In recent weeks, the ADL has been scalded by trenchant criticism from the political left and the right. It’s an unusual position for the venerable, 105 year-old anti-Semitism watchdog and civil rights-focused organization.
From its founding, focused on fighting anti-Semitism and protecting democratic ideals and civil rights for all, the ADL has long been widely accepted as a mainstream American institution.
It provides Holocaust education and anti-bias training to FBI agents, Secret Service agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials; and to police departments in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and dozens more cities, for instance.
In a program it developed with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the ADL teaches agents "what can happen when law enforcement personnel do not uphold democratic principles. Through the lens of the Holocaust, participants look at law enforcement’s role in propagating atrocities in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s."
At a time when democratic values are under assault, even by the president of the United States, it seems that there has never been a moment when such education is more necessary.
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Yet recently the ADL has come under fire not just from its frequent critic on the hard right the Zionist Organization of America, but from mainstream Jewish conservative Commentary magazine and on the left from Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory, who in April excoriated the ADL for "CONSTANTLY attacking black and brown people."
Mallory tweeted her criticism following the ADL being named by Starbucks as one of several major civil rights groups hired to help the coffee conglomerate develop a racial bias education plan for its employees after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia outlet as they did nothing more sinister than sit without ordering drinks.
Meanwhile Starbucks is insisting that it has not "demoted" the ADL as previously reported - by deciding to use the organization to develop a long-term curriculum rather than have CEO Jonathan Greenblatt work with it on May 29th, when it shuts down all 8,000 U.S. stores for an afternoon of anti-bias employee training.
The coffee behemoth and major law enforcement agencies aren’t the only ones who reach out to the ADL for assistance.
When swastikas were found written on bathroom stall walls at my son’s former high school, administrators consulted the ADL. When, soon after that, a teacher told my then-kippah-wearing son to go to the board and solve a math problem "like a good Christian," I reached out to the man who ran the ADL’s New York chapter at the time for advice on how best to address it with the school.
The ADL’s work with schools is widespread. According to the ADL, 1,600 kindergarten-12th grade U.S. schools use the ADL’s "No Place for Hate" program, which gives 1.2 million students the tools to speak out against hate and discrimination. Another 41,000 students and 8,000 educators have participated in "A World of Difference" anti-name-calling and anti-bullying training.
All told, the ADL claims to reach 1.5 million American school children every year with these programs. It doesn’t get much more mainstream than that.
So why now has the ADL become a lightning rod for vicious criticism from both the left and the right?
To be sure, over the years the ADL has gotten itself mired in occasional controversy. In 1994, it lost a a $12 million federal judgment for a regional director's involvement in a Denver neighbors dispute in which wireless calls were recorded without consent.
More recently, the ADL opposed the building of a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center after the 2001 terrorist attack. Then-ADL head Abe Foxman said that building a mosque there was "counterproductive to the healing process" and "insensitive" to the families of victims, which triggered a wave of denunciations. At the same time, he condemned some of the plan’s more vociferous opponents as bigots.
It was tough then for the ADL to take a nuanced stand. It’s probably even more difficult now.
Among its endeavors the ADL issues annual reports tracking anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. and, periodically, globally. It condemns anti-Semitic attacks whether directly from the mouth of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or Hamas and it strongly opposes the BDS movement.
It also condemns attacks on Muslims and Islam by American politicians, and has consistently excoriated the Trump administration for repeated failures to condemn anti-Semitism, its accommodation with figures associated with the alt-right and its use of terms, not least by President Trump, such as "globalist," that is "accepted in alt-right circles as an anti-Semitic slur - to describe Jewish members of his administration."
Politically conservative Commentary magazine recently took aim at the ADL for its detailed opposition to the confirmation of Mike Pompeo as U.S. Secretary of State based on his “long history of anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim statements.” Columnist Sohrab Ahmari slammed the ADL for "smearing" Pompeo for "the flimsiest of reasons." Pompeo was confirmed in his new position this week.
The ADL also recently got into hot water with a tweet about Canary Mission, the subterranean, anonymous anti-BDS group that publishes a blacklist of anti-Israel campus activists. Retweeting an op-ed by Hillel International directors who condemned Canary Mission, the ADL called Canary Mission’s rhetoric "Islamophobic and racist." The ADL soon backed down, apologizing for using "overly broad" language.
The multipolar attacks on the ADL indicate that the organization itself has become the proverbial canary in a coalmine; what is happening to it is reflective of a larger trend that bodes poorly for the future of mainstream institutions working to protect American - and Jewish - ideals.
Like the media writ large, the ADL has itself been a bulwark against radicalization. Attempting to articulate nuanced positions that have been - and ought to be - mainstream in Trump’s America is more challenging than ever.
When a growing number of people start attacking an organization doing work as valuable as that done by the ADL, it's not only a telling comment on the state of both progressive and conservative politics, but a warning that the achievements of America's long struggle to ensure fundamental values of equality and freedom can also be reversed.