ADL’s Challenge to Pro-Peace & Justice Groups

On Monday morning NPR’s Tom Gjelten reported the Anti-Defamation League’s recent challenges interfacing with peace and justice groups in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter movement. According to Gjelten, the Anti-Defamation League arose in 1913 to "put an end forever to unfair and unjust discrimination against…any sect or body of citizens." ADL stood alongside the NAACP to end discrimination against African Americans in the South, which was the focus of NPR’s story. The ADL’s new President, Jonathan Greenblatt, a former special assistant to President Obama, wants to rekindle the spirit of solidarity encapsulated in a photo he frequently shows of Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy and the heads of the ADL and NAACP in a Rose Garden snapshot with LBJ just before the famous March on Washington.

The crux of the problem – according to Gjelten and the ADL – is that modern day movements like Black Lives Matter are more partial to advice from Palestinians living under perennial Israeli military occupation for tactics in dealing with heavily militarized police. The solution is to make the ADL "a consistently valued civil rights partner in a time of divided loyalties." But how can the ADL accomplish that? Has it gotten too comfortable in the "suites" to ever march again in the "streets?" Does ADL have anything of value to offer in exchange for the "loyalties" of grassroots movements? Is that even the right question?

A review of the ADL’s unvarnished – yet little known – history may provide answers for how the organization could – but likely will not – become more relevant:

  1. Stop throwing disenfranchised groups under the bus – especially when they inconvenience access to greater funding and power. The ADL’s moment of truth did not occur in Alabama of the 1960s, but rather California of the 1940s. The League had a genuine existential dilemma which resonates today. The ADL could have followed its principles and opposed the mass internment of West Coast Japanese-Americans during WWII. Or it could have supported the single most extremist anti-Japanese voice in America – John R. Lechner – and secretly prepared testimony to Congress about the threat still posed by interred but loyal Japanese Americans even as they languished in camps. Today the ADL likes to use Japanese American interment in its tolerance case studies and teaching materials. In reality – according to former Warner Brothers Studio Personnel Director Jack Holmes, the ADL secretly supported Japanese interment in order to temporarily divert Congressional investigations of alleged communist infiltration of Hollywood studios (PDF, page 32). At that time, a majority of ADL’s funding came from Hollywood studios, according to Holmes.

  2. Stop infiltrating and subverting pro-peace & justice groups. In the 1960s the Organization of Arab Students was becoming too powerful, in the ADL’s view, by organizing large conferences to establish ties between students, scholars and activists interested in Pan Arabism in the Middle East. So it sent in two operatives, complete with cover stories as friendly journalists, to an OAS national conference to uncover exploitable weaknesses in order to take over and subvert the movement. A couple of decades later another ADL operative, Roy Bullock, was caught infiltrating and violating state privacy statutes collecting data on anti-Apartheid and pro-Palestinian groups operating in Northern California and elsewhere. Bullock popped up distributing Holocaust-denial literature at Palestinian conferences to smear the movement, operating undercover as a traveling art dealer sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. In reality, he was paid by the ADL through attorney Bruce Hochman, a conduit who allowed the ADL to also work closely with corrupt law enforcement officials. Although the ADL was caught holding classified information in the affair, Israeli pressure on the Department of Justice thwarted well-warranted espionage charges.

  3. Unwind the ADL’s "special relationship" with the FBI In 2012 the ADL was the second-largest Israel advocacy organization in America with a budget over $50 million, 409 employees and 3,500 volunteers. The ADL has pursued a "special relationship" with the initially resistant FBI since 1940 when it offered up its entire network of operatives as informants in exchange for access to FBI files in order to avoid "duplication" of investigatory efforts.

    Since then, FBI directors have ordered all field offices to liaise with their ADL regional "counterparts." Despite a history of bogus ADL "criminal investigations" into targets such as Arab UN diplomats and intel on a Minnesota professor getting too close to African American political movements, (PDF) the FBI-ADL relationship has grown closer, with ADL operatives now training all special agents at Quantico and holding joint training sessions for local law enforcement officers. Whether this training plays any role in the raft of recent dubious prosecutions against mentally challenged would-be "Islamic terrorist" suspects coaxed by informants to plot violence against US targets is unknowable – the FBI refuses to release ADL training materials under FOIA. (PDF) While Gjelton noted the "ADL chapter in St. Louis assists the U.S. Attorney’s office in staffing" such non-adversarial ADL "insider" relationships with powerful law enforcement agents are likely seen as a problem rather than solution for many pro peace and justice movement members used to taking to the streets and not the suites.

