Since becoming CEO of the Anti-Defamation League in July 2015, Jonathan Greenblatt has pivoted the 107-year-old organization’s focus to contemporary forms of discrimination and hatred against all people, even as attacks against Jews — physical and verbal — have surged.
It’s what Greenblatt describes as “making the old new again” and a return to the organization’s civil rights roots.
As the rise of social media brings online hate against Jews to an all-time high — something more acutely felt since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — Greenblatt has been on the frontlines in calling out and condemning hate speech from politicians, celebs, and on social media.
His work is now bearing fruit: Due to a lengthy and concerted effort by ADL and other organizations, Facebook recently announced a series of measures to eradicate QAnon and Holocaust deniers.
On October 14, Greenblatt appeared on the Behind the Headline series, where he spoke with ToI Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan about the tangible measures ADL is taking to fight hate.
In the online video series, ToI reporters and editors interview influential individuals from a wide range of fields. All sessions are aired exclusively to The Times of Israel Community before being shared with our broader readership.
Greenblatt spoke briefly about the organization’s founding mission to make an American refuge for disenfranchised, often immigrant, Jews who “lived on the margins” at the time of the deadly lynching of Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank in 1915.
“They didn’t have the political power, economic resources, or social standing that Jews in this country have today,” Greenblatt said. “In fact, I think you could actually say that Jews in Europe, Jews in Germany in 1913, were better established, were stronger than Jews in the United States.”
Greenblatt said that with a vulnerable situation and uncertain future in the US, it made sense for Jews to organize and stand up for themselves.
“But these men also said ‘we will fight for others — justice and fair treatment for all,'” said Greenblatt. “At that time… the idea that they would fight for others was bold and audacious, and I would actually say a courageous aspiration.”
The newly formed organization would in the following decades contribute to the elimination of racist university quotas in America that were keeping Jews and other minorities out of schools, push legislation that would make it illegal to manipulate housing laws to prevent Jews and Blacks from buying homes, and be visibly active in the Civil Rights Movement.
These men also said ‘we will fight for others — justice and fair treatment for all.’ At that time… the idea that they would fight for others was bold and audacious — and I would actually say a courageous aspiration
“My predecessor [Benjamin Epstein] in the 1950s got to know a young Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” two prominent leaders of the Black rights movement, Greenblatt said. “What I’m doing isn’t so novel — it’s just getting back to the roots that made our success as a community and our health as a democracy.”
Greenblatt conceded that Jews aren’t unique in being subjected to bigotry today. However, he said, when looking at different forms of extremism, the obsessive focus on Jews is usually linked to broader contempt for minorities and marginalized communities. For example, an August 2017 demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, began with a conversation about Confederate statues, and concluded with chants of “Jews will not replace us.”
Greenblatt said that in three short years, the movement behind this chant has broadened to right-wing extremists’ attempts to kidnap the governor of Michigan and hold her on trial; shooting attacks on Jewish and Muslim houses of worship in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Christchurch, New Zealand, and Halle, Germany; pipe bombs being mailed to 18 prominent American figures including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and George Soros; and in 2019 the “largest most heinous attack against Hispanics in American history” in El Paso, Texas.
“All of these things look like outliers on a scatter plot until you pull back and realize they’re actually data points on a trend line,” Greenblatt said. “And that trend line is a trend line of right-wing extremism, and hatred of Jews literally is a common link throughout all of those attacks.”
“People blame Jews for bringing migrants across the border, trying to bring Muslims to Europe, or plotting to overthrow the government. It’s just insane,” he said.
“We’re seeing manifestations of prejudice in the public conversation in ways we haven’t before. A sort of malevolence has been mainstreamed. It’s been moved from the margins to the middle of our politics in America,” Greenblatt said. And in almost every situation, he said, “Jews remain a central focus to this narrative of hate.”
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