November 19, 2018

ADL notes accomplishments, road ahead, at annual meeting

Some 300 lay and professional leaders from across the United States gathered Nov. 6-8 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the annual Anti-Defamation League (ADL) national meeting, which offered both good and bad news, as well as an upcoming changing of the organization’s guard.

Abraham Foxman, since 1987 the face, voice and national director of the ADL, announced that he would step down effective July 20, after serving the civil rights and human-relations agency in various capacities for 50 years.

True to form, the ebullient 74-year-old Foxman was everywhere throughout the event, shaking hands, analyzing the worldwide fight against anti-Semitism, presenting speakers, basking in a shower of encomiums and introducing his newly named successor, Jonathan A. Greenblatt.

After a two-year search, Greenblatt was chosen on his record as social entrepreneur, government official and corporative executive; for the past three years, he served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

For his part, Greenblatt lauded Foxman as “a hero who has inspired millions” and pledged to devote himself to “securing the Jewish future” and pursuing justice and fair treatment for all.

In a reflective moment, Foxman observed, “You can’t own ADL, you can only take care of it for a while.” At another point, after listening to further effusive praise of his leadership, Foxman joked that in stepping down from his half-century at ADL, “One of the perks of the office is that I can hear my own obituary.”

Throughout the event, an underlying — though never formally addressed — theme was how much long-term progress ADL has made in its 1913 founding mission statement to combat anti-Semitism in this country and abroad.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, addressing the first day’s luncheon session, touched on this point, probably inadvertently, by observing that “prejudice never dies — it is built into human nature.”

In somewhat the same vein, retiring Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), who was awarded ADL’s Distinguished Public Service Award, said, “Zionism is the most demonized ideology in the world, which, if scratched lightly, reveals the pervasive anti-Semitism just under the surface.”

Although most annual meetings of business, academic or social institutions focus on progress made in reaching an organization’s goals, the emphasis at the ADL gathering was almost entirely on the continuing widespread and ever-growing threats facing the Jewish world.

A centerpiece was ADL’s recent poll of anti-Semitic sentiment in more than 100 countries, which concluded that 26 percent of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants “harbor anti-Semitic attitudes and believe in a majority of the traditional, anti-Jewish stereotypes.”

Iraq topped the anti-Semitic index, with 92 percent of the population infected, while Laos was at the opposite pole of the spectrum, with a score of only 0.2 percent. The United States stood at 9 percent.

Foxman’s major address during the meeting’s first day was tellingly titled “Anxiety, Extremism & Conflict: A ‘Perfect Storm’ for Global Anti-Semitism.”

A rundown of ADL’s accomplishments in the field came not so much from the speaker’s podium and video presentations as from the organization’s On the Frontline magazine, included in press kits.

The magazine documents ADL’s nationwide education initiatives, crisis responses, legislative advocacy and its efforts to prepare a new generation of leaders.

Also included is an interview with Georgia Democratic Congressman and civil-rights leader John D. Lewis, carrying a headline that might also apply to ADL’s perseverance in the face of discouraging trends and other setbacks — “You Just Got to Keeping Fighting the Fight.”

 One highlight of the day’s proceedings was a panel discussion on “Growing Latino Influence on American Society,” conducted by four national Latino political leaders.

Despite the optimistic heading, the actual discussion brought little cheer to attendees identifying as Democrats, already staggering from the results of the national midterm elections two days earlier.

The 55 million Latinos in the United States — with close to 15 million in California — are breaking into the middle class, though the top ranks are still largely out of reach, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Maria del Pilar Avila, CEO of the New America Alliance, noted that “Latinos are looking to the Jewish community to help us succeed in business,” and she suggested focusing on closer Jewish-Latino relationships on college campuses.

But the hopeful notes were overshadowed by what Latinos perceive as a betrayal by the Obama administration.

“In past elections, we concentrated on the economy and jobs, but this year immigration reform was the top Latino cause,” Vargas said. “Obama made promises to us and broke them; he lied to us, so the votes of many Latinos are up for grabs.”

Sometimes the most interesting people one meets at a conference are the ones who happen to be sitting next to you. In my case, it was Anne-Marie Revcolevschi, president of the Paris-based Aladdin Project (in French, Projet Aladin).

Her goal is to build bridges between Jews and Muslims in France and elsewhere. One major emphasis is on battling widespread Holocaust denial in the Muslim world by translating books on the Shoah into Arabic, Farsi and Urdu, as well as “anti-radicalization” training programs.

Plans call for a series of international seminars on Holocaust education next year in such places as the Caucasus, Central Asia, West Africa and North Africa.

But with 600,000 Jews in France, vis-à-vis a 6-million-strong Muslim community, the task ahead is difficult, Revcolevschi acknowledged.

Late in the day, while accepting the ADL Daniel Pearl Award on behalf of her organization, Revcolevschi called for support for the Aladdin Project’s endeavors from the American-Jewish community. 

Highlights of the Nov. 7 program included a panel discussion on “The Role of Sports in Society,” with NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as one of the participants.

Academic leaders and students joined in a discussion of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activities on college campuses.

The program ended with a salute to Foxman, with Hollywood executives and actors lauding his 50 years of service to ADL and the Jewish people.