By Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
Here at the Anti-Defamation League, we get it all the time. Most recently when we criticized Jarryd Hayne, a former Australian rugby star and now a running back on the San Francisco 49ers, for revisiting the ancient charge blaming Jews for the death of Christ.
Columnist Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted, “Maybe not the best use of ADL’s time?”
With all that is going on in the world of a serious nature, some say, is that what ADL should be focusing on? Let’s be clear: We deal everyday with the larger issues. On the very day that the Jarryd Hayne matter surfaced, we issued a strong statement about the Iran nuclear arrangement.
Still, the critics are missing the point. The analogy I would draw is to the approach taken by New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton when he assumed the position for the first time in 1993.
The year before, there had been over 2,000 murders in New York City. All kinds of solutions for this huge problem had been suggested and tried without success.
Bratton took a counter-intuitive approach: Focus first not on the big crimes but on the everyday petty ones, like graffiti and broken windows. People chuckled at this bizarre approach, but it worked. The murder rate went into a precipitous decline, eventually totaling 333 in 2014.
Bratton’s logic: The climate of tolerance for crime reflected in the small stuff opened the way for the truly horrendous acts. Clean up the climate and you will clean up crime.
This is a lesson that ADL learned many decades ago in its struggle against anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred. When public figures, whether politicians, entertainers, athletes or others say hateful things and they go unanswered that helps create a climate receptive to broader hate and even violence. Therefore, standing up every time public figures express hate, rather than being inconsequential, is, in fact, among the more important things one can do to make this a better society.
When I get asked about some of the major contributions that ADL has made to America over the past century, I often focus on this point. We have not rid this country of hate, obviously. But we have made it unacceptable for public figures to engage in hateful speech without a strong reaction from the public and different sectors of society. This has reduced the level of hateful public speech and made for a healthier society.
I, of course, recognize that there are opposite trends at work because of the internet and social media. The challenge of dealing with hate speech through these media is profound, one that we and others work on every day.
Still, the basic concept of standing up against hate speech as a social good remains as important as ever. It rests on the idea that leadership matters - that setting an example for others to emulate is a good thing.
It reflects a belief in the fundamental goodness of the American people. Provide them the information, show them that hateful comments hurt large groups of people, and they will respond.
Along these lines, I often say that the single most important initiative ADL took in its long history was the Anti-Mask law that was passed in Georgia in 1950. This was a time when the KKK was rampant and creating havoc. The Klan’s right to march was protected by the First Amendment. The law we proposed, which was enacted, said they couldn’t march anonymously, their faces hidden by those menacing hoods.
Once they no longer were incognito, they lost their powerful aura. People recognized their neighbors. The mystery of the Klan - a key to their power - had been eviscerated. The Klan’s decline began.
The lesson for us was profound. Bring issues of hate to public attention, reveal the haters and stand up against hate wherever it appears.
Nothing petty about that.