What message is the Anti-Defamation League sending the Jewish community by its recent selection of White House aide and social entrepreneur Jonathan Greenblatt to succeed longtime National Director Abraham Foxman?
While some are praising ADL for thinking outside the box with its hire and trying to appeal to a younger demographic, others are concerned that Greenblatt is too visibly partisan and that his past experience may signal ADL’s de-emphasis of the fight against anti-Semitism in favor of civil rights work.
But most agree that replacing Foxman, who will retire in July 2015, is no small task for one of the highest-profile American Jewish organizations.
The 74-year-old Foxman has been ADL’s national director since 1987.
“When you [as an organization] are coming off of a period that has been so dominated by a leader, the history is that the next person often becomes kind of a human sacrifice,” said Ed Rettig, a consultant for Jewish organizations and former director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office.
ADL’s mission statement says it “fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals, and protects civil rights for all.” At a time when global anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism (and the convergence of the two) is on the upswing, particularly in Europe, some Jews have criticized ADL for taking too many detours into alternate issues and fear that Greenblatt’s lack of experience in the area of anti-Semitism will exacerbate the trend.
Greenblatt, a 43-year-old grandson of a Holocaust survivor, currently serves in the Obama administration as special assistant to the president and director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the Domestic Policy Council. He also founded the Impact Economy Initiative at the Aspen Institute think tank and co-founded the bottled water producer Ethos Brands, which donated to global clean water programs and was eventually acquired by the Starbucks Coffee Company.
“We had a number of terrific candidates, and it was a difficult decision,” ADL National Chair Barry Curtiss-Lusher toldJNS in an e-mail statement. “What set Jonathan apart was his passion for our mission, how he articulated his core values and his Jewish identity in the context of our mission, and his experience (and success) in ‘thinking outside the box’ as a social innovator. We think he represents continuity of purpose and policy, but with a fresh approach.”
But to Zionist Organization of America National President Morton Klein, the fact that Greenblatt’s area of expertise is “social domestic policy” suggests that ADL “wants to continue moving in the direction of emphasizing liberal social policy positions, as opposed to emphasizing fighting anti-Semitism and defending Israel.”
Charles Jacobs, head of the Boston-based advocacy group Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), which has clashed with the ADL New England Region over what it calls ADL’s rush to exonerate the Newton, Mass., public school district in a controversy over anti-Israel texts in high schools, believes Foxman’s legacy “consists mainly in his refusal to have the ADL shift its focus to take on the ‘new anti-Semitism,’ an ideology created by left-wingers and Muslims engaged in a global campaign against the Jewish state and its supporters.”
Echoing that sentiment is Chicago-based attorney Joel J. Sprayregen, a former national vice-chair of ADL who ended his involvement with the organization about a decade ago.
“The ADL has been a great champion for civil rights over the years, but of course it’s a defender of the Jewish people, and I think they’ve blurred that mission in recent years, getting involved with things like bullying which are not part of an essential civil rights or Jewish mission,” Sprayregen told JNS.