Pro-Israel groups and right-wing legislators are stoking new panic over antisemitism to attack targets they have long had in their crosshairs — including universities, progressive Jews and even immigration advocates — and to divert attention from Israel’s anti-Palestinian genocide. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is providing the fuel for this repressive frenzy, in the form of disinformation about U.S. antisemitism, Israeli colonialism and the ADL’s own organizational aims. It’s time for media and policy makers to stop platforming the ADL.
While the ADL is often perceived as a civil rights advocate or anti-hate organization, a large set of racial justice organizations, writing as the #DropTheADL coalition, have made clear that it is not. The ADL’s record of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Black racism stretches back to the 1950s, when it viewed resistance to colonialism and white supremacy as a Cold War threat to the United States.
Its efforts to marginalize and silence leftist Jews go back even further: It was formed in 1913, in part, to prevent leftist Russian Jewish immigrants from tarnishing the bourgeois reputation of the German Jews who had settled much earlier. The ADL’s anti-left commitments have made it a useful ally for the right, even as it claims to oppose racism. Most recently, Trump loyalist and election denier Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York) borrowed two of the ADL’s debunked claims: that the chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free” is a call for “genocide of the Jews,” and that Jewish students are unsafe on college campuses because of students and faculty who oppose Israeli apartheid. At a congressional hearing, Stefanik used those claims to propose that the presidents of Harvard, MIT and UPenn — each of whom has suppressed campus organizing for Palestinian rights — are failing to protect against (nonexistent) calls to harm Jews.
The ADL is periodically engulfed in scandals that show its ethical bankruptcy. Perhaps the most shocking was the 1993 “spying scandal” in which the FBI found that the ADL had spied on, infiltrated and acquired illegal police files on thousands of leftist, anti-Apartheid and Arab organizations. Another came just last month, when the ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, congratulated antisemite and white nationalist sympathizer Elon Musk for his “leadership in fighting hate.” That should have marked the end of the ADL’s role as a source for news and research on extremism.
The ADL’s endorsement of Musk was only the latest in a series of disqualifying actions: It has taken on a new, alarming role as a purveyor of debunked claims about antisemitism and terrorism. The ADL has long set out to “interpret Israel” to United States policy makers without intervening. But now, as the ADL struggles against an avalanche of evidence of Israeli war crimes — and a surging U.S. antiwar movement led by largely young Palestinian and Jewish Americans — it is displaying surprising disregard for its reputation as a credible source. That should make policy makers who heed the ADL very nervous.
The ADL’s turn to wartime disinformation has a start date. On October 9, Greenblatt’s petulant on-air question to MSNBC, “who’s writing the scripts, Hamas?” signaled his intent to block the view of Israel’s long-running military occupation and apartheid. On October 15, Greenblatt returned with a discredited right-wing social media claim about a global “day of jihad,” based on mistranslated Arabic and a healthy dose of Islamophobia. He repeated an unsubstantiated, incendiary claim intended to dehumanize Palestinians and justify Israeli war crimes in Gaza. From there, Greenblatt came to the outrageous conclusion that the Israeli bombing of Gazan civilians is actually pro-Palestinian, and that “anti-Zionism is genocide.”
The ADL has continued to escalate attacks on reality. It claimed that a ceasefire sit-in by dozens of rabbis was a “far-left radical” event. It demanded that colleges investigate hundreds of Students for Justice in Palestine groups — often comprised mostly of Jewish, Palestinian and Black students — baselessly suggesting that they violate U.S. anti-terrorism laws and wildly mischaracterizing their positions. At a congressional ways and means hearing on November 15, Greenblatt called for Internal Revenue Service action against student groups and colleges based on these same unsubstantiated claims. As witnesses repeated a host of debunked claims about everything from attacks on pro-Israel marchers to the false “day of jihad,” Greenblatt appeared to embrace them.
Taking a crack at dictionary definitions, the ADL released a video attempting to redefine settler colonialism so that the term doesn’t apply to Israel — nor the U.S., Australia or South Africa. Its easily disprovable, ahistorical claims are clearly intended to miseducate people and deny historical context to Palestinians. This effort has older roots — a 2017 ADL strategy document notes the U.S. public’s growing attention to colonialism and calls for “reframing” to combat it — but its boldness is new.
This risky strategy, in which the ADL is burning through its standing as a credible source, suggests that it is seizing the opportunity of war to push through long-standing political aims without much concern for the future. While the ADL has long been the only organization presenting U.S.-wide statistics on antisemitic incidents, even that is not enough to make it indispensable. A rising generation of Jewish organizers and researchers is organizing alternative infrastructure, and pushing back on the idea of tackling antisemitism separately from broader questions of racial and economic justice.
The ADL’s aims are not widely understood, precisely because it is so often viewed just as a civil rights group. But looking at the ADL’s larger body of work shows that it is a conservative political institution with core conservative aims. Most immediately, the ADL seeks a repressive law-and-order culture, to dismantle progressive political organizing, and to cement U.S.- and Israel-allied geopolitical dominance in the Middle East.
The ADL has a tattered reputation as a civil rights organization from decades of attacking Black, Arab, LGBTQ and progressive Jewish groups. But it has been consistent: It attacked Nelson Mandela and the global campaign against South African apartheid as a threat to Israel and the U.S. — much as it now attacks the movement for ceasefire in Gaza.
More recently, journalists have begun examining and challenging the ADL’s vaunted statistics on hate. The ADL is not even succeeding in its own arena: It has said privately for years that its efforts to recruit Jewish support for Israel are failing. It suffered real damage to its reputation through Jewish Voice for Peace’s campaign to end the ADL’s “deadly exchange” program bringing U.S. police officials to Israel to trade repressive tactics. In a recent leaked call, Greenblatt laments the organization’s failure to win younger generations’ support for Israel regardless of their affiliation with left or right politics. The ADL has papered over these failures by dubiously calling itself a leading civil rights and Jewish advocate. But its move into disinformation should finally call into question the treatment of the ADL as an unscrutinized source on racism, extremism and Jewish politics.
The ADL’s toxic push for anti-Palestinian genocide and U.S. repression will reverberate for generations. The electoral map has already been catastrophically shifted by policy makers’ adoption of pro-war positions weakly disguised in anti-hate rhetoric. President Joe Biden and others who have rationalized killing 20,000 Palestinians using the ADL’s grotesque claims, have already been sued by rights groups and Palestinians in the U.S. and Gaza for complicity in war crimes. The ADL cannot absolve them of responsibility in U.S.-backed Israeli violence. It’s time to break with the ADL.