When Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar was attacked in March for “invoking the anti-Semitic trope of ‘dual loyalty’” in her criticisms of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)—a Jewish non-govermental organization based in the United States, whose stated mission is “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all”—was among the first to call on Congressional leaders to “take immediate action” against her.
This was a well-worn pattern: the ADL’s calls to action have successfully mobilized public opinion against black leadership for decades, from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Ocean Hill-Brownsville parents in the New York City teacher strikes of 1968, to the Movement for Black Lives and Marc Lamont Hill. In a clear sign that the new class of elected Democrats has actually shifted some power, though, the Congressional resolution on anti-Semitism took a surprising turn. Instead of confirming the innocence of the Israel lobby, as the Democratic leadership intended, Congress was forced for the first time to repudiate Islamophobia and white supremacy alongside anti-Semitism.
The ADL is experiencing a renaissance in its visibility, influence, and fundraising power among well-meaning liberals.
The effort to punish Omar has now been followed with a renewed push for a federal Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. The bill would create federal authority to decide whether a critic of Israel is motivated by politics or “anti-Semitic intent.” It is a clear bid to retake control from a questioning public. It would insulate anti-Semitism charges from public debate, where efforts to equate Israel with Jewish liberation increasingly fail and where new black-Muslim-Jewish alliances against Israel are emerging. Another new resolution condemns the human rights boycott of Israel as anti-Semitism that contributes to authoritarianism in the Middle East.
The stakes are high for the ADL, because its moral authority is a moneymaker. The ADL and its fundraising foundation reported a combined total of $67 million in contributions in 2016, as Donald Trump took office and neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, including at least $11 million from fundraising events. (In 2013 it raised $750,000 in one night from its furniture industry “partners in the fight against hate”—one of its favorite phrases.) Perhaps more importantly, it is a source of cashless access in politics: the ADL’s role as advisor to elected officials on matters of civil rights, not limited to anti-Semitism, is both completely informal and pro forma in political offices.
The ADL’s persistent power in U.S. politics has been strangely unaffected by its history, probably because that history is so little known. The Ilhan Omar debate should be shaped by at least two aspects of it. The first is that the ADL has consistently sought to undermine the left, leveling a charge akin to dual loyalty: that the American left’s calls for redistribution of power, its solidarity with global movements, and its prioritization of people over states threaten the very concept of the state. Indeed the ADL, in addition to its stated mission of shoring up U.S. support for Israel, is deeply loyal to the U.S. state. The second is that the ADL has waged a long, vigorous, and successful campaign, alongside AIPAC, specifically to characterize Arab American political organizing as dual loyalty.
At a time when it should be easier to see the ADL as a conservative knowledge production agency, a resurgence of concern with “hate” has only consolidated its power.
This history is particularly important because despite losing this particular battle with Omar and identifying more openly with the right (consider, for instance, the ADL’s celebration of Trump’s Jerusalem embassy move), the ADL is experiencing a renaissance in its visibility, influence, and fundraising power among well-meaning liberals. It is fueled by the new national interest in white supremacy, which the ADL has long surveilled and researched, and which the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been charged to ignore in favor of targeting Muslim communities. (The ADL advocated surveilling both.) The ADL’s ubiquity in U.S. discussions of white supremacy is exceeded only by the Klan’s: more than two-thirds of the 46,000 articles on white supremacists or white nationalists posted in the past year have referenced the ADL. That coverage has spiked by 1500 percent in 2019 alone, based on Factiva database searches for terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist.”
At a time when it should be easier to see the ADL as a conservative knowledge production agency, a resurgence of concern with “hate” has only consolidated its power.
The ADL’s power to mobilize against black leadership does not rest on leveraging anxieties about anti-Semitism. It draws instead on the ADL’s much broader authority it has won over anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-queer “hate.” It is a quasi-state role that the ADL developed in just a decade, throughout the 1980s: the period of collective U.S. desperation about white supremacist violence preceding the one we are in.
The ADL’s persistent power in U.S. politics has been strangely unaffected by its history, probably because that history is so little known.
