Sharon Nazarian Reflects on Her Work at the ADL

July 7, 2022
Sharon Nazarian with former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Jonathan Greenblatt

It wasn’t always clear that community leader and philanthropist Sharon Nazarian was the right fit for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). 

When ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt recruited her in 2017 for the newly created position of senior vice president of international affairs, her experience had been in academia and philanthropy; she earned a doctorate in political science at USC and led her family’s prominent grantmaking foundation. 

What did she know about antisemitism education and advocacy?

But Nazarian long admired the work of the ADL. That, coupled with the feeling of urgency to combat antisemitism after the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 – when neo-Nazis marched chanting “Jews will not replace us!” – convinced her to accept the position. 

“What happened in Charlottesville — those images were beyond disturbing and put fear into my heart in ways I haven’t felt since my family immigrated from Iran,” she said. “It was a key factor in my decision to join the ADL.”

Nazarian spoke to the Journal a few days before her final day with the organization, July 1, marking the end of her five-year tenure at the ADL. She highlighted the ADL’s successes fighting antisemitism in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, and the importance of the ADL sharing its knowhow with communities abroad. 

“The threats facing Jewish communities today are global threats,” she said. “The expertise of the ADL should not only be limited to American audiences and American communities.”

At the ADL, Nazarian acted as a foreign minister of sorts while meeting with heads of state and Jewish community leaders. She has elevated the ADL’s mission of standing up to hatred whenever and wherever it occurred while learning there was much more to the organization than even she knew. 

“What I think most people don’t realize is the breadth of the ADL,” Nazarian said. “Most American Jews and others don’t know the scale of our work internationally, how we show up for Jewish communities internationally on a daily basis and use our voice to advocate.”

The ADL, she said, is data-driven. “We don’t just take positions from our gut. The number of surveys we do, the amount of research and analysis we do—my team and many other units are filled with subject area analysts. Every moment, we have our finger on the pulse on the trends.”

Nazarian has overseen the ADL’s international efforts along with its Israel office while working out of the regional space in Century City. When COVID-19 hit, she transitioned to telecommuting out of her Los Angeles home. Because her work focused primarily on events overseas, workdays the past half-decade have begun at 5 a.m., she said.

The hard work reaped rewards. Under her leadership, the ADL created a first-of-its-kind fully digital antisemitism education product. It has also exported its expertise fighting antisemitism online to partner organizations in Europe and Latin America, which Nazarian said were her two main areas of focus.

Additionally, the ADL signed memorandum-of-understanding agreements with the UK’s Jewish community as well as with Mexico’s Foreign Ministry. In 2019, Nazarian traveled to Mexico City to sign the latter, which helped to protect those of Mexican heritage living in the U.S. against anti-immigrant rhetoric. That same year, Nazarian testified before members of Congress about the spread of white supremacist ideology around the world. 

“I’ve learned how to use the powerful brand ADL in a powerful way,” she said.

Nazarian continues to be troubled by threats against Jews in the Middle East, particularly in her native Iran. A Jewish Iranian-American immigrant, Nazarian experienced antisemitism in her home country before fleeing during the Iranian Revolution. 

Iran, she said, continued to promote dangerous antisemitic ideology from the top down.

“Iran’s nefarious influence is vast,” Nazarian said. “My country of birth is the number one state sponsor of antisemitism around the world, of Holocaust denial, of terrorism. That sphere is still there, and its arm is very long. It reaches into Europe [and] Latin America and threatens Jewish communities, Jewish security and broader societies outside the Middle East.”

While the Biden Administration has been actively trying to rejoin the U.S. in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iranian nuclear agreement, Nazarian wants American leaders to remember that Iran’s threats extend far beyond its potential nuclear capabilities – from its export of terrorism to its inhumane treatment of its own minorities to its calling for Israel’s destruction. 

Even before joining the ADL, Nazarian was passionate about defending Israel, and she praised the work the ADL has done clarifying when criticism of Israel crosses into antisemitism.

“[The] ADL has been on the front lines of being very nuanced in a post-nuanced world,” she said. “We refuse to give into that, and we are very adamant about making sure criticism of Israeli policy is never labeled antisemitic but advocating for the end of the Jewish state is clearly viewed as antisemitic.”

“[The] ADL has been on the front lines of being very nuanced in a post-nuanced world.”
– Sharon Nazarian

After leaving the ADL, she will be returning to running the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Family Foundation, which provides grants to educational initiatives. She will remain involved, however, in ADL’s search for her successor. George Selim, senior vice president for national affairs, is assuming the role in an interim capacity.

With any doubts she had about her place at the ADL long behind her, Nazarian hopes she left a lasting impact on the venerable organization. 

“I think, hopefully, what my collaboration with the ADL will show is that philanthropists, as well as academics and civil society professionals, have skills that could be additives to legacy organizations like the ADL,” she said. “Hopefully, I helped bring the ADL to new levels.”

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