The Anti-Defamation League claims, in its mission statement, to “fight anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry in the U.S. and abroad,” a cause that one would expect almost all of American Jewry to support. Indeed, the organization garnered almost $60 million last year to do that work.
Some of the ADL’s recent actions, however, have not advanced the goal of combating anti-Semitism and have led to controversy in the Jewish community. This month, the group’s national director, Abraham Foxman, rebuked former President Jimmy Carter over recent anti-Israel remarks and for “going back on his word” to the Jewish community. In October, the ADL included a Jewish organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, in its “Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups.” This summer, the ADL opposed the location of Park51, the planned Islamic center near Ground Zero, prompting a widespread backlash of criticism.
In my role as the editor of a national Jewish student magazine, I’ve seen these stories hurt the ADL’s reputation among young Jews. Mainstream blogs for young Jews have admonished the organization, and a study by historian Jack Wertheimer suggests that the ADL’s recent actions do not resonate with most Jews under 40.
All of this controversy stands in contrast to the ADL’s communal work. In cities nationwide, the group — with a range of local partners — sponsors No Place for Hate, an anti-bias program active in hundreds of schools. The program mandates that the schools form anti-bias committees, sign “Resolutions of Respect” and complete three activities celebrating diversity. In Chicago, the group organizes the African-American/Jewish Freedom Seder with the Chicago Urban League, an event that unites the city’s black and Jewish communities and that, according to the ADL, drew more than 500 people last year. At the group’s annual meeting in October, Foxman delivered an address decrying Islamophobia, and in December — seven months before the Park51 controversy — the ADL advocated against a Swiss ban on minarets.
It seems as if there are two organizations within the ADL. One focuses on Israel’s detractors and the second carries out the ADL’s mission: fighting bigotry and anti-Semitism. Decades ago, when Jews were marching with blacks for civil rights, the fights against anti-Semitism and bigotry were obviously consonant. Without those unifying causes, the ADL needs to show that those fights are still the same today.
The former of these two ADLs, however, gets most of the attention — both from the media and from the group itself. The anti-Israel list’s mention of Jewish Voice for Peace, a student-driven group that promotes boycotting the settlements, has provoked criticism among some young Jews. Ben Murane, editor of the popular Jewish blog Jewschool, wrote on his personal blog that according to the ADL, “Unless Israel is portrayed in the most positive of lights, then one can be accused of being anti-Israel, which is not what the term ‘anti-Israel’ should mean.”
Murane is not alone. On Jewlicious, another popular Jewish site, a blogger — commenting on the TV show “Glee” — mocked the ADL’s penchant for declaring anti-Semitism by writing, “I’m not Abe Foxman and Jewlicious is not the ADL and I am not at all suggesting that Glee’s writers are anti-Semitic.” An Oct. 27 article in The Forward quotes a young employee at a Jewish organization as saying that the ADL’s policies “have looked grossly out of sync with its mission and its values.”
Young Jews may not even prioritize particularistic Jewish values anymore. The Wertheimer study shows that anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel are lesser concerns among Jews in their 20s and 30s relative to their parents’ generation. While Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, may still feel compelled to defend Israel, emerging Jewish leaders do not find his work so necessary.
Anti-Semitism does still exist, even in the United States. This month, the ADL introduced a tolerance curriculum into a California school where students had been playing a game called “Beat the Jew.” And much of today’s anti-Zionism may be a disguise for anti-Semitism. Jewish organizations fighting this bigotry, therefore, are no less necessary now than they once were. We cannot dismiss current anti-Semitism on the grounds that American Jews, as a group, are privileged and powerful.
The ADL needs to continue pursuing its mission, but it also must change its image by transforming its public persona. Instead of releasing statements admonishing Jewish student organizations, the group should focus its message on programs like No Place for Hate and Chicago’s Freedom Seder. Its public statements should reflect a group that universalizes the fight against bigotry — highlighting its work against Islamophobia and for gay rights, causes that will energize young Jews.
There should not be any dissonance between the two parts of the ADL’s mission. It can no longer take contradictory stances such as fighting Islamophobia while opposing the construction of an Islamic center. If the ADL can show young Jews, rather, that the struggle against anti-Semitism and the struggle against Islamophobia are part of the same fight against hate, it will have once again become the principled organization it was meant to be.
Ben Sales is editor of New Voices, a national Jewish student publication.