The Anti-Defamation League is a Jewish non-governmental organization focused on combatting antisemitism, other forms of bigotry and hatred, and extremism, both online and offline. Founded in 1913, the ADL is arguably one of the first (if not the first) intersectional civil rights organizations in the United States, in the sense that it worked (and continues to work) on civil rights issues outside of just antisemitism (that said, it has in no way been perfect in advocating for other marginalized groups).
More and more, I am seeing people on the right and the left — including fellow Jews — discussing the ADL as though it is the new bogeyman. As usual, I am frustrated by the lack of nuance and critical thought in this conversation. No organization is perfect and no organization should be beyond reproach. The ADL is no different.
The ADL was founded by B’nai Brith and Sigmund Livingston in September of 1913, following the wrongful conviction of Jewish American Leo Frank for the murder of a 13-year-old white Christian girl (today, the consensus among historians is that another man, Jim Conley, was responsible for the murder). Leo Frank was lynched in 1915. This lynching led directly to the resurgence of the KKK.
The ADL’s first campaigns in the 1920s focused on boycotting Henry Ford’s antisemitic newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. In the 1930s, the ADL began monitoring — and infiltrating — the activities of the pro-N*zi German-American Bund. As such, they worked to combat rising N*zism, particularly in Los Angeles. In the 1970s, the ADL clashed with the American Jewish Committee due to the AJC’s collaboration with Evangelical Christians, though the ADL later changed its approach to Evangelical Christianity. In the 1970s, the ADL began partnering with the FBI by sharing information about extremist groups.
According to the ADL, its mission is (1) to stop the defamation of the Jewish People, and (2) to secure justice and fair treatment for all through the development of new programs, policies, and skills.
The ADL’s main focus is on combatting antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, particularly domestic extremism, both online and offline. It states its ultimate goal as “a world in which no group or individual suffers from bias, discrimination or hate.”
In 2018, the ADL rebranded as an “anti-hate” organization with their new motto, “Fighting Hate for Good.”
ISRAEL & ZIONISM
The ADL supports Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and advocates for a two-state solution. The ADL opposed the 1975 UN resolution declaring that “Zionism is racism” (the Soviet Union and the Arab League pushed for this resolution. Worth noting that the USSR and the Arab world were among the most antisemitic countries during that time period). The ADL has also opposed BDS and other “unsanctioned boycotts” of Israel. It takes a case by case approach regarding anti-BDS laws, generally considering them unconstitutional.
The ADL has expressed concern over Israel’s demand that NGOs publicize whether they receive funding from primarily non-Israeli governments. The ADL has expressed opposition to the unrestricted expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank but doesn’t consider settlement construction to be the main obstacle to peace, particularly in light of potential land swap agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The ADL, though highly critical of Trump, supported the Trump administration moving the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The ADL repeatedly accused Trump and his administration of antisemitism and using antisemitic tropes.
OTHER POLITICAL POSITIONS
The ADL supports the DREAM Act and other policies that would provide conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented immigrants. The ADL was highly critical of the Trump administration for consistently using antisemitic tropes and espousing other forms of bigotry. The ADL, along with various other Jewish organizations, called for the firing of Stephen Miller, accusing him of being a white supremacist.
The ADL was one of the leading organizations campaigning for the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expands hate crime laws to cover crimes motivated by the victim’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. In the 1980s, the ADL also drafted the model hate crime legislation that most states have since adopted.
The ADL has been embroiled in several controversies. Despite the fact that it emphatically states that criticism of Israel is not necessarily inherently antisemitic, the organization has been criticized for its stance on Israel and Zionism.
Up until 2016, the ADL formally described the Armenian genocide as a “massacre.” In 2016, the ADL changed its stance, admitting that it was indeed a genocide, and apologized for its previous position. In 2019, the ADL lobbied for a Congressional resolution to formally recognize the Armenian genocide.
In 2010, the ADL opposed the construction of an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center. In 2021, the ADL apologized for taking that position, which was criticized as Islamophobic.
In 1996, the ADL settled a lawsuit brought on by several groups representing Arab Americans and Black Americans who claimed that the ADL had spied on their activities (as a reminder, part of the ADL’s activities since the 1930s have included spying on extremist groups). The ADL denied breaking any laws and did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement.
IMPORTANCE FOR JEWS
Beyond its controversies, the ADL does important work for the American Jewish community. It’s the only Jewish organization that annually tracks antisemitic hate crimes and “hate hotspots” in the United States. This data is vital for the ADL and other groups to influence civil rights legislation that protects Jews from antisemitic violence.
The ADL is also the oldest American civil rights organization which specifically combats antisemitism and advocates for the Jewish community.
It’s important to note that despite only forming 2 percent of the American population, Jews are the victims of over 60 percent of religiously-motivated hate crimes. In New York City, which has the largest Jewish population in the United States (13 percent), Jews are the target of over 50 percent of all hate crimes. The ADL is central in combatting this violence.
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