Jonathan Greenblatt's Opening Remarks at ADL's 2020 Never Is Now Summit on Antisemitism and Hate

Remarks by Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO
  • November 9, 2020


Thank you all for tuning in today for the 5th annual Never is Now conference.

There is so much to discuss, but before we get started, I want to pause and remember Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who left us too soon this weekend. He was an extraordinary leader, a remarkable rabbi, a gifted scholar and a beautiful man. He will be missed. May his memory always be for a blessing.

We gather today -- virtually -- at what feels like the start of a new era. 2020 is not yet over, and yet it has been a rollercoaster of historic highs and lows. And we now are on the precipice of a new presidency, one poised, both in tone and substance, to take our country in a new direction and a process of healing.

But before we explore what comes next, we need to take stock of where we are. And so, as we do every year at Never Is Now, let’s start with the state of hate.

When I stood at the Jacob Javits Center 12 months ago, I expressed my alarm about the normalization of antisemitism. I thought that I rang the bell as loud as I could.

Little did we know that, in the weeks after my remarks, New York would be caught in a whirlwind of anti-Jewish violence. Indeed 2019 will be remembered as the year when we saw the highest number of antisemitic incidents than at any point in the prior four decades.

Little did we know that a global pandemic would trigger new mutations of the oldest hatred.

And little did we know that our politics actually would degrade even further, that a combative presidential season would generate even more anti-Jewish hatred.

Keep in mind that President-Elect Biden has said publicly that he decided to run back in 2017 when he saw neo-Nazis with torches marching through Charlottesville spewing racist hate and chanting, Jews will not replace us.” And yet in 2020, we saw non-Jewish candidates run grotesque ads mocking their Jewish opponents with big noses and bags of money. We saw others deride their opponents as “globalists” or somehow under the thumb of “George Soros.” And yet perhaps it was even more consequential that candidates who spouted absurd antisemitic conspiracy theories linked to QAnon actually were elected to the US Congress while others who delegitimize the Jewish state also earned spots in the House.

And yet, there are compelling reasons to be thankful

We can be thankful that, despite the worrying surge in antisemitic incidents, opinion polls show that the American people as a whole are not becoming more antisemitic even if extremists feel emboldened. 

We should be thankful that a growing number of Arab and Muslim nations in the Middle East finally are moving away from reflexive rejections of Israel toward a path of peace and normalization.

And we should be thankful that despite the fact that we have a long way to go in to address the racial divisions in this country, this past week we saw a record number of Americans select a man as president whose hallmark traits after almost 50 years in public life are bipartisanship and decency along with a woman of color as vice-president, the daughter of immigrants, a woman whose ascension to the White House strikes me as a fitting rebuke to the racism and xenophobia of the past four years.

Now, there may be some on the right who question their integrity or on the left who insist that they are too accommodating, but I believe we can put aside partisanship this morning, pick up the paper and take heart – this election was an affirmation of the promise of America.

And yet, it also is abundantly clear that, despite the voter turnout, we must acknowledge that the results also reflect a reality that all of us see in our Facebook feeds, in our neighborhoods, even at our dinner tables: we are a deeply divided country.

Such polarization and factionalization are not small things. They are fissures in our democracy, cracks in the foundation of our society. And history tells us that where there are the cracks, we can expect extremism and hate to seep in.

In this past year alone, there have been at least 13 alleged terrorist plots, attacks or threats perpetrated by right-wing extremists, including at least one thwarted terror plot against a synagogue and a foiled plan to kidnap and kill a sitting governor.

But that isn't the end of it. Indeed, radicalism can assume different forms – and bodes ill in whatever shape it takes.

Just a few weeks ago, the New York Times inexplicably ran a flattering op-ed about Louis Farrakhan, a piece that completely ignored his long and unapologetic record of hateful slurs and conspiratorial statements about Jews, the LGBTQ community, and women.

This oversight may strike some as small in the scheme of things, but you see, when hatred is ignored and defamation dismissed, it normalizes intolerance and makes it more acceptable for others to hold such dangerous views. 

And yes, Jews are the canary in the coal mine, but we know that while hate might affect us first,  eventually it infects all, regardless of politics or race, faith or origin, sexual orientation or gender identity. We see this in the white supremacist groups that ADL tracks for years. Toxic antisemitism is core to their ideology but linked to virulent anti-immigrant, anti-Black and anti-Muslim views.  Remember the Tree of Life shooter in Pittsburgh who killed Jews at prayer in a synagogue because he blamed Jews for bringing immigrants into the country.

