Jesse Singal

Return to the roots of ADL

Abraham Foxman Abraham Foxman (Associated Press)
By Jesse Singal
August 6, 2010

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DURING A brainstorming meeting convened by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Long Island last fall, Todd Gitlin, chairman of Columbia University’s communications department, sat in on a workshop about the economic crisis. One of the attendees was Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League.

At one point in what was a broad-ranging discussion, Foxman said it had been a mistake for Jews to pay so much attention to tikkun olam, Gitlin recalled to me. Tikkun olam, a central theme of countless Hebrew School classes, means “repairing the world,’’ and is the idea that Jews should help everyone, Jew and gentile alike, in order to make the world a better place.

“What was unstated but clear,’’ Gitlin said of Foxman’s statement, “was that Jews had been altogether too taken by their obligations to people whom are not Jews.’’ A spokeswoman for Foxman said that his comments had been taken out of context.

Nevertheless, it’s an odd viewpoint for the head of the ADL. The organization goes out of its way to be a civil rights group, not just a pro-Jewish group. While its charter states that the group’s goal is to “stop . . . the defamation of the Jewish people,’’ it continues with a much broader goal: “To secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike.’’

Generally, the ADL has followed through on this: the group offers an impressive array of programs and events aimed at promoting interfaith dialogue and fighting bigotry.

Lately, though, the ADL has run into controversy related to the question of who it serves. In 2007, after the group came out against congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide because of the possible damage it could do to Turkish-Israeli relations, the New England regional office disagreed. This led to the firing of the regional group’s head and a clash between the regional and national organizations.

And now comes the group’s opposition to a proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. The group released a statement last week acknowledging that some of the opposition to the project sprang from bigotry, and that advocates for the center have every right to build at the site.

“But,’’ the statement went on, “ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right.’’

It has been bizarre watching a civil rights organization take these positions — and disappointing. On the toughest, most controversial issues, the ADL seems willing to endorse some of the very ideas it was created to fight: that it’s OK to define down genocide when it’s politically expedient to do so, and that it’s OK to codify discomfort with a group of people into law or policy.

In both cases, a strange relativism settled over the organization: Apparently, genocide is always genocide, unless acknowledging this could threaten Israel’s relationship with an important ally. And it’s always wrong to discriminate against a group that merely wants to practice and promote its religion, unless doing so could be painful for the victims of a crime.

It’s impossible to imagine the ADL taking these stances if the genocide in question were the Holocaust or if the building in question were a synagogue or a Jewish community center. The pro-Jewish, pro-civil-rights ADL failed to be both.

For those of us who grew up seeing the ADL as the unequivocal good guys — as a powerful, Jewish civil rights organization that stood up against bigots, that gathered thousands of kids at the old Boston Garden to denounce hatred — it leads to a question that once was unthinkable: Does the ADL believe in tikkun olam?

Jesse Singal is a frequent contributor to the Globe editorial pages. He can be reached at

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