Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, speaks at the ADL Shana Amy Glass National Leadership Summit at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, May 6, 2018. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Beware the Anti-Defamation League’s Efforts to Partner with Progressive Orgs

The Anti-Defamation League has a long history of smearing Black activists, working with police, and evoking “hate speech” to demonize the peaceful BDS movement.

BY Sarah Lazare and Adam Johnson

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The ADL’s decades-long embrace of American police departments and anti-immigrant federal agencies is firmly at odds with the current moment.

Most everyone can agree that Facebook and other social media giants should work to delist and deplatform hate speech, but the essential question as to what constitutes “hate” receives surprisingly little scrutiny—and even less clarity. A new campaign called #StopHateForProfit was recently launched by a coalition of progressive groups to pressure large corporations to boycott Facebook until the company takes concrete steps to combat hate speech. #StopHateForProfit’s seemingly sizable P.R. roll out has, in recent weeks, seen major corporations from Coca-Cola to Pfizer to Verizon co-sign demands for Facebook to stop “promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence.”

Aside from providing some of the most odious corporations on earth with a low-effort reputation-laundering P.R. win in the wake of the George Floyd protests, the campaign itself certainly has its heart in the right place. Progressive organizations like Color of Change, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Free Press, Sleeping Giants and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have co-sponsored the effort and are using their social media to solicit other corporations to join the effort. They are understandably eager for something to be done. From anti-Black racism, anti-Semitic bile involving George Soros taking over the world, and anti-immigrant hate, to President Trump’s overt use of white nationalist propaganda on social media, anyone who’s spent time on Facebook can tell you it’s a cesspool of disgusting, racist paranoia.

Which is what makes the inclusion of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the coalition so troubling.

Despite its public portrayal of itself, the ADL isn’t a civil rights group in any meaningful sense, but rather, a veiled pro-Israel lobbying organization that uses superficial language of inclusiveness and anti-racism to defend Israel from criticism from the left. The ADL already assists large social media platforms in determining what is and isn’t hate speech, and by teaming up with the #StopHateForProfit effort, the group will likely have even more say in determining what content is worthy of publication. The problem is that the ADL has made it clear on a number of occasions that it considers the entire basis of the peaceful Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement—embraced by virtually all of Palestinian civil society—to be hate speech, specifically any claim that denies Israel’s “existence as a Jewish state” (e.g. its claim to ethnonational supremacy over non-Jews living in Palestine). The ADL’s website clearly states, “Anti-Israel activity crosses the line to anti-Semitism” with any statement that “Israel is denied the right to exist as a Jewish state,” and that “the founding goals of the BDS movement and many of the strategies used by BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic.”

Put another way, if Palestinians don’t co-sign their own ethnic cleansing by agreeing with the radical premise that the land of their birth, or where their families are from, is axiomatically meant for Jews, they are, according to the ADL, engaging in racist speech. So too will non-Palestinian allies of Palestine be painted as racists: Recently, the ADL’s deputy national director took to the New York Times to accuse Peter Beinart, who was once among the most prominent liberal Zionist writers in the United States, of anti-Semitism for announcing that he now supports one state based on equal rights.

The use of anti-hate-speech laws and regulations to snuff out calls for equal rights in Palestine is not theoretical—it’s common practice already in France, which has used such laws to effectively make the BDS movement illegal. While these are laws, not social media rules of conduct, the principle is the same: Any speech that calls into question Israel’s right to exist as a ethno-supremacist state is de facto anti-Semitic.

In 2017, the ADL accused the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a grassroots Black Lives Matter organization founded in 2014, of anti-Semitism, a form of hate speech, because M4BL’s platform read, in part, “The U.S. justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” It follows that if the M4BL were to post this statement on social media, it's likely the ADL would view it as hate speech and demand Facebook take it down. If the ADL views the foundational documents of the M4BL as including hate speech, how can the ADL possibly assert itself as a moral authority in this moment? Has the ADL’s position changed since 2017, or does the ADL still to this day consider the M4BL’s platform anti-Semitic?

The ADL smearing Black activists who oppose Israel isn’t new. In the 1960s, the ADL harshly criticized the Black-led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers for their criticisms of Israel, equating these “negro extremists” with the KKK and American Nazi Party. The ADL also worked with the Israeli government in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s to spy on Arab groups, as well as leftwing anti-South African apartheid activists. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Glenn Frankel noted in Foreign Policy magazine in 2010, “The Anti-Defamation League participated in a blatant propaganda campaign against Nelson Mandela and the ANC in the mid 1980s and employed an alleged ‘fact-finder’ named Roy Bullock to spy on the anti-apartheid campaign in the United States—a service he was simultaneously performing for the South African government. The ADL defended the white regime’s purported constitutional reforms while denouncing the ANC as ‘totalitarian anti-humane, anti-democratic, anti-Israel, and anti-American.’”