Like other major Jewish organizations (and unlike the many Jewish leftist organizations that have existed in opposition to it), the ADL has evinced a strong allegiance with the U.S. state. It was committed to its civilizing mission of settlement, and to capitalist individualism as the framework for rights. In addition to keeping watch over threats to the state—Nazism, Communism, or demands for equality that went too far—the ADL sought out or welcomed ways to participate in the administration of the state. It collaborated with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s and 1950s; it also tried and largely failed for several decades to interest the FBI in considering it a partner in monitoring threats. (FBI files made public under Freedom of Information Act requests document some of these efforts.) It found an opening in civil rights work where, ten years after the Voting Rights Act, ongoing racial conflict and white supremacist violence produced a new wave of demands for state action.
The ADL’s quasi-state role took shape from about 1979 to 1990. Not incidentally, these years were also a period of crisis for Israel’s image as a liberation project: decolonizing states in the United Nations charged Israel with colonialism, racism, and violations of international law, and Jewish economic and political inclusion in the United States was soured by the advent of critiques of white privilege. Public debates about white privilege began to implicate Jews in state power on the wrong side of civil rights. The Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982 galvanized the first mass Jewish organizing against Israel and the settlements; New Jewish Agenda led that work, and also exposed and protested Jewish organizations’ support for Reagan. The first intifada began in 1987, displacing the narrative of Israel as a benevolent democracy. Domestically, these events produced ten state Democratic party resolutions on Palestinian rights and a debate at the national DNC in July 1988.
In addition to keeping watch over threats to the state, the ADL sought out or welcomed ways to participate in the administration of it.
In 1979 the ADL began producing an annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents. These audits, which found that anti-Semitism was “on the rise” nearly every year, were soon taken up by media and policymakers as a measure of how well the United States was living up to its values of racial inclusion, and how imminently threatening were latent fascist forces—code, at different times, for Nazis, Communists, the U.S. left, and more recently Muslim extremism. These audits remain a potent force in U.S. politics, despite periodic critiques that their methodology and raw data are not made public. Critics have noted that the ADL does not distinguish between teenage pranks designed to shock, such as swastika graffiti, and attacks grounded in bias, nor between expressions of bias and material violence. In the press, the ADL also counts calls for Palestinian rights, and even criticism of the ADL itself, as anti-Semitic incidents. Presumably these are included in the annual count. News media rarely look beyond the numbers, though, as they report “spikes” and “dramatic increases” which correctly remind readers, even if the data are spurious, that white supremacy persists.
Beginning in the mid-’80s, the ADL launched work on hate crimes legislation. Initially its focus was on escalating small aggressions, again mostly by teens, as a matter of state concern. Its legislative campaign, though, coincided with a surge in anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-gay violence and white supremacy and a sense of urgency in pushing disinterested law enforcement to deal with them. The ADL pivoted to include racial and ethnic groups in its “hate crimes” approach, and was finally convinced to include queers. When the first federal hate crimes law passed in 1990, the ADL had become one of just a few major advocates defining the language and politics around it.
The last step in this process came in 1985, when the ADL launched its anti-bias education project. What began as a local effort in Boston in response to local racial tensions around bussing and housing quickly scaled up as a national program. “A World of Difference” was—and remains—a K-12 curriculum that combined interest in the power of television to make social interventions in a national conversation on children’s racial attitudes arising from the urban conflicts of the ’70s and ’80s. Emerging research had not figured out what interventions consistently made children tolerant, particularly in light of the fact that their society constantly reinforced racial inequality. Still, the urgency of addressing racism generated enthusiasm for the ADL’s effort among elected officials and funders first in Boston, and then in dozens of major cities. This momentum put the ADL in the position of writing essentially national curriculum not just on anti-Semitism, but on anti-black, anti-Asian, and anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism.
The ADL’s Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents has been uncritically taken up by media and policymakers.
