Society / November 20, 2023

Why the Anti-Defamation League Loves Certain Bigots

From apartheid South Africa to Elon Musk, defending Israel overrides fighting antisemitism.

Jeet Heer
Jonathan Greenblatt attends the 2023 TAAF Annual AAPI CEO Dinner on September 26, 2023, in New York City.
Jonathan Greenblatt attends the 2023 TAAF Annual AAPI CEO Dinner on September 26, 2023, in New York City. (JP Yim / Getty Images for The Asian American Foundation (TAAF))

On Wednesday, an obscure social media account with the handle @breakingbaht posted a statement spreading the all-too-familiar “Great Replacement” theory: the conspiratorial fantasy that Diaspora Jews have been promoting mass immigration of non-whites to the West in order to destroy the white race. Writing on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, @breakingbaht tweeted, “Jewish communities have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them. I’m deeply disinterested in giving the tiniest shit now about western Jewish populations coming to the disturbing realization that those hordes of minorities that support flooding their country don’t exactly like them too much.”

Elon Musk, by some measures the wealthiest man in the world and the owner of X, responded to this drivel with enthusiasm, tweeting, “You have said the actual truth.”

Many were disturbed to see a figure as powerful as Musk, whose company Tesla is at the cutting edge of electrical vehicles even as he also controls the still-powerful social site X, endorse a Nazi conspiracy theory. Within days of his tweet, major companies—notably IBM, Apple, Comcast, and Disney—started dropping their advertising accounts with X.

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Musk underscored the point by attacking the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish civil rights group, along the same lines. Two hours after agreeing with @breakingbaht, Musk tweeted, “The ADL unjustly attacks the majority of the West, despite the majority of the West supporting the Jewish people and Israel. This is because they cannot, by their own tenets, criticize the minority groups who are their primary threat.”

Yet Musk soon found an unlikely defender in the form of Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL. Initially, Greenblatt was critical of Musk. He tweeted on Thursday, “At a time when antisemitism is exploding in America and surging around the world, it is indisputably dangerous to use one’s influence to validate and promote antisemitic theories.”

But Greenblatt has long been of two minds about Musk, occasionally chiding him in (as in the above tweet), but also trying to gain Musk’s favor. A perverse example of this came last year when he bizarrely extolled Musk as “an amazing entrepreneur and extraordinary innovator. He is the Henry Ford of our time.” Henry Ford was, as Greenblatt strangely seems to have forgotten, a notorious antisemite and fascist fellow traveller.

On Friday, only two days after Musk cheered on open antisemitism, the billionaire tweeted, “As I said earlier this week, ‘decolonization’, ‘from the river to the sea’ and similar euphemisms necessarily imply genocide. Clear calls for extreme violence are against our terms of service and will result in suspension.”

Greenblatt liked what he heard and cheered Musk on, tweeting, “This is an important and welcome move by @elonmusk. I appreciate this leadership in fighting hate.”

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Greenblatt’s performance here might seem baffling. After all, the ADL defines its mission as “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” Musk has a long history of racism and transphobia that goes well beyond his tweets of the last week. How can Musk possibly be regarded as showing “leadership in fighting hate”?

The answer, of course, is Israel. The ADL is not just an anti-racist and anti-antisemitic organization but also a militant supporter of Israeli nationalism. And the ADL has shown time and again that when push comes to shove, it will abandon the battle against bigotry in order to champion what it sees as in Israel’s best interest.

As New Yorker writer Isaac Chotiner summed up the matter, “The most prominent organization fighting anti-Semitism in America will commend your ‘leadership in fighting hate’ 24 hours after you endorse vile neo-Nazi anti-Semitism…if you take a strong stand against critics of Israel.”

This type of selective forgiveness of antisemitism on behalf of Zionism is hardly unique to the ADL. The recent March for Israel rally in Washington featured as a guest speaker John Hagee, a notoriously antisemitic preacher of apocalyptic Christianity.

