Is the Anti-Defamation League bad for the Jews?

Last week, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a report on the activities of Palestinian solidarity activists across college campuses, marking Israeli Apartheid Week. The ADL’s mission is to monitor, report on, and combat anti-Semitism. See if you can spot anything in their write-up that furthers this worthy goal:

Anti-Israel activists took a multi-faceted approach to attack­ing Israel in the pub­lic sphere this week. In the span of 7 days, divest­ment res­o­lu­tions were con­sid­ered at three col­lege cam­puses, ten anti-Israel bill­boards were put up in Atlanta, over 30 col­lege cam­puses hosted Israeli Apartheid Week pro­grams and two day­long BDS con­fer­ences were scheduled.

These ini­tia­tives are for­mally or infor­mally part of a global effort to advance the Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment against Israel. They demon­strate the anti-Israel movement’s com­mit­ment to employ­ing mul­ti­ple tac­tics and cam­paigns to attract sup­port for its positions.

These paragraphs remind me of one of my favorite public speakers:

Like Ron Swanson, the ADL delivers a speech of facts. Like Mr. Swanson, the listing of these facts is intended to convey a distaste for the subject of the speech. But, is the ADL – an organization whose sole mission is to combat anti-Semitism – implying that the organization of Palestinian solidarity events on campuses across the nation is itself evidence of anti-Semitism?

This incident raises a much broader issue: why does the ADL talk about Israel in the first place? To be sure, racists and anti-Semites have occasionally donned the garb of Palestinian solidarity in a thinly  veiled attempt to advance their own agendas of hatred. And although, broadly speaking, the Palestinian solidarity activists have been quite good about calling out, shaming, and distancing themselves from anti-Semites (exemplar1, exemplar2), an organization like the ADL which is dedicated to combatting anti-Semitism should and must monitor and report on these incidents as well.

But the ADL’s statement above does not claim that the Palestinian solidarity actions featured, promoted, or were even attended by anti-Semites, nor is there any reasons to suspect that they were. Nor does it claim that such events could foment anti-Semitism (perhaps because doing so would suggest the need to question the larger relationship between the organizations that purport to represent American Jewry and the State of Israel, but more on that in future posts).

In order to understand why the ADL would release such a statement – and, more broadly, why the ADL would care about Israel in the first place – I looked up to their mission statement and self-description on their website:

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry in the U.S. and abroad through information, education, legislation, and advocacy. ADL serves as a resource for government, media, law enforcement, educators and the public.

No help there. The very worthy goals listed in the ADL’s mission statement, on the surface, have no obvious connection with the State of Israel.

The ADL goes on to list out the main areas of interest, through which it fulfills this mission. For clarity’s sake, I’ve included shortened explanations of each area, culled from the ADL’s website:

  • Anti-Semitism, Racism and Bigotry: “In the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism, challenges world leaders to take action against anti-Jewish bigotry and violence, and exposes and condemns attacks on Jews.”
  • Extremism:  “Monitors, analyzes and exposes an entire range of extremists from the obscure to the more prominent.” 
  • Identifying and Combatting Hate: Supporting and promoting hate crimes legislation and aiding law enforcement efforts to combat it.
  • Education: Anti-hate, anti-bias, and Holocaust education programs.
  • Religious Freedom: Self-evident.
  • Interfaith Affairs: Promoted Inter-faith dialogue with a special focus on helping other religions understand issues relating to the Jewish community.
  • Israel: “Supports the Jewish state by advocating for Israel, and explaining political and security issues and the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian/Israel-Arab conflict with U.S. policymakers, the media and the public through programs, publications and contact with officials”
  • International Affairs: “Monitors and combats global anti-Semitism and extremism and promotes the security and well-being of Jewish communities around the world.”

Let’s look at this list again and then let’s play one of my favorite childhood games, shall we?

Did you guess which thing is not like the others? Each and every area of interest listed by the ADL is about monitoring anti-Jewish racism, combatting it, and educating others on it. Some areas take up this issue more directly while others, like advocating for religious freedom or hate crimes legislation, are natural outgrowths of their singular mission to combat anti-Semitism.

And then there is Israel. Israel is not like the others. Israel just doesn’t belong.

