This week the ADL, (short for Anti Defamation League), chose a new staff member whose hiring sparked many strong responses from different sides of the Jewish social and political spectrum. It was a controversial appointment, to say the least. The person they appointed to a position of outreach to the Jewish community has expressed support for Ilhan Omar, CAIR (which is considered an illegal terrorist organization in several Arab countries), accused Jews speaking out against antisemitic British singer Wiley’s antisemitism as being racist and has consistently blocked dozens of pro-Israel accounts. Yet as often happened, it was the follow-up that was worse than the actual contraversion–and this was unquestionably controversial.
As many in the Jewish and Zionist communities reacted to this decision with shock, hurt, legitimate concerns, and even anger, the ADL sphere decided to hit back. Instead of coming out with a simple textbook PR template statement/laundered platitute saying: “We understand not everyone will agree to every one of our hires, the ADL is a big tent with room for differences of opinions,” ADL officials decided that in this case, the best defense is offense. Taken right out of the now stale, Bernie Bros/Squad’s–now-archaic– users manual, Members of the ADL, accused critics of being racist or motivated by politics.
As someone who did criticize the decision, I was taken aback. The ADL site speaks in detail about CAIR’s terror affiliation and inflammatory language. Shortly after CAIR called for attacks on “Zionist synagogues,” we saw a gunman almost massacre an entire synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. So sure, hiring someone who stands with Ilhan Omar and CAIR to the ADL is entitled to their opinions, whatever they may be, but for the ADL is that a nothing-burger? Hiring someone who has such a large amount of visibly Jewish accounts blocked on social media to a position of reaching out to the Jewish community is a noteworthy phenomenon? So why lash out at those speaking out on the issue as racists?
Had the ADL stated they understand the concerns in place, yet would like their new employee to reach out to groups of Jews they feel there is a need to engage more, not all would agree with that, but everyone might respect it. Instead, they and their surrogates chose to take the path of defamation, defaming critics as racially motivated and unnecessarily alienating further a large portion of the community they work to defend from…you guessed it, defamation.
The ADL might have the right to hire someone who roots for Ilhan Omar, CAIR, Linda Sarsour, who legitimizes Palestinian Arab terrorism, or who sees a Jew marrying another Jew as a problem. They do not have the right to defame those raising legitimate concerns about such a hire as racist or as motivated by right-wing politics.
Short of the deepened fallout and distrust between many in the Jewish community and the ADL, why is this story too important?
This move and its follow-up have not only sown deep distrust between many in the Jewish community and the ADL, but will also harm the ADL’s ability to confront far right or far left antisemitism. The ease with which far-right demagogues like Tucker Carlson will be able to dismiss ADL criticism will be painful. The same cheap textbook the ADL echo sphere has used to attack any criticism of it as “racist,” or “far-right” will continue to be used by the far left when they, in turn, will be criticized by the ADL. By now, they share the same Sarsour-Squad-Sanders playbook for shutting down criticism.
The next time CAIR speaks of the need to attack “polite Zionists, and Jewish federations,” followed up the next week by a gunman attempting a mass shooting at a Jewish synagogue, the ADL will have to explain why they chose to hire someone who shills for Ilhan Omar, Linda Sarsour, and legitimizes Palestinian Arab terrorism.
I think of Abe Foxman, legendary director of the ADL, and how he made it there. Foxman survived the Holocaust when his parents entrusted him to their Catholic nursemaid, who baptized him and raised him as her own son. And standing in a Vilna synagogue on Simchat Torah night right after the Holocaust, survivors thought this was the end of the Jewish people. When Leo Goldman, a soldier in the Red Army, saw a young Jewish child alive, he took him on his shoulders, and everyone danced around the one Jewish child they knew had survived. Faced with more existential threats than any other group, the Jewish people needed an organization exclusively committed to their survival.
If the ADL would like to open a new chapter by becoming another version of the ACLU, they are wronging the decades of Jews who gave them unwavering support so that they can protect this vulnerable people. If the ADL thinks that criticizing pro-Israel Jews, Zionist Jews, Jews who think that a Jew marrying another Jew is a good and necessary thing, or other widely held positions among the Jewish people, they are committing a historical wrong.
If the ADL sees their new role as policing how and when Jews defend themselves, they will find their credibility continuing to fall as fast as it did over this past week.
I have watched with sadness the fruits of accusing Jews expressing legitimate concerns as racism or as politically motivated. Because of this ever-moving goal post, I see many Jews who feel the need to bring their credentials to protect their very existence. Jews who need to speak about the right to exist “as progressives,” “as a lifelong feminist,” “ as an LGBTQ+ Zionist,” “as someone who has marched for…”. To those Jews, I say, you do not need to justify your existence.
You do not need to be in solidarity with any other group not to be gunned down in synagogue. Sure, if you would like to identify who you are, you should, yet regardless of that, your right to safety, security, and a hate-free world should not require credentials. I am saddened to see that the ADL of all organizations has deepened the feeling of many Jews that they need to do more to defend themselves.
To my fellow Jews who feel like myself that the ADL is no longer an organization we can turn to, I say: use this as an opportunity:
Create better and more direct lines of communication with local, state, and federal law enforcement. Strengthen your local Jewish security efforts–be it Shomrim, CSS, your synagogue security group, or anything else. Let your voice be heard. Whether it is a media outlet, university, celebrity, business, or anyone else who you think is not treating the threat of antisemitism more seriously, let them hear from you. You will be surprised to see how much your voice matters and will find out that you don’t need to have inherited space in Midtown Manhattan to have your voice heard.
My hope for the ADL is that it does what it would have told itself to have done: improve your relationship with the Jewish community, don’t try and score points on our backs, direct communication is always better than slander, and the Jewish community deserves every bit of respect and dignity you would have given to any other community.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He lives with his wife in New York City and is the president of EITAN - The American-Israeli Jewish Network