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For A Century, White Supremacists Have Smeared the ADL. Now, The Left Has Picked Up The Habit

The Anti-Defamation League is the world’s leading institution fighting anti-Semitism. But in 2018, it has fielded staunch criticism from the left as well as the right.

The situation on the left came to a head in April, after two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for no reason other than being black. Starbucks announced it would provide racial bias training to all of its retail employees, “with guidance from several national and local experts confronting racial bias,” including ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt.

But for some, like Women’s March national co-chair Tamika Mallory, the inclusion of ADL proved that Starbucks was “not committed to addressing the concerns of black folks.” ADL, Mallory said, “is CONSTANTLY attacking black and brown people.” Her Women’s March colleague Linda Sarsour agreed: “Starbucks almost had me on their anti-bias training for all employees UNTIL I heard ADL was enlisted as one of the orgs to build their anti-bias curriculum,” she wrote on Facebook.

This antagonism toward ADL’s legitimacy on the left comes on the heels of the anti-ADL “Deadly Exchange” campaign waged last year by the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace. Launched last Spring, Deadly Exchange accuses ADL of being culpable in the police killings of American citizens, among other nefarious acts.

ADL isn’t only getting it from the left. Delegitimizing rhetoric has shown up on the right as well. After Greenblatt opposed a Trump appointee for the National Security Council on the grounds that the appointee was “Islamophobic”, CSP Adjunct Fellow Caroline Glick tweeted that ADL “is not a Jewish organization but a leftist group.” And last July, after ADL published a “Who’s Who” of the alt-right and alt lite, Chad Felix Greene, The Federalist senior contributor and author of “Almost Jewish: Converting to Judaism the Hard Way”, declared his solidarity with many on the list, “all falsely accused by the ADL hit list.” “Stand against intimidation. Stand against bullying. Stand against political targeting. Stand against silencing. Stand against ADL,” Greene tweeted.

Anti-ADL sentiment is increasingly common in mainstream discourse. And yet, there is nothing new about attempts to delegitimize ADL, a practice nearly as old as ADL itself. And the criticism has remained surprisingly consistent in its use of anti-Semitic tropes.

From its founding in 1913 until today, ADL has faced criticism portraying the organization as a powerful, subversive arm of Zionism that endeavors to fetter the rights of Americans. And, for at least the last 25 years, there have been conspiratorial allegations that ADL corrupts American law enforcement.

No organization is perfect. And yet, the criticism ADL has faced is so consistent in its tropes and so disproportionate to the organization’s actual faults as to imply far more about ADL’s accusers than about ADL.


Within a decade of ADL’s founding in 1913, the industrialist Henry Ford inveighed against the institution in “The International Jew”, an influential anti-Semitic publication. “The International Jew” wasn’t only popular in America, where it was circulated nationally by Ford car dealers, but also across Europe, where it was disseminated by the Nazis and acclaimed by Hitler himself.

ADL spearheaded the American Jewish community’s response to Ford’s anti-Semitic propaganda, trying to address the issue in private meetings with Ford. But when those efforts proved fruitless, ADL adopted a more public strategy and repudiated the allegations of Ford’s “poison pen.”

On a subsequent occasion, when ADL organized an advertising boycott of a newspaper due to its anti-Semitism, The International Jew characterized ADL’s efforts as intimidating “bulldozing methods.” The following year, Ford’s newspaper wrote of ADL, “That league knows how to put the screws on anyone who disparages the Jews. From important New York publishers, down to inconsequential country newspapers, the Anti-Defamation League makes its power felt.”

Ford’s attacks perfectly encapsulated the well-established yet rarely explored truism, that confronting anti-Semitism is, to the anti-Semite, an oppressive exercise of power. Ford had no problem with anti-Semitism or the disparaging of Jews; his problem was with anyone who would defend them.

In Ford’s view, that ADL “grows frantic over innocent remarks on the part of ‘Gentiles,’ and is absolutely indifferent to the misdeeds of thousands of Jews” was a “disgrace.” The real source of anti-Semitism was apparently not anti-Semites but rather the Jews themselves.

The animosity toward ADL grew a bit subtler in a subsequent iteration at the hands of an anti-Semitic propagandist by the name of Robert H. Williams. Williams merits the dubious distinction of being an early Holocaust denier. In 1952 he referred to “the myth of the slaughter of six million Jews” as the “most fabulous lie.” But it was earlier, in 1947, while he was still an active-duty military intelligence officer, that Williams authored a 44-page “exposé” of ADL.

ADL, Williams asserted, was a well-funded “secret Gestapo” in a “world communist offensive” against America. (This was especially derisive coming the year after the Nuremberg tribunal convicted the actual Gestapo of “the persecution and extermination of the Jews.”) In Williams’ characterization, ADL fixed its “watchful eye on every radio, every lecture platform, every publisher, every movie film producer, every school teacher, every political party, every public official and every citizen who becomes conspicuous or influential.”

