rev. Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, then went on to Montgomery and Selma, where they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the same one MLK marched across 50 years ago.
Participants said the retreat displayed both Greenblatt’s flair and substance, giving a renewed emphasis to the core cause of human rights and racial justice.
“I believe in institutions and in finding ways to do our work better,” ways that resonate with the current generation, Greenblatt said. He noted ADL’s longstanding approach of combining the universal and the particular, fighting anti-Semitism and advocating for all forms of civil rights. “We do best for ourselves when we’re there for others, and vice versa,” he said. “That dual approach speaks to a bold, brave mission.”
Making Israel’s case today is more complicated than in the past, he acknowledged, and requires more sophistication. “Anti-Semitism is very real now,” he said, particularly in parts of Europe and South America. And Israel, he said, is the proxy for much of the hatred of Jews. “Make no mistake — anti-Zionism is anti-Israel. Period.”
He acknowledged that “we have work to do to better connect with the next generation.” His description of what is needed reveals Greenblatt’s blend of ideology and business acumen: “It’s about adopting and harnessing the technologies available to us, adapting to the times, and delivering our fact-based, reasoned approach in a cost-effective way that drives for the highest rate of return.”
Greenblatt bemoaned the lack of civility within our community when it comes to disagreeing about Israel, seen most notably during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal. “When Jews attack other Jews,” he said, “the anti-Semites win.” He characterized ADL as “at the forefront of an approach that is reasoned but relentless, temperate but tenacious, fact-based but ferocious, tempered but not timid.” (I couldn’t tell if his string of powerful alliterations was spontaneous or memorized; either way it was impressive.)
In discussion, one senses Greenblatt’s frustration with an Israeli government that has become increasingly isolated internationally for its policies regarding the Palestinians. Publicly he stresses the importance for ADL to be “an effective advocate for Israel” while “holding it to a high standard” of democracy.
Several times he mentioned how fortunate he feels to be doing the work he now does. He spoke of his commitment to see the ADL continue and thrive, recognizing the need to inspire as well as inform. “We are well served by facts,” he said, “but facts aren’t enough. Our work requires the force of personality.”
Just what will that personality be like going forward?
Remarkably, for the last three decades the ADL, with its hundreds of professional and lay leaders and large network of regional and international offices, was synonymous with one man, Abe Foxman. Greenblatt doesn’t appear to aspire to that model. He emits a low-key confidence, and a deeply thoughtful, collaborative manner. How his approach plays out in the future could have a major impact not only on the ADL but on the next generation of American Jews in how they relate to anti-Semitism, Israel and social justice for all.