When Jonathan Greenblatt took the top job at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in July 2015, Donald Trump was an outside candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and a favorite punch line of TV pundits.
Today, Trump is weeks away from the world’s most powerful office, and the ADL’s frequent criticism of the reality-TV-star-turned-leader-of-the-free-world has become arguably the defining aspect of Greenblatt’s freshman year.
Even in a more normal year, Greenblatt, a nontraditional choice for the job, would have had his hands full stepping in for Abraham Foxman, his predecessor as ADL national director.
“I’m learning as I go,” Greenblatt told the Journal in a phone interview last month. “I don’t have the long history that my predecessor had. He worked in this organization for 50 years. Many of my peers, if you look at counterpart organizations, have also worked there for decades. Not me.”
Greenblatt’s early days at the helm of the 103-year-old civil rights watchdog have not been easy ones. The unexpected twists of the recent election season turned the young leader’s first year into a test not only for him, but also for the ADL and the Jewish establishment more broadly.
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The ADL’s selection of Greenblatt in late 2014 was seen as a broadening of its reach, enabling it to connect with young people who grew up in a world where anti-Semitism seemed a less pressing problem than other forms of ethnic and racial hatred. Unlike Foxman, Greenblatt wasn’t a longtime operator in the Jewish world.
The 46-year-old was born and raised in New England and earned his master’s in business administration at Northwestern University before moving to Los Angeles. There, in 2001, he married Marjan Keypour, then associate director of the ADL for the Pacific Southwest Region. The next year, he co-founded Ethos Water, a bottled water line that donates part of its profits to clean water programs in the developing world. Ethos pioneered a model later followed by brands such as Toms Shoes and Warby Parker, linking consumption to a cause. In 2005, Starbucks purchased Ethos for $8 million.
Greenblatt and Keypour put began to put down roots in Los Angeles, preparing to raise their children there.
“I felt pretty blessed to be there, my kids were happy,” he said.
Then, in 2011, President Barack Obama selected him to be the director the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and he took the opportunity.
“The president basically said to me, ‘I’ve got this office, it’s too much like a think tank. I want somebody who’s run businesses to run it,’ ” he recalled.
Greenblatt’s background made him an unusual choice for ADL director; his ties to the White House have been used to paint him as a partisan actor, a charge he dismisses. Though he attends a Conservative synagogue and keeps a kosher home on Long Island, and served on the board of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, he didn’t have the long resume in the Jewish establishment many expected of a potential ADL chief.
In any case, he certainly wasn’t another Foxman, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor long seen as a top authority on Jew hatred in media and politics.
“They were looking for a guy who would energize young Jews broadly against hatred and for many of the causes that [Greenblatt] endorsed earlier,” said Jonathan Sarna, a history professor at Brandeis University who studies the American Jewish community. “And then, irony of ironies, anti-Semitism seems to be roaring back and his role has shifted.”
The truism that Donald Trump’s election changed everything about American politics is more apt for Greenblatt than most people.
If he had hoped for a honeymoon period of waiting and watching in his new role, those hopes were dashed when Trump descended the gilded escalator in Trump Tower and kicked off his run for the presidency by pronouncing that rapists and criminals were pouring over the border with Mexico.
“It is time for Trump to stop spreading misinformation and hatred against immigrants, legal and undocumented,” Foxman said in a statement shortly after Trump’s presidential announcement, and just weeks before handing the reins over to Greenblatt.
Foxman’s statement set the tone for the coming election. But as Trump moved from an outside candidate to Republican nominee, Greenblatt doubled down.
Soon, under Greenblatt’s leadership, the ADL became the loudest of the nonpartisan Jewish organizations criticizing Trump. When Jewish journalists faced harassment by Twitter trolls using Nazi imagery, the ADL was among the only Jewish organizations to point out that these trolls seemed energized by and aligned with Trump. Within a week of the election, it slammed the Trump campaign for a television ad it said evoked anti-Semitic imagery.
Greenblatt’s outspokenness put him in something of an awkward position in a community where, after all, almost a third of Jews who voted cast a ballot for Trump. After Trump clinched an Electoral College victory on Nov. 8, Greenblatt’s position became even more prickly.
Although that day was a sobering one for many in the Jewish community, it can be seen as a turning point for Greenblatt and the ADL.
“They’re certainly not going to be at the very top of the list of people to be invited to the White House,” said Alvin H. Rosenfeld, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University and a widely recognized expert on historical anti-Semitism. “On the other hand, politics tends to work pragmatically after a certain point.”
It remains to be seen whether the ADL’s relationship with the Trump White House is permanently soured. But in any case, it now must balance criticism of the next president with its commitment to working with government agencies at all levels (nationally, it trains more police officers in reacting to hate crimes than any other organization).
Greenblatt has made it clear that he won’t refrain from criticizing Trump now that he’s won the election. Less than a week after Election Day, he released a statement opposing the appointment of Steve Bannon, formerly the CEO of Breitbart News, as White House chief strategist and senior adviser, citing Breitbart as “the premier website of the alt-right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.”
The blowback was immediate. Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who’d clashed publicly with Greenblatt in August, released a statement urging the ADL to “withdraw and apologize for their inappropriate character assassination of Mr. Bannon.”
Some professional observers of the organized Jewish community wondered if Greenblatt had jumped the gun. Sarna said he was surprised the ADL chose to criticize Bannon without first seeking a meeting with him. Still, he saw it is an understandable choice.
“You’re afraid that you’re going to lose your brand unless you speak out at a certain moment,” Sarna said. “But the risk is there’s a penalty for speaking out too early and without all the information.”