That ADL is vigilant is no secret; monitoring anti-Semitism is its raison d’être. Yet Williams portrayed ADL’s monitoring of anti-Semitism as a secretive enemy threat, with an impossibly pervasive reach, operating against the country from within the country.

This malevolent distortion is also apparent in Williams’ other claims. He alleged that ADL sought “suppression of speech” through the “power of intimidation.” “The charge of anti-Semitism has become perhaps the most potent weapon” in ADL’s arsenal, Williams wrote, and he further described claims of anti-Semitism as “attacks” and “vicious smears.”

“Who are the speakers the ADL sends to talk to our children in the schools? And by what right does the Anti-Defamation League presume to ‘educate’ our children?” he asked.

Where ADL had raised allegations of anti-Semitism, Williams’ exposé issued a defensive counter-accusation that ADL had raised allegations of anti-Semitism dishonestly in order to silence legitimate criticism of Jews. This is the model that will return, again and again.

Take, for example, the writings of Jack Tenney in the 1950s. Tenney served as a California state senator and the chair of the state’s Committee on Un-American Activities during the 1940s. A former leftist, Tenney became overzealously anti-communist and ultimately ran on the ticket of Gerald L. K. Smith’s anti-Semitic and segregationist Christian Nationalist Party. After leaving the state senate, Tenney authored several anti-Semitic books, including Anti-Gentile Activity in America, and devoted an entire section of his 1953 anti-Semitic pamphlet “Zion’s Fifth Column” to the nefariousness of ADL.

Jack Tenney’s “Zion’s Fifth Column.”

Tenney, too, described ADL as “probably the largest and most efficient private Gestapo in the world.” Hidden donations funded this “private espionage and propaganda agency” which served as “the nerve center of a world-wide net-work whose tentacles reach into every Gentile activity.” The anti-Semitic octopus imagery is unmistakable.

Tenney also cast ADL as a perfidious foreign element. As a militant arm of Zionism, ADL’s secret agents conducted expansive espionage against American citizens. They injected racism into political campaigns. With “multitudinous controls of the media of communication they are capable of destroying reputations and silencing all rebuttal.”

Versions of these criticisms of ADL have become mainstream today, but they first developed and proliferated on the margins, in the hands of overt anti-Semites. While his name may no longer be familiar, Willis Carto was once one of the most influential figures on the far-right. He founded the white supremacist group Liberty Lobby in 1958 and, two decades later, its spin-off, the Institute for Historical Review, which tried to wrap Holocaust denial in a cloak of legitimate research.

Carto’s efforts were heartily embraced by the likes of David Duke, then the head of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and Frank Collin, founder of a Nazi party. For the decades it was in existence, Liberty Lobby published a weekly newspaper called “The Spotlight”. At the height of its popularity it claimed 200,000 paid subscribers.

“Exposing” ADL activities was more than a one-time feature of the publication. In 1997, for example, Spotlight reported from an ADL meeting, where Spotlight-friendly protesters apparently used a bullhorn to warn passing drivers about the “agents of the Zionist government of Israel” and “enemies of America.” Picketers carried signs such as “ADL Source of Corruption” and “ADL Masters of Deceit.”

Spotlight also accused American law enforcement of acting as “unwitting pawns in the strategy of the ADL.” ADL’s “alien mentality” supposedly desensitized law enforcement, and taught them the psychological skills to lobby for thought control. In a similar vein, the 1986 Liberty Lobby book, Conspiracy Against Freedom, was devoted entirely to alleging an ADL campaign against freedom of speech and thought.

“There is a conspiracy in this country,” Liberty Lobby declared, “to limit public comment and discussion to what a small but powerful clique has predetermined to be ‘acceptable.’” This Jewish conspiracy moves to silence anyone who attempts to introduce ideas it deems unacceptable, and ADL was identified as its front-line troops.

Liberty Lobby hoped the book would reach not only white supremacists but Americans of every persuasion. Even those who disagreed with Liberty Lobby’s ideology could “recognize that the actions of the ADL are contrary to everything that is American.” Every citizen should “become aware that there exists in America today a force so powerful that it can determine what you should know and what you should not know; what you can hear on the radio and what you cannot hear; what you can read and what you cannot read—indeed, what you are permitted to believe and what you are not permitted to believe.”

Liberty Lobby’s “Conspiracy Against Freedom.”

No account of anti-Semites’ invective against ADL would be complete without mention of Lyndon LaRouche, the paranoid conspiracy theorist, perennial presidential candidate, and felon who is now in his 90s.

