Saturday, October 08, 2022

Is the ADL Losing Its Liberal Base?

The ADL is America's preeminent Jewish civil rights organization.

That position comes with an inevitable share of gripes. Jews who think the ADL is misusing its position. Non-Jews who don't like the idea of a "preeminent Jewish" (or "civil rights") anything. The day where somebody isn't complaining about something the ADL is doing is a day that doesn't end in "y".

That said, the inevitability and ubiquity of complaints faced by the ADL doesn't mean none of them have merit. Moreover, said inevitability and ubiquity doesn't mean there aren't things to be gleaned from patterns -- who is complaining, how they're complaining, and what they're complaining about.

The latest ADL related flare-up came when chieftain Jonathan Greenblatt seemed to laud Elon Musk's potential takeover of Twitter and compared Musk (positively!) to Henry Ford in the process. Using Henry Ford -- one of America's most notorious antisemites -- as a compliment was bad enough. But Musk's prime motivator for buying Twitter, by his own admission, is that he thinks Twitter has been too heavy-handed in "censoring" or tamping down on hate speech on the platform. This flies in the face of the ADL's social media policy, which has been to this point aggressive in demanding that social media platforms do more to combat hateful speech and conspiracies proliferating on their sites. So why on earth would Greenblatt think Musk's purchase of Twitter is a cause for optimism? The impression many got was that, in an effort to curry favor with the right's new fair-haired plutocrat, Greenblatt was selling out his organization's stated committed to fight extremism and hate online. The right-wing loves Musk, so Greenblatt felt obliged to love him too.

Greenblatt has since apologized for the Henry Ford comparison. He also suggested that what he was really doing was "laying down a gauntlet about what we expect Elon Musk to do," which -- talk about don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining. Greenblatt was not "laying down a gauntlet," he was very clearly trying to butter up Musk now that Musk has become a right-wing hero. I'd be delighted if he changed course on that. But don't patronize me but pretending you weren't doing what was obvious to all of our eyes.

Again, it must be stressed that Musk has become a right-wing hero because he's sworn to make it easier for the far-right to spread extremism and hate on a major social media platform. The reason this is such a scandal isn't solely or even primarily because of an ill-advised comparison; it is because it seemed as if Greenblatt either no longer had the stomach or no longer had the desire to stand against a truly dangerous development for the safety of Jews online if it meant standing up to a powerful and popular figure on the American right. That failure -- whether of nerve, of will, or of interest -- represents a serious problem for the ADL's credibility.

Now, it isn't at all surprising that the Jewish left would jump all over Greenblatt's miscue. And to the extent that the complaints were coming from the usual "drop the ADL" suspects, there would not be much new to be said under the sun. The source of the critique wouldn't make it wrong (as I like to say, if you fail so badly that JVP can fairly dunk on you, that's a you problem, not a JVP problem), but it would reflect any broader political shift.

But it did seem to me that this latest incident with Musk was evincing a notable and qualitatively different type of response, both in terms of what was being said and who was saying it. Most specifically, I've been seeing a lot more chatter taking the form of (at least consideringcalling for Greenblatt to resign.

Why is that noteworthy? It's not just that it's a relatively drastic demand to make. The bigger story is that resignation calls suggest that discontent with the ADL's direction has migrated over from the aforementioned "usual suspects" to a more moderate liberal tranche. The complaints and frustrations are boiling over not from those who've always hated the ADL and will take any opportunity to stick a knife in, but from those who think the ADL has done and continues to do much good work, but has over the past few months gone badly off the rails.

Simply put, one doesn't call for new leadership in organizations one thinks are intrinsically risible. I detest Mort Klein and ZOA, but I never say "Mort Klein must resign from ZOA". Practically speaking, I don't care who runs ZOA because I think ZOA is at its core a terrible organization. It'd be like me calling for "new leadership" from Hamas. By contrast, I was very vocal in calling for David Harris to resign from helming the AJC because, as annoying as I sometimes find the AJC, they lie on a fundamentally different tranche for me than does ZOA and I do care that about who leads them and what direction they go.

The fact is that the Musk incident is part of a pattern of gaffes and controversies from Greenblatt over the past few months which have infuriated Jewish liberals, virtually all of which have come from attempts to placate or cozy up to right-wing actors. To give a few more examples:

And while I wouldn't characterize it as a "gaffe" per se, all of this has gone hand-in-hand with Greenblatt taking a far more aggressive tone in characterizing anti-Zionism as antisemitism -- a pivot that many observers described as evincing greater "combativeness" by the ADL towards the left. Put it all together, and the pattern from the last few months have been one of a noticeable pivot by the ADL towards the right. And Jewish liberals -- again, mainstream Democrat types, not the far-left -- are noticing this pivot, noticing the associated gaffes, and are increasingly fed up by it.

For their part, the Jewish right has always hated Greenblatt and wanted him to out, and nothing about the ADL's more recent change in practice is going to change that. And the Jewish far-left just doesn't like the ADL, period, and so Greenblatt inherited their disdain. Those polar oppositions perhaps could be taken for granted. But it means that if Greenblatt is also losing normcore Jewish liberals, then his base of support starts to look awfully narrow.

For my part, I take no position on whether Greenblatt should call it quits (in part because I share concern that the ADL's next leader might come from even more conservative quarters). I certainly don't endorse the view that the ADL is an irredeemably flawed or toxic organization; I continue to believe they do much great and necessary work. But I do agree that the ADL has been a ship adrift over the past few months -- making decision after decision that are morally indefensible and practically insulting to the mainstream liberal Jews who have historically comprised the core of the ADL's support base. 

One of the most compelling diagnoses of why Bernie Sanders' failed to secure the Democrat nomination was simple: you cannot be the standard-bearer of a party you despise. It doesn't matter how many loud voices on Twitter laud you, it doesn't matter how many donors shower you with resources. If you're going to lead Democrats, you have to like the average Democrat. The ADL would do well to internalize a similar lesson: you cannot be, and will not stay, the preeminent Jewish leader if you disdain the median American Jew. And the median American Jew is politically left-of-center -- not on the far-left, but a mainstream liberal. That might not characterize who trends on Twitter, and that might not characterize the most profligate donors. But it characterizes most Jews, and the ADL chases right-wing clout at our expense at its peril.

The "good news", as it were, is that this is hardly the first time that the ADL has sold out liberal Jews. Relationships can be mended, courses can be corrected. Nonetheless, there does seem to be a sea change occurring, and patience finally wearing thin. If the ADL doesn't change its trajectory quickly, it is far from clear what the future holds for America's preeminent Jewish civil rights organization.

1 comment:

miacane said...

Very thoughtful. As more of a centrist, I find the drift that the ADL has taken to be very alienating. Where it would have once been a natural fit for my contributions of both time and money, it seems to be joining the "every critique of Israel is anti-Semitic" and, as you point out, right-wing sycophancy train. Very few ports left in this hyperpolarizing storm. Disheartening.