Anti-racist organizations must drop the ADL

A besuited man speaks into several microphones

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

Michael Brochstein ZUMA

Earlier this month, Zionist organizations pressured the auto-insurance giant GEICO to rescind their invitation to Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour to speak at an internal event celebrating Middle Eastern and North African heritage month.

GEICO had caved to a smear campaign launched by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and canceled the event.

In its statement explaining the cancellation, GEICO apologized to staff and customers for the invite to Sarsour and emphasized that the company does not “condone hatred of any kind.”

GEICO, in other words, not only disinvited Sarsour. They unquestioningly accepted the anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic logic the ADL and AJC relied on in their attacks by automatically equating Sarsour’s presence with condoning hatred.

GEICO’s actions did not merely deprive Sarsour of a platform. They normalized the racist Zionist idea that Muslims and/or Palestinians who advocate for Palestinian freedom are inherently anti-Semitic, when in reality the fight for Palestinian liberation is guided by the principle that all peoples deserve to live free of colonial oppression and racist subjugation.

But since the complaints were about an outspoken Muslim Palestinian-American woman, GEICO apparently felt no qualms about automatically embracing these racist claims – during Ramadan, no less.

“GEICO decided they were more comfortable publicly vilifying and dehumanizing a prominent advocate for Arab Americans, US Muslims, Palestinians and other marginalized communities, than simply having a conversation,” reads a petition by MPower Change, the Muslim advocacy organization for which Sarsour is executive director.

The petition was included in a mass email sent out by the organization to its followers on 8 April, just a day after Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, took to Twitter to credit his organization with successfully pressuring GEICO to disinvite Sarsour.

“Glad GEICO heard our concerns and quickly reversed course,” Greenblatt tweeted. “Major companies should not partner with individuals who repeatedly espouse antisemitic tropes. ADL welcomes this development.”

The problem with the ADL

The episode is reminiscent of the ADL’s smear campaign against Zahra Billoo, the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in December 2021.

The ADL took issue with a speech Billoo had given during the previous month in which she claimed that Zionism is the common thread between Islamophobic hate groups and anti-Palestinian organizations. Billoo encouraged American Muslims to avoid working with organizations that uphold Zionism, the state ideology that justifies Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid.

As in the case of Sarsour, the ADL cynically twisted these comments out of proportion to claim that Billoo had demonized all Jewish groups and synagogues as enemies.

The ADL also tried to pressure Georgetown Law to rescind its invitation to Palestinian poet and journalist Mohammed El-Kurd to speak on campus.

Greenblatt tweeted language similar in tone and content to that deployed against Sarsour to vilify El-Kurd as someone guilty of “antisemitic incitement and conspiratorial rhetoric.”

This time, ADL’s efforts failed, but the organization has created a new, digital dossier on El-Kurd on the ADL website that accuses the writer of “vicious, unvarnished antisemitism.”

There is a common tactic: The ADL twists the language of anti-Zionist activism in order to falsely portray it as conforming to various anti-Semitic “tropes.” This “evidence” is then used by this supposedly expert organization to push for sanctions against anti-Zionist speakers.

But while these distortions of reality are not exclusive to the ADL, their status as a so-called “civil rights” organizations gives them added weight – which is why many anti-racist organizations have started pushing for progressive spaces to sever all ties with the ADL.

While big businesses like GEICO and the general public may be unaware, activists and organizers have been criticizing the ADL’s behavior for decades.

Most recently, on 8 April, the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) organized an online webinar about the need to challenge the ADL’s clout in progressive organizations.

The panelists were scholar Emmaia Gelman, professor Robin D.G. Kelley, Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC) and faculty member of the college of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University, and activist and JVP Action board member Lesley Williams.

Williams kicked off the proceedings by asking a provocative, yet necessary question.

Why, she asked, had many of those working on immigrant rights, Black freedom, anti-racism, and gender rights often found themselves attacked and undermined by the ADL.

“Why would we be in conflict with an organization which claims to be America’s premier civil rights organization?”

In fact, as the speakers went on to substantiate, the issue is precisely due to the conflict between what the ADL professes to do and what it actually does.

Drop the ADL

In the ensuing hour, panelists pieced together a troubling narrative about the hypocrisy and corrosiveness to anti-racist movements inherent to the ADL’s false weaponization of civil rights clout.

The ADL, panelists revealed, uses this false identity as a means of bolstering Islamophobia and anti-Blackness by legitimizing racialized policing and surveillance, and Zionist colonization as direct extensions of their “civil rights” work.

