The Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt Wants to Take Us Back to Our Roots and ‘Remember Why We Are Here Today’

October 5, 2020

For years, Facebook’s algorithms have been criticized by privacy enthusiasts, regulators, businesses, and of course impacted users–and most recently, musicians who will soon be affected by the new Terms of Service which go into effect Oct. 1, which I recently discussed in a recent Bloomberg Law Insight.

Today, however, the social giant’s mechanisms for combating hate speech, violent rhetoric, and other forms of cancel culture which lead to online bullying and discrimination have been significantly diminished, as it seems online aggressors are winning (perhaps to the platform’s taste).

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), formerly known throughout the Jewish community as the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, is an international Jewish non-governmental organization based in the United States. 

Since 1913, the ADL has envisioned an America where those seemed different were not targets of discrimination and threats but were equals, worthy of shared opportunity. Unfortunately, in today’s political climate, whether we talk BLM, Blue Lives Matter, or our very own White House, the ADL couldn’t be more necessary. And as a Jew and an active member of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization over the years (Henry Monsky AZA), I hope to push the ADL’s mission onward and upward.

Recently, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, joined SiriusXM Business Radio host Alan Fleischmann of ‘Leadership Matters’ to talk about his efforts to “revive ADL’s roots,” which takes us back to 1913, when it was first founded by attorney Sigmund Livingston.

“Our fate is intertwined with those of others, and I’ve tried to bring a ‘freshness’ to that fight,” Greenblatt explained to Fleischmann. As the interview went on, Greenblatt emphasized the ADL’s efforts to fight hate speech in a culture centered around redefining the bounds of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and of course, calling out Facebook, specifically, for its questionable algorithms that promote hate speech and misinformation.

“Facebook’s algorithms are recommending and reinforcing Holocaust denials on the platform. Without selecting it, algorithmically, it’s recommended to users to look at this stuff. And that’s how it circulates and spreads,” he explains.

Greenblatt believes that when it comes to Holocaust denialism, that it should be weighed differently and treated as such for algorithmic purposes. 

“I would suggest that holocaust denialism should be treated differently in the algorithm, than say the knitting club. I would suggest misinformation about COVID-19, should be treated a little differently, than the group who loves Labrador retrievers. I would suggest misinformation about George Floyd, even if one can say that it should be permitted, should be treated a little differently than movie recommendations for god’s sake.”

“I think we need to recognize the difference between hateful speech, harmful speech, and speech designed to hurt, wound, or delegitimize,” Greenblatt proposed, stating that “it should be treated differently. Whether or not one agrees with that or not when you have a speech that sets out to stereotype and scapegoat and slander. Freedom of speech is not freedom to slander. Freedom of expression isn’t the freedom to incite violence. So there are some things we need to tolerate but we can treat in a certain sort of way, and there are other things that there should be no space for in private business. 

I used to be an executive at Starbucks. And if you walked into that Starbucks store in midtown Manhattan, and stood at the counter and started screaming profanities at the customers, or say Jews are controlling the world, or Mexicans need to go back to Mexico, or whatever craziness like that. Do you know what the store manager would do?”

‘Walk you to the door? Fleischmann answered. “‘They would throw you out, exactly,’” Greenblatt acknowledged. 

An Angel On Our Shoulders

And what Greenblatt proposes with respect to regulating speech on social media, also mirrors similar thoughts by ‘13 Reasons Why’ and ‘Supernatural’ actor, Mark Pellegrino, who I recently interviewed and since partnered up with for our ‘Guardian Project’ about what these platforms need to do.

Pellegrino, known for his role as Deputy Bill Standall on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and ‘Lucifer’ on the CW’s Supernatural, similarly proposed a system to me in our Thrive Global interview:

“I think the algorithms that [these social media platforms] use to define whatever their parameters are for speech, don’t seem to be very good. They seem to be highly biased in one direction. I think what they need to do if they are a ‘free speech platform’ is understand that free speech still precludes violence and libel.” 

And when it comes to holding users accountable online, Pellegrino believes that “there should be objective criteria for that behavior and a squad of people that are dedicated to just that. Without their political prejudices serving as guidelines–just the guideline of ‘violence’ and a ‘lie’. Is it violent? Is it force or fraud? That’s the only guideline they use, and then deplatform those people.”

Pellegrino and I recently announced the launch of ‘The Guardian Project,’ the physical manifestation of the ‘Guardians’ concept which was first created by Twitter user @ArchLuminous and given to Pellegrino to expand further, in hopes to provide a platform and voice for victims to be heard and their stories to be humanized, so that aggressors are faced with the choice on whether to rehabilitate or face society’s consequences for their poor digital hygiene. 

A Parochial Jewish Notion That Needs to Be Adapted to Universal Rights

When the ADL was founded 100-plus years ago, according to Greenblatt, following the lunching of one Jewish man, Jews faced what we now recognize as “systemic discrimination.”

“They didn’t have political power, economic resources, social standing; and their future in this country was very uncertain. They were weak by every measure. Quotas kept them out of university, laws kept them from buying homes, and social standards kept them out of different professions. I could go on.”

Unfortunately, despite where you fall on the political spectrum, that discrimination still exists from our very own government. Recently, Business Insider reported that U.S. President Donald Trump faces criticism by the Jewish community for allegedly making statements that infer that Jews have a loyalty to their religion above other interests.

Jews, according to President Trump, “are only in it for themselves” and “stick together,” which he said in front of officials in his administration, according to a new report from The Washington Post earlier this week. And let me tell you, the denial is straight-up real by Trump supporters, who refuse to see past anti-semitic behavior, but believe that simply because Trump helped unite Israel with the UAE and Egypt, that he couldn’t possibly make such statements or the fact that his son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, is Jewish, he wouldn’t dare make such statements. 

Well, hate to say it, and so bluntly, but the reality is, we have a Nazi in the White House. 

Greenblatt referenced the charter the ADL’s founders first put together, which we call a “manifesto” today. “In it are the words we still use as our mission statement. They wrote that the mission of the ADL would be to ‘stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.’ Frankly, in 1913, Jewish people probably had more security living in Germany than in the United States. They were better integrated, better situated, more successful. In Germany, their future was more certain, but in America, not so much. And yet these Jewish people said, ‘we will fight for ourselves, but we will also fight for others.’ I mean that was an audacious claim. How could they fight for others, but they themselves were so fragmented and so vulnerable?”

A common Jewish principle is that we could only be free when everyone else was free. “Only when minorities were safe, Jews could be safe,” Greenblatt passionately points out, reminding listeners that this is “a very Jewish idea, which echoes in Hillel.”

And according to the ADL CEO, that’s exactly what propelled this organization, leading to the first Amicus Brief being filed at the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1940s in Shelley v. Kramer, which focused on restrictive housing covenants preventing African Americans and Jews from buying homes in certain areas. 

“Then in 1953, we filed our second amicus brief in Brown v. Board of Education.” While many in the ADL, Greenblatt revealed, believed that this issue wasn’t their fight, “Brown, that’s about young black children being integrated into schools…that’s not a Jewish fight.” But the guy who had my job in 1953 said ‘no, no, no, that’s exactly why it’s a Jewish fight.’ And so, I think in the years before I joined, ADL was more and more parochial, more and more focused on Israel and just Jews, and again, Israel matters, Jews matter, don’t get me wrong. But I think it’s important to center this work in the fight for universal rights and to realize that as Jewish people, the privileges we enjoy today, are not just because we alone achieved, but because we’ve created coalitions and partnered with others. And in that common pursuit, we’ve had a collective success. And forgetting that, letting that go–I think if you disregard that memory and ignore that truth, you do so at your own disadvantage. If we forget how we are here today. Why we’ve enjoyed the success, and if we lack the humility to realize we didn’t do it all on our own, then I think we are doomed to repeat these failures that have accompanied the Jewish people throughout the millennia and throughout other societies.”

For Greenblatt’s full interview with Sirius XM’s Alan Fleischmann, please click here. 

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