ADL National Leadership Summit: Opening Remarks by CEO Jonathan Greenblatt

Washington, D.C.
  • May 7, 2017
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt Provides Opening Remarks at ADL's National Leadership Summit

Hello! And Welcome to Washington. It is such a privilege to be here with all of you. And wow. What a moment to be here together.

We gather here in our nation’s capital at a moment that I will admit, I would not have quite imagined two years ago, as I was considering the prospect of taking the helm of this agency.

You know when I was considering taking this job, I realized that it was not just another job. To assume the leadership of this organization was to answer a calling.

And as I thought on the meaning of calling and of the demands of leadership, I did what Jews have done for thousands of years. I went back to the source of our tradition--to the Torah.

Now I am not the most observant person, but I believe that the Jewish tradition possesses tremendous genius about the nature and meaning of leadership. We all know the story of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, when God called out to Moses--and Moses answered, “Yes, here I am.” 'Hineni.' Here I am.

What is remarkable to me in reading of Moses’ unlikely assumption of leadership of the Jewish people; is the proximity of the pursuit justice to Moses’ answering God’s call. God says to Moses:

“I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated in Egypt; I have heard them cry out...I have indeed heard the cry of my people, and I see how the Egyptians are oppressing them.”

And Moses, is asked to do the unimaginable--to bring the people of Israel forth from Egypt out of slavery.

But what strikes me from this story is that Moses begins answers his call with these words--by saying--Here I am. His first act is the simple act of showing up.

And you have all showed up. That is the first step in showing up for justice.

And you show up here at the ADL Leadership Summit in Washington at an inflection point.

We come together here today at moment of both danger and of opportunity for our democracy, for our future. We are at an inflection point of deciding who we are. An inflection point of determining what America will be. On a day when we see voters lining up in France at the polls to choose their destiny, it reminds us that we are at an inflection point in many parts of the world.

This means that the task ahead of us has perhaps never been more vital. It means that ADL has never had a more important role to play in our society. Indeed, our job is monumental.

And it begins with each of us, with saying 'Hineni.' I am here. And the task is my task to complete.

I believe we are gathered here to say that we up to the task.

We are here to reaffirm our common purpose and to recommit to our enduring values. We are here to take action together in service of those values.  We are here to say together, Hineni, are here together at this Summit to answer the call and to do so by making an impact—together.

By the same token, leadership is not about one leader. This exceptional country, the most successful companies, the historic organizations, including this one, are never the result of one leader. Indeed, a leader can set the tone. A captain can choose a course.  But, no matter what some might say, ADL has never been the story of one man. Such claims can be dangerous. When any organization is reduced to a single individual, it diminishes the impact of those who came before and it creates exposure based on the shortcomings and frailties of that single individual.

I believe leadership is about the problems we tackle together and the solutions that we commonly forge. And in this moment, leadership is not about standing on this podium giving a monologue.  Instead, it is about opening a dialogue, a conversation.  It is about the questions we are asking ourselves about our country and our future.

And it is about you. It is about how you answer those questions. It is about how you respond to this moment or if you simply look away. It is about how you embrace the challenge or shrink from it.

You can set the tone. You can choose the course.  Not just as one person. But as participants on this journey. You are the solution to our present challenge. You are the opportunity.

And I do not need to tell you, these are “interesting times” and so we convene in a unique moment in our history. A moment that will test us, our institutions and this democratic experiment.

That test is not limited to the political arena alone: it is a technological one as well. The snaps and pins, tweets and likes, seem insignificant on their own, when you open Facebook on your phone waiting in line or sneak a look at what’s trending on Twitter in between sessions here at the Mayflower.  But in aggregate they have reshaped our lives and altered our world. Social media is the new mass media, shopping mall, community center and public square, but as a society and as a country we have not fully figured out the long-term consequences of this sweeping digital tsunami.

But we already have seen some of the affects.  We see that the online conversation often descends into the lowest form of discourse.  We find ourselves trapped inside filter bubbles that algorithmically exclude other points of view.  And we watch as malevolent ideas migrate from the fringe to the mainstream, creating new risks and threats, particularly for the disenfranchised or the vulnerable.