How does supporting the State of Israel relate to the ADL’s state mission of combatting anti-Semitism? The ADL itself has noted that: “the sovereign State of Israel and its government can be legitimately criticized just like any other country or government in the world.” If this is so, then the ADL’s mission to “support the Jewish state by advocating for Israel” is, by its own admission, distinct from its primary mission of combatting anti-Semitism.

Why does this matter? Because the mission of supporting Israel makes the mission of combatting anti-Semitism all the more difficult. When the ADL devotes its time to supporting a state and defending its policies, they imply – regardless of whether it is their intention or not – that the actions of the organization further the group’s stated mission of combatting anti-Semitism. (In much the same way that Coca-Cola might distinguish between selling soft drinks and sponsoring sporting events, but all of their actions are designed to further their mission of selling drinks.) Thus, even as they release statements to the effect that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, their actions imply the reverse.

This conflation is especially dangerous because the ADL does so much valuable work. And yet, when you search for the ADL online or when you see it in the news, it is most likely because they are defending Israel. This damages the ADL’s reputation and, in turn, reduces the impact and efficacy of all of its statements.

The effects of this damage could seen immediately after the release of the report on Israeli Apartheid Week. The Twitterati were quick to react to the article by congratulating themselves along the lines of: “When you’re pissing off the ADL, you must be doing something right.” Rather than being a respected organization which is part of the broader anti-racist movement, the ADL is increasingly known first and foremost as a supporter of Israel’s racist policies.

Even if you disagree with me that Israel’s policies are racist, this state of affairs should worry you. The ADL should be an organization that Zionists and anti-Zionists alike hold in the highest esteem. Instead, it has made itself into a parochial and political organization that people like me – that is, those of us who believe that combatting anti-Semitism is a vital but also do not support the State of Israel – cannot wholeheartedly support.

Even more worrisome is that when the ADL implies that monitoring Palestinian solidarity work has something to do with combatting anti-Semitism, it reduces the value, impact, and efficacy of the charge of anti-Semitism itself. We have already seen more than a few anti-Semites try to take advantage of this. Noting the frequent conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism promoted by groups like the ADL, these hate mongers brush off accusations of anti-Jewish racism. And while the leaders of the Palestinian solidarity movement have done a remarkable job at calling out anti-Semites within their ranks, the rank-and-file audiences of the actual anti-Semites pays less and less attention to the condemnations of the ADL. For them, the ADL has cried wolf one too many times.

The irony here is that the ADL should really know better. The ADL has been a true leader when it comes to criticizing the overuse of the Holocaust as a metaphor for other disliked policies (exemplar). As the organization correctly points out, such overuse of the term “trivializes” it, making the true horror of the Holocaust difficult to comprehend. Worse yet, such trivialization also opens the door to Holocaust deniers who use the banalization of the Holocaust to advance their own racist and anti-Semitic ends.

The same, however, is true about the term anti-Semitism. The word is impactful if and only if it is used accurately  When monitoring and combating criticism of Israel become the mission of an organization that seeks to combat anti-Semitism, they inevitably trivialize anti-Semitism, turning it into a banal and ineffective charge. In so doing, they also risk opening a door for the most vile racists.

Jews and non-Jews alike need an organization whose mission is to combat anti-Semitism. And we need that organization to be effective. The ADL’s support for Israel is bad for Jews, it is bad for anyone who opposes racists, and it is bad for the world.

  1. Ellen said:

    The reality is that over the years in many ways the ADL has become less an organization, as its mission statement claims, that fights AGAINST anti-Semitism, than one that SUPPORTS Jewish institutions and Jewish identity. In its mind, and in the minds of many of its supporters, these are effectively the same thing. It’s the same general false duality that plagues so much of the current debate about Israel, i.e., the “either you’re with us or against us” attitude. It equates anyone who criticizes Israel or Israeli policy with being guilty of anti-Semitism. Apart from the philosophical problems with this approach, which are many, it is highly impractical and ineffective. If you ask people to choose sides, as though some sort of more nuanced debate were completely off the table, don’t be surprised to find out they don’t choose the side you expect them to. Its also rather ironic that by the ADL’s own view, numerous Israeli citizens and democratically-elected members of Knesset would be simply labeled “anti-Semitic.”

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