For the last generation, the Anti-Defamation League has arguably been the most prominent Jewish organization in the country, and its national director, Abraham Foxman, the voice of American Jewry.
Following the announcement last week that White House aide Jonathan Greenblatt will replace Foxman in July, questions are inevitably being raised about whether a change in leadership will spell a shift in the organization’s direction.
As the movement to boycott Israel gathered steam here and especially in Europe, Foxman seemed to move the defense of Israel front and center in the group’s portfolio of issues. He argued that what some saw as legitimate criticism in Europe of Israeli policy on the West Bank was actually a form of anti-Semitism.
Will the ADL under Greenblatt continue its Israel focus, especially at a time when, in the wake of the Gaza war, some in the community contend that Jews in Europe are more under siege than they have been in years?
And will Greenblatt’s close ties to Democratic administrations bolster the group’s standing with progressives in the Jewish community who may have felt that Foxman moved the group too far to the right on Israel?
Foxman and Greenblatt are studies in contrast — generationally, professionally and stylistically.
Foxman, 74, is entrenched in the Jewish community, serving at the ADL for nearly a half century and as national director since 1987. Greenblatt, 43, is a generation younger than Foxman, and aside from an internship and participation in a leadership development program at ADL, he has spent most of his professional career outside of the Jewish communal world; Greenblatt, a social entrepreneur, is the grandson of a refugee who escaped from Nazi Germany; Foxman, born in what is now Belarus, is a Holocaust survivor and one of the most recognized Jewish figures in the country. Greenblatt is largely unknown outside of government and entrepreneurial circles.
“Clearly, the search committee understood that it was not going to find another Abe Foxman,” said Jerome Chanes, an analyst of Jewish communal affairs and senior fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for Jewish Studies.
“They were looking for a CEO,” someone who can raise money and administer a $50 million annual budget, said a Jewish leader close to the search process who asked for anonymity. “They didn’t pick a superstar, a younger Abe. They were clearly looking to bring in someone who looked more progressive” on a variety of domestic and international issues.
Will that translate into a more universalistic approach, with more emphasis put on discrimination against a variety of religious and ethnic groups? And will the ADL try to improve relations between the Obama administration and American Jews, a sizeable number of whom have seen the president as insufficiently supportive of Israel, or continue to criticize administration policies, as Foxman often has done?
“What is the mission of the ADL?” asked Chanes. “The central question for the ADL, and for all Jewish organizations, is can the ADL retool itself to address new realities, especially the diminution of anti-Semitism in the United States?”
Barry Curtiss-Lusher, who headed the ADL’s succession committee, said the choice “isn’t a statement of change.”
“We were looking for our next great leader; we were looking for a successor to continue us on the path that Abe’s had us on,” he said. “This is a statement of continuity. This is not a turn-around. Jonathan has a lot of the same attributes as Abe: his vision, his passion, his Jewish core.”
Curtiss-Lusher said the first priority of the selection committee, which considered more than 500 people for the post, was “passion in the fight against anti-Semitism and bigotry.”
The ADL under Greenblatt will continue its emphasis on fighting anti-Semitism, Curtiss-Lusher said. “We’re the ADL. We’re Jewish.”
He said Greenblatt’s contacts in the White House will be an asset, but that “his connections are much more in the business world than in the political world.”
ADL officials said Greenblatt was not available for interviews this week.
The change atop the organization comes at a time when the place of national Jewish organizations are increasingly taken by local organizations like Jewish federations and Community Relations Councils, Chanes said. “Whoever the [ADL] director is has got to address this large change in the Jewish community,” he said.
Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American-Jewish history at Yeshiva University, said Greenblatt’s inside-the-Beltway connections at the highest level of the U.S. government will be a boon to the ADL.
“Greenblatt’s extensive background in wider worlds should only assist the organization in getting its messages heard,” Gurock said. “I think there will be more continuity than change with Greenblatt’s appointment. ADL has always been multi-focused, both in response to domestic anti-Semitism, which was its original and historic mandate, and in concern for global Jewry — especially Israel.
“There has long been a recognition that anti-Semitism here is part of a greater malaise of intolerance that has undermined American democracy,” Gurock said. “Now, there may be a more explicit addressing of these issues that seem at first glance to be ‘non-Jewish’ but in reality have ramifications for Jewish life.”
But Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, disagreed. Calling Obama “the most hostile [American president] towards Israel ever,” Klein said, “it is surprising that the ADL would have chosen [a candidate who has served as] a special assistant to this president. This position [of ADL’s leader] demands a political non-partisan. The ADL has chosen a clearly Democratic partisan, with little background on Israel to boot.”
Chanes called the appointment of Greenblatt, who rose to prominence outside the network of major American Jewish organizations, a sign that American Jewry is not grooming young leaders to take top professional positions. “None of [them] want to invest the time or money in developing young professionals. It makes a terrible statement; we have a community that’s largely illiterate in Judaism and Jewish affairs.”
In his remarks at the ADL annual meeting last week where his appointment was announced, Greenblatt called Foxman “a hero in every sense of the word.” A graduate of Tufts and Northwestern universities who has directed the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation since 2011, Greenblatt coordinated a joint effort with the Jewish Federations of North America to provide assistance to Holocaust survivors who live in the United States. His White House portfolio included such public-private partnerships as the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, the “Pay for Success” program and the Social Innovation Fund.
Earlier, he was a co-founder of Ethos Water, a premium bottled water brand that donates a portion of its profits to international clean water programs; he was CEO of GOOD Worldwide Inc., a media company that connected subscribers to “important causes and high-impact nonprofits”; and he founded All for Good, a social enterprise that, according to an ADL press release, “assembled one of the largest databases of volunteer opportunities on the Internet.
In addition to nonprofit work, Greenblatt served as vice president of REALTOR.com; he was responsible for management of a $30 million business unit and of 120 employees.
“I have enjoyed a varied career that has spanned business, nonprofit and public service — but the common thread linking these experiences has been a commitment to tikkum olam, to repair the world, whether by building businesses, creating products, driving policy, or forging partnerships,” Greenblatt said at the ADL meeting.
In citing his paternal grandfather, who lost several family members in the Shoah, and his Iranian-born wife, who fled “the toxin of anti-Semitism” after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran that overthrew the Western-leaning Shah, Greenblatt said “fighting this scourge [of hatred] and advocating for the rights of all is not just an intellectual pursuit — it’s personal for me, a deeply held value, one that has been seared into my soul.”
“The threats that face our community today — including the expanding specter of global anti-Semitism; the continued legitimization of anti-Zionism, and the spreading infection of cyber-hate — are serious and sinister,” he said.
President Obama, in a prepared statement, called Greenblatt “a valued member of my team [who] worked tirelessly to support innovative solutions to America’s challenges. I am confident that Jonathan will build on Abe’s extraordinary legacy.”
As a sign of the increased prominence the ADL attained during Foxman’s tenure as national director, his appointment after the death of his predecessor, Nathan Perlmutter — a respected professional leader little-known outside of the Jewish community and human rights circles — merited only a 6-inch story in this newspaper. Then, no one asked what direction the ADL might take with a new leader at the helm.