Rosenfeld was less ambivalent: “To denounce [Trump] and his people right from the get-go is not in the interest of the American Jewish community,” he said. “Following Abe Foxman is bound to be difficult, but [Greenblatt] needs to take his time and think carefully about what he’s saying.”
Rosenfeld said he looks to David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), as a model of how to combat anti-Semitism without overextending political capital.
Harris, in an interview with the Jewish Broadcasting Service shortly after the election, urged patience in the wake of Trump’s upset victory, saying “Let’s take a deep breath.”
As for Bannon’s appointment, Harris said, “There may be many issues to worry about or to wonder about. This is not near the top of my list.”
By Greenblatt’s telling, his decision to come out against Bannon was a natural one.
“I don’t make my decisions based on ‘Hmm, let’s make a tradeoff here. What works and doesn’t work?’ ” he said. “I focus on not what feels good but rather, when we see hate, how do we deal with it? And we know under Steve Bannon’s leadership, it was his stated attempt and then his successful goal to position Breitbart as the platform for the alt-right.”
Nonetheless, he said, the ADL is already in touch with Trump’s transition team to see how they can work together.
“We’re engaging with them,” he said.
He declined to provide specifics or elaborate further. But he maintained the ADL can work with the administration while acting as a watchdog when its rhetoric veers into intolerance or bigotry.
He pointed to immigration, for instance, as a place where the ADL could prove a nuanced and responsible partner for Trump.
“There’s good reason to be very careful and to use very rigorous screening to make sure that, in particular, refugees fleeing the catastrophe that is Syria, the Syrian civil war, [are] very carefully vetted,” he said. “We are not naïve about that. It’s really important, extremely important. It’s urgent. But at the same time, we think there are opportunities to be as humane as we always have been, as the Statue of Liberty required of us as Americans.”
The question remains whether the seemingly thin-skinned Trump will consent to work with his loudest critic within the Jewish mainstream establishment.
“There is a price to be paid for too many attacks on the president of the United States,” said Steven M. Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
“There hasn’t been a time in American history where liberal values were seemingly as challenged as they are right now in 20th-century history,” he went on. “It’s not that the ADL’s actions are unprecedented. It’s that the context is unprecedented.”
Sarna agreed that the ADL’s actions during the election constitute a historical watershed that future generations of Jewish leaders will look back on for insight. He framed the choice facing Greenblatt during the election as “silence, outrage, instruction or obstruction.”
“Those are always your choices,” he said. “The ADL elected to go with outrage. Some other organizations, I think, decided that maybe silence was the right way to go. … The problem with outrage is that you can’t be outraged all the time. You only have a certain capital of outrage.
“It’s hard being a Jewish leader,” he added. “I don’t envy Mr. Greenblatt.”
Greenblatt said he never saw much of a choice in the way he approached the situation, but he doesn’t blame other Jewish organizations, like the AJC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and The Jewish Federations of North America for taking a less confrontational approach: “I just don’t think that way,” he said.
“I said what I said and we did what we did because it was consistent with ADL’s historic role,” he told the Journal. “As I said, for us it was a matter of our mission. Others need to do what they need to do. I don’t begrudge them.”
But there are Jewish leaders and organizations that have felt the need to question Greenblatt’s leadership.
“It seems to me at critical times [in the] course of this campaign, a pattern emerged that the ADL put their thumb on the scale in a way that hadn’t been done by Greenblatt’s predecessor,” Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), told reporters on a conference call the day after the election.
By attacking Trump, Brooks said, “The ADL has put itself in a potentially compromising position going forward.”
Greenblatt rejects the criticism that the ADL singled out Trump.
“We did not call out the Trump campaign per se,” he said. “What we did was call out particular ideas when we found them to be problematic.”
He pointed out that the ADL criticized Republican candidates Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders when they made comments that were untoward or inflammatory. When Trump was criticized for making comments to the RJC in December 2015 that some perceived as anti-Semitic (“I’m a negotiator like you folks,” the candidate said), Greenblatt came to his defense: “We do not believe that it was Donald Trump’s intention to evoke anti-Semitic stereotypes,” Greenblatt said in a statement at the time.
In the weeks since the election, Greenblatt proved once again that he’s willing to go after Democrats and to change his position when new information arises.
Early in Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison’s bid to become chair of the Democratic National Committee, Greenblatt released a statement where he raised concerns about his record on Israel, but also described him as “a man of good character” and “an important ally in the fight against anti-Semitism.” Yet after a recording came to light of Ellison questioning the United States’ relationship with Israel, Greenblatt changed course in a Dec. 1 statement, calling the remarks “both deeply disturbing and disqualifying.”
To the idea that he singled out Trump for censure, Greenblatt told the Journal, “It doesn’t map to the facts.” Instead, he said, the ADL spoke up each time somebody in the national spotlight ran afoul of its core values of equality, pluralism and tolerance.
“We speak out, not because someone is of a particular political persuasion, but because when ideas are in violation of those core American values, that’s when we think — that’s when the ADL has a role to play,” he said.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which combats hate and anti-Semitism, found himself in a similar position to Greenblatt during the election, and he echoed the need to pick moments and battles carefully.
“This is not going to be an easy road to go down,” Cooper said. “We have to engage with the people with the keys to the car.”
Greenblatt said his organization wants to collaborate positively with the new administration whenever possible, without yielding any ground on ADL’s commitment to its core mission.
“We’re going to hold them relentlessly accountable to the issues we care about,” he said, “and do what we can to make sure we continue to be a fierce advocate.”