Two years ago, full of optimism and energy as I joined ADL as its new CEO, I asked the question: Can a 100-Year-Old Change the Future? But it was a rhetorical question because I believed that I knew the answer.
If we remained true to our principles, invested in our people and modernized our systems, the organization would be able to shape the future in a positive way as it had done so many times in the past.
But as I looked back to the past to prepare for the future, I did not anticipate an incredibly volatile present.
My start at ADL coincided with two moments that scrambled the political order at home and abroad: the kickoff of the 2016 presidential campaign and the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the “Iran Deal.” To most, these might seem like unrelated incidents. But I see them as evidence of disturbing trends that recommit me to the ADL mission.
First, there’s the 2016 presidential campaign. Regardless of your political affiliation, it’s undeniable that Donald Trump’s campaign changed the political landscape and the public conversation.
This had many implications, but at ADL, we were focused on the fact that suddenly, the loose confederation of anti-Semites and white supremacists known as the alt-right found themselves in the spotlight and, bafflingly, praised by many in the political world.
Their hateful rhetoric spread from fringe websites into the mainstream. Their conspiratorial fantasies about voter fraud and malevolent refugees seized the blogosphere and received significant national media coverage. And they demonstrated a mastery of social media, trolling Jewish journalists, prominent members of the Jewish community and other perceived enemies with vile claims and vicious slander. So how did these extreme elements respond when challenged? We watched them relish in their victimhood and resort to cyberbullying and false outrage in an effort to delegitimize the messenger and divert attention from the message.
Second, the start of my tenure also happened at the same time as the approval of the JCPOA. ADL came out against the deal, not because of our deep expertise in the technical aspects of the arrangement, but because we felt strongly that it failed to address the core issue at hand with Iran: its unbridled belligerence and hostility to the US; its cruel mistreatment of its own minorities; and its unrelenting commitment to destroying the Jewish state through state-sponsored anti-Semitism and a worldwide campaign of terror. Some applauded my position on the deal, others disapproved of it.
I wish I could say that the anti-Semitic rejection of Jewish peoplehood in the form of denying Israel’s right to exist was limited to Tehran. But it isn’t. Over the past two years, we also have seen these beliefs reinforced among a fringe we might describe as the radical left here in the U.S.
We see it when Jews are excluded from progressive circles because of their Zionism irrespective of their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We see it when the Jewish state is delegitimized and demonized by activists with little knowledge of the conflict. And we see it when Israel is the only state in the world singled out by international bodies even as they ignore the serial and vicious brutality of other states.
And this spectacle is not limited to the U.S. It is increasingly evident in Europe. Witness UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who takes issue with other forms of prejudice but excuses anti-Semitism, even when his own partisans call it out.
And how do the extreme elements respond when challenged? Do they attempt to engage in reasoned discussion? Hardly. Instead, they shout down their critics, disrupt their remarks, and stand unwilling to hear their ideas.
It all reminds me of the horseshoe theory. This is the idea that we need to reimagine the political spectrum because it does not resemble a 180-degree line with opposing ends, but instead a horseshoe wherein the points at the far end actually converge around shared ideas and practices. Based on my observations, this seems like an accurate assessment of our current political predicament.
I have seen firsthand that the extreme right and radical left have more in common than they care to admit. Some of their common traits include a shared hatred of Jews, whether the people or the polity, and an intense distaste for facts that contradict their message, and a tendency to attack the messenger. We can argue about which group is more extreme, who is closer to the center of power, or what poses the greater threat. But I firmly believe that extremism is dangerous in all forms, and that neither side of the spectrum is exempt from intolerance.
Facing these threats, I often renew my strength with the words of Dr. King: our work is not yet done.
As much as we have made progress in fighting anti-Semitism and all types of bigotry, we are increasing our emphasis on fighting the scourge of cyberhate through our new presence in Silicon Valley and a series of new partnerships that we will announce later this year. We are expanding our training for law enforcement to ensure that they are prepared to handle hate crimes and recognize extremist threats. We are partnering with other civil rights groups to push for strong hate crimes laws in all 50 states and to protect immigrant families seeking refuge on our shores. We are combating hate on college campuses, whether it stems from the extreme right or radical left. We are bringing innovation to our work with educators to teach our children to reject bigotry from an early age. And we will continue to strive to ensure that our laws at all levels of government safeguard the gains that we have made to offer all Americans the basic rights enshrined in our Constitution.
How will we get these things done?
We will double down on our commitment to ending hate with creativity, innovation, partnerships and a host of new strategies to complement our existing activities. We will remain rooted in principles, not politics. We will resist rhetoric with reason, and we will respond to fiction with facts.
And, above all else, we will remain true to the call that started this journey, not two years ago with my tenure, but more than a century ago with Sig Livingston who founded ADL: we will never cease working to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all. But we cannot do it alone. I would invite all of you to join us and help fight the good fight.
Jonathan Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League