In many ways, the event was a recap of the powerful campaign calling on progressive and anti-racist organizations to “drop the ADL” from their spaces that first debuted in August 2020.

The ADL has a “history and ongoing pattern of attacking social justice movements led by communities of color, queer people, immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, and other marginalized groups, while aligning itself with police, right-wing leaders, and perpetrators of state violence,” the coalition wrote in an open letter contextualizing the campaign.

The ADL, in effect, uses its ill-gotten civil rights group designation to bolster the interests and workings of the US and Israeli racial security states. As Emmaia Gelman has written, the ADL has long shown “strong allegiance” with the US state, from cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s-50s to trying, though failing, to partner with the FBI for monitoring purposes.

“It found an opening in civil rights work where, 10 years after the Voting Rights Act, ongoing racial conflict and white supremacist violence produced a new wave of demands for state action.”

Gelman explains how the ADL’s “quasi-state role” formed between 1979 to 1990. This was a period which saw the organization engage in regular “audits” of anti-Semitic behavior that strategically failed to discriminate between critiques of Zionist state policy and instances of bigotry.

Despite the ADL’s tendentious and frankly discriminatory approach to so-called “anti-racist” practice, the organization has evolved to a publicly recognized civil rights organization with significant influence over local curricula around the country and a prominent role in keeping out Arab-Americans from public life.

A slippery word

The blurriness between the ADL and discriminatory law enforcement agencies is arguably also reflected in the organization’s fixation on “hate,” often a recurring framework within ADL materials.

(To name but one example, the ADL’s website has a mini-lesson for high schoolers on what it terms “The Pyramid of Hate” that indicates “escalating levels of attitudes and behavior grow in complexity from biased ideas to discrimination.”)

“Hate” may seem to be an innocent, if vague term, but in fact, this slippery and unsubstantiated concept is one of the key bridges between the ADL and the US intelligence community. In F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, William J. Maxwell demonstrates how the FBI’s intelligence operations against Black radical organizations like the Black Panther Party were ironically facilitated by the Bureau’s initial work targeting the Ku Klux Klan.

Maxwell explains how targeting a domestic as opposed to foreign organization allowed for new licenses and loopholes to be pursued within FBI surveillance work. Swapping white “hate” with a special focus on Black “hate” allowed for the symbolic liberal equilibrium between white supremacists and Black radicalism to be drawn and instrumentalized within surveillance protocol.

The ADL’s own taking up of “hate” and “extremism” as blights particular to anti-Zionist organizations, particularly Black and Brown/Muslim organizations, demonstrates how this surveillance concept came to be instrumentalized in real time, as the US and the Zionist entity cemented a mutually beneficial military-imperial relationship after 1967.

“If there were not an Israel,” Biden has remarked on different occasions, this one as vice president in 2013, “we would have to invent one to make sure our interests were preserved.”

Such an entrenchment of shared imperial/colonial values and practices makes it abundantly clear how and why we have long since entered an era where a slight against the Zionist entity is in turn a slight against the racist US state.

And the strategic shoddiness of the ADL’s research is another grave concern over their civil rights status. Civil rights organizations have historically engaged in original research out of necessity. Without their work, which often legitimized the waves of activism and organizing that played out contemporaneously, there would be few ways to understand the struggles of variously aggrieved communities.

But by falsely claiming the mantle of a civil rights organization, the ADL is able to pervert these historical examples by churning out original “research” that is either so vague in its focus on “hate” or “extremism” as to be effectively useless or, more ominously, consciously contorts the anti-racist and anti-Zionist work of truly liberation-focused organizations into examples of “hate” whose only remedy is further surveillance, policing and criminalization.

In other words, the ADL uses its false reputation as a civil rights organization to entrench the very material manifestations of white supremacy and racial capitalism – racialized policing and surveillance – that the bulk of anti-racist organizations are currently fighting.

Fortunately, the ADL’s previously impervious relationship with law enforcement is finally wearing down thanks to the tireless work of activists. Recently leaked ADL memos show that increasing public scrutiny brought about by JVP’s “Deadly Exchange” campaign forced the ADL to reconsider their police training in Israel.

Hopefully, this is only the beginning of the end to the ADL’s abuse of civil rights frameworks. It is long past time for truly anti-racist organizations to drop the ADL.

Omar Zahzah is the education and advocacy coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine, as well as a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.