Culture

Is Anti-Zionism Anti-Semitism?


Since 2015, Jonathan Greenblatt has served as the director of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization devoted to chronicling and fighting anti-Semitism in American society. Amid a rise in anti-Semitic incidents documented by his group, and with hate crimes in general on the upswing, Greenblatt, a former special assistant to Barack Obama, has been speaking harshly about the tendencies he believes exacerbate anti-Semitism. One of those tendencies is anti-Zionism, which, in a recent speech, he referred to as “an ideology rooted in rage,” comparing it to white supremacy, and adding, “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.” This comes at a time when a vocal minority of young American Jews has called for one secular, democratic state across Israel and the Palestinian territories.

I recently spoke by phone with Greenblatt. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why hate crimes are increasing, the historical roots of anti-Zionism, and whether it’s bigoted to oppose a Jewish state.

What is the mission of the A.D.L. and how do you see it specifically since you took over?

The A.D.L. is interesting. It’s one of the oldest civil-rights organizations in the country. Its mission has not changed since our original charter was written in 1913: to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment to all.” It always had this mission, which is both particular and universal. The founders believed in this idea that you might call intersectional, that the Jewish people could only be safe when all people were safe, and only when all minorities were free would the Jewish people truly be free. So the organization has had this integrated approach—particularist and universalist at the same time—for more than a century.

What is the challenge for an organization whose mission is both particularist and universalist? Is there tension there?

I think it is a creative tension or a healthy tension, but there certainly does exist the necessity of finding how those things interoperate. So, for example, in 1952, the A.D.L. wrote an amicus brief in the Brown v. Board of Education case and did so because our leadership in the nineteen-fifties, long before it was fashionable to fight for civil-rights issues, had come out strongly in favor of them, in favor of integration, in favor of desegregation. There were some among our volunteer base who said, Why is the A.D.L. getting involved? That’s not a Jewish issue. But our management in the nineteen-fifties said, Actually, this is our issue. It’s essential to who we are. Then later that same decade the A.D.L. came out in favor of immigration reform and did a lot of work in civil society in support of what became known as the 1965 Immigration Act. There were some among A.D.L. who said, Why is this our issue? The A.D.L. leadership said, No, it actually is our issue.

When I stood up against the proposed Muslim registry, in 2016, or when I went to the border and I was a very loud opponent of the way they were detaining undocumented children and separating them from their parents, some people have said, These things aren’t Jewish issues. Again, I think the way we treat people of different faiths, the way we treat people who immigrate to this country or come as refugees, speaks entirely to who we are. So I think this is exactly what the A.D.L. is all about and always has been.

Your group has released statistics indicating that anti-Semitism is on the rise in America. Why do you think that is?

The F.B.I. tracks hate crimes, meaning felonies and misdemeanors, reported through local law-enforcement agencies, that are crimes against an individual or an institution because of an immutable characteristic like faith, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin. The A.D.L. also tracks anti-Semitic incidents. So let’s say acts of harassment, or bullying—that might not rise to the level of a hate crime. Law enforcement doesn’t care if a kid gets bullied at school, but we do. We collect this information through our twenty-five offices across the country, as well as through lots of individuals and organizations. The F.B.I. 2020 stats—we don’t have 2021 yet—suggested hate crimes are up six per cent over all. We calculated in our most recent audit a thirty-four-per-cent increase in anti-Semitic incidents. That is consistent with an unfortunate pattern that’s emerged since 2016, where instances have been on the rise pretty much every year.

So what’s the cause of that? Political polarization and the coarsening of the public conversation has taken a lid off of politeness and people are now saying things in public spaces they just never did before. People are more vituperative with one another and going after each other. So I think that’s No. 1. I think No. 2 is the penetration of conspiracy theories: making wild claims about individuals such as George Soros or Sheldon Adelson or the Zionists or whatever. Now conspiracy theories are everywhere, and Jews are often at the center of them. No. 3, I think extremists are emboldened in this environment and you see them literally running for school boards, running for Congress. The last thing is that almost seventy-five years since the Holocaust, the collective shame that was there fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago has somewhat receded.

Recently, you a gave a speech where you said, “Against the backdrop of rising anti-Semitic incidents, we will thank the G.O.P. leadership for their statements of support—and demand that they call out the bizarre anti-Semitic conspiracies of their candidates and elected officials. Against this same backdrop, we will applaud Democratic leadership for their statements of support—and demand that they call out the statements of those in their party who knowingly traffic in anti-Zionist tropes and make malicious claims against the Jewish state.” You tagged this rise to 2016, and most of the examples you listed were things I would associate with Republicans and especially Donald Trump. Is the major issue here Donald Trump and the course the G.O.P. is on? And is that course broadly not conducive to Jews thriving?

America has been not only the most vibrant democracy in memory but the open, liberal-minded society that we have here has been the best for the Jews. And historically you can see that the Jews tend to thrive in these open, democratic environments, where people are judged on the content of their character. We tend not to do very well in authoritarian societies. We tend not to do very well in the places where civil rights are diminished or squelched. All these freedoms have a lot to do with Jews prospering.

I worry a great deal about the diminishment of civil rights and the diminishment of these values and privileges that we really cherish. We have politicians or public figures who liken COVID precautions to Nuremberg laws. I think that’s frightening. Holocaust distortionism, which is what I would describe that as, is a slippery slope that tends not to end very well for Jewish people. So, to answer your question, that does worry me a great deal because I do think it’s a slippery slope toward more illiberal policies.

I was asking whether partisanship and extremism more broadly were the problem, or whether it was the G.O.P. becoming a party that goes whole hog for many of these things.

I think when either party starts adopting conspiracies as if they were facts, that worries me. You’ve got people like Marjorie Taylor Greene in the Republican Party who say things that can’t be believed.



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