That is why last year I told you that ADL had to make a big bet on Cyber. And we have made that bet. We have partnered with industry and pioneered responses to cyberhate that are more effective than any other efforts in the field. Earlier this year we launched the Center on Technology and Society in Silicon Valley to meet the tests of our generation. We have taken part in hackathons and datajams, engaging engineers and designers in new and exciting ways. We are showing up in places like SXSW. And we are upgrading our own internal technical capabilities to ensure we can meet this moment.

I also told you last year that we would be making a big bet on delegitimzation because the emergence of anti-Zionism as a rhetorical and political masquerade for classic anti-Semitism. As I have said before, this does not preclude reasoned arguments about particular policies of the Israeli government.  But it does mean rejecting the arguments of those who seek to erode the fundamental legitimacy of the state.

That is why we launched a partnership with the Reut Institute that generated our 20X framework and strategy, a plan that is driving several new initiatives today.  Whether its fighting for Israel on university campuses or church conventions or athletic fields, we are working to expose the agenda of those antagonists who seek, not to forge much needed peace, but to force a continuation of the conflict that inevitably will lead to more harm to all the parties.  We have concluded our work with Reut, but I am pleased to report that our partnership launched a process of program innovation around these priorities.

Now, despite our progress, many of you surely are aware of the marked uptick of anti-Semitic events that we noted in the Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents published last month. It showed a 34 percent uptick of anti-Semitic incidents in 2016 over the prior year, and an 86 percent spike in the first quarter of this year.

I know this was not surprising. Many of you and your communities were affected by the spate of bomb scares in recent months. And you have had to explain the desecration of Jewish gravestones to your children.  Now, such vandalism is not new and, as we recently reported, general anti-Semitic attitudes in the US remain consistently low as we have seen in prior years. But the tempo of incidents is new. The choreographed efforts to undermine Jewish confidence, to terrorize individuals and to degrade our sense of security – this is very new and very scary.

Let no one tell you that it’s somehow political to call out such hostility. In fact, it would be a political act to ignore such extremism – and that is something the ADL will never do, not on my watch.  Whether we are imploring a university president to step up against extreme voices on the left as happened last month at my alma mater Tufts University or whether we are demanding that the US president step up against right wing extremists on those within his own ranks as happened numerous times this year, we will speak truth to power and demand that our leaders call out anti-Semitism wherever and whenever it happens irrespective of the consequences.

And we do this, not only because we believe in stopping the defamation of the Jewish people, but because anti-Semitism is like an early warning signal for society.  Even in our modern times, this most ancient hatred serves as a leading indicator of the health of a democracy.  Indeed, it often starts with the Jews, but it rarely ends with our persecution. The hatred we have seen directed against Muslims in recent weeks and the invective that has been spewed forth against immigrants, it has distinct echoes of anti-Semitism throughout the ages.

But amidst this hate, I am hopeful, not afraid. I am hopeful because I feel what I would bet many of you feel as well—that there is also something positive in the air.

There is a spirit today of moving beyond polarization and of launching a dynamic of political engagement. You see it in the new faces running for offices, from unknown activists to high-profile executives contemplating a once unimaginable turn toward public service.  You see in the activism in the streets and on social media. You hear it in the principled positions of those who are lifting the voices from our editorial pages or from their twitter feeds.

And however you vote or whatever you believe, let’s not fall into the trap that is simply about right vs left, wrong vs right, us vs. them.  As I see it, its unhelpful to describe this as political resistance. I see it as a civic revivial, an active re-imaginging of the public square and an intentional reweaving of the social contract that binds us and the values that stitch it and us together.

For us – for ADL – to succeed in our mission, it is incumbent upon us to lean into this moment -- and tap this spirit. To engage the latent energies of our fellow citizens and channel it toward positive outcomes. That is what we mean when we say action into impact.

So what is impact?  I think the better way to phrase the question could be, who is impact? Well, Let me tell you.

Impact is Leah Greenberg a young visionary literally writing the playbook on how to protect and strengthen our democratic values in the populist age.

Impact is Julie Fernandes a civil rights champion working to defend and preserve perhaps the core achievement among all the great civil rights victories of the past century—the right to vote.

Impact is Vanita Gupta former head of Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice the nation’s chief civil rights prosecutor who recently accepted a highly visible and important new role, redoubling her commitment to the common good even after completing her public service.

Impact is Deray McKesson whose authentic voice on social media has redefined activism for the 21st century and helped to catalyze a national conversation about community-police relations.