  4. Ditch Israel The ADL is a bit like the recently retired Most Interesting Man Alive portrayed by Jonathan Goldsmith. He didn’t always drink beer, but when he did, he preferred Dos Equis. A great many American social welfare organizations that today are unconditionally pro-Israel were not originally Zionist. But during the Nazi march across Europe, the Holocaust, upon the formation of Israel in 1948 and after their sources of communal funding were taken over by Zionist activists, most of the affinity organizations that today make up the Israel lobby eventually became unconditionally pro-Israel.

    However, today few informed American peace and justice movement activists believe Israel is a shining example of harmonious co-existence between differing peoples. No banning of accurate histories from textbooks, periodic pink washing campaigns and Sabra hummus commercials are likely to change that. Increasing numbers instead believe Israel is a poster-child for apartheid. Many have come to understand – correctly – that the fulcrum of massive unconditional US government support is a multi-billion-dollar system of Israel lobbying organizations paying off politicians, channeling payola to influential university regents and think tankers, while infiltrating operatives into key positions of influence. A tiny handful even speculate – as once did an FBI agent – that key lobbying organizations in such close ongoing coordination with the Israeli government should openly register as Israeli foreign agents – as required by law. They are as focused on their core issues as the ADL once was.

In its initial announcement the League stated clearly that the "defamation of Jews on the stage, in moving pictures" created "an untrue and injurious impression of an entire people and to expose the Jew to undeserved contempt and ridicule" as leading sources of prejudice in most immediate need of redress. The League claimed it would act openly to publicly pressure producers and managers of theaters prior to the staging of defamatory productions, thus correcting "evils before any harm is done." Defamatory newspaper and magazine articles would also be met with "protest to the editor" and "subsequent articles upon the same subject matter, thereby reaching the same reading public and correcting errors." An economic boycott would be then made "by appealing to the patrons and advertisers for co-operation" to confront the most egregious cases of willful abuse.

Like many within the universe of pro peace and justice organizations today, ADL was once a tiny operation. Its Chicago headquarters was originally housed within the law office of Sigmund Livingston and started out with "a $200 budget and two desks." In its early days the ADL was open to all who would sign a membership card. By 1930, the ADL successfully persuaded Roget’s Thesaurus to remove a hateful entry equating the word "Jew" as synonymous with "cunning rich, usurer, extortioner, heretic." But ADL has launched no similarly effective campaign on behalf of today’s most disenfranchised groups. It cannot. Once again funding is a major constraint. Many of the Israel lobby’s biggest donors actively and richly fund Islamophobia.

Today it is Muslims, Arabs and Persians in general (Palestinians, Iranians and the territories where they live in particular) that are under constant assault – not by Roget’s – but vastly more powerful forces such as the military-industrial-congressional complex, Hollywood, the mainstream media and not coincidentally, many Israel affinity organizations. Like the Japanese-American internees once secretly targeted by the ADL, such groups are judged to be weak, disorganized, disenfranchised and unable to tell their own stories – or even possess stories worth hearing. They serve as convenient scapegoats for enfranchised elites and the national security state. Unlike evangelical Christians or Hispanic groups, they do not factor into the Israel lobby’s larger political calculations – and likely never will – absent a radical shift in Israel’s – and therefore the ADL’s – strategy.

But their stories and tactics are relevant. Not because of "competing loyalties," but rather the sheer relevance of Palestinian resistance against all odds as an example for oppressed people tired of poverty, war and oppression around the world. Many in the peace and justice movement are both curious and have internet access. Armed with accurate information, they are unlikely to become sympathetic to the ADL’s highly selective and self-serving historical narratives of the good ol’ days.

Grant F. Smith is the author of the new book Big Israel: How Israel’s Lobby Moves America. He is director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington (IRmep), D.C. Read other articles by Smith, or visit the Israel Lobby Archive website.