In more than one instance this curriculum was implemented over the objections of black, Asian, Arab, and Muslim communities. The conflict in San Francisco illuminates the ADL’s aims. In the Bay Area local community organizing had close ties to Third World anti-imperialist organizing, and Jewish challenges to Israel had a strong foothold. The Sabra and Shatila massacre and the intifada led to referenda that scared the ADL. San Francisco voted on support of Palestinians’ right to self-determination and statehood, and Berkeley voted on becoming a sister city of Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza. The resolutions were supported by a substantial coalition of civil rights and justice organizations, as well as Arab grocery store owners, an important business community that usually stayed out of politics. The ADL viewed the campaign to defeat the initiatives as an “agency-wide commitment” and allocated it an unprecedented campaign budget to “contain and quarantine attempts . . . to shift public opinion against the Jewish state.” AIPAC was its main partner in that campaign.
Perhaps hoping to tame the Bay Area’s intersectional anti-racism, the ADL brought its “A World of Difference” program to the regional school board in 1987. Lacking the deep relationships with other groups that had blessed the Boston project, the ADL proposed gathering a coalition of community groups to collaborate on the program. It recruited a set of (Jewish-led) queer, Asian, Arab, and other anti-racist groups and incorporated the coalition as Bay Area United (BAU). By 1988 the ADL’s assembled groups complained that “A World of Difference” presented a narrow view of bias that elevated the Nazi holocaust and minimized experiences from slavery to internment. They charged that it explained why Americans should be tolerant of Muslims that actually taught Islamophobia rather than challenging it. They objected to the ADL’s refusal to discuss anti-gay violence at a moment when it was a key project of white supremacists and predominant among “bias crimes,” exacerbated by the AIDS crisis.
In pushing the ADL to amend the curriculum, the BAU appealed to what they assumed was a basic shared tenet of anti-discrimination: that one group representing one identity would not claim the right to speak on behalf of or control the others. ADL staff surprised them by doubling down on their right to control the whole curriculum. BAU groups were shocked that the ADL was so overtly hostile to them—even though they scribbled notes about the ADL’s anti-Palestinian bias in the margins of their meeting agendas, they believed the ADL thought of itself as part of a community of civil rights groups. Throughout the conflict, the school board stayed silent. City human rights officials asked only for anti-gay violence to be included. Finally BAU’s board quit, charging that the ADL had been using them as cover. This elicited no response from the ADL, but in answer to the city, the ADL agreed to include anti-gay violence. With this accommodation it won leeway to proceed with the entire program. (Much of this history is in the archives of Jewish queer activists who fought the ADL.)
The ADL has leveled near-constant charges of dual loyalty at Arabs, anti-racists, and the left in the name of defending the U.S. and Israeli states.
The ADL’s victory in San Francisco also confirmed the ADL as a voice speaking beyond Jewish interests on a universalized, collectivized “civil rights.” Within a few years, “A World of Difference” had become ubiquitous in the United States as a provider of curriculum, workshops, and school and college clubs, as well as a trainer of teachers, police officers, and other enforcers of social order. In the present, this legacy has meant that the ADL can simultaneously endorse blanket surveillance of Muslims as a matter of security in the War on Terror and provide anti-Islamophobia curriculum to schoolchildren.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of the ADL’s victory was to virtually displace from education those anti-racist organizations, local and national, that sought to discuss racism and white supremacy in terms of state power and dispossession. The ADL had labeled black-generated anti-racist education projects “extremist” and “anti-Semitic” in previous decades when they identified the state as playing a role in white supremacy. That analysis still struggles for oxygen in U.S. political culture. The ADL’s continued role as an authority on white supremacist groups in the present points to its consolidation of control, and its sidelining of the black-led groups contending for that space in the late ’80s. It is worth noting that anti-racist organizations from California to New York are still fighting with local school boards and universities over “A World of Difference” and other ADL curricula—and that Anti-Semitism Awareness Act proposed this year aims to empower the federal Department of Education to characterize Palestinian human rights demands as violations of American Jews’ civil rights.
In the same period, Arab American political groups were organizing as a U.S. constituency. Their organizing had been galvanized in the late ’60s and early ’70s by the Six Day War and by the FBI’s Operation Boulder, the first War on Terror–style program of surveillance, interrogation, and deportation of Arabs and Iranians in the United States (1972–1975.) By the mid-1980s, several national Arab political organizations were working to carve out an Arab representational politics. Among them, the Arab American Institute had brought Arab issues and voters to the national electoral sphere in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Rainbow Coalition, and American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was conducting anti-defamation work along much the same lines as the ADL.
