WASHINGTON — Even as leaders of the Anti-Defamation League gathered in the nation’s capital on May 16 for their annual meeting, hateful campaign rhetoric kept piling up in the presidential race.
In the latest incident, David Horowitz, a columnist for the right-wing news site Breitbart.com, denounced Bill Kristol, an anti-Donald Trump Jewish Republican, as a “renegade Jew.” A week earlier, Trump’s presidential campaign sought to appoint a white supremacist leader as a delegate to the Republican convention. Shortly before that, a Jewish journalist was bombarded with anti-Semitic attacks and threats on social media after she published an unflattering profile of Trump’s wife, Melania Trump.
In a way, it’s been ADL’s moment: What better group to take the bull by the horns than the organization set up to confront exactly the kind of perceived bigotry that Trump and his supporters are promoting?
“Here at ADL we haven’t seen this kind of kind of mainstreaming of intolerance at this level” for decades, said the group’s national director Jonathan Greenblatt in a May 16 interview. Trump’s comments about Muslims and Latinos, his refusal to disavow racist supporters, and his belated action against such supporters, said Greenblatt, was reminiscent of the campaign of southern segregationist George Wallace’s in 1968 and to Pat Buchanan’s angry, racially tinged 1992 campaign. “But to make these policies core to a candidate’s platform, that is new and its troubling and we think it’s a very worrying trend,” Greenblatt said.
During the course of this campaign season, other Jewish groups that share a commitment to combating racism have sought to address what they view as an epic eruption of hateful rhetoric. But for the most part, they have done so while seeking to avoid calling out by name the presidential candidates they hold responsible.
In contrast, ADL, which has undergone a leadership transition this year, has entered the political fray combatively to take on Trump and some of his political supporters over their rhetoric. ADL also issued statements against Ted Cruz for his call to patrol Muslim neighborhoods and against Democrat Bernie Sanders, who made inaccurate statements on Israel’s actions against Palestinians in Gaza. ADL has, in fact, become the leading group in the organized Jewish world in speaking out against intolerance in the political campaign.
But most of the group’s attention has been focused on Trump, his associates, and supporters of his campaign. Over the past six months, ADL has issued at least five public statements or press releases singling out the New York real estate mogul for his positions, conduct or rhetoric.
“The bottom line for us is that these ideas have no place in the mainstream and we’ll do what we need to make sure that folks understand that,” Greenblatt said.
Several other Jewish groups have spoken out against some aspects of Trump’s campaign, mainly those relating to treatment of Muslims. In doing so, they tend to walk a thin line, heedful of the limits the law imposes on the involvement of tax-exempt charities in political campaigns.
“We’re very careful not to comment in favor of or in opposition to a single candidate, but it gets more complicated when a candidate expresses bigotry or racism,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization focused on policy issues. “At that point we need to ask ourselves to what degree is calling out a candidate central to our mission.”
The JCPA’s answer, according to Bernstein, is to focus on the issue rather than on the candidate. This is also the guidance JCPA provides to the many local Jewish Community Relations Councils and local organizations that have turned in recent months to the umbrella group for advice on how to deal with the Trump phenomenon without risking being viewed as partisan.
Taking concerns over bigotry and hate speech in the campaigns to a practical level, the JCPA, which is now holding its national conference in Cleveland, is drafting proposals for both parties that will demand a commitment to civility in political discourse. These proposals, the JCPA hopes, will be adopted into the Republican and Democratic platforms during the nominating conventions both parties will hold in July.
The American Jewish Committee denounced Trump’s proposal to create a registry of Muslims in America, saying in a November 20 statement that “What Mr. Trump proposes, in this case targeting all Muslims, is a horror movie that we Jews are quite familiar with.” The group also issued a statement condemning violence in the presidential campaign, but it did not mention Trump by name.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has also taken tangible steps to address bigotry and xenophobia raised by the Trump campaign. The organization, said director Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, launched a community-wide effort to welcome refugees and reach out to immigrant communities. “As this presidential campaign continues,” Pesner said, “people of good will have a responsibility to resoundingly reject disrespect and xenophobia coming from any candidate.”
Pesner and other Reform rabbis walked out of Trump’s speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s conference in March. Pesner also sent a letter to Trump listing the Reform movement’s concerns about the candidate’s rhetoric and positions. As a result, Pesner met with a senior Trump campaign staffer to discuss these concerns some time after the AIPAC conference in late March. While the Reform leader would not disclose what happened at the meeting, it clearly did not lead to a change of tone for Trump or his supporters.
Speaking out against a major political candidate runs against the DNA of most Jewish organizations. But ADL could be in a better position than others to engage directly in criticism of political candidates. The group’s mission statement, which specifically calls for fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry, and the group’s track record of taking on politicians year-round, gives it a ready way to respond to questions about the restrictions set by the IRS limiting political involvements by not-for-profit organizations.
Still, advocacy groups rely on ties with both parties and with any administration to advance their goals. Some have already been trying, so far with limited success to forge ties with Trump and create working channels with his emerging team of advisers. Repeatedly taking on a presidential nominee, as ADL has been doing, could result in loss of valuable political access if Trump ends up in the White House.
“We have to be principled,” Greenblatt said. The future political implications of his stand, Greenblatt stated, were not a concern for him. He also stressed that ADL was willing to meet with all presidential candidates and plans to work with any administration.
The JCPA, according to Bernstein, is also sticking to a principled approach.
“When you deal with explicit bigotry,” he said, “the value of speaking out against it outweighs the cost of offending a candidate.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman