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July 1, 2016

Free Speech and Fair Treatment for All

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, has joined the Aspen Ideas Festival to discuss the debate on college campuses and beyond about the meaning of free speech and language that crosses a line and actually diminishes, rather than fosters, open discourse.

This blog originally appeared on Medium

The tug of war betwJG @ Aspeneen ideas is not new on college campuses. The very nature of the university is to gain knowledge and to “unlearn [the] habits” of convention in the words of Leon Wieseltier. And yet, many argue that free speech is under siege. In recent years, these issues have flared up across the country, grabbing headlines as incidents at the University of Missouri, Yale University, and Princeton University have sparked a national conversation about the exchange of ideas and the footprint of history.

As Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway shared at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday, these were highly charged debates punctuated by intensely personal moments. Throughout our discussion, it became clear that a simple assessment of right versus wrong often doesn’t work. The clash of theory and practice confounds administrators and trustees who struggle with the complex realities of how to ensure the university is an inclusive environment and yet one that cultivates debate and dissent.

But sometimes, it’s actually very simple.

For example, the issue of Israel has been a flashpoint on many campuses for some time. While there is nothing wrong with debating its policies as a matter of practice, there is something profoundly wrong when some with strong views exploit academic freedom to shut down the free exchange of ideas and marginalize a segment of campus, in this case Jewish students. Yet this often happens when Israel is the topic. We have seen anti-Israel agitators intimidate Jewish students, shout down Israeli speakers and attempt to prevent Jewish organizations from even discussing issues of social justice.

Sadly, such incidents are not surprising. These are the tactics of the anti-normalization strategy taking hold in some circles, the idea that even talking to students who are Jewish constitutes an offense because of their potential views on Israel. Such discriminatory practices clearly fall far outside all societal norms but their influence can be felt in broader circles.

Anti-Israel Protest - U-Michigan

An anti-Israel protest by University of Michigan students

Indeed, in the halls of some of our most elite universities, student leaders are trafficking in vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes. Others bizarrely conflate Zionism with all the perceived ills at their institutions. We have seen attempts to exclude Jewish students from taking part fully in student life or suggestions that they only can do so if they would submit to oaths not required of their peers.

Such bigotry is not the norm across the span of higher education. Yet these incidents should serve as reminders that anti-intellectualism and intolerance on campus can congeal into hostile environments that intimidate and marginalize people based on faith or nationality.

University administrators can take concrete measures to prevent such occurrences. First, they can create appropriate time, place, and manner policies that allow those who want to protest a particular speaker to do so — but in a manner that does not infringe on the freedom of speech that should be accorded to the speaker and to the audience who wants to hear their views.

Univ-California Irvine - Anti-Israel

Second, the administration can use its own voice to respond to hateful speech. Finally, the administration can take swift punitive action when students physically threaten their peers, demonstrating that there is a price to pay when you physically intimidate others.

Campuses should be a place for debate not silencing. Hostile environments that impair the free exchange of ideas injure us all. When the topic is Israel, let’s do more to ensure that all students can take part and that prejudice is left out of the debate.

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May 20, 2016

Isi Leibler: Wrong on All Counts

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared on The Jerusalem Post Blog

Isi Leibler gets it wrong on almost all counts in his criticism of my appearance in April before J Street U, the student arm of J Street.

As I made clear publicly in accepting the invitation to speak, I did so both because of my conviction that it is vital to engage with all members of our community, even and especially those with whom we might disagree.

I used this stage to deliver a double message.  First, that ADL is committed to ensuring Israel remains a safe and secure, Jewish and democratic state; and second, that peace cannot be brought about by applying pressure only to one side of the conflict—Israel.  This in many ways is the crux of our disagreement with J Street—that further isolating Israel at a time of great tumult and regional volatility is bound to make peace less likely.

Therefore, Leibler’s accusation that I made a moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians when I called for acknowledgement of “responsibility of both parties” turned my point on its head. In speaking to a group that is often critical of Israel, I was making clear that “champions of Palestinian self-determination must hold the Palestinian leadership to task for its failures as well.” Leibler ignores—or worse—willfully distorts my message.

What is more outrageous is that any aspect of my remarks to these students could be misconstrued as “indirectly gave a seal of approval for the Obama administration to impose solutions on future borders that could dramatically compromise Israel’s security.”

Recognizing that there are steps Israel can take to ensure the viability of a two-state solution bears no resemblance to supporting an imposed solution. I delivered that message even while reiterating that a reasonable approach must have expectations of the Palestinians as well.

In talking about the need to recognize two narratives, I was, of course, not referring to the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s legitimacy, which ADL condemns over and over again, but that there is a Palestinian people and population whose future has to be dealt with in order to have peace and security for Israel.

And in calling out the need for Israel to protect the rights of all its citizens, I was not challenging the fact that Israel is one of the great democratic societies in the world. Instead, just as we do in that other great democracy, the United States, we urge ourselves to do better, to make sure that all segments of society are full participants in our democracy and entitled to the full benefits of rights—a noble ideal, but hardly a betrayal of Israel.

As to the criticism of my decision to speak to J Street U, I have no apologies. I do not know if Leibler ever bothered to attempt to meet these young people, but I was impressed: They are a group of deeply thoughtful college students whose commitment to Israel is genuine and whose passion on the issues is impressive. Whether Leibler likes it or not, these are future leaders in our community and in our country.

Again, while I may disagree with many of their parent organization’s positions and tactics—and ADL has expressed such sentiment publicly in the past—if we are going to maintain a true sense of community and inclusion, particularly among younger Jews, then we must engage those with whom we have disagreements and explain our positions. We certainly must be wary of those who castigate those who are willing to engage broadly.

