How a Jewish civil rights group became a villain on the far-left
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How a Jewish civil rights group became a villain on the far-left

Critics accuse Anti-Defamation League of 'selective' activism and backing institutions seen as perpetuating racism

Ben Sales
Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, speaks at the ADL Annual Meeting in Los Angeles on November 6, 2014 (courtesy ADL)
Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, speaks at the ADL Annual Meeting in Los Angeles on November 6, 2014 (courtesy ADL)

JTA — When Starbucks announced that it would close its US stores for one day to conduct anti-bias training for employees, seeking the expertise of the Anti-Defamation League seemed unsurprising.

It’s the most prominent group in the country fighting anti-Semitism, and it also opposes bigotry of all kinds. Its website says it has conducted anti-bias training in schools, workplaces and elsewhere for 60 million people.

But when far-left activists look at the ADL, they don’t see a civil-rights group. They say the ADL supports domestic institutions perpetuating racism (like the police) while defending what the activists call Israeli oppression of the Palestinians abroad.

“They have a track record of being selective in the way in which they approach civil rights,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports boycotting Israel. “They tend to defend Israel and its actions. There seems to be a double standard they impart on Muslims and in particular Palestinians.”

The ADL declined to comment for this article, but the positions it has taken in recent years make it an unlikely target of some left-wing organizations. The group has been an outspoken Jewish voice against right-wing racism and bigotry. It has released reports and statements on far-right extremist activity and filed an amicus brief against the Trump administration’s travel ban. It has convened mayors to fight hate and opened a center in Silicon Valley to combat cyberhate.

Its CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, who came to the ADL in 2015 after a stint at the Obama White House, has not been shy about criticizing US President Donald Trump for statements targeting Muslims or praising far-right demonstrators. This week, Greenblatt urged scrutiny of his pick for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, for his anti-Muslim activities.

Protesters gather outside a Starbucks in Philadelphia, Sunday, April 15, 2018, where two black men were arrested Thursday after Starbucks employees called police to say the men were trespassing. (AP Photo/Ron Todt)

Next month, the ADL will take part in the Starbucks training, which comes in response to the outcry over the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia branch of the coffee giant who were waiting to start a meeting. Along with the ADL, the training will also be led by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the liberal think tank Demos and the Equal Justice Initiative, a civil rights group.

But along with its work on bias, the ADL engages in pro-Israel activism that has pit it against groups that share its domestic agenda. In 2016, the ADL called out the Movement for Black Lives after it published a platform accusing Israel of apartheid and genocide. It has sparred with Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American liberal activist and an organizer of the Women’s March, over her anti-Zionism. It welcomed the adoption by Congress of the Taylor Force Act, which conditions certain American aid to the Palestinian Authority on ending the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s practice of paying families of jailed and deceased terrorists.

And as opposition to Israel has become increasingly common in leftist activist circles, the ADL’s talking points supporting Israel have made it a target. IfNotNow, a grassroots group opposing Israel’s occupation, has staged sit-ins in the lobby of the ADL’s office building. Last month, after the ADL criticized Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his backers, IfNotNow accused it of downplaying the threat of white supremacy.

The left-wing attacks on the ADL gained a wider audience Tuesday when Women’s March co-organizer Tamika Mallory, who recently came under fire for supporting Farrakhan, a virulent anti-Semite, denounced Starbucks for cooperating with the Jewish group.

“So you are aware, Starbucks was on a decent track until they enlisted the Anti-Defamation League to build their anti-bias training,” Mallory tweeted Tuesday. “The ADL is CONSTANTLY attacking black and brown people.”

Vilkomerson said she was most concerned about the ADL giving awards to police departments, as well as accusations that the ADL spied on Muslim civil society groups in the 1990s. In 1999, the ADL settled a class-action suit over the spying.

Louis Farrakhan speaking in New York City, June 15, 2011. (Mario Tama/Getty Images via JTA)

Anti-Israel activists have also taken issue with an ADL program that brings delegations from American police departments for counterterrorism training with Israeli security forces. Jewish Voice for Peace has dubbed the program a “deadly exchange” that encourages police violence against minorities. On Monday, Durham, North Carolina, became the first city in the country to bar its officers from participating in such programs, adopting a resolution pushed by JVP and pro-Palestinian groups.

“The police exchanges are a manifestation of the ways the ADL identifies itself as a civil rights organization but often acts as an Israel advocacy organization,” Vilkomerson said. “They’re absolutely prioritizing Israeli lives, often at the expense of Palestinian lives.”

The ADL says its programs are about tapping Israel’s counterterrorism expertise and giving U.S. law enforcement tools to deal with extremist threats facing all groups and houses of worship. Former Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez said none of his training in Israel involved “militarization,” but dealt with “leadership, it was learning about terrorism and then learning about how to interact with people who are involved in mass casualty situations and how to manage mass casualty situations.”

The attack from the left is also seen as ironic in light of the frequent criticism the ADL has gotten over the years from right-wing Jewish groups, who say the ADL’s broad-based agenda has distracted it from the fight against Islamist extremism. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, criticized Greenblatt last year for joining other groups, including Muslim-American organizations, in objecting to a “March Against Sharia.” Klein called it “troubling and shocking that ADL has joined radical Islamists/Israel haters.”

Women’s March National Co-Chair Tamika Mallory speaking in New York, April 22, 2017. (Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Hulu via JTA)

Other left-wing activists have pushed back on the criticism of the ADL. Neera Tanden, who heads the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, tweeted that Mallory’s criticism was “outrageous.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of the liberal rabbis’ group T’ruah, said the ADL does valuable work in drawing connections between anti-Semitism and other forms of hate. While she disagrees with elements of the ADL’s policies on Israel, Jacobs said to implicate the group’s work in Israel for the long legacy of racism among American police departments is unfair.

“They have a good reputation for doing these anti-bias trainings,” Jacobs said. “The ADL has always understood that fighting anti-Semitism is inherently tied to fighting racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.”

Some activists have gotten caught in the verbal crossfire.

Sophie Ellman-Golan, a spokeswoman for the Women’s March, who is Jewish, agreed that the ADL is out of place in the Starbucks training. But she has also pushed back against those who pointed to the group’s presence as evidence for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

“No, @ADL_National isn’t the right Jewish org to address racism, discrimination, anti-Blackness at @Starbucks,” Ellman-Golan tweeted. “Also no, this isn’t evidence of Jews trying to control Black folks. That’s an antisemitic white supremacist conspiracy theory.

“Finally, white Jews: This isn’t about us.”

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