Date February 22, 2024
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Anti-Defamation League leader urges ‘all hands on deck’ to fight antisemitism

In a visit to Brown University, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt spoke about combating increases in hate, harassment and intolerance in the wake of the violence in Israel and Gaza.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Founded in 1913 “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” the Anti-Defamation League has played a key role in combating antisemitism in moments ranging from Ku Klux Klan-inspired violence to the Holocaust. Recently, the organization’s mission has felt more urgent than it has for decades.

That’s according to Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer and national director of the ADL.

“Even before Oct. 7, we were dealing with rising sea levels of hate in ways we hadn't seen before,” he said, referring to the date of the Hamas attacks on Israel. “We were thinking: Do we build seawalls? What do we do in an environment that's literally unraveling around us? And then when the 7th happened, it was like a tsunami.”

Greenblatt shared that point and more with a few hundred Brown community members in a Thursday, Feb. 22, event at the Salomon Center for Teaching. His visit came at the invitation of the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity, which reached out to him last September to speak about antisemitism in the U.S.

In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks and the tragic loss of civilian lives in Israel and Gaza, the timing of his visit took on even greater significance with reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia on the rise on campuses and across the nation.

Greenblatt’s address also came amid a backdrop of recent protests on campus. Students held sit-ins at University Hall on two occasions, calling on Brown to divest its endowment from companies that “enable and profit from the genocide in Gaza and the broader Israeli occupation” — both ended in arrests when demonstrators chose to remain after operating hours, raising security concerns. More recently, students conducted an eight-day hunger strike to advocate for the same cause. Other community members have raised concerns about the climate on campus, with rising tensions from the ongoing violence in the Middle East, and fear and mistrust resulting from acts of antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian and anti-Israeli discrimination.

“It's a tense time here on campus,” Greenblatt noted. “It's tense for students, it's tense for faculty, it's tense for administrators, it's tense for everyone. I just heard stories in a reception where students talked about feeling insecure or feeling threatened. I know just last week threatening emails were sent to the Brown-RISD Hillel Weiner Center's executive director and assistant director for no other reason than the fact that they were Jewish and serving Jewish students. This didn't happen in a vacuum. Over the past months, Jewish students here and on campuses across the country have been on the receiving end of ugly and untoward harassment.”

Greenblatt has led the ADL since 2015 after serving previously in the White House as a special assistant to President Barack Obama and director of the Office of Social Innovation. Some students and faculty voiced concerns about his visit before the event, in letters to Brown leaders and student newspaper op-eds, citing statements from the ADL and its national director that they say conflate criticism of Israeli actions and policies with antisemitism.

Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Sylvia Carey-Butler acknowledged those concerns as she introduced the event.

“In inviting Mr. Greenblatt to speak, we are not endorsing a single viewpoint, but rather embracing our role as a marketplace of ideas,” she said. “Beliefs can coexist, and tolerance and constructive dialogue can take place here within the Brown community. We are given the unparalleled opportunity to engage with and understand complexities of the world around us and on our campuses. Through listening, questioning and debating, we enrich our collective knowledge and enhance our capacity with empathy.”

Most who gathered for the event did just that. Others chose not to remain — dozens of attendees stood in unison and walked out of the venue about 20 minutes into Greenblatt’s address.

Working collectively to fight hate

Much of the evening focused on drawing a distinction between criticism of Israeli policy vs. the belief that Israel should not exist. Understanding that distinction starts with how Greenblatt defines Zionism — the right of Jews to self-determination in their ancestral home: “It's a simple, straightforward idea that Jews have the right to live in the place where they've continually had a presence for thousands and thousands of years,” he said.

Anti-Zionism is also simple to define, he asserted — it means that Jews don't have the right to self-determination in their ancestral home.

“And let me be clear: Anti-Zionism is antisemitism…” Greenblatt said. “The anti-Zionist is committed to denying rights to Jews that they afford to everyone else… The argument that Jews don't deserve the rights that everyone else should have — that is the essence of discrimination.”

Taking issue with actions by Israel’s government — which Greenblatt and the ADL do at times, he said — is entirely distinct from the belief that Israel should not exist. And the true anti-Zionism he sees in the current moment manifests repeatedly in the form of vicious harassment, vandalism and violence against Jews.

“No one is saying that you can't have strong disagreements with Israeli policies or the Netanyahu government…” he said. “No one is saying that you can't mourn the devastation in Gaza. Frankly, if those images coming out of Gaza, if they don't make your heart break, either (a) you're not paying attention or (b) maybe you don't have a heart. No one is saying you shouldn't protest for causes you believe in. But a line must be drawn when advocating for a cause mutates into targeting people like your classmates, your professors or your friends or bystanders on the street.”

Fighting antisemitism is an all-hands-on-deck assignment, Greenblatt said, and everyone has a role to play.

“If you're Jewish, don't be afraid,” he said. “There is no need to tremble. You have the truth on your side. Take stock in that truth. Tell your story. Don't demonize the other side… build coalitions of support within this university or outside of it to collectively fight all forms of hate. And when you form those coalitions, remember that when they engage in work on your behalf, you've got to stand with them on their behalf when they need you.”

The Brown community knows all too well that anti-Muslim bias can also have terrible consequences, Greenblatt said, citing the shooting of a Palestinian student who was in Vermont for Thanksgiving break.

“Let me say clearly and emphatically, Muslim students and Muslims around America deserve dignity and respect, just like their Jewish classmates and fellow Jewish citizens… They should live free from fear and harassment again, like everyone else. The ADL has been fighting anti-Muslim hate for years and we will continue to do so, because I believe ultimately we are in this fight together."

Wendy J. Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown who directs the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, moderated a Q&A session with Greenblatt following his remarks. Questions ranged from the role technology platforms can play in combatting harassment and discrimination to whether Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attacks has extended beyond the law of proportionality.

“I don’t know if this was necessarily the best way to solve the problem,” he said of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. “And I would love to see a ceasefire — after the hostages come home.”

One attendee asked Greenblatt for thoughts on the balance university administrators must achieve between supporting student rights to free expression yet enforcing policy limits for protest and demonstration.

“Protest should not be a consequence-free zone,” he said. “If you are violating norms, if you are breaking rules, if you are transgressing against the law — if that happens, there are consequences. And hopefully if you have such committed principles, you're willing to live with them. And if you don't, then you need to think twice about why am I doing this in the first place? It should be principled, not performative.”

Another audience question asked about solutions to long-entrenched conflict in the Middle East. Greenblatt noted that he’s not a foreign policy scholar, but that he believes deeply in a two-state solution.

“I don't think Israel will ever have safety and security until the Palestinian people have some degree of dignity and equality,” he said. “And I don't think the Palestinian people will ever have safety and security unless Israelis also enjoy dignity and quality.”