ADL honcho Jonathan Greenblatt discusses antisemitism, hate speech and Tucker Carlson in advance of his visit to St. Louis

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Eric Berger, Special to the Jewish Light

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, is leading the organization’s fight against anti-Semitism and bigotry amidst a spate of recent terrorist attacks in Israel; a spike in hate crimes in the United States; and continual battles on social media and television over which comments are offensive and how society should respond.

Greenblatt worries the antisemitism and racism circulating throughout the country could lead to something worse than a backlash on social media and a person’s cancelation. That’s evidenced by the title of his new book, “It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable―And How We Can Stop It.”\

Greenblatt will address such concerns April 19 at The Factory in Chesterfield for the inaugural Staenberg Lecture, funded by the Staenberg Family Foundation. The event is presented by Maryville University and the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum.

In advance of the event, the Jewish Light conducted a phone interview with Greenblatt. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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I wanted to start by asking you about someone that the ADL has spent a lot of time recently condemning: Tucker Carlson. He’s generated outrage for years, and you and others at the ADL have repeatedly criticized him for his comments and content such as documentaries on Jan. 6 and about Hungary and George Soros, and yet he remains on the air and popular. Does that mean that efforts to condemn him or get him taken off the air at Fox News are fruitless, or do you feel like you and the ADL can still make a difference as far as his viewership and treatment at Fox News?\

So it’s just worth kind of recapping, ADL is the oldest anti-hate organization in the country. They have been fighting antisemitism and all forms of bigotry for over 100 years. And we have spoken out in the past against people like Father Coughlin, or other figures who used their platforms in the press to spread intolerance.\

Tucker Carlson is someone who we have called out not because of his kind of intemperate language. I mean, he’s entitled to his opinion; we are a civil rights organization that deeply believes in the First Amendment.

The challenge is that he continually and intentionally doesn’t just express intemperate views; he promotes conspiracy theories. He promulgates and traffics in very questionable tropes, and he routinely uses his program to denigrate people based on where they are from, or how they pray, etc. All that being said, we are certainly not the first organization to call out Tucker Carlson. He has lost most of his major advertisers. He’s lost credibility with much of the mainstream audiences. It’s true that he has a highly watched program. It’s also true that particularly in recent weeks, with his support of President Putin, that his credibility isn’t really a thing.

So the fact of the matter is — as you likely saw because your question — I had a public condemnation of him — I think it’s over a year ago at this point — that resulted in an exchange of letters with the Fox Corp CEO.

He has the right to his opinion. We just think Fox also has a responsibility to the public and privileging him with a platform, I think is a mistake.

Do you expect that to change though? I mean, is he just a fixture of Fox News? A fixture of the political landscape?

It’s impossible to predict what Fox News management will do and precisely how they make their decisions. But we will not stop calling out people — whether it’s expressing hostile views from an extreme right perspective or from a radical left perspective — that we think endanger marginalized groups, the Jewish community or other populations.

You have talked about the impact that Donald Trump has had on rhetoric in the country and in contributing to hate and xenophobia. It seems to me that in general, he has kind of set a precedent for political rhetoric to become more charged. One comment that jumped out to me recently was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis saying that if Stacey Abrams is elected governor of Georgia, there “will be a Cold War between Florida and Georgia at that point.”

I wondered if you think that in terms of the charged political rhetoric, we have entered a new paradigm, or if Donald Trump fades in prominence, we could go back to a less heated way of having political disagreements, and if so, how can we get to that point?

I didn’t see these comments by Governor DeSantis, so I can’t comment on that. But I do think it’s fair to say that the political conversation has coarsened in the last several years. You have seen kind of extreme extremists moved from the margins into the mainstream, and you have elected officials and political candidates from both parties espousing ideas that once were way outside the norm.

I think generally speaking this trend is bad for our democracy. It undermines civility, and it damages the credibility of the whole process because it alienates the vast majority of people who are in the middle. And they may lean one way or the other way, but they don’t believe in these crazy ideas that there’s a conspiracy of globalists seeking to keep them down. Or that the Zionists are committing genocide.

There’s always been a lunatic fringe. I think we just need to keep it on the fringe and push back on those who are trying to normalize antisemitism or extremism.

So how can individuals or organizations such as yours push back against the normalization of antisemitism or extremism?

This is really why I wrote the book. The book is a distillation of decade’s worth of work at the ADL — let alone my own experience as a former entrepreneur; as a former staffer in the West Wing; as a former senior executive at a few public companies, now at ADL — because I believe that all of us as individuals, let alone as part of larger organizations or even communities, have the ability to interrupt intolerance when it happens.

And the book has got lots of tactics and strategies about approaches that we have seen that work.  So first, we talk about: When it happens, you have to speak out. That means, like that expression, “When you see something, say something.”

Whether it’s antisemitism or any other kind of bigotry, you have got to speak out, particularly when it’s not directed at you, particularly when it comes from your own team.

