When it comes to moves against BDS and the Anti-Defamation League, it’s complicated.
Like most of the mainstream Jewish community, the ADL views the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel as deplorable. In fact, said the group’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt in May, “At its core BDS is an anti-Semitic movement. It is part and parcel of the larger effort to delegitimize the Jewish state.”
At the same time, the ADL views many anti-BDS bills in state legislatures, including those already passed into law, as unconstitutional infringements on free speech.
But, the group makes clear, it has no intention of actually acting to oppose these bills — except in some cases. And it applauds the lawmakers sponsoring and supporting them. Moreover, it has no quarrel with other Jewish groups that push such measures.
“ADL could not ignore the fact that, in the U.S., a decision by a private entity to boycott a country, as despicable as it may be in the case of Israel, is protected by our Constitution,” the group’s website states unambiguously.
In an interview June 15, Greenblatt made clear he stood by that assessment, as well as a May 2015 declaration by his predecessor, Abraham Foxman, that anti-BDS legislation “strikes at the heart of First Amendment free speech.”
“We believe that if challenged in the courts, there are questions as to whether the recent bills would hold up to First Amendment scrutiny,” was how Greenblatt chose to put it in his own words.
But Greenblatt also stood by the group’s statement on its website: “Make no mistake about it. ADL is NOT opposing anti-BDS bills.”
Except, that is, for bills in Maryland, Pennsylvania and a federal bill in Congress that were, according to ADL spokesman Todd Gutnick, “too sweeping.” Those bills earned ADL’s opposition, he said, because they would have severely penalized public institutions of higher education for actions construed as supportive of BDS by a student group or faculty member.
“Because these were so far reaching, we voiced our concern,” Gutnick explained.
At the same time, the ADL actively supported a recent executive order issued by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that aims to develop a comprehensive list of business engaged in BDS activities and divest the state’s investment portfolios of any holdings in these entities.
Asked in a follow-up email how that fit in with its view that anti-BDS measures are unconstitutional, and its stance on non-involvement elsewhere, Gutnick wrote that “state or federal efforts to punish Constitutionally protected speech is problematic … What we do approve of is legislators, governors and others taking a stand against BDS, and we have praised them for doing so.”
The clarifications ADL offered followed a June 15 Forward story that depicted the ADL as standing almost alone among mainstream Jewish communal groups in opposing anti-BDS legislation; the right-wing Zionist Organization of America had also highlighted the ADL’s opposition to some legislature efforts in public letters earlier this month.
“We simply have made it clear that ADL will not stand in the way of anti-BDS legislative efforts,” Greenblatt told the Forward, “and will praise lawmakers who stand up to defend Israel.”
Like his predecessor, Greenblatt stressed that the group strongly supported legislative resolutions condemning BDS, as well as moves to forge active ties between state education and other institutions here and counterparts in Israel.
“It’s really not very different,” he said, referring to Foxman’s stance.
There are many tactics to fight BDS, Greenblatt said, and the “ADL supports robust resolutions that condemn BDS and strengthen ties to the Jewish state” as opposed to more sweeping legislation.
When asked whether he made any distinction between boycotts against Israeli companies operating in the occupied West Bank or in East Jerusalem — whose annexation by Israel the international community has rejected — and boycotts against companies in Israel proper, Greenblatt said, “No.”
“They are all wrong,” he said.
In the past year, anti-BDS laws have been enacted in nine states — Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and South Carolina. There have also been efforts to introduce such legislation in Congress.
“Anti-BDS legislation comes in all sizes and shapes,” said Marc Stern, a legal advocate and the American Jewish Committee’s general counsel. The AJC has backed some anti-BDS legislation. “It’s not as if you’re simply opposed to anti-BDS legislation or you support it.”
For example, Stern said, there are bills that allow states to disinvest from companies that will not do business in Israel. There are also bills that allow states to not set up contracts with companies that boycott Israel.
The far left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace is one of the only Jewish organization that supports BDS, rejecting “the assertion that BDS is inherently anti-Semitic” and calling it “the most effective grassroots means for applying nonviolent pressure to change Israeli policies.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.