The ADL: the speech patrol of the Jews

The newest nonsense from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is its declaration of victory this week in convincing the Metropolitan Opera to cancel a worldwide simulcast of the American opera The Death of Klinghoffer. Under the terms of the ADL’s compromise with the Met, the show will be seen only by those few who happen to be in New York for the live version and can pay hundreds of dollars per ticket.

ADL director Abe Foxman acknowledged that the work, which deals with terrorism, the murder of a Jewish cruise passenger, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is not anti-Semitic – though of course he never bothered to actually see it. But the organization said the 1991 opera might reinforce the prejudice of viewers who already hate Jews, so it tried to shut the production down.

Sorry, but the answer to speech we don’t like – and yes, art is speech – is more speech, not threats and pressure from an activist organization that reports only to the echo chamber of its own board. If it wants, the ADL can commission an opera about the Klinghoffer Affair in which all the Jews look like Dudley Do-Right and all the Palestinians look like Snidely Whiplash.

Now, If the ADL opposes works that aren’t anti-Semitic but might nonetheless further people’s pre-existing bigotry, why doesn’t it speak out against The Producers, Schindler’s List, and many other films with characters who despise Jews? A 1974 study on TV’s All in the Family found that prejudiced people laughed with Archie Bunker’s swipes at blacks, Jews, and gays – rather than at them. Why is All in the Family OK but not Klinghoffer?

This brouhaha is only the latest evidence that today’s ADL does more harm than good.

For example, newspapers and broadcasters recently fell all over themselves to disseminate the ADL’s supposedly alarming report that a quarter of the world’s populace is anti-Semitic. Of course, few of those journalists noted that the more anti-Semitism the ADL can elicit, the more money it can raise. Would the news media hyperventilate over a study by the American Soybean Association showing that Americans need more vegetable protein in their diet?

And the survey itself was so arbitrary and slanted to solicit “anti-Semitic” answers that a number of Jewish leaders who took it said they would have been counted as being “infected” (the ADL’s term) with anti-Semitism.

And did anybody stop to think whether questioning certain people about true Jewish loyalties and excessive Jewish economic power might spark anti-Semitism rather than simply measure it? It’s what experts in public opinion call the “push poll effect.” When an organization that once nobly fought Jew-hatred starts spreading it, something has gone seriously wrong.

As for the Klinghoffer fiasco, some art is important precisely because it contains attitudes and perspectives that are disturbing but deserve exposure and discussion.

I’m not referring to gratuitous slurs and random insults – I’m talking about classic films like Triumph of the Will, which Roger Ebert said was “by general consent” considered one of the best documentaries ever. But Leni Riefenstahl’s masterwork was quite literally Nazi propaganda. Yet the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum recommends several lesson plans that involve screening the film. Does the Jewish community need the ADL’s art police to stop people from seeing it?

Another example relates to the 1966 cast album and original stage production of the brilliant show Cabaret, set in Berlin during the Nazi rise to power. One of Cabaret’s most shocking and thought-provoking musical numbers has as its very message (perhaps the most powerful moment in the show) the last line – “if you could see [a gorilla] through my eyes – she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” But under pressure from B’nai Brith (then the ADL’s parent organization), the verse was changed in a nonsensical way that eviscerated the historical point.

The ADL has far outlasted its usefulness. I could support an organization devoted to reporting actual anti-Semitism and other prejudice, improving community relations, and responding to alarming public expression by criticizing it (but not trying to make it go away).

Unfortunately, the ADL is not that organization. Jews who are interested in free and open communication in the public square need to tell the ADL that nobody elected them the Jewish community’s thought patrol, and the speech that needs to stop is their own.

Follow David Benkof on Facebook or E-mail him at A version of this essay appeared at the Daily Caller.

About the Author
David Benkof is a St. Louis-based writer and former faculty member at Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s in Jerusalem. He has a master's degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford. Follow him on Facebook or E-mail him at