I think we need people who self-identify as progressives to call out antisemitism and hate when it comes from the liberal contingent.

We need people to self-identify as conservatives to call it out when it comes from their fellow partisans. There should be nothing political about pushing back on prejudice.

The second thing is sharing facts. This gets back to your earlier question about Tucker.

We all need to dial down the drama. We all need to resist the temptation when you hear intemperate, over-the-top rhetoric to respond in kind. We should remember the golden rule and do unto others, as we would have them do unto us, which means less emotion, more facts, and talk to people like you want to be spoken to.

Thirdly, in addition to speaking out and sharing facts, it’s about showing strength, which is about leaning in. Democracy in general — but fighting hate specifically — is not a spectator sport, so engaging in the process can mean being an ally to someone when their community is affected.

A few years ago, when there were the headstones knocked over at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis and there were bomb threats happening around the country against Jewish institutions, Karen Aroesty, then-director of the ADL for Missouri and Southern Illinois, cautioned against labeling them as hate crimes until law enforcement was able to determine the motivating behavior, but then she defended incidents like bomb threats and the vandalism at the cemetery  — which didn’t turn out to be motivated by antisemitism — in the audit because she said it was as if antisemitism had happened.

At that time, David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason, wrote in the Washington Post that the ADL had stoked the panic over antisemitism “with wildly exaggerated rhetoric.” So I’m just wondering how you would respond and whether you see the audit as a good way of measuring antisemitism in the country.

Well, ADL has been tracking antisemitic incidents since 1979. Last year alone, my staff investigated, more than 9,600 hate-related acts. Everything we report, we investigate. And this notion that we’re stoking whatever is bananas. It’s factually incorrect. Because the reality is that, for example, with that situation with bomb threats, we did not know the identity of the perpetrator. But we did know the impact on the community. We did know the impact of the parents who had to race to the JCC to pick up their toddlers from preschool because of a bomb threat that was directed at the building.

When a swastika is painted on a synagogue, I don’t necessarily know the identity of the perpetrator of such a crime or such an incident, but I know the impact that it has on the members of that synagogue. When headstones are defaced in a grotesque way, that again evokes antisemitism. I don’t know necessarily who knocked over those headstones or spray painted them, but I know the impact on the families whose loved ones’ sacred spaces have been vandalized.

And frankly, I don’t know who is responsible for the recent rash of bomb threats at historically Black colleges and universities across the United States or who was responsible for the wave of arson attacks, specifically targeting Black churches in the South in recent years, but I do know about the impact on  the parents of those students and the parishioners of those churches. So someone with an agenda might try to say, “It’s not antisemitism unless you can specifically ascertain the identity of the individual,” but the reality is if you are making people afraid, in the places where they worship, in the places where they work, based on their identity, that’s a bias-related incident, whether it’s antisemitism or racist, etc.

And I’ll make one last point: I am deeply troubled by the rise in recent years of anti-Zionism and virulent, slanderous, vicious claims being made against the Jewish state because we have seen such unhinged rhetoric, lead unhinged people to commit unhinged acts.

For example, last May, fronted by the fighting in Gaza, the ADL tracked 115% increase in antisemitic incidents during that period of time over the prior year.

While it’s true that some of the individuals who committed such acts and subsequently were arrested are not Jewish, we have certainly seen Jewish people espouse virulent vicious, anti-Zionism, and the fact that they are Jewish does not let them off the hook for the consequences of such rhetoric, which again, creates environments that are hostile, not just to self-identified Zionist students, but to all Jewish students.

The reality is we need to focus on the impacts of the individuals and institutions and communities who were affected by such crimes. That’s what we need to listen to. And that’s what we do at ADL.

(Greenblatt had to leave the phone interview after 30 minutes. The following questions were answered via email.)

There have been a number of recent terror attacks in Israel, while Israel has also opened new diplomatic relations with a number of Arab countries. What do you think the chances are of achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Following the recent attacks, we saw a rather unprecedented condemnation of the attacks from many Arab and Muslim leaders, including from the Abraham Accord countries, Turkey and even Palestinian President Abbas. In many ways, this speaks to the disconnect between how many Arab states have moved past their rejection of Israel to an acceptance and even embrace of Israel and Israelis, and how extremist actors within the Palestinian territories, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — supported by Iran — use terror and hate to sow division and obstruct chances for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

That said, while we strongly advocate for and support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — one that ensures self-determination, security and dignity for both peoples — the current political climate among both Palestinian and Israeli leaders does not appear to be ripe for an agreement anytime soon. At the same time, it is irresponsible and dangerous for actors on either side to engage in actions that could serve to undermine prospects for future negotiations toward a two-state solution.

I remain hopeful, though, because the majority of both the Palestinian and Israeli people aspire towards peace with one-another, and that one day this aspiration will become a reality.