The ADL was formed in 1913 in the wake of the arrest of Leo Frank, a Jewish man falsely convicted of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl. Frank was lynched in Georgia in 1915. For many decades, the group was on the forefront of fighting not just antisemitism but all forms of racism. But like many centrist and liberal Jewish organizations, the ADL changed its politics after the Six Day War of 1967, when it became evident that Israel would face increasing pressure from liberals and the left over its occupation of a large Palestinian population. From that point onward, the ADL started to see the left and pro-Palestinian organizations as major foes.

In the 1980s, as noted in a 2014 article by Mark Ames in the Pacific Standard, Chip Berlet, a reporter who specializes in covering the far right, met with Irvin Suall, one of the ADL’s major researchers. Berlet was hoping for a friendly exchange of information about the antisemitic agitator Lyndon LaRouche. Instead, Suall inundated Berlet with information about Berlet and one of his cowriters, indicating that the ADL had carefully monitored their left-wing political activism. This was by way of indicating why Suall wasn’t eager to work with them. Suall summed up the organization’s politics by saying,

“The right-wing isn’t the problem. The left-wing is the problem. The Soviet Union is the biggest problem in the world for Jews. It’s the American left that is the biggest threat to American Jews. You’re on the wrong track. You’re part of the problem.”

Elon Musk was born in 1971 in apartheid South Africa. As it happens, the most flagrant previous example of the ADL’s cozying up to bigotry also involves South Africa.

In fighting the left, both Israel and the ADL started to see the apartheid regime in South Africa as an important ally. In 1976, Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres hosted a visit by South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster, who had been a commander in a pro-Nazi group in the 1930s.

The ADL joined in the barely concealed alliance with South Africa. Writing in Foreign Policy in 2010, Glenn Frankel, a former Washington Post reporter, summed up the history: “The Anti-Defamation League participated in a blatant propaganda campaign against Nelson Mandela and the ANC in the mid 1980s and employed an alleged ‘fact-finder’ named Roy Bullock to spy on the anti-apartheid campaign in the United States— a service he was simultaneously performing for the South African government. The ADL defended the white regime’s purported constitutional reforms while denouncing the ANC as ‘totalitarian, anti-humane, anti-democratic, anti-Israel, and anti-American.’”

ADL researcher Bullock, working with assets in the FBI and multiple police departments, had amassed a massive file on American activists, politicians, and organizations. His files, which included sensitive information, ran to more than 12,000 individuals and 950 groups. In 1992, Suall described Bullock as the ADL’s “number one investigator.”

Ames, who was himself spied on by the ADL for anti-apartheid activism, noted in 2014,

By 1986, the relationship between Israel and South Africa had grown so close that the ADL was regularly sharing confidential files with the South African Bureau of State Security, that country’s version of the Gestapo. The files contained detailed information about Californians who opposed apartheid. Then there was the file on Representative Ron Dellums, who was the head of the House Armed Services Committee and an African-American from Oakland. After the scandal broke, an ADL employee admitted to the Los Angeles Times that spying on a black U.S. Congressman for a racist foreign government “was not the most political thing to do.”

Ames describes in detail how malicious the ADL’s spying was, including this case: “The ADL spy ring also helped trigger the 1987 arrests of eight Los Angeles Muslims—seven Palestinian men and one Kenyan woman—who were falsely accused of supporting terrorism and ordered expelled from the United States. SWAT teams broke into the defendants’ homes, detained them without charge or trial, and subjected the group, known as the ‘Los Angeles Eight,’ to an ordeal that only ended in 2007, when a Los Angeles judge finally dismissed all charges and denounced the case as ‘a festering wound on the body of respondents and an embarrassment to the rule of law.’”

None of this is ancient history. As James Bamford reported in The Nation on Friday, the ADL is working with pro-Israel groups today that are spying on American students and activists.

Antisemitism remains a serious problem and a growing one. But the ADL has shown time and again that it cannot be relied on to fight antisemitism or racism, since its primary mission is something else: the no-holds-barred defense of Israel against all criticism.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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