Sharon Nazarian: The Jewish Iranian leading ADL’s global mission
Sharon Nazarian was 10 when her family left Iran for the United States, fleeing a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism. Growing up in Iran, she’d experienced anti-Semitism firsthand as a Jew in a country where Jews were second-class citizens.
As she assumes the post of senior vice president of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — a new position in the organization — her job now is to fight for those experiencing anti-Semitism and racial hatred around the world.
By her own account, she’ll have plenty to do. In a conversation with the Journal on Sept. 6, her first day on the job, Nazarian said the forces of hatred are on the march around the world.
“It’s really a global phenomenon,” she said, “and the ADL has to look at it holistically and see where we can be most helpful to those who need us.”
After Nazarian’s family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1978, her father, Younes, built a fortune as an investor and made a name as a champion of pro-Israel causes. Sharon, now the president of the family’s charitable foundation, took up her father’s devotion to Israel, but went into academia rather than business, earning a doctorate in political science from USC. Later, at UCLA, she taught courses in political science and helped establish and lead the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies.
Nazarian serves on a number of charitable boards, including HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and the UCLA Foundation. She also holds public policy posts with a focus on the Middle East; for instance, as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
During her interview, which has been edited for clarity and length here, she declined to provide a detailed view of her strategy at the ADL, because she said she had yet to learn the ins and outs of her new role, but spoke about her priorities and her views about the global environment in which the ADL works.
Jewish Journal: What global trends are you keeping an eye on as you start your new role?
Sharon Nazarian: Europe has always been an important focus, but today probably more than ever. We’ve seen the shift not only in terms of anti-Semitism in Europe, but with population changes, with refugees, with changing sentiment toward refugees and immigrants. There’s much that ADL can help with, for the Jewish community and the broader community. We can partner with the Jewish communities in those countries to see how our mutual interests can be served.
We’ve seen changes in Venezuela and Argentina. There’s concern there for the Jewish communities that we’re keeping a close eye on. The International Affairs Division has been doing a great job, but at the same time, we have to continue to be very vigilant there.
JJ: We seem to hear almost daily about incidents of violent anti-Semitism in Europe. Is Jewish life there a lost cause or can ADL act to reverse that trend?
SN: ADL is doing a tremendous job of working with Jewish communities of Europe and seeing how we can be of support to them. We feel strongly that they know what’s best, they know what they need. Working in collaboration and partnership with the Jewish communities that are living their lives every day with great difficulty has been our [modus operandi] and we will continue.
The trends are very worrisome, but I think in a way it’s not unique to Europe, and it’s not unique to anti-Semitism. It’s part of social trends that we’re seeing and political trends we’re seeing toward minorities, toward multiple groups. You can see it in Russia. You can see it in Turkey. It’s really a global phenomenon. And the ADL has to look at it holistically, and see where we can be most helpful to those who need us.
JJ: Do you include America in that global trend of rising hatred?
SN: Charlottesville was definitely a wake-up call for all of us. I think ADL was already at the forefront of that, and it was probably no surprise to most of the professionals here at ADL.
I was glued to the television like the rest of us with horror and shock and dismay. I definitely don’t think we can sit back passively and think this is a blip. The vigilance that ADL brings to these global trends is exactly why I joined it.
JJ: The ADL has been vocal in its criticism of President Donald Trump. What do you say to those who feel it has become a partisan group?
SN: ADL’s hundred-year history speaks for the fact that it has always been nonpartisan and it has always spoken for groups who need protection. I won’t say more than that since it’s still Day One, but I think ADL’s actions speak for themselves. And those kind of criticisms, I would reject them.
JJ: How do you think your upbringing as a Jew in Iran affects your outlook at ADL?
SN: ADL’s mission is to protect minorities, and having been a minority in a Muslim majority country, hopefully that will inform me and the shape I give to our international affairs. I’ve spent a lot of time since then immersed in the Muslim world and the Arab world in my travels, in fact-finding missions. I traveled to Afghanistan, to Kabul, as a guest of the Department of Defense, and spending time there, looking at how our forces were helping train Afghani police, and the cultural barriers that existed. The fact that I could speak to the Afghani troops in Farsi — it was very fascinating.
JJ: Part of ADL’s mission is to support Israel, but it recently put out a statement criticizing the Israeli government’s rejection of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. When is it appropriate for ADL to criticize Israel?
SN: Israel obviously has a very special place in ADL’s heart and mind and our activities, and we protect Israel’s image around the world. When it comes down to specific policies, we will speak to ADL’s mission and priority and we’ll take it on a case-by-case basis. It is never our intention to distance ourselves from Israel. Our intention is to be a consistent voice for the mission of ADL, and that will take us where it takes us.
JJ: On the subject of Israel, where do you fall on the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Can you be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic?
SN: For example, when the UC Regents passed the Statement of Principles Against Intolerance for the first time, I think, it nationally introduced the concept of some forms of anti-Zionist speech being anti-Semitic. That was a very important moment for us. I was thrilled as a leader of the Jewish community of Los Angeles that the UC took the stance that they took.
Often anti-Zionist speech and behavior is a cover for anti-Semitism. I am a political scientist and I do believe that we have to be nuanced about these matters to make sure that we don’t curtail free speech, that we don’t curtail criticism of policy.
There is a possibility of being very critical of Israeli policy without being an anti-Israeli. But to be a pure anti-Zionist — no, on that I would say it is a cover for anti-Semitism.
JJ: During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran. Is the Iran deal on your radar as you start your new job?
SN: Iran is very much on our radar, whether the deal itself is or is not. What I’ll be more interested in is how Iran is treating its own minorities and its own vulnerable groups. I’ll be watching very closely as a former minority in Iran and now as a senior person at ADL who really cares about how vulnerable groups are treated everywhere in the world.