The ADL set out to discredit and isolate them, joined in this effort by AIPAC and a few other groups. In 1983 the ADL circulated a blacklist of Arab American political groups, academics, and organizers (along with Jewish and a few Iranian groups) identifying them as “pro-Arab sympathizers” and anti-Semites. The ADL’s complaint was simply that Arab Americans were changing other American’s minds about Israel.
Pro-Arab propagandists make their point well. . . . Israel is depicted as a ‘militaristic,’ ‘brutal,’ and ‘oppressive’ nation. . . . The ultimate goal of these anti-Israel, pro-Arab propagandists is to sway Americans from their historically strong support for Israel.
The blacklist was stamped “Confidential,” according to Boston ADL director Leonard Zakim’s cover letter, because “it easily could be misconstrued.” It was mailed to “several dozen campus Jewish leaders”—presumably students and faculty, and possibly administrators—with the request that they submit information on anyone else who should be on the list. AIPAC produced a second list of “enemies of Israel” at the same time, written by an ADL staffer who moved between the two organizations.
The blacklists included most, if not all, Arab American representational organizations active in the United States. The lists were followed with overt and behind-the-scenes enforcement campaigns. James Zogby, director of the Arab American Institute in the 1980s, described to Congress dozens of instances when efforts to access the electoral process had been stymied by the blacklists, or by the fears of Arab political representation promulgated by the ADL:
On [one] occasion, I was invited. . . . to a White House briefing for ethnic leaders. After the meeting, an article appeared in the Jewish press claiming that two PLO supporters has [sic] been at the White House, specifically referring to me and to the representative of the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA). I later received a call from an official in the White House who apologized but explained that as a result of this pressure, they would not be able to invite Arab Americans to future briefings. . . .
In the fall of 1983, during the mayoral race in Philadelphia, Arab Americans . . . hosted a fund-raising reception for . . . W. Wilson Goode [and] raised about $2,400 for his campaign. The next day, Goode’ s opponent, John Egan, charged that Goode had accepted “Arab money.” In response, Goode publicly announced that he would return the checks.
Although they repeatedly have sought a meeting with Goode, and have on occasion been promised such a meeting, local community leaders have been denied even the opportunity to meet with their mayor since his election in November 1983. Arab Americans in Philadelphia are effectively disenfranchised. . . .
In each instances [sic], we have found essentially the same ‘blacklists’ being circulated and re-circulated to congressmen, newspaper editorial boards and political campaigns, with a deliberate attempt to ruin political careers and deny Arab Americans their political rights.
As Arab communities were being disenfranchised by the ADL, they were also being subjected to intense violence. In 1986 former Michigan House member and civil rights activist John Conyers called it “a national tragedy,” and convened a federal hearing. The hearing was one in a series of hate crimes hearings on anti-black and anti-gay violence between 1980 and 1988. All three noted its political and dispossessive nature: directed at individuals engaged in public life, asserting black, queer, and Arab issues as rightful concerns of the larger communities in which they shared. In each case, violence was so often unaddressed by law enforcement that groups found the state complicit.
The ADL had labeled black-generated anti-racist education projects “extremist” and “anti-Semitic.” That analysis still struggles for oxygen in U.S. political culture.
The violence described in the Arab American hearing was catastrophic and heavy with messaging: bombings, murders, rape threats, and assaults on Arab and Muslim community groups had been carried out in every part of the United States. In one case a woman dating a Palestinian man was gang-raped and a Star of David carved on her chest. What set it apart from anti-black and anti-gay violence was that it aimed much more precisely at the exercise of political citizenship. Witnesses laid out how closely anti-Arab violence was integrated with the ADL’s delegitimization of Arab citizenship and membership in the U.S. polity. The bombings, fires, and murders followed where the ADL and AIPAC had vilified Arab Americans, and where Arabs had been frozen out of political power structures. Arabs’ inability to leverage political responses to the violence against them, the FBI’s failure to prosecute any case, and the success of the ADL and its partners in casting anti-Arab violence as a rational response to Arab American politics often “succeeded in terrorizing the victims into submission.”