We saw this incendiary relationship between antisemitism and other forms of hate in the past four years. From antisemitic memes pushed out during the 2016 campaign to people denied entry at airports based on their because they came from predominantly Muslim countries or toddlers torn from their parents at the border because of their nationality.

ADL’s founders knew this. It’s why they committed this organization more than a century ago to the dual mission of fighting antisemitism and for equal justice and fair treatment for all. They knew that if we allowed hate of any kind to flourish, it would hurt this country and especially its Jewish citizens.

Now is the time for us to repair this foundation. Now is the time to move on from the debris of this past year and look ahead to build a stronger society. That is the mission of ADL. It is the work before us. And I am so inspired to be working alongside you in this fight.

But how do we do it?

First and foremost, we need to prosecute the case against extremism with ferocity and fury, without any hint of hesitation. After Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Poway, El Paso and so many other moments, it requires a stunning degree of willful ignorance to deny the danger of individuals and groups that are armed to the teeth and bent on conducting terror in the homeland against our community and our symbols as well as our country and its institutions.

It’s time that the federal government take the offensive in the fight against extremism. It’s time that Washington DC brings the same energy and intensity to the fight against white nationalist terror as it has done in the past in the fight against radical Islamist terror.

In the weeks ahead, ADL will release our plan to fight white nationalism. Brace yourself – this will be the fight of our lives. But it is one we can’t afford to lose.

But let’s also have the intellectual honesty to recognize that the best way to stop violence is not after the fact but before it happens. That’s why we deeply believe in anti-bias education, not as afterthought but as an essential element in the war against hate.

And it’s needed more than ever.

When we talk about the normalization of antisemitism, nothing is more disturbing the casual injection of anti-Jewish toxins into the bloodstream of our youth.

I am reminded of it when my kids tell me how antisemitic comments and hateful content seeps into their multiplayer video-games. I am struck by it in photos of high snapping “Heil Hitler” salutes. I see it when read about cemeteries desecrations or view TikTok videos that mock the Holocaust.

But what should we expect when nearly one-third of Americans believe that substantially less than six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust and almost half of Americans cannot name a single concentration camp?

What should we expect when some activists on the far left relegate Jews to the role of oppressors because we don’t fit neatly into du jour social theories?

What should we expect when a public rally celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, one held in the city with the largest Jewish population of any in the world, is promoted as “open to all except Zionists and cops.”

And so this is why ADL will be putting our shoulder to the wheel of education, from anti-bias curricula that truly is inclusive for all minorities to genocide education programs that illustrate the horrors that can happen when hate goes unchecked. And there is an empirical case for this work: research shows that students who have experienced Holocaust education are more open to different viewpoints and more comfortable with people from different backgrounds.

Finally, no survey of the state of hate would be complete without some mention of the role of social media.

Whether you consider it the catalyst or conduit, social media has been at the center of the storm for more than a decade. A driver of radicalization, a font of conspiracy theories, a slow burning acid weakening our foundation with post after post, tweet after tweet, like after like.

And it inevitably targets the most vulnerable. 

Online harassment isn’t new, but this year we reached an inflection point. A 2020 survey conducted by ADL just prior to the outbreak of the global pandemic found that 44 percent of Americans had experienced online harassment and that members of marginalized communities in particular, reported increased harassment targeting identity-based characteristics, like their race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. And perhaps unsurprisingly, 77 percent of those who were harassed reported that at least some of their harassment occurred on Facebook, far and away the largest and most profitable platform.

But I will be clear about one thing – if we want to stop cyberhate and clamp down on harassment, we need to remind ourselves of the latin phrase: acta non verba

First, I believe that products that are broken should be pulled from shelves. You see this in every other industry – when a consumer product poisons its customers, you take it out of distribution. And so, applications like Facebook Groups that have amplified antisemitism, scaled racism, launched destructive movements like Qanon and the Proud Boys – shut it down. And if Mark Zuckerberg can’t finally fix Facebook Groups, put it out to pasture permanently.