LaRouche started his political life in communist circles after the Second World War. His leftist National Caucus of Labor Committees, founded in the late 1960s, had a sizable Jewish membership, but even so LaRouche expressed grotesque anti-Semitism early on.

An article he published in 1973 contained a lengthy footnote describing Zionism as a recent hysterical fabrication and insisting that original Jewish doctrine sought special privileges “for a caste of merchant-usurers.” Jewish culture, LaRouche wrote, is “merely the residue left to the Jewish home after everything saleable has been marketed to the Goyim.”

Though he started out on the left, by the mid-1970s LaRouche had joined forces with white supremacists, including Carto and Liberty Lobby. A central feature of LaRouche’s swing to the far-right involved “declaring war on the Jewish lobby, the international Jewish bankers, Jews in the U.S. government, and (most especially) the Anti-Defamation League.”

LaRouche and his party’s acrimonious campaign against ADL included the founding of a “Provisional Committee to Clean Up B’nai B’rith.” (Until recently ADL was under the umbrella of B’nai B’rith.) In 1981, LaRouche promised to “crush” the ADL, which he termed “murderous filth.”

In 1992, Executive Intelligence Review, a LaRouche newsmagazine, published a 150-page pamphlet entirely devoted to “The Ugly Truth About the ADL.” Alongside allegations that ADL was responsible for drug addiction in America, EIR concluded “that the ADL is one of the most pernicious agencies working to destroy the United States, through the subversion of law and moral values…and through its collusion with hostile foreign agencies.”

This EIR pamphlet contained what seems to be the earliest accusations that ADL’s law enforcement exchange trips with Israel have a pernicious influence on American law enforcement. ADL has “infiltrated your local police force,” EIR warned. “Since the early 1980s, the ADL has sponsored a half-dozen junkets to Israel for local police chiefs, sheriffs and public safety directors.” The LaRouche publication leaped to conspiratorial conclusions about the motives and content of these trips: “The top cops are wined and dined, and given the hard sell by the Israeli Mossad, Israeli Defense Force and National Police. The Israeli government’s brutal treatment of the Palestinian residents of the occupied territories is held up as the model of how to deal with protesters and demonstrators.”

EIR accused ADL of using “the infiltration of law enforcement to spread its own brand of hatred: Blacks are inherently anti-Semitic; Arabs, including Arab-Americans, are sub-human; anyone opposed to the Zionist lobby is automatically suspect as a left radical or a right radical anti-Semitic terrorist. As citizens and taxpayers, you have the right to know whether your local police have been subjected to brainwashing by the ADL.”

Executive Intelligence Review’s 150-page pamphlet, “The Ugly Truth About the ADL.”

Now, 25 years later, these same arguments are at the center of JVP’s Deadly Exchange campaign. At times, the language used by JVP is nearly identical to that used by EIR.

Just as LaRouche’s EIR decried how Israel’s “brutal treatment of the Palestinian residents of the occupied territories is held up as the model” by ADL, JVP Deputy Director Stefanie Fox declared that programs like ADL’s “turn Israel’s 70 years of dispossession and 50 years of Occupation into a marketing brochure for successful policing. We want to end Israel’s human rights abuses, not hold them up as a model.”

A Deadly Exchange campaign video likewise claims the exchange programs “serve an exchange of worst practices, emboldening racist policing in the U.S. and holding up an occupying army as a global gold standard.”

The similarity is uncanny.

It is eminently possible that JVP developed its stance against ADL organically, without any direct link to the extremists who have honed similar grievances against ADL since the 1920s. I certainly do not claim that JVP copied the language of the Deadly Exchange campaign directly from LaRouche, for instance. But when the language one uses to describe a Jewish organization has so much in common with a robust history of anti-Semitism, it might be time to reevaluate that language.


The criticism of ADL is not without some small kernels of truth behind it. Indeed, ADL has taken a few questionable actions in its long and otherwise illustrious history.

For example, ADL’s statement against building a mosque near the Ground Zero site was simply wrong. And ADL waited far too long before finally recognizing the Armenian genocide in 2016.

But a closer look at the most disturbing accusation, that ADL spied on people of color, reveals more bluster than crime. It’s true that one of ADL’s independent contractors, Roy Bullock, amassed files on nearly 10,000 individuals and 950 groups. He clearly cast an overly wide net in his investigations — his files included NAACP and Arab American organizations — although it is equally clear that much of his investigative work, targeting actual extremists, was to the benefit of the public. It’s also true that Bullock sold some information to South Africa’s apartheid government. Unsubstantiated, however, is any connection between Bullock’s more unethical actions and ADL. He was not an ADL employee, and certainly not an ADL representative. The information Bullock collected was in his own personal files, stored on his own personal computer. The information he passed along to ADL was a tiny fraction of what he had collected. While Bullock initially claimed otherwise, ADL did not know about his dealings with South Africa, let alone authorize them. ADL ultimately settled with prosecutors and plaintiffs, but admitted no wrongdoing. Neither ADL nor Bullock was prosecuted.

