ADL and Wiesenthal Center don’t seem to agree on anti-Semitism in America


Shortly before the New Year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, both human rights organizations dedicated to fighting hate speech, each put out the top 10 list of anti-Semitic incidents in 2016 (the Wiesenthal Center’s list also included anti-Israel incidents – more on this below).

The two lists are starkly different, and that difference is worth paying attention to.

Numbers one through four on the ADL list are all related to the election, apparently arising from the Donald Trump moment and the new life it gave to the seedier elements of American xenophobia.

On the Wiesenthal Center list, this type of anti-Semitism is featured just once, coming in at number five with Richard Spencer’s memorable tryst at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. Number one on this list is the failure of the Obama administration to veto a recent United Nations resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The difference is notable because in theory, it shouldn’t exist. These two organizations are not identical, to be sure. The Wiesenthal Center is Los Angeles-based, for one, and incorporates Holocaust memory to a greater extent in its mission.

But both have at their core the same goal of fighting anti-Semitism. The overlap is great enough to cause some amount of institutional rivalry.

“ADL is always a little bit worried that the center in L.A., the Wiesenthal Center, will steal its thunder,” Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University told me in November. “So they always have kind of one eye on the Wiesenthal Center.”

Why, then, do two organizations with the same ideals come to vastly different conclusions about where to look for the most troubling incidents of anti-Semitism?

I brought this question up during a recent interview with Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Wiesenthal Center. He pointed out to me that the lists were in fact not the same and that his organization, unlike the ADL, had included “anti-Israel incidents” as a criterion. That’s why the U.N. resolution ended up at the top of the Wiesenthal Center list without appearing at all on the ADL list.

Fine. But that doesn’t explain the massive discrepancy between, on the one hand, nearly half of a top 10 list being dedicated to right-wing anti-Semitism, and, on the other, a single item buried halfway down.

It’s easy to chalk this up to politics. Critics of Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL CEO, like to point out that he came to the job from a post in the Obama administration. In their mind, he’s a left-wing actor that has turned the ADL into a basically partisan operation.

But I take Greenblatt at his word when he told me that during the campaign trail “I said what I said and we did what we did because it was consistent with ADL’s historic role.”

Greenblatt, it seems to me, is too smart to nakedly put his politics on display. If he really were a leftist shill, he’d probably be smarter about hiding it, anyway. I’m guessing – and we can only guess as to people’s intentions – that both lists reflects a real concern about where anti-Semitism exists in America today.

The net result is that we have two lists that tell us more about the organizations that generated them than they do about anti-Semitism.

Surely, all the items listed are important areas of concerned. But when two preeminent and well-respected organizations tell us to look in two different directions, who are we to believe?

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