Monday, November 13, 2017

#NeverIsNow is the ADL at its Best

I just got back from the ADL's "Never is Now" summit against antisemitism and all other forms of bigotry and hate. My relationship with the ADL is somewhat complicated, though on the whole I'd characterize myself as a friendly gadfly. I've said nice things about them when they're doing their job right, and I've been sharply critical of them when they're screwing that important job up.

That said, it was the ADL staffer who is probably the most common recipient of my ... let's call it "constituent concerns" (to be clear -- it's never her who is the problem, she's just my primary point of contact) ... who invited me to the conference as her guest. So while I've had my differences with the ADL along with my points of agreement, I've never found them unreceptive to critique and conversation.

And I have to say, this conference was exactly what the ADL should be.

The ADL is in a bit of a tough spot right now. If you talk to people on the left, they'll say the ADL is basically a tool of the establishment, acting as if the "alt-left" is equivalent to the alt-right, embedded in a pattern of policing left-wing Jewish activism while dancing around the fact that vicious hate and bigotry have penetrated the mainstream, elected-office level right.

Meanwhile, on the right, they're trying to push the narrative that the ADL is basically a liberal advocacy group (Jonathan Greenblatt was part of the Obama administration, didn't you know?), a partisan political organization that's barely distinct from the NJDC, committing the cardinal sin of attacking the hatred and bigotry of figures even when they call themselves pro-Israel.

As far as I'm concerned, the liberal critics are closer to the mark than the conservative ones, though the ADL isn't quite the hopeless establishment toady they're sometimes made them out to be. Still, it has been my observation that the fear of these right-wing attacks causes the ADL to get a bit gunshy in clearly and unequivocally (a) calling out right-wing bias when it isn't simply the province of neo-Nazis and (b) making clear that it will stand up for and protect the right of liberal Zionists (particularly young liberal Zionists) to express their Zionism in ways that include often sharp criticism of Israeli state policies.

But say what you will about the ADL generally: based on what I saw at this conference, they were hitting the right notes.

The first breakout session I attended in the afternoon was about "What young Jews are saying about Israel and why we have to listen." The tenor of the panel was generally one of quieting alarm rather than raising it: young people are not abandoning Israel in droves. They are not crazed radicals (they are a bit resentful that a small sliver of students on the extremes dominates news coverage and the public perception of young college students). They do often have serious concerns and criticisms about Israeli policies -- as is their right -- and any engagement efforts which don't give those criticisms room to breathe will and should fail. And while BDS certainly was raised as an issue (as it should), it didn't dominate the discussion and there was no effort by the moderator or by anyone else to turn the conversation in that direction.

Perhaps the most powerful moment in that panel was when one of the panelists spoke of how J Street U students were treated at a UN anti-BDS conference (a non-Jewish speaker at the conference called them all antisemites -- to roaring applause -- and then they were told they should go to Gaza and be beheaded by Hamas). That story got audible gasps from the room. I don't think many of the people in attendance had heard about that happening, and it very vividly illustrated the degree to which certain conservative elements in our community have been abusing young liberal Zionists in the name of "pro-Israel" advocacy.

At other times, conference speakers were quite explicit in linking the rise in antisemitism and other forms of hatred to the Trump candidacy and administration. Threats were illustrated not just with sound bites from Charlottesville (this was the first time I'd actually heard the chant "Jews will not  replace us", and it was genuinely chilling) but with excerpts from Donald Trump speeches. It never devolved into a bash-the-GOP-fest -- nor should it have -- but there were no kid gloves around the fact that the Republican Party coalition, as currently constituted, is part of the problem.

Several other panels I witnessed were likewise simply outstanding. A conversation on diversity within the Jewish community (including African-American Jews, a Canadian-American member of the Bene Israel community, and the head of the Ugandan Jewish community) was superb and nuanced on an issue near and dear to my heart (a side note -- while I think there could have been more diversity across the different panels, it did not seem like all the ethnic minorities were shunted into this one "diversity" panel).

During the afternoon plenary, a conversation featuring American University student body President Taylor Dumpson, former White Supremacist-turned-counterextremism activist Christian Picciolini, and Whitefish, Montana Rabbi Francine Roston stole the show. Dumpson (the first African-American woman to hold her position) spoke powerfully about the vicious harassment she received upon her election, and how the response of her community and the ADL offered a model for activism and effective anti-hate response. Piccilioni gave a deeply personal account of his path into and eventually away from White Supremacy, and gave hope to those who believe that any remotely cohesive effort against racism and bigotry needs to think about how to get racists and bigots to ... do something else (he also had the funniest line of the conference when he said he'd been "working with the ADL for twenty-five years ... if you count the period where they included me on lists of top White supremacist leaders").

Overall, it was a conference that had its eye firmly on the ball. It wasn't a left-wing hatchet factory, but it wasn't shy about its progressive orientation. It wasn't going to give BDS a free pass, but it wasn't going to act as if that was the be-all-end-all of young Jewish communal experience. It was proud of Jewish diversity, but it was also well aware that we have a lot of work to do inside our own synagogues and centers to make sure our spaces are welcoming and equitable to Jews of all hues.

It was, in short, the ADL at its very best. Kudos to them, for putting on a great conference.

1 comment:

VINNY MAC said...

Were all of the speakers Zionist?