Impact is Jibran Sherhommad a member of the GLI class of Atlanta, a man who embarked on a path to better his community as an adolescent and boldly continues to walk this path today.

You see, impact is about embracing the capacity for heroism that lives inside all of us.  To quote the activist Lisa Sullivan, it is about recognizing that we are the ones we have been waiting for.  In our own way, each of us stands on that wall with the innate power to champion our values and to defend our liberties.

And that is what leadership is. Leadership is each one of us, transforming our action into impact.

The stakes have never been higher. In a time of such great uncertainty, leadership demands an ability to hear all voices and to embrace an ethos of inclusivity. What do I mean when I say inclusivity?

I mean that we live today in the most heterodox society that the world has ever seen, one whose vitality has been rejuvenated by waves of immigrants and that pulses with a dynamic kaleidoscope of faiths, languages and peoples.  This is our strength, one that has persisted from De Tocqueville to Trump. I believe that we will fail at our task as leaders if we do not leverage these assets, thus we must find a way to bridge the differences and to stem the divergences that seem to tear at our seams.

Thus, inclusivity means that, to rise to the occasion of our moment, our leadership must be open not closed, accessible not impenetrable, harnessing these differences to our advantage.  It means that we should welcome gays, lesbian and transgender Americans because they are all our brothers and sisters. It means embracing voices of different faiths, whether Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Bahai or even those who don’t pray at all. It means engaging all of us, whether we trace our lineage to the Mayflower or midcentury slave ships or Mediterranean life-rafts, whether we came to this country with immigration papers seeking economic opportunity or with forged documents seeking protection or with no documents seeking simply a chance. Coming off a week littered with stories that centered around the deaths of young black males at the hands of law enforcement, I want to paraphrase my friend Bryan Stevenson and note that inclusivity means being proximate to the disempowered because such awareness and insight is crucial to accessing the moral core of our leadership.

And leadership must include young people. Young people sitting alongside us at our table – because young people obviously and indisputably already are leading in so many ways. Young people are starting companies and disrupting industries with invention and energy. Young people are driving activism and changing politics.  Young people are grabbing the baton and stepping forward.  We must make room and welcome them here at ADL, enhancing their creativity and enthusiasm with our knowledge and wisdom.

Finally, to rise to the challenge before us, a truly inclusive leadership must look beyond the legislative corridors of Washington D.C. and include a broader set of stakeholders in our work. For starters, we must elevate industry in our thinking and the private sector in our program. The invisible hand long has shaped the world around us – and it is time to seize it and find ways to engage the markets that move our world in ways that improve it. 

We also must continue the tradition of creating coalitions with other actors.  We do so because we speak to the best part of ourselves when we all use parentheses around our names, when we fasten safety pins on our lapels, when we wear the red ribbon with pride, when we pray with our feet in solidarity with others.

That is why, here now, I want to tell you here that ADL under my leadership will be making another ‘big bet’ -- a big bet on inclusivity. This is a commitment that lies at the core of our mission. It has guided our work in the past and will steel our work in the present and future.  But today I promise to redouble that commitment because the times mandate that we must.

And so we will take this on, not because it’s the politically correct thing to do. But because it’s the morally correct thing to do.  Not because it will make our work easier.  By every measure, it likely will make our work harder.  But because when we fight for others, we are fighting for ourselves. When we fight for their civil rights, we actually are fighting for our own.

Now this is not my idea.  Credit Sig Livingston with this particular insight. And as Ben Epstein wrote in his Directors Report nearly 50 years ago, the well being of all Americans is intertwined. But when we emphasize and embrace inclusivity in this era and when we fight for others, we are standing on the shoulders, not just of Sig and Ben, of Nate Perlmutter and Abe Foxman, of Bee Botnick and Shelly Steinhauser, of Lenny Zakim and all who came before us here at ADL, but of Hillel and Rambam and the great leaders of our tradition.  And each of us is saying 'Hineni, I am here.

And so, I now officially want to welcome you –  to DC, to the 2017 Amy Shana Glass National Leadership Summit, to the ADL family. And while I invite you to consider the role that you want to play in this collective endeavor, I hope you will see yourselves as the answer to whatever problem you may see. You are what stands between justice and injustice. You can be the bridge between ADL today and tomorrow, the one we have been waiting for.

Thank you.

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