Israel continues to face many threats from terrorists and extremists, as well as in the form of calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions. We must stand against all. But there are also dangers to Israel from those who do not want a two-state solution, from those who do not worry about maintaining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

And there are those within our own community who seem to forget that disagreement and dissent are not just Jewish ideas – they are Jewish ideals.

The challenge for all of us is how to be a strong advocate for Israel while respecting a broad range of views on how best to move forward.

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April 20, 2016

Why I’m Speaking to Students at J Street U

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

This blog orig­i­nally appeared on Medium on April 17, 2016.

J Street U

This morning, I will speak to students at the J Street U National Assembly, the annual gathering of more than 200 young leaders from across the country who converge on Washington D.C. to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to exchange views about what they can do on campus to advance a two-state solution. J Street U reached out to me seeking to engage with the Jewish community, eager to establish a relationship with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) which it has never had.

As I begin to chart the course of my leadership, I felt it was important that I accept this invitation. I feel this way because of my conviction that it is vital to engage with all members of our community, even and especially those with whom we might have disagreements.

We can’t talk only to those who are aligned with us on every point.

In our time of hyper-polarization and the erosion of civil discourse, I believe it’s imperative that the organized Jewish leadership models the traits that we want to define the broader politics in our country. When I started my tenure as CEO, the country was locked in a bitter debate over the Iran deal. More than anything, the experience showed me that our community suffers from an inability to thoughtfully and respectfully engage across political divides.

I saw it firsthand as Jews who supported the deal as well as those who opposed the deal both were attacked viciously for their views, particularly by fellow Jews. I was dismayed by the self-destructive behavior — taking out newspaper ads, plastering municipal buses, excoriating others with ad homenim attacks — such attacks don’t advance the debate. They diminish all of us.

For a people who elevated the notion of dissent as a bedrock principle of our religious practice, the unwillingness to countenance opposing views is counter to the best traditions of our people. As a leader, I will not engage in these tactics. Instead, as the CEO of ADL, I will be an active advocate for civility and avoid the politics of personal destruction.

Building from this frame, I see my remarks today as a major opportunity for ADL to accomplish two things.

The first is to deliver the message that, at ADL, we are committed to ensuring Israel remains a safe and secure, Jewish and democratic state, as enshrined in its proclamation of independence. It was that remarkable Zionist vision expressed from the cradle of Israel’s birth that captured the imagination of the Jewish people and the world, the notion that Israel would be a country unlike all others:

“…based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

Frayed Israel Flag

That is why ADL has had a policy of support for a two-state solution for decades. This means advocating for the legitimacy and security of the Jewish state even as we support Palestinian dignity and equality of Arab citizens in Israel. These ideas should not be in conflict. Rather, they are consistent with our centennial commitment to civil rights and social justice.

Secondly, I see an opportunity to deliver an important message to these impassioned students who are galvanized by the imperative to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. At ADL, we equally want to see a resolution of the conflict. Israel must take real, meaningful measures to promote an end to the impasse. However, the idea that peace can be brought about only by applying pressure to one side of the conflict — Israel — is a strategy bound to backfire.

Further isolating Israel at a time of great local tumult and regional volatility will only reinforce the political psychology of Israelis who eye concessions made in the context of negotiations with the Palestinians as inevitably endangering them. And this fear is real. It is substantiated in the unraveling of the modern Middle East, the rise of violent non-state actors committed to the destruction of Israel, terrorist groups like HezbollahISIS and Hamas, and the regional power of Iran whose revolutionary ideology remains firmly rooted in anti-Semitism. As Israelis look around they see regional chaos engulfing their neighborhood: wholesale slaughter in Syria, chaos in Sinai, challenges to the stability of their friends in Jordan. Any reasonable approach to solving the conflict in order to be credible in the eyes of Israel must bear in mind this new reality.

Given these facts, it is only the constancy of American guarantees of moral and physical support that will undergird an eventual agreement. And undermining that support endangers the prospects of peace. While a responsible approach should recognize that there are steps that Israel must take to ensure the viability of a two-state solution, a reasonable approach must have expectations of the Palestinians as well.

Ignoring the steps they also must take, compromises they too must make to achieve peace, does a deep disservice toward that goal.


The fact is that the Palestinians, under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, twice rejected serious Israeli peace offers, once in 2008 during direct talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abu Mazen, and again under the Obama Administration — an administration which I was a part of. When President Obama offered President Abbas an American framework document for the resolution of the final status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Abbas decided to ignore it entirely. That is an inconvenient fact for some who wish to portray the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a simplistic story of Israel’s unwillingness to make peace. But it is a fact that cannot be ignored.

The champions of Palestinian self-determination must hold the Palestinian leadership to task for its failures as well.

But even as I will make these points, I want to stress that despite this, we must find the areas where we can be partners.

It is vital to be in conversation with these students and the next generation of American Jewish leaders because it they who can credibly broker critical conversations on campuses rooted in a commitment to peace, while unmasking the damaging effects of BDS and anti-normalization.

The imperatives for social justice today do not lie in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations alone. We cannot let our differences over how to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace keep us from working together to address so many other challenges facing our nation. There are vital issues of structural racism that we must address now, matters of pressing racial injustice that wrack our own society. There are demagogues rising to power in Europe and the introduction of a terrible new type of political discourse that threatens our fundamental values.

The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913 with an enduring mission that still rings true today: to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all. For more than 100 years, we have worked to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry even as we equally have fought for civil rights and social justice for Jews and other marginalized people.

But it always has been a shared struggle, one that we have not waged ourselves but that has been a product of alliances, coalitions and partnerships. And the work is not yet complete. There is still much to do be done. Hopefully we can do it, together.

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