Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, has been involved with social justice issues since his childhood, when his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, took him to a protest to free Soviet Jews.
“I held up signs and marched,” he said. “Then something amazing happened – it worked. They were freed. I’m not so silly to think I had something to do with that directly, but I can tell you when I was a little boy, it really left an imprint on me that I could change the world – that I could be a part of something bigger than myself.”
Greenblatt shared his background – as well as his views on the current “lay of the land,” of the ADL, its future and how it’s battling anti-Semitism – with a group of about 60 people Oct. 18 at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Building in Beachwood.
Facebook and Twitter were two social media outlets Greenblatt said more individuals need to be aware of and know how to navigate. On both sites, instances of bigotry have appeared and have been called out, an action he said shouldn’t be misconstrued as political.
“I don’t think there is anything political in calling out prejudice,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything partisan about standing up to intolerance. Don’t let anyone tell you that there is.”
Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Republican from Beachwood, took aim at the ADL on Twitter in late July when he called out the organization for a report it published, “From Alt Right to Alt Lite: Naming the Hate.” Although Greenblatt doesn’t agree with Mandel, he told the Cleveland Jewish News Mandel has the right to say it.
“Josh Mandel is a veteran who served his country honorably and seeks higher office today,” he said. “We may not agree on anything, but he is an upstanding member of society.”
Greenblatt contrasts Mandel’s attitude to that of Richard Spencer, a public speaker who identifies as a white nationalist and plans to speak at the University of Cincinnati in November or December. On Oct. 13, The Ohio State University in Columbus denied Spencer’s request to speak on campus due to safety concerns, although it is looking for an alternative venue.
“(He) does not serve the public interest,” Greenblatt said. “In fact, he’s had a very negative impact on communities where he has brought his divisive message.
“I certainly believe in free speech. The ADL is a fierce advocate of the First Amendment. ... People have the right to express ugly ideas. I think we need to be able to distinguish between hateful speech and harmful speech, that is (to say) a speech that expresses ugly ideas and a speech that incites violence (or) that slanders individuals. ... Richard Spencer is a proponent of the latter, and that does not belong in the public square.”
The ADL took a sample of anti-Sematic abuse on Twitter aimed at journalists over the past year, and Greenblatt said it found thousands of tweets were directed at Jewish journalists no matter their political background. He said there has been a massive spike in hate crime-related comments on social media that has never been seen before – and there is no previous data against which to measure these instances.
Greenblatt said the “extreme right is a problem,” but also said the “radical left” needs to be addressed as well. He brought up his alma matter, Tufts University in Medford, Mass., where the university took a boycott, divestment and sanctions movement vote to allow the movement on campus, which was scheduled on a night many Jewish students would be absent from campus for a recent Jewish holiday.
To combat issues like violent extremism, Greenblatt said it’s imperative to continue working with other minority communities, including the LGBTQ, African-American and Latino communities.
“We are all in this together, facing the same threats, and we need shared strategies to deal with it,” he said. “I will not surrender, I will not submit to the idea that we can’t work with elements of the progressive community, with whom we fought with for civil rights for generations.”
Greenblatt said the world order was “unraveling” and changing before President Donald Trump stepped into the Oval Office, citing the Iran nuclear deal as one of the reasons.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran is an enormous threat to the Jewish people, period,” he said. “And don’t let anyone tell you different.”
The “relentless” violence from the Islamic Republic of Iran led to the European refugee crisis of recent years, which Greenblatt said has spawned various cascading effects, like the “Brexit” vote last year allowing the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.
He brought to attention the recent German election, where an “extremist right-wing” party placed third in the parliament, and the election of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose political party was founded by ex-Nazis.
“To those of you who are thinking the extreme right is not a problem, I want you to look at (Kurz),” he said. “We know from our own history, when they start looking at the other and marginalizing them and excluding them, more often than not, it ends up including us.”
The ADL is analyzing these elections to determine how Kurz won and how an extremist right-wing party gained ground in Germany’s parliament.
Continuing its research is only one way the ADL is working toward its mission to secure justice and fair treatment for all. Greenblatt said education, advocacy and working with law enforcement on how to handle hate crimes is part of its solution.
Greenblatt’s wife and grandfather are both refugees, which he said drives him to stand up to extremists. He said he hopes future generations will have the option to stay in the country in which they were born.
“I don’t think we can take for granted, not for a second, that (our grandchildren) will be right here in America unless we fight for what we have,” he said. “That’s why I took this job – because I want my grandchildren, and ultimately your grandchildren, to have the option to be born and raised here and be as Jewish as they want to be. This is our country and I’m not going to let it go.”
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