For us at the Anti-Defamation League, the old Madison Avenue line “as long as they spell my name right” partially applies to the new mini-series “House of Cards,” being aired on Netflix. The series stars Kevin Spacey as the scheming and conniving Democratic whip of the House of Representatives. In two scenes ADL is briefly mentioned.
In the first, Spacey’s character calls ADL after it is revealed that the president’s choice for Secretary of State criticized Israel’s “illegal occupation” of Palestinian land in an editorial 30 years ago when he was the editor of his college student newspaper.
In the second scene, the fictional head of ADL is shown telling a press gaggle that “he’s an anti-Semite” for saying those words.
On one level, we see it as a form of flattery that the creators of the program thought of ADL for such a theme. This reflects well as to recognition of our outspokenness regarding unjust criticism of Israel and testifies to our wide name recognition.
On the other hand, it plays into an image of ADL which distorts who we are. It suggests, as some do, that ADL will call anyone who criticizes Israel an anti-Semite with the connected implication that we are trying to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel.
The truth is that we would be sharply critical of someone who refers to Israel’s situation in the West Bank as “illegal occupation” but would not refer to such an individual as anti-Semite unless there were other things he had said, whether delegitimizing Israel or comparing Israel to Nazis or accusing Israel of crimes that fall under the category of blood libels and conspiracies.
Criticism of Israel sometimes may be legitimate, sometimes not. When it is not, it may or may not rise to the level of anti-Semitism.
We understand that “House of Cards” is fiction so we have no interest in protesting. But the more nuanced view that we have just described is the real ADL, an organization to whom credibility is everything and one that makes sure that the term anti-Semitic is used when it is truly warranted.