“In pointing out these connections,” Zogby testified, “I am not suggesting that AIPAC, the ADL and the JDL [Jewish Defense League] are collaborators. They do, however, share a common political agenda, and their tactics in fact converge to create a personal and a political threat to the civil rights of Arab Americans and their organizations.”
The extent of the ADL’s antipathy toward the left was briefly a matter of national discussion in 1993. In 1992 FBI agents noticed that some of their intelligence on the Nation of Islam had appeared in an article written by ADL staff. A few months later they raided the ADL’s office. Along with classified FBI data, they also found that the ADL had a much larger collection of illegal files. A set of dossiers on activist groups had been acquired from the San Francisco Police Department’s surveillance unit, which had been shut down in 1990 as unconstitutional. The files had been ordered destroyed but went secretly to the ADL. There were files from other cities’ police departments as well.
A second set of dossiers came from surveillance and infiltration by ADL staff and “consultants.” For at least three decades the ADL had targeted civil rights groups from liberals to revolutionaries: anti-Apartheid activists, legal advocates (including from the ACLU), and community groups. The ADL also surveilled ethnic representational groups, particularly Arab and black, and Jewish groups concerned about Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Among other information, they had addresses and car registrations of 4,500 members of the ADC. The ADC had been bombed and its director, Alex Odeh, murdered during the ADL’s project. The FBI suspected the Jewish Defense League (JDL), but community members suspected that the ADL either facilitated or tolerated the JDL’s attacks.
In total, the raid found dossiers on nearly 950 organizations and 10,000 activists. An FBI interview with ADL spy Roy Bullock indicated that that information had been shared with the South African apartheid government and the Israeli Mossad. In response to a lawsuit, the ADL held the surveillance was permissible research because it was performed by “a journalist.” A judge agreed.
The ADL’s conception of a leftist threat had already been guiding the organization for decades; in the 1980s this idea had cohered in neoconservatism. But in civil rights circles, the ADL did not acknowledge its hostility to the left. Instead, it portrayed itself as progressive, and anti-racists to its left as “rogue” and misguided, if not marginal: SNCC and black liberationists had hijacked real civil rights, New Jewish Agenda were outliers who were really anti-Semites. In the 1980s, according to the ADL’s spy Roy Bullock, the ADL’s anxieties “focused on groups critical of Israeli policies, such as anti-apartheid groups,” which Bullock also categorized more simply as “antidemocratic movements.”
This legacy has meant that the ADL can simultaneously endorse blanket surveillance of Muslims as a matter of security in the War on Terror and provide anti-Islamophobia curriculum to schoolchildren.
In the present, the ADL has continued to militate against internationalist, intersectional anti-racism, and has used its status as “the nation’s premier civil rights organization” to do so. In a particularly painful example in 2016, the ADL’s director wrote a critique of the Movement For Black Lives policy platform, using the black spiritual phrasing of the civil rights movement: he told them to set aside intersectional bonds with Palestinian resistance and instead “keep our eyes on the prize.” At the same time, the ADL has consistently used the language of civil rights, and its position as an authority on them, to describe Israeli state military violence as liberatory and Palestinian resistance, including non-violent civil resistance, as extremist. This habit isn’t incidental: the ADL is now a vetter of content for YouTube, where videos relating to the Boyscott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement have been censored as hate speech. It has also reportedly joined forces with Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft as well to “engineer solutions” to cyberhate, and is building a Silicon Valley “command center” to house these operations.
Despite the refreshing public debate about the Israel lobby in the United States, recent discussions about Ilhan Omar and anti-Semitism have been insulated from this long history. The ADL has leveled near-constant charges of dual loyalty at Arabs, anti-racists, and the left in the name of defending the U.S. and Israeli states—states not as representations of their people, but as entities with their own aims.
The ADL is now a vetter of content for YouTube, where BDS videos have been censored as hate speech.
This history is essential. It lays bare the definition of “democratic participation” that permits AIPAC to fundraise and lobby for the Israeli state as a matter of political process, but calls popular movements against state violence “antidemocratic” and seeks to suppress them. The victory of broad-based solidarity with Omar allows us to imagine otherwise as a real possibility. To get there, we will need to shine ever more light on how we got here in the first place.