The massacre of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue is prompting soul-searching throughout American politics; and one component of that inventory is scrutinizing all the Jewish professionals who devoted resources to fighting critics of Israel by accusing them of anti-Semitism, when the real threat was something far different. The CEO of the Anti Defamation League is a case in point.
In recent days, many outlets have turned to Jonathan Greenblatt to explain hatred of Jews in the U.S. Greenblatt was on CNN and the PBS News Hour today, on MSNBC yesterday, and the day before he had an op-ed in the New York Times. In all his appearances, Greenblatt has emphasized the anti-semitic threat from rightwing nationalists, but he has also quietly cited anti-Zionism as part of the problem, pointing to anti-Semitism on college campuses.
Greenblatt has a history of accusing leftwing critics of Israel of supposed anti-Semitism. Last January, Greenblatt spoke at a forum in Israel and repeatedly lumped leftwing anti-Zionism in with rightwing nationalism as threats to American Jews.
The two currents were rising together, and the Jewish community was divided, Greenblatt argued, about which threat was the real anti-Semitism. And which president was more of a threat to Jewish interests, Obama or Trump.
As you read my transcript of his comments, note that Greenblatt throws his former boss President Obama under the bus, as hostile to Israel. And he characterizes progressive Jewish groups Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow as extreme anti-Semitic organizations.
“American politics are polarized in a way they’ve never been before, and American Jews are literally the fulcrum of that I think in many ways.
“You know, President Obama whom I formerly worked for… I think it’s safe to say he made a series of what I might characterize as missteps on Middle East policy that I don’t want to rehash, but they spawned anger among certain elements of the Jewish community, particularly on the Republican side of the ledger.
“And I think it’s safe to say that this president has made a series of policy missteps on the domestic side that I also don’t want to rehash but that have engendered a great deal of negative reaction from the Democratic side of the ledger… But he’s embraced Israel in ways that are quite remarkable but he’s also really exacerbated that cleavage I think. And you see this division actually growing a great deal. On one side you have a surge of activists on the left who — they are almost like, as Trump embraces, there’s a Newtonian response, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.
“And his strong embrace I think has allowed a number of folks on the left to really — people who are committed to delegitimization [of Israel], to try to mainstream their views, and plant themselves into the center of progressive discourse in the United States, and it’s really quite damaging. And it’s worth noting that some of the fastest-growing Jewish groups, IfNotNow, Jewish Voices for Peace, these are youth-driven organizations that are really quite committed to an agenda that I think everyone in this room would find extremely uncomfortable. Yet these are the vanguard prompted in part by the political dynamic in the country today.
“I should say that, you know that Israel has always been a tough issue. We’ve had AIPAC and J Street for almost ten years [presumably as opponents]. What’s now happened is that within the Jewish community and I think forces here are prompting it — anti-Semitism has become a debated issue. That’s a pretty remarkable thing. You have folks on the right who say to me, ‘Just ignore Charlottesville and those neo-Nazis are not really a big deal. You need to focus on antisemitism on the left, taking over campuses, that’s the problem.’
“Then I have folks on the left say to me, ‘Ignore Linda Sarsour, ignore that movement, what you really need to focus on is the anti-Semitism of the right, that’s the real problem.’ So I think that’s extraordinary and dynamics here in this country I think are playing into that.”
Greenblatt went on to fault the Israeli government for abandoning the two-state solution, which most American Jews regard as an article of faith, and for the bad “optics” of coming down on independent media and judges.
IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace have opposed anti-Semitism in no uncertain terms, and issued defiant statements on the Pittsburgh massacre. Neither group takes an explicit position on Zionism, though JVP’s work has an anti-Zionist character, including support for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions). IfNotNow has a non-Zionist character; its core principle is to end American Jewish establishment’s support for the occupation.
In his remarks last January, Greenblatt described a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. and again hit his both-sides theme.
“We saw a 67 percent increase in violence, vandalism directed at Jewish institutions. We saw a 100 percent increase in bullying incidents against Jewish children. We saw a 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic harassment on college campuses. So this is very real and it’s key to remember that this comes from the left and the right…
“Again it’s coming from both sides…
“Whether you’re a leader in elected office or you command some other public platform, it’s important to call this stuff out. Simply based on the facts. And again not allow the politics to cloud the conversation… You can’t give people a pass and say, ‘You know what, I don’t care about what they say about Jews, because they’re good on the Jewish state.’ And by the way you can’t get away with, ‘I don’t care what they say about the Jewish state, because they’re good on Jewish issues.’ No! Antisemitism is unacceptable no matter where it comes from. Period, end of story.”
Apropos of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last summer, which the Israeli government was slow to condemn because it supports Trump, Greenblatt urged Israeli officials to take rightwing anti-Semitism as seriously as they do anti-Zionism.
“As we look ahead, I think we would hope that whoever the elected government here in Israel, you take these issues of anti-semitism in the U.S. as seriously as you take anti-semitism when it’s spoken in the General Assembly in the U.N. or in any other institution. Call it out, call it for what it is.”
Greenblatt was a successful businessman, including being a Starbucks executive, before becoming a Jewish professional. He served in the Obama White House as Special Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. In that job he led “efforts to utilize human capital and financial capital to bring attention to community solutions,” per Wikipedia.