Building a Path Forward; Combating Anti-Semitism in 2019: Jonathan Greenblatt's Address to 2019 National Leadership Summit

  • June 2, 2019
Building a Path Forward

Remarks by Jonathan Greenblatt

CEO and National Director, Anti-Defamation League

To the ADL National Leadership Summit

June 2, 2019, Washington, D.C.

(As prepared for delivery)

Thank you, Esta, for that kind introduction, and welcome to our 2019 National Leadership Summit.

I am so glad to be here.

Its been an exhausting year and a hard year, and to that end I want to ask you to pause for a moment of silence to honor the 12 people who were killed in Virginia Beach just two days ago, in another senseless act of gun violence.

Despite such tragedies, I always find NLS to be rejuvenating.

All of you bring so much energy and passion.

And I know this firsthand.

As many of you know, I participated in the Salvin Leadership Program, a forerunner to GLI, almost 20 years ago.

So I literally was in your shoes.

And that allows me to say with confidence that you are not just the leaders of tomorrow: you are our leaders today.

You are not just positioned to be leaders of ADL.

You will be leaders for your communities, however you might define them.

And I am so proud that ADL will be part of your story because there is much work to do together.

In fact, this work has never mattered quite as much.

I saw that myself just last month.

A few weeks after Passover, I was leading an ADL delegation to Europe and sitting in the Palace of Westminster in London, meeting with members of the British Parliament.

Now, not all of them were Jewish, but many were members of the Labour Party and some recently had left Labour – their lifelong political home – because of the out-of-control anti-Semitism in its midst, and the inability and unwillingness of Labour to do anything about it.

Now, England is not America.

We have different cultures, different political systems, and different histories of how our Jewish communities have evolved and been accepted.

Nevertheless, they said: let me tell you what's happening to our party.

Let me tell you how this is affecting our country.

Let me tell you what I have seen.

And the stories they related were chilling.

The emails that they passed around in hard copy were horrifying.

Finally, they warned: this is not just our story.

This is a glimpse into your future.

We are five years ahead of you.

And if you learn anything from us, they said, please remember that you must act now to draw lines and to interrupt anti-Semitism whenever it appears.

I heard this in London.

And I heard this again in Paris where I also visited and where the community is now writing off whole swaths of the country as uninhabitable for Jews.

Their communal leadership is assisting French Jews as they undertake what's known as the "internal exile" and abandon villages and towns where they have persisted for generations so they can move to the safety and security of a handful of Jewish enclaves inside Paris.

And it's not that these leaders are just telling this to me because of who I am – or because they are overly sensitive.

Just last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told CNN: "There is to this day not a single synagogue, not a single daycare center for Jewish children, not a single school for Jewish children that does not need to be guarded by German policemen."

You see, this is not a drill.

This is no longer a debate.

The time has passed when we could retreat to our ironclad belief that America is different.

Our democratic institutions are stronger, sturdier.

It can't happen here.

We must take their warnings seriously.

We must heed their words.

Because we have seen a rash of terrifying signs right here and right now, on our very doorstep.

Now I know we live in a world of perpetual outrage.

Its hard to keep the headlines straight when your phone is buzzing nonstop with updates to your newsfeed.

But here's a snapshot of what has happened over the past half a year:

Attempted arson attacks against Chabad houses in the suburbs of Boston.

An unexploded Molotov cocktail thrown at a shul in Chicago.

Kids taunting their Jewish classmates with "heil Hitlers" and drawing swastikas on lockers not in just one school or one state – but in schools across the country.

Cemeteries desecrated.

Synagogues vandalized.

Museums violated.

And almost daily reports of a Jewish man or woman being verbally harassed or physically attacked in Brooklyn.

In fact, the New York City Police Department just announced last week that there's been an 83 percent increase in hate crimes in New York City compared to last year, with a spike in anti-Semitic incidents accounting for 59 percent of all hate crimes during the period.

New York City, my friends.

New York City.

Then there's Poway.

And Pittsburgh.

And Charlottesville.

And the fact that, according to the FBI, among all religion-based hate crimes, Jews remain the most targeted group despite the fact that we are less than two percent of the US population.

And according to our own data at ADL, 2018 was the third-highest year for anti-Semitic incidents since we began tracking such acts 40 years ago.

Assaults more than doubled year over year.

The number of victims nearly tripled.

Now, in my position, I deal with these statistics and the stories behind them every single day.

But make no mistake –

I know that this is not normal.

This is something we have not seen for decades.

For generations.

Complicating all of this is the fact that as we try to fight anti-Semitism, it has become a political football.

While we want our leaders – elected, communal, and others – to focus on the problem of anti-Semitism and to stand united in fighting it, instead what we get is parsing words, pointing fingers, and cynical attempts to use anti-Semitism as a partisan weapon.

Some do it explicitly to divide the Jewish community amongst ourselves.

Others do it to drive a wedge between Jews and our allies.

There are others who do it to muddy debates about Middle East policy.

