I am an African-American Jew by choice, who grew up in Chicago in the ’60s and ’70s. My father fled racial terror in the deep south; my mother worked on civil rights and peace initiatives in Europe after World War II. For both of them, Jews and Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — founded in 1913 to fight a rising tide of anti-Semitism and bigotry against Jewish immigrants — represented hope for racial justice in their lifetimes. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the ADL helped mobilize support for civil rights and voting rights legislation, marching in Selma and supporting the end of segregation in schools. To us, the ADL was one of the good guys, one of the few white organizations that was looking out for African Americans.
I started to become disenchanted in the early ’80s when the ADL opposed affirmative action during the Bakke case. It was a shock, and a moment when a lot of African Americans were beginning to ask: If the ADL is our ally, why would they not support a key civil rights issue for Black Americans?
More recently, seeing the ways the ADL has systematically attacked Palestinian students and censured critique of Israel, smearing Angela Davis and the Ferguson to Palestine movement, attacking the United Nations, instructing Jewish students on how to block campus events about Palestine and partnering with a right-wing Israeli think tank to strategize against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions efforts, I saw that the focus on civil rights seemed to be diminished in favor of single-minded advocacy for Israel.
When I learned about the ADL’s law enforcement exchange programs that bring US police, Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to train with Israeli military and police, and how they promote racial profiling and militarized policing, I was saddened — but not terribly surprised.
ADL claims to combat stereotypes and bigotry, and to protect African-American communities. Their training materials state that police should not be overly aggressive, or make decisions based on racial characteristics. Yet, their guidelines list physical characteristics supposedly signaling that a suspect is a potential terrorist. It is essentially an instruction manual for racial profiling. Surveillance, race-based policing and stereotyping are what the ADL brings to this deadly exchange.
Although the stated goal is “counterterrorism” training, it seems clear that the ADL’s deadly exchange programs have two actual goals. One is legitimizing violent policing in the US and Israel. The other is building up more unconditional support for Israel within the US. Sadly, they have been very effective at both.
When US police go to Israel on these ADL trips, they return convinced of how wonderful Israel is, how advanced their policing and counterterrorism, how the US should be copying their techniques … but they don’t see the disruption and horror imposed on Palestinian communities. Likewise, Israelis are encouraged to think they’re teaching US police how to use surveillance and stereotypes to provide “safety,” yet they never see the devastation and disruption these techniques bring to Englewood and the West Side of Chicago. Both Israeli and US law enforcement come away with a skewed idea, encouraged to double down on their already harmful practices.
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), of which I am a member, has taken the lead on exposing and calling for an end to these police exchanges as part of its deadly exchange campaign. This past week JVP delivered a petition with over 20,000 signatures to ADL president Jonathan Greenblatt, and hundreds of JVP activists across the country demonstrated in front of ADL offices demanding an end to these police exchanges.
However, JVP is not alone in noting the pernicious influence of the ADL on Black and Brown communities. Amnesty International has condemned the police exchanges: “These trainings put … police and other US law enforcement employees in the hands of military, security and police systems that have racked up documented human rights violations for years…. Police departments should find partners that will train on de-escalation techniques, how to handle mentally challenged or ill citizens, on the constitutional rights of citizens concerning filming, and how to appropriately respond to those using nonviolent protest to express their opinions. Israel is not such a partner.”
My parents had a great deal of respect for the ADL; I thank God they aren’t around to see its shameful exploitation of African Americans in the name of support for Israel. ADL claims to defend the rights of immigrants, Muslims and African Americans; why then relentlessly attack the Council of American Islamic Relations, the largest civil rights organization for Muslims in the United States? Why celebrate anti-Muslim bigots like Daniel Pipes, who promotes and finances institutionalized Islamophobia? Why lead trainings that encourage racial profiling and military-style policing against communities of color? And why throw all your supposed values out the window when it comes to Israel?
I have a message for the ADL: Take a good hard look at yourselves. You can’t warn about the dangers of race-based, overly aggressive policing and then teach race-based, overly aggressive policing. If you want to be an Israel advocacy organization, fine. If you want to be in bed with some of the most reactionary and right-wing people in the United States today, ok. Then stop pretending to be a civil rights organization.
If you want to return to your original mission of protecting the civil rights of all minorities, then join us and do the real work. Start by ending these deadly exchange programs, now.