When Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the ADL, tweeted last week that his organization opposes the appointment of Steve Bannon as White House chief strategist, he stood alone as a mainstream national Jewish leader in direct opposition to a top appointee of President-elect Donald Trump.
Greenblatt, who succeeded Abraham Foxman last year, wrote that he spoke out because Bannon “and his alt-right are so hostile to core American values.”
Other Jewish leaders are holding back, seeking to maintain political balance and no doubt concerned about jeopardizing their efforts to gain access to the new administration. The AJC, for example, put out a statement saying every president-elect has the right to choose his own team and that it was not going to comment on each appointee.
“Speak truth to power, that’s what we do,” Greenblatt told The Jewish Week on Monday. As for whether or not Bannon is an anti-Semite, as some say, “We can’t read his mind, we only look at the outcome,” he said. “And his [Bannon’s] website has been the platform for the alt-right, with its naked anti-Semitism.”
Greenblatt clearly had Trump and his campaign in mind when, in a keynote speech to an estimated 1,000 attendees here last Thursday at an ADL national summit on anti-Semitism, he linked the election to a spike in anti-Semitism “in mainstream political and public discourse” to levels “not seen … since the 1930s.” The examples he cited were associated with the Trump campaign, which he accuses of “echoing anti-Semitic conspiracies” that originated with white supremacists.
“Today I think all of us fear that something has changed; there are troubling signs,” Greenblatt told the assembled, citing “ugly” anti-Israel campaigns on campus, and the Black Lives Matter platform that singled out Israel for criticism. Most notably, though, Greenblatt spoke of the disruptive presidential campaign that appears to have unleashed a spate of hate crimes against “minorities, including Latinos, the disabled, Muslims, African Americans and the LGBT community.”
Still, “Jews suffer from hate crimes at more than twice the rate of any other religious group,” he noted, according to FBI statistics.
Though he did not name Bannon in his speech, Greenblatt pointed out that “the chief curator of a website that hosted many of the most hateful ideas of the so-called alt-right has been appointed to a high post in the new administration.”
The summit was notable for its theme of anti-Semitism — a first for the ADL, according to Greenblatt — and for its large turnout and significant number of younger people, who seemed receptive to the message of protecting all minorities.
“We must stand with our fellow Americans who may be singled out for how they look, who they love, where they’re from or how they pray,” Greenblatt said to applause.
He drew the biggest ovation when, on making reference to stories about the Danish king during World War II wearing a Jewish star in solidarity with Jews forced to wear them, he said that “if one day Muslim Americans will be forced to register their identities,” as Trump has suggested, “that is the day this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.”
Whether it’s a political, generational and/or ideological shift taking place at the ADL under Greenblatt, it is quite unmistakable.
Since its founding in 1913, the agency has had a mandate to fight anti-Semitism and all other forms of bigotry. “Abe put the emphasis on the former,” one insider said, referring to Foxman, a child Holocaust survivor. “Jonathan seems to have been giving more attention to the latter.”
Greenblatt, a former entrepreneur who served in the Obama administration, has spoken out this year on the mass incarceration of blacks and the struggles of immigrants. He called out Trump, if not by name then by his actions, throughout the campaign for comments demeaning to Jews, women, minorities and the disabled. With the Bannon tweet he has staked out an aggressive and, some would say, decidedly more political stance for the organization than Foxman, who was synonymous with ADL as its chief executive for almost three decades.
As a result, Greenblatt is garnering accolades from some parts of the community who say he is standing up for Jewish and American values and principles, and brickbats from others who accuse him of going after Bannon, seen by defenders as an ardent ally of Israel.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, has criticized Greenblatt for months, accusing him of being soft on Israel, supportive of the dovish Israel lobby J Street and disproportionately critical of Trump. Klein called on Greenblatt to apologize to Bannon.
Isi Leibler, a leader of the World Jewish Congress who lives in Jerusalem, went further. He wrote in the Jerusalem Post enthusiastically of Trump’s budding relationship with Israel, and accused the ADL of a “very partisan [liberal] agenda” that has been taken to “insane levels.” He cited Greenblatt’s criticism of Bannon as “beyond the pale” and asserted that the ADL leader “has no place in a mainstream Jewish organization.”
Calmer voices in communal leadership positions have said, off the record, that they admire Greenblatt’s smarts and conviction, but think he should dial it down so as not to politicize the ADL and lose clout in the new Washington. Others point out that Greenblatt, in his mid-40s, was brought on to reach and engage young Jews, and offers a more universalist message with which they can relate.
Greenblatt is unbowed by critics, telling The Jewish Week: “My job description is very simple — protect the Jewish people. So I’ll speak our conscience and engage with the new administration wherever I can, and also hold them relentlessly accountable. And I won’t take the foot off the gas. We’re not going to stop.”
His predecessor has a similar message. “You have to advocate for the Jewish people and for other minorities,” Foxman told The Jewish Week, “work with officials when possible and speak out when necessary. Balance and tone,” he said, “are the key.”