Against the backdrop of Russia´s invasion of Ukraine, mounting tension in East Jerusalem and antisemitic incidents in the US and in Europe, Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) visited recently Brussels to exchange views with his counterparts on how to fight hatred.
In an interview, he told The Brussels Times that ADL is the oldest anti-hatred organisation in the US, founded already in 1913. Originally focusing on fighting antisemitism and defamation of Jewish people in the US, it has widened its agenda and today clamp down on hatred and racism against all minority groups.
Under Greenblatt, ADL has launched different initiatives to monitor hate groups and tackle online racism in cooperation with among others Muslim and Black groups. “Working with them is part of our mission,” he said but declined to give any advice for Jewish-Muslim cooperation in the EU against xenophobia and discrimination.
ADL is part of a long tradition In the US of inter-ethnic and intercultural cooperation of combating racism and hatred. Such cooperation is also taking form in Europe, Katharina von Schnurbein, the EU coordinator on combating antisemitism, told The Brussels Times, and exemplified with security cooperation in the UK between Jewish and Muslim communities.
During the presidential campaign in 2016, which resulted in the election of Donald Trump, ADL criticized Republican candidates for making appeals to voters based on stereotypical views of Muslims, Mexicans and other minorities. It warned against antisemitic and hateful messages on social media by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and racists, rallying behind Trump.
Since then, polarisation in both the US and other democracies has increased, with surveys showing that only a small minority of people supporting one political camp agree with some of the views of the other political camp. Political opponents are often depicted as enemies or even traitors, undermining the shared basis of values that makes dialogue and cooperation possible.
The current war in Ukraine is another example of disinformation where Russia, or former Soviet-Union, which suffered immensely when defending itself against Nazi-Germany, launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which also suffered immensely during WWII, under the pretext of “de-nazifying” the country.
The claim is patently absurd because Ukraine´s democratically elected president happens to be Jewish. His father fought in WWII in the Soviet Red Army against Nazi-Germany and lost family members in the Holocaust.
Basically, Kremlin’s claim deprives Nazism of all meaning and trivializes the Holocaust. If Ukraine is ruled by Nazis, then Russia can motivate any military action against it, blame war crimes on “Nazis” and insist on unconditional surrender. Its bombardment of Ukrainian cities undermines the Soviet narrative of the Great Patriotic war against the Nazi enemy.
ADL has exposed extremists and antisemites who are using the war as fodder for promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories. Tropes of Jewish power, financial control and abuse of the Holocaust narrative abound online, emanating from classic antisemites and white supremacists, as well as QAnon influencers and Proud Boys followers in the US.
Definitions of antisemitism
Greenblatt explains that he came to meet ADL´s partners in the EU and the Jewish communities in Belgium to discuss how to combat antisemitism and incitement to hatred. In Brussels, he discussed on hate speech and the instruments against it with EU´s coordinator on combating antisemitism. In the EU, there is a legislative framework in place, and it has also concluded agreements with the major social media operators on deleting on-line hate speech.
The working definition of antisemitism is named after the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). While not legally binding, it has in recent years become a widely used tool around the world to educate people about antisemitism. According to IHRA, manifestations of antisemitism might include the targeting of the state of Israel, such as denying its right to exist and comparing it with Nazi-Germany.
The IHRA-definition has been endorsed by the EU and most EU member states. But according to an international group of scholars, it should be replaced by a new definition, called “The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism” (JDA), named after Jerusalem because the group was convened there.
Q: The two definitions are similar but the Jerusalem definition, influenced by the American tradition, defends more strongly freedom of expression, which could include the right to Holocaust denial and incitement to hatred. In the EU, hate speech is not free speech. What definition of antisemitism does ADL apply?
A: Like the EU, ADL has adopted the IHRA definition which has been developed for a long time. Only a fringe of actors in the US support the other definition.
Q: There is antisemitism among extremists on both the far-right and far-left ends of the political spectrum. In the US, antisemitism at universities has become a problem. In your annual speech last year on the state of hate in the US, you said that what worries you, more and more, is the antisemitism taking shape on the left. Can you explain?
A: I was among others referring to the British labour party. During Jeremy Corbyn´s time as party leader, the party was rocked by allegations of antisemitism and prejudices against Jewish party members that he tended to downplay. This form of ´Corbynism´ spread also to the US. There should be no place for it in neither Europe nor the US.
Q: Recently, we have seen disturbing anti-Palestinian incidents in Israel, such as evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah quarter in East Jerusalem, settler violence in the West Bank and a ban against Palestinian civil society organisations for alleged links with a terrorist organisation. Can you imagine criticising Israel´s actions?
A: There are of course many people criticising Israel for its policies without being antisemites. ADL has condemned settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. As a passionate and proud Zionist, I think that I have the right to criticise Israel. But I also consider the fact that Israel faces different kinds of existential threats as Jews abroad also do. It’s not either or.
Relations with Israel
“There are reasons to be concerned about Israel’s future, especially about the current polarisation and divide in Israel’s society,” he admitted. “But I find some comfort in Jewish history in the diaspora. It was always characterised by an open and inquisitive debate. It was a supreme value already in Talmud.”
Israel knows how to deal with its own extremists, Greenblatt added, and recalled Ben-Gurion´s action during Israel´s war of independence against a military splinter group which tried to bring a cargo of weapons into the country (the Altalena affair). When it refused to hand over the weapons to the newly established army, Ben Gurion ordered to shell the ship and take it by force.
The problem is that there is hardly any Israeli politician today of Ben-Gurion´s stature who can take tough decisions in matters of war and peace.
Despite the polarisation of Israeli society and the political turbulence in recent years, the change in government last year was peaceful, but the losing side, contrary to what is the case in more mature democracies, did not accept its defeat.
Q: Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, head of the extreme-right Religious Zionism party and an outspoken racist, was recently banned from meetings with the British Jewish Community and told to return to Israel. Would such a rejection have been possible in the US?
Greenblatt did not address the question and talked about the need for democratic dialogue across political lines. “Israel is a vibrant democracy with room for different opinions,” he said. It appeared that Smotrich might have been welcomed by at least conservative Jewish groups who supported Trump.
But in a tweet last year, ADL denounced Smotrich for his racism. “Smotrich’s hateful and racist comments have no place in the Knesset. Treating Israel’s Arab citizens as anything less than equal to Jews goes against Israel’s founding democratic principles and must never be tolerated”.
In Israel itself, the political establishment condemned the “chutzpa” of the British Jews who decided that Smotrich was not welcome because of his hateful ideology. Even the newly appointed President, Isaac Herzog, rebuked the British Jewish leadership for “insulting” Smotrich and said he would have expected Israeli leaders to be treated with “respect” when visiting Jewish communities abroad.
Q: International Amnesty recently issued a report accusing Israel of apartheid, both inside its recognized borders, in the occupied territories, in Gaza, and even towards the Palestinians living in refugee camps in Arab countries. Was Amnesty overreaching when claiming that all is a form of apartheid like what was the case in South-Africa?
A: The report is full of half-lies and misinformation with a political agenda. At best it’s biased and at worst it´s delegitimizing the state of Israel. In ADL we support security for both Israelis and Palestinians in two separate states. We believe that anti-Zionism, if it means the denial of Israel’s right to exist and the right of national self-determination of the Jewish people, is a form of antisemitism. In that regard, Amnesty’s report is a red herring for ADL.
The Brussels Times