And some of the loudest examples are those who make incendiary anti-Jewish statements but perversely claim that somehow they are the victims, positioning themselves as martyrs as a ploy to legitimize the illegitimate.

Along the way, accusations and counter-accusations get amplified and simplified, coarsened and concretized in the non-stop echo chamber of social media, talk radio and partisan political warfare.

But let me tell you – if anti-Semitism becomes a contested issue, then we have lost.

If anti-Semitism is seen as just an empty charge leveled in the heat of political battle, then it will be Jews who are hurt, but all people of good faith will lose.

That is why I believe that as we fight anti-Semitism, we must keep in mind these principles.

First, words have consequences.

That's why we can never look the other way when it comes to anti-Semitism.

If we do, it leads to normalization, escalation, and eventually, institutionalization.

That may mean that we may need to have some tough conversations with our friends and allies.

After Pittsburgh, this became crystal clear to me.

Since then, I've been having those conversations – some in private, some in public.

And I'm going to have more of them.

Not because it makes me feel good, but because I literally have no choice.

And it's something that you must do too.

So if your favored elected official or preferred political candidate, a person with whom you might agree on nearly every other issue, rails against "globalists" or rants endlessly about "neocons," you must speak up.

If your longtime friend sees conspiracies of Jewish money behind every protest movement or if your newfound ally starts equating Zionism with racism, you must call them out.

And if you do, ADL will be there right there alongside you.

You see, we won't cut someone a break because of their identity or politics.

Instead we will demand that they afford us the same dignity and fairness that we would extend to them.

Second, bipartisanship is the best way to address anti-Semitism in a political context.

The House's Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism is a perfect example of how this can and should work.

I am thrilled that the chairs of this task force will be joining us on Tuesday.

And I applaud all of them for their leadership.

But, just as we need bipartisanship, I want to underline that we also cannot afford partisanship.

That means that it's often most important to speak out when anti-Semitism is being expressed within one's own political party or coalition -- not just when it occurs on the other side of the aisle.

This simple idea always has been true but in these polarized times, it has a newfound urgency.

All people should remember that neither side of the ideological spectrum is exempt from intolerance.

And so keep in mind, if you only find the time to rise and criticize when you see hate happening on the other side, that is cowardice not courage.

Third, American Jews should never be used as a political wedge or prop.

When elected officials intentionally downplay acts of anti-Semitism as just one of many social ills or when they insert statements condemning anti-Semitism into totally unrelated legislation, such maneuvers hijack the matter at hand and undermine the seriousness with which anti-Semitism must be tackled on its own terms.

Resolutions and legislation should not be crafted to make the other side look soft on this issue simply to score political points.

Such tactics weaken the critical bipartisan consensus necessary for combating this intolerance.

These cynical gestures achieve little more than making it easier for real anti-Semites to hide behind politics.

When politicians clothe themselves in a love of the state of Israel even as they use the Jewish people for partisan gain, it should stir outrage among each and every one of us.

And when others, even some within the Jewish community itself, reduce incredibly complex and painful debates into post-it notes, we diminish ourselves and degrade the conversation.

Fourth and finally, there's a difference between criticizing Israeli policies and delegitimizing Israel.

We understand this can be tricky.

And there is nothing wrong with calling out policies or practices of this or that Israeli government, regardless of who is offended.

Frankly I believe that arguing zealously about issues in Israel, whether its an upcoming parliamentary election or its treatment of Palestinians living in the West Bank, such debates are a Zionist impulse.

These types of discussions often are rooted in a love of Israel.

I say that as someone who partakes in them regularly and who will never apologize for my Zionism.

But, when we see unrelenting assaults on the only Jewish state in the world, and unfair attacks on the very nature of that state, that is something very different.

When we see demonization and double standards, that is not just bothersome: its bias.

When criticism of Israeli policy lapses into long-standing tropes used to harm the Jewish people, that is unacceptable no matter how you identify.

My friends, when I started in this job almost four years ago, I made it clear that I would be guided by the founding mission of this organization: to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.

And I accepted this role because, like ADL's founders, I believed that you can't have one without the other.

And I still believe that.

That's why the fight against anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish concern.

It's the concern of any one who believes in a world in which there is justice and fair treatment for us all.

Just like the fight against racism and homophobia, against anti-Muslim bias and xenophobia, against misogyny and anti- immigrant hatred – whether or not you see yourself among these ranks, these absolutely are your fights too.

We need people of all faiths and backgrounds to join us in this struggle just as we join them in their labors.

We can't allow politics to distract us.

We can't allow complacency to take hold.

We can't allow others to define or explain away the problem – because at the end of the day, it is us…

our families…

our children…

our synagogues…

and our schools that inevitably will bear the brunt of this hate if we allow it to spread.

And, as we have seen in Europe and throughout history, it inevitably will.

That's why I am so glad to see all of you here for this summit.

And, over the next few days, I hope you will learn, debate, and recommit yourself to action.

And if we do that, I am optimistic that we can combat anti-Semitism, that we can push back on prejudice and we truly can fight hate for good.

Thank you for being here and for being part of this fight.