The ADL’s past tactics and current actions compel clarification: Do progressive organizations in the #StopHateForProfit coalition agree with the ADL’s definition of “hate speech” that includes BDS advocacy? Does the coalition have an agreed upon definition of what constitutes hate speech? These questions are not academic—they could (and likely already do) determine whether or not Palestinians and their allies who call for boycotts on Israel will be driven off social media platforms for “hate speech.” Is the ADL’s definition of “hate speech” that includes “delegitimizing” Israel something groups like Free Press want to endorse?

In These Times reached out to all the groups in the coalition, asking if they agree with the ADL’s definition of hate speech, but none returned our inquiry except for the Mozilla Foundation, which directed us to their public statement which reads, “We’re proud to join #StopHateForProfit.” The ADL also did not respond when asked for clarification on their working definition of hate speech with regard to the BDS movement.

Social justice organizers concerned about the ADL’s track record were, however, willing to go on the record. “The ADL’s agenda is to delegitimize Palestine solidarity,” Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, tells In These Times. “Anything they're doing, one should see from that lens.”

Sijal Nasralla, campaign director for MPower Change, a Muslim-led racial justice organization, agrees. “The ADL is not an ally, and the ADL is not what it seems,” says Nasralla. “They're not a progressive leader in the movement we're building, especially in this current moment around an international rejection of police violence and militarization, which extends to the U.S. and other countries in the world, including Palestine.”

Aaron Jamal, who asked that only his first and middle name be used, identifies as a Black organizer and revolutionary, is part of the M4BL, and participated in the “World Without Walls” delegation to Palestine last November. He told In These Times, “What the Movement for Black Lives wants is a complete transformation of society, [this] is in direct opposition to pseudo civil rights orgs like the ADL that claim to be for progressive movement but actually act in the opposite way.”

Compounding these issues is the awkward fact that, in a movement defined by opposition to the police state, the ADL has a long track record of working with police departments, ICE and other law enforcement organizations, helping arrange and fund missions to Israel for these entities to learn about “counter-terror” tactics from the Israel Defense Forces and other Israeli police and military forces. These international exchanges are so harmful that the progressive Jewish organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, has an entire campaign dedicated to stopping them, aptly titled, “Deadly Exchange.” Included within this campaign is an effort to pressure the ADL to stop hosting “National Counter Terrorism Seminars” and “Advanced Training Schools.” Jewish Voice for Peace writes in a sign-on letter to the ADL, made public well before the advent of the #StopHateForProfit coalition, “Dispatching U.S. law enforcement to trade tactics with Israeli police and military agents defends and deepens Israel's systems of military occupation, and exacerbates the existing crisis of police violence in the U.S.”

To be clear, political coalitions are about temporary alliances, not ideological purity. But the ADL’s decades-long embrace of American police departments and anti-immigrant federal agencies is firmly at odds with the current moment, and with the statements of groups like Free Press that condemn police crackdowns and criticize news stories that “repeat police talking points with no critical analysis.” Do the progressive groups in the #StopHateForProfit coalition think the ADL, which promotes “counter-terror” training seminars with militaries that have a history of racist violence, should help arbitrate what is and isn’t hate speech?

In 2018, ADL CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt accompanied President Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, and hate preachers John Hagee and Robert Jeffress, as part of a large delegation of Americans supporting Trump’s moving of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Greenblatt took selfies in front of the embassy seal and praised the move by Trump, one opposed by the vast majority of countries on earth. In ADL’s defense, it did vaguely condemn the presence of Jeffries (though it was mum on Hagee, a Christian Zionist with a history of racism and anti-Semitism), but it’s not at all clear what supporting Trump’s embassy move has to do with “combating hate.” Nor is it clear what ADL’s qualified defense of the far-right Israeli government’s annexation of large parts of the West Bank has to do with “combating hate,” or what the ADL lobbying to oppose Obama’s Iran Deal, or support Trump’s maximum-pressure sanctions on Iran, has to do with “civil rights.”

The answer, of course, is that the ADL is not an anti-hate speech organization or a civil rights organization. It is, rather, a pro-Israel lobbying group specifically tasked with protecting Israel from leftwing criticism by co-opting the language of anti-racism to smear critics of Israel as bigots.

Obviously, there will never be a perfect definition of “hate speech,” and the absence of one does not mean we should do nothing. But the issue here isn’t a lack of perfection—it’s that the ADL’s current, well-documented definition is designed to smear Palestinians attempting to push for equal rights as no different from 4chan Nazis. This is a toxic alliance, and one all of those fighting for equal rights should reject. There are plenty of progressive, Jewish-led organizations—IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace—that don’t work to deplatform peaceful boycotts of Israel, to say nothing of the dozens of Palestinian and Black-led organizations working to build bridges between those subjected to racism in Israel and in the United States. Liberal activists can and should partner with these groups to pressure Facebook, not lend progressive credibility to a pro-apartheid front group trying to co-opting civil rights discourse to further silence Palestinian voices.


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Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. Adam Johnson is the co-host of Citations Needed podcast and a writer at the Appeal.

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