As for the ADL’s alleged mind control over law enforcement, these claims are nothing less than attempts to scapegoat Jews for the sins of American police. Many groups including the NAACP legitimately interact with law enforcement in furtherance of their interests. But while other groups are usually not accused of nefariously influencing police through these interactions, ADL is regularly imagined to have the preternatural ability to control how police think and act. From ordinary interactions, ADL is accused of turning law enforcement agencies into its marionettes of malfeasance.

For those who reject the legitimacy of ADL, accounts of the organization’s misdeeds are invariably warped and blown far out of proportion. Every misstep is forever remembered, and every good deed is quickly forgotten.

This is not to say that ADL deserves to be excused for its failings. On the contrary, ADL should be called to task commensurate with those failings. But we should take extra care in assessing the allegations against ADL by those who are themselves the targets of ADL criticism. Because often a driving factor is a discomfort with the very idea of opposing anti-Semitism.


JVP’s antagonism toward ADL began as early as 2010, when JVP was included on ADL’s top-ten list of anti-Israel groups. In response JVP labeled ADL “an embarrassment” and accused ADL of “simply crying anti-Semitism when anyone says enough already!” In 2013, JVP claimed ADL “foments Islamophobia” and “smears critics of Israel with [an] anti-semitism label.”

From there, JVP’s rhetoric grew increasingly hostile. In 2015, JVP asserted that ADL was not on the side of freedom. In a statement foreshadowing the Deadly Exchange campaign, JVP’s St. Louis chapter called on “all who oppose white supremacy to cut ties with the Anti-Defamation League.” They claimed that mainstream Jewish organizations in St. Louis like the ADL “exercise white privilege in an attempt to silence communities of color and undermine black and brown solidarity.”

Two months later, JVP published a pamphlet called “Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate Over Israel on Campus,” featuring ADL among other organizations. And in early 2017, a number of JVP leaders questioned whether ADL is a group that “in good conscience, we cannot and should not stand. We know similar questions have been asked in many different contexts over the years; we find it particularly salient at this moment.”

Of course, ADL has not been a passive receiver of these accusations. ADL has tracked JVP’s public activities, responded to some of JVP’s more outlandish claims, and published profiles of the group. The most recent ADL statement on the group alleges JVP “has taken increasingly radical positions and has employed questionable tactics in pursuit of its mission to diminish support for Israel.” (ADL has assiduously avoided labeling JVP as “anti-Semitic.”)

This year has only seen JVP and its allies redouble their attempts to delegitimize ADL, most notably in the wake of last month’s Starbucks scandal. JVP Deputy Director Ari Wohlfeiler made clear that the goal was not about reforming ADL but about “exposing” ADL “as an illegitimate force in justice movements.”

That JVP has used the same language as white supremacists to describe American Jewry’s largest institution may, as I say, be a coincidence. And yet, JVP has engaged with the successor to Liberty Lobby’s Spotlight newspaper, American Free Press. In November, JVP shared to social media an article by Philip Giraldi that accused ADL of trying to criminalize free speech and thought.

They later apologized. “We mistakenly tweeted an article that violated our own ethical guidelines and have deleted it,” JVP tweeted. “We apologize for the error.” But JVP’s DC chapter posted the very same article the following day. The link remained there until January 11, when I pointed it out for a second time.

These may have been honest mistakes. But surely JVP and the others who criticize ADL don’t allow them any missteps.

ADL certainly should not be immune from criticism. Quite the contrary; if ADL fights anti-Semitism in a way that another anti-racism organization considers problematic, ADL should absolutely take those concerns seriously.

And yet, in living memory of the Nazi Holocaust, with anti-Semitism on the rise worldwide, Jews have every right to insist on Jewish safety and security. ADL should not be expected to take a backseat, or to act only subject to the permission of others.

ADL’s fight against anti-Semitism should be a co-equal partner in the broader fight against racism.

There’s a categorical difference between constructive criticism and demonization. Anti-Semitism imagines a shadowy Jewish tyranny that deprives deserving people of their freedom with impunity. As described by Joseph Goebbels, it “stands behind all the unnatural forces that…attempt to deceive the world and keep humanity in the dark.” ADL, since its inception and for nearly a century, has been held to represent this conspiracy. To the anti-Semite, ADL is a ruthless lever of power to suppress people and muzzle dissent.

While ADL is the immediate target of such delegitimization, the ultimate target of these campaigns is Jewry as a whole.

To campaign against the very legitimacy of ADL is to campaign against Jews.

Andrew Mark Bennett is a lawyer and doctoral fellow in the “Human Rights Under Pressure” program at the Freie Universität Berlin.


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