Second, it is long overdue to address the abusers on these platforms and those who use the smoke and mirrors of our constitution to spread rancid prejudice. At ADL, we have fought for 1st Amendment for years, but it doesn’t give us the right to yell fire in a crowded theatre nor to slander those we dislike let alone to incite violence against our supposed enemies. 

A year ago, my friend Sacha Baron Cohen stood in from of this conference and said that when it comes to online hate, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of reach.

And so today, I call on the social media services to take a drastic step: stop handing the microphone to those who exploit your services. Suspend them from your services. Eliminate their access. End. It. Now.

This goes for antisemitic white nationalists and others who traffic in rank racism, anti-Muslim bias and bigotry. This goes for Jew haters who hide their hatred in the guise of toxic anti-Zionism. This goes for discredited blog publishers or flim-flam artists who flirt with Hungarian fascists or even ex-public servants.

Again, these people absolutely have a right to free expression -- but press outlets and social media aren’t soap boxes – they’re businesses and have a sort of right of first refusal, let alone a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders and an ethical obligation to their fellow Americans. Platforms are a privilege. Abuse it and you lose it.

Finally, I came to this work five years ago as a staunch supporter of self-regulation but my naivete has been cured by experience. These businesses are too big and too unaccountable. The time has passed to cross our fingers and hope for the best.

ADL will continue to work with these businesses, but we also are preparing for a new phase: to engage a new Administration and a new Congress to shape policy strategies to regulate these businesses – to right the wrongs, revive competition and restore our nation.

But ultimately, to win this fight and save our country, we need unity.

As I said before, our country is divided more so than at any time since the Civil War. Our politics was pushed to the brink by radicalism on all sides. Last month at the New Yorker Festival, I literally heard a well-known freshman member of Congress decry bipartisanship as if it was a bad word, a “vintage fantasy” and a failed tactic of an earlier time.

I could not disagree more.

More than ever, we need to build bridges across the divides in our nation. We need to break free from our filter bubbles, to meet one other in the middle.

Yes, that means sacrificing some of your priorities and acknowledging that another person might have ideas with equal validity.

But that is how democracy works.

But before we can heal the nation, I would posit that the Jewish community needs to start at home.

Within our community, we need to reach out to one another. Jewish communal leaders need to embrace our increasingly multiracial community.  Our institutions and organizations must do more to engage Jews of color with respect rather than tokenism. At ADL we will do so because we know that we are richer for all the diverse members of our community -- on our boards, among our professional ranks and within our volunteer networks.

We also need to work across lines of observance. In the past year, I have spent time with the Haredi communities in Monsey and Brooklyn who suffered greatly from increased antisemitism. And look, we don’t dress the same way. We lead different lives. But we are in this together. And so our predominantly secular communal institutions needs to embrace the observant. And, in the same way, we must engage interfaith families with equal measures of empathy and energy, appreciating the role that they play in the community, and finding ways to work together around our shared interests.

And finally, in a message that I believe has resonance regardless of how you identify or whether you daven, we must reach across the aisle to other Jews and to our fellow Americans from different political parties. The partisanship must end.

How many of you have people in your social network that you can’t speak to anymore?

How many of you have friends that you no longer want to spend time with?

How many of you have family members that you try to avoid?

The corrosive politics of this time have contaminated our community. The self-righteousness bursting forth from cable news has brainwashed us all. you see, regardless of how you vote or what cable news you consume, so many of us still are part of one Jewish family. At the end of the day, we need to rekindle the spirit that has connected our people for more than 2000 years. 

From campus activists to communal leaders to clergy members, those of us in leadership positions need to reach across the political divide in pursuit of Jewish unity.

And let me reiterate, for the many of you watching today who are not Jewish – in a larger sense, you are part of our family too, and we of yours.  We are all members of one American family. More than ever, we all need to come together in unity, with love and generosity, with empathy and understanding, to rediscover our common values and to join hands and repair the decaying foundation beneath our feet.

As President Elect Biden said just last night, it is time to give each other a chance, to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, to see each other and listen to each other once again.”

But it won’t be easy.

It will take work.

It will take time.

And it will take leadership from all directions.

Not just from President-Elect Biden or from me as CEO of ADL, but from all of you.

You are the ones who can bring about change. You are the ones who can beat back the forces of hate. You are the ones who can build bridges in our communities and in our country.

And so let us undertake this work of repair and restoration – together.