Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Jonathan Greenblatt speaking at Schenectady’s Proctors Theater.

Harkening back to the beginning of time when Jews were exiled from various countries and fought to keep their homeland, a new book released by ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt maintains that the same wars and battles could happen in the United States from coast to coast.

It Could Happen Here is a compendium of stories Greenblatt, 51, uses to demonstrate his point, putting fear into the mind of any person who reads this 200-plus page book. The “It” in the title refers to the genocide, murder, acts of bias, systemic discrimination and hatred towards Jews that occurred for more than 5,800 years.

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“There is no question that we’ve seen a normalization of antisemitism from the left and from the right,” Greenblatt told The Jewish Press in a rare interview. “We see people excusing anti-Zionism. We’ve seen people excusing antisemitic conspiracy theories like the great replacement theory. It’s all very troublesome.”

Greenblatt admits the ADL only refers incidents of hate crimes and antisemitism to federal authorities such as the FBI but does not follow up to see how these cases play out in court.

“We could probably do a better job at following up on the reports we give to the federal government,” Greenblatt admits. “We often don’t know what happens. Many of our tips lead to arrests, indictments, prosecutions and prison sentences. I can’t tell you the specifics of that. New York has more antisemitic instances than any state in the union. What’s important is when you see hate you have to say something. You have to respond with facts, not with hyperbole. I think ultimately, we have to be engaged to do what we can. Democracy is a contact sport. We’re living in a very complicated time. Polarization is complicated. Extremism has become elevated and expanded. Antisemitism has become normalized. These have all been challenges.”

During a talk Wednesday, September 21, at Schenectady’s Proctors Theater before an audience of about 100 people, mostly Jewish, Greenblatt emphasized his purpose in writing the book:

“Think of this book as your own personal ADL handbook against hate, filled with the wisdom and tools you need to push back against prejudice and with memorable personal stories,” Greenblatt said. “I realize this book will not please everyone. You’ll feel empowered to step up and uphold principles of tolerance, civility and inclusion in the face of rising bigotry. I wrote the book because of the possibility that illiberalism, fascism and violence could unfold on our shores. Nobody would have guessed that one day people would see brazen and violent attacks on innocent Jews in places like midtown Manhattan and downtown Los Angeles. None of us want to believe that America could end up like Germany in the 1930s.”

When speaking about his grandfather, Bernie Greenblatt, the author said Jews in Europe and the Middle East never thought their land could be destroyed.

“Germany was the only country he ever knew,” Greenblatt said about his grandfather, a refugee. “It was the place that he loved until one day Germany labeled my father, his family and all Jews enemies of the state. The Germans destroyed everything my grandfather and all Jews ever loved. The Germans slaughtered almost all of them and thankfully my grandfather made it here as a refugee, leaving everyone else behind. He said to me on the one occasion when he spoke about his life, that Germany was a wonderful place until it wasn’t. Iran was a great country for the Jews until it wasn’t. My wife came here from Iran when she was 17 years old. My wife and her family are Jews from Iran. Jews were in Iran before the Muslims. We had an ancient Jewish community in Iran that dates back to the Babylonian exile (587 BCE). There are no guarantees that your grandchildren or great grandchildren will be born here in America. We cannot take this for granted.”

Greenblatt is married to Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, an Iranian Jewish political refugee to the United States who is the founder and director of The Alliance for Rights of All Minorities (ARAM), a non-profit. They have three children, all boys.

Greenblatt talked about a construct he uses effectively in his book to demonstrate how hatred develops.

“The pyramid of hate is an education tool. I try to share where we are, where we could be going and then to offer strategies to stop it from happening,” Greenblatt said. “This is kind of a simple idea that hate has to escalate and cascade unless you stop it. It starts with bias attitudes. It could escalate to bias language. It could escalate to acts of harassment to actual violence and genocide. There is a long way from bias attitudes to genocide. Ideas can harden into attitudes, which can manifest as actions.”

Greenblatt, who worked in the Obama administration as a special assistant to the president and as the director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, maintains he is a centrist and sees faults and praiseworthy action on both sides of the political spectrum.

“The United States has been a gift for our people, the Jews, putting Israel aside for a moment,” Greenblatt said. “People on the left and the right are saying political violence is okay. Neither side of the spectrum is exempt from intolerance. The radicalism and the extremism from the far left is frightening in a different way. The extremism of the far-right is like a tsunami that will hit your house, that will hit the community and destroy everything, level every building, kill everyone. The far-right is like a category 5 hurricane.

“Extremism on the far-left is like climate change. Slowly but surely the temperature changes, people don’t notice it, some people observe it but don’t dismiss it. Some people look at it but they deny it and say we can deal with it and suddenly the temperature is up and when conditions are whipped those tsunamis can happen. Violence can happen,” Greenblatt concluded.

Greenblatt blames social media sites for the rise in antisemitism and hate crimes.

“We need to recognize that we have a kind of extremism on both sides. That we have a kind of polarization where people always point to the other side but are unwilling to be accountable for those amongst their group who express ill,” Greenblatt said. “That’s something that if we don’t correct that and we’re not willing to clean up our own houses I worry about what that says for the fate of our society.

“Technology has done so much good in so many ways for so many and yet there is not a doubt in my mind that Facebook is the frontline [for us in] fighting hate. Social media has been a super spreader for antisemitism and extremism in ways that we have never seen previously and could not have even imagined. At ADL we work with these companies every day, all of the tech companies from Apple to Zoom, from Amazon to YouTube. FaceBook is the worst. FaceBook is the one that has been the most difficult to work with of all the tech companies far and away. We have to do all we can to address social media run amok because if we don’t do it, it’s game over,” Greenblatt concluded.

At a time when the state legislature has the fewest number of Jewish elected officials in decades and fewer number of Jewish elected officials on the local level, Greenblatt maintains Jews need to be involved in the sport of politics.

“We need some of that Israeli mentality right here. Not that I’m saying political violence works. Far from it,” Greenblatt warned. “Democracy requires us to be engaged. That means you have to vote. That means you have to volunteer. That means you have to run for office. Our community needs you. They need us. If we don’t show up. If we don’t get involved, we get what Ben Franklin said, the republic we deserve.”

Besides working for Obama, Greenblatt worked on Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign in 1992 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He went on to join the administration as an aide in the Clinton White House and later at the United States Department of Commerce, where he developed international economic policy with a focus on emerging markets and post-conflict economies.

The discussion and presentation included questions from the audience and lasted more than an hour. The event was hosted under the auspices of the Albany-based Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York. The local office of the Anti-Defamation League is run by Beth Martinez and located within the Federation building.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.