(RNS) — In one of his harshest speeches to date, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, the country’s leading antisemitism watchdog, compared three left-leaning groups that have been critical of Israel to white nationalists.
The speech by Jonathan Greenblatt, who has led ADL for seven years, signaled a new, more combative focus on what he called anti-Zionist extremists. He said his organization would now fight these groups using its “analytic capabilities,” “litigation skills” and “advocacy muscles.”
Greenblatt’s prerecorded video, which aired Sunday (May 1) at the ADL’s National Leadership Summit, took to task three groups he said were the “photo inverse” of the extreme right: Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim civil rights organization.
“Unlike their right-wing analogs, these organizations might not have armed themselves or engaged in an insurrection designed to topple our government, but these radical actors indisputably and unapologetically regularly denigrate and dehumanize Jews,” Greenblatt said.
He also went further than ever in claiming that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, saying: “To those who still cling to the idea that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism — let me clarify this for you as clearly as I can — anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” Equating the two has been a deeply contentious issue in debates about Israel’s behavior toward minority groups.
The ADL is best known for its annual audits of antisemitism in the U.S. and for its monitoring of white supremacist groups. It also runs anti-hate educational programs and provides anti-bias training for law enforcement.
Over the years it has also aggressively fought those who criticize Israel, particularly condemning the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, which aims to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank by exerting economic pressure on the country. The group has lobbied the Biden administration to expand the U.S. government’s use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which critics say conflates the Jewish people with the Israeli state.
But Greenblatt’s assertion that left-leaning groups critical of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians are equally as dangerous to Jews as right-wing white nationalist or white supremacist groups was new.
And it drew sharp responses.
“People look to the ADL as a leader in (tracking) antisemitism,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “It’s really important for them to distinguish between what’s actually antisemitism and what’s not. In this case, they’re blurring the lines in a way that’s dangerous for Jews and for pro-Palestine activists. It makes it harder to call out real antisemitism when it exists.”
Jacobs said it was legitimate to criticize Israel because of its occupation of West Bank, its discrimination against Palestinian people, its illegal settlements or any number of human rights violations, even if that criticism may offend Jews.
Greenblatt was not available to respond to questions about his comments. A spokesman said he believed there’s “a difference between being critical of individual Israeli policies and the type of extreme anti-Zionism we’ve seen from these groups.”
Nihad Awad, co-founder and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the groups Greenblatt singled out for being “extremist” and “radical” said the ADL’s attack was an attempt at silencing criticism.
“The ADL cannot deal with the truth,” Awad said. “It is relentless in apologizing and defending and protecting and shilling for Israel,” Awad said. “They have no morality to stand on.”
Awad was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, after his parents were driven out of the town of Lod, in central Israel, in 1948.
Shortly after taking over as CEO, Greenblatt showed a willingness to embrace American Muslims. When Donald Trump proposed a Muslim registry shortly before taking office as U.S. president, Greenblatt responded: “The day they create a Muslim registry is the day I register as a Muslim.”
The ADL later condemned the Muslim ban.
His singling out of CAIR, however, may put a serious strain on the ADL’s ability to engage Jewish-Muslim relations or for that matter, Jewish-Palestinian relations.
And, some critics say, his remarks fundamentally mischaracterize the basis for progressive criticisms of Zionism.
“What unites the left-leaning groups Greenblatt targeted is that they are fighting for greater equality,” said Peter Beinart, professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Beinart favors a one-state solution that would merge Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into a single democratic country, even if it costs the country its Jewish majority.
“The groups he was talking about on the left take as their core principle the idea of equality under the law for Palestinians and Jews,” Beinart said. “That’s the exact opposite of what white nationalists in the U.S. want.”
Beinart said a growing number of Americans, including Jewish Americans, want legal equality between Jews and Palestinians in one state. A recent poll from the American Jewish Committee found that 22.5% of U.S. Jewish millennials ages 25 to 40 favored “one bi-national state with a single government elected by both Palestinians and Israelis.” (Forty-seven percent of American Jewish millennials favor “two independent Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side,” the poll found.)
Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization with 70 chapters and half a million members across the nation, said Greenblatt’s comments about her organization reflect mounting pressures because of the growing movement for Palestinian rights.
“The ADL sees Israel is hemorrhaging support for its regime of inequality, supremacy and discrimination,” Fox said. “Calls for Palestinian freedom and equality are growing in the court of public opinion, human rights organizations, the progressive movement and among American Jews. It makes sense that they would resort to outrageous claims and even more intense lobbying, lawfare, and spying in an effort to silence those of us calling for freedom and equality.”
The outcome of such attempts to smear her group, which she called “proudly anti-Zionist,” would only make things more dangerous for Jews worldwide, she said.