By Jonathan S. Tobin
The moment President Trump concluded his announcement of the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Anti-Defamation League fired off a tweet. In it, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tore into Kavanaugh as lacking the “independence and fair treatment for all that is necessary to merit a seat on the nation’s highest court.”
The tweet teased a press release that obliquely demanded that the Senate reject the nomination. The timing made it clear that there would be no questions or deliberative process before the venerable group, which for more than century has played the role of both defender of the Jewish community against anti-Semitism and monitor of hate crimes, made up its mind about Kavanaugh. Considering that the ADL was quicker to publicly oppose the nomination than were some members of the Democratic caucus who were certain “no” votes on the appointment, the group’s haste showed that it had planned to oppose anyone nominated by Trump.
It is no surprise that many liberal groups — including some that are all-in on what some on the left are treating as an apocalyptic fight for the future of the High Court — are reflexively opposed to anyone Trump may nominate. But the ADL’s presence in the ranks of those who are supplying the organizational muscle for the resistance to Trump might come as a surprise to those who haven’t been paying much attention to the group in recent years. Though it spent its first century of existence being careful to avoid getting labeled as a partisan outfit, in the three years since the ADL’s longtime national director Abe Foxman retired, Greenblatt has steadily pushed the group farther to the left and, in so doing, more or less destroyed its reputation as being above politics. After the ADL has repeatedly involved itself in partisan controversies, it is impossible to pretend that Greenblatt’s vision of the group isn’t fundamentally that of a Democratic-party auxiliary that is increasingly overshadowing and marginalizing its still-vital role as the nation’s guardian against anti-Semitism.
The ADL was founded in 1913 as a reaction to the unjust murder conviction and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta. Over the subsequent decades, it grew in importance and strength, taking on the task of being the preeminent group devoted to combating anti-Semitism as well as other kinds of hate. Under Foxman, who was no stranger to controversy, the ADL was sometimes criticized for a willingness to act as the sole arbiter over whether problematic speech was hate to be condemned or a gaffe to be excused. Nevertheless, Foxman’s keen political instincts and instinctive understanding of when the ADL should weigh in on an issue not only preserved its considerable influence but also managed to keep it out of partisan squabbles. Nor did Foxman — a child survivor of the Holocaust — downplay the ADL’s traditional role as a leading supporter of the state of Israel.
Not only is Greenblatt uninterested in avoiding accusations of partisanship, he has actively courted them, especially since Trump became president.
Given Greenblatt’s background, this should have come as a surprise to no one.
Greenblatt’s main résumé items before leading the ADL consist of being a staffer in both the Clinton and Obama administrations as a “green” social-innovation entrepreneur. After 28 years with Foxman at the helm, the group was looking for something different, but choosing someone with no experience running a Jewish organization brought with it the risk that a new leader would be insufficiently aware of the dangers of the ADL’s being steered away from the job it did well. While the group’s board wanted someone who could appeal to younger volunteers and donors as well as new methods of reaching them via social media, what they got with Greenblatt was more than a change of pace. His priority was clearly to keep the ADL in sync with liberal political opinion, with little regard for backing Israel and even less for creating a big tent in which Republicans would be as welcome as Democrats.
Greenblatt’s priority was clearly to keep the ADL in sync with liberal political opinion, with little regard for backing Israel and even less for creating a big tent in which Republicans would be as welcome as Democrats.
Even before Trump won in 2016, Greenblatt served notice that he opposed the Netanyahu government in Israel when he attacked the prime minister for his criticisms of the Palestinian Authority after its call for the eviction of all Jews from the West Bank in the event of a two-state solution being implemented. That the ADL leader’s sympathies were openly with his former boss President Obama, who was then embroiled in a bitter argument with Netanyahu over Iran and the peace process, signaled that the ADL viewed itself more as part of a liberal coalition than as one of the leaders of the pro-Israel community.
But once Trump took office, Greenblatt, who had been rumored to be in line for a senior post in a putative Hillary Clinton administration, made no secret of his animus for the new president. In early 2017, Greenblatt didn’t hesitate to directly blame President Trump for what was being represented as a surge of anti-Semitic incidents. The surge was largely the result of a spate of bomb threats at Jewish community centers around the country. But it turned out that — contrary to the ADL’s charge that it was the work of alt-right extremists inspired or unleashed by Trump — a disturbed Israeli teenager had made the threats. The ADL never apologized for its misleading accusations.
Nor was Greenblatt shy about damning Trump press secretary Sean Spicer for using an inappropriate and inaccurate Holocaust analogy when he said that Hitler hadn’t used poison gas. While Spicer quickly apologized, the ADL continued to pile on, prompting New York Post op-ed editor Seth Mandel to chide the group for using the Holocaust for partisan reasons. For that offense, the group’s staffers and volunteers bombarded Mandel with a coordinated campaign of social-media abuse. This raised questions as to whether, under Greenblatt, the ADL was more interested in silencing its Jewish critics than in actually fighting hate or supporting Israel.
In April of this year, Greenblatt doubled down again on his anti-Trump stand by not merely opposing the nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state but joining radical-Islamist groups such as CAIR in labeling him an anti-Muslim bigot. The charge was false, and it even condemned Pompeo — an ardent friend of Israel as well as an opponent of anti-Semitism — for making statements urging Muslims to condemn terror that were identical to stands taken by the ADL in its pre-Greenblatt era. But with Kavanaugh, Greenblatt has ventured even farther into party politics.
While the ADL has a role to play in the national discussion about constitutional issues, Judge Kavanaugh is no extremist or radical and is a pillar of the old GOP establishment. In this hyperpartisan moment in our history, a group like ADL ought to be even more careful than it might have been in the past to avoid stands that color it as a support group for either political party. Succumbing to the temptation to join the fray against Kavanaugh without a moment’s hesitation wasn’t just a mistake. It was the act of a man who doesn’t even feel the need to maintain the pretense that the group he leads has a higher purpose than diving into the daily political scrum.
If the Kavanaugh nomination were an example of Trumpian excess or extremism, the ADL might have a leg to stand on. But Kavanaugh, a respected mainstream conservative, is exactly the sort of person that any Republican would nominate. Joining the Democrats in a futile attempt to portray him as an extremist isn’t merely dishonest (it’s bad enough for some secular groups to be playing that game); for an organization such as the ADL, which purports to represent the Jewish community, to do so is to send a signal that it thinks all Republicans and conservatives, even the most sober and responsible, are beyond the pale. The question for the ADL is: How can it possibly do its job on anti-Semitism if that’s where Greenblatt has positioned it?
Anger against Trump is influencing ADL donors as much as it is many others in the Jewish world, where liberals predominate. Even normally level-headed people have been driven off the deep end by Trump’s consistently inappropriate behavior and statements, leading many to make strained and offensive analogies between Trump’s presidency and the Nazis. But rather than acting, as he should, as a brake on the worst instincts of the anti-Trump “resistance,” Greenblatt is leading the charge over the cliff into a partisan abyss.
Perhaps that would be acceptable for other groups whose brief is admittedly partisan in nature. But the ADL’s role as the nation’s anti-Semitism watchdog shouldn’t be squandered in this fashion as it replaces longtime donors devoted to its mission with new left-wing supporters who want to fight Trump and the Republicans, not genuine anti-Semites. The ADL has lost its way. It’s time for the group to reverse course before it finds that Greenblatt has destroyed what’s left of its reputation.