Jonathan Jacoby

An open letter to Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director and CEO of the ADL

Dear Jonathan,

Shortly after Hamas’s brutal torture and murder of Israeli civilians on October 7, my 95-year-old mother, a Holocaust survivor, called me. “I can’t believe this is happening again in my lifetime,” she said. “I feel like I did when the Nazis occupied Hungary.”

“But this is not Hungary in 1944,” I reminded her. “This is America.  We have a President who flew to Israel to show solidarity, we have a democracy that has withstood the onslaught of MAGA insurrectionists.  We have organizations like the Anti-Defamation League; we have allies in civil society; and we have a government that protects us.”

“In my head I know that’s true,” she said. “But in my gut, I don’t feel safe.”

As Jewish leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that members of our community, including survivors like my mother, feel safe so that they can see the potential of a secure future. We must lessen their trauma and give them, as Judith Herman puts it, “a sense of control, connection, and meaning.”

One of the most important things we can do is create greater understanding of the complicated issues surrounding Israel, Zionism, and antisemitism. With this aim in mind, the Biden administration gave us an invaluable tool, the US National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism.  “In order to confront and counter antisemitism,” the Strategy states, “Americans must recognize and understand it.” 

The Strategy outlined its own framework for understanding antisemitism and embraced other sources, including the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism and the Nexus Document.  Although you have said that policy should adhere strictly to the IHRA definition, as have other legacy organizations and right-wing groups, I hope you can see that IHRA and Nexus complement each other and are not mutually exclusive.

Like the Gemara does for the Mishnah, Nexus provides added value because it helps us contextualize and understand nuance.  This understanding is especially important at a time like this, when complex issues related to antisemitism and Israel are too often reduced to simplistic formulas and slogans.  

A case in point is the charge that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, which is now being deliberated by the International Court of Justice. 

I do not think Israel’s actions in Gaza qualify as genocidal and, as the child of survivors, I am distressed by the misrepresentation of Israel’s intentions.  But before labeling the accusation antisemitic, as some Jewish organizations have argued, it is important to understand what leads Palestinians and their supporters to perceive Israel’s actions in this manner.

Are Palestinians responding to proposals for transferring Palestinians out of Gaza, which evoke an apprehension of being expelled or eliminated?  Do they think Prime Minister Netanyahu, who declared “the Jewish people have an exclusive and indisputable right to all areas of the Land of Israel,” wants to eliminate the presence of Palestinians living between the “River and the Sea?” How do they feel when they see Israeli soldiers cheering when a military rabbi exclaims, “The land is OURS. The whole country! All of it! Including Gaza! Including Lebanon! The whole promised land!”

Understanding the perspectives of others does not mean agreeing with them. But jumping to the conclusion that they are antisemitic is not a constructive response. It leaves no room for discussing the actual policies and no path toward addressing both antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The need for nuance is evident as well in the debate about how to understand Zionism. You have said that Zionism is fundamental to Judaism.  That is true for you and me and probably for most of our generation. But it is not necessarily true for everyone in our community, including some religious Jews and young Jews who define their Jewish identities in different ways.  

The debate over Zionism can also be seen in ADL’s most recent report on antisemitic incidents, which shows a stunning uptick in antisemitism since October 7.  

The incidents you tally include “anti-Israel rallies which featured overt antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and/or expressions of support for terror.”  We should all be alarmed by this data and prepared to respond decisively.  

At the same time, it is disappointing that the data includes anti-Zionist protests that lack unambiguous expressions of antisemitism. As ADL noted in a November 2021 Backgrounder on Anti-Zionism, there can be legitimate reasons for some Jews and Palestinians to reject Zionism.  

Within our diverse community, there should be space for people to hold and debate different political positions on Israel without being accused of antisemitism. Limiting reasonable discourse about Israel policy also risks undermining the broad alliance needed to effectively combat the surge of true antisemitism. 

At this historic juncture, as ADL launches a new website to “support the execution” of the National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism and “address antisemitism from across the political spectrum,” we should put aside a divisive debate over definitions. Instead, let us take an inclusive approach that broadens our ability to build a diverse coalition, informed by a multiplicity of perspectives and experiences, so that we can effectively challenge Jew-hatred in all its forms.

About the Author
Jonathan Jacoby directs the Nexus Task Force, which is affiliated with the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College. He is the former executive director of New Israel Fund and president of Israel Policy Forum,
Related Topics
Related Posts