Jonathan Greenblatt for JN by Jenni Frazer March 7 2017
The director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Jonathan Greenblatt, has called for “a fully resourced investigation by the Department of Justice” into the wave of hate crimes currently directed against the American Jewish community. These have included numerous hoax bomb threats against Jewish schools and community centres, as well as at least four directed at ADL regional offices on Tuesday.
Mr Greenblatt, who served in Barack Obama’s White House as the president’s special adviser and director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, has a simple job description for his current post, which he took up in the summer of 2015 — “to protect the Jewish people”.
He was in London this week to address the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Counter-Extremism and to meet Jewish community leaders at central London’s Centre for Jewish Life. He spoke to the JN as a constant stream of reports filtered in to his open laptop: despite last week’s arrest of a suspect for many of the bomb hoax threats, there is no sign of the current spike in antisemitism abating.
Mr Greenblatt, who spent last Friday in prolonged talks with the FBI director, James Comey, has a wish list of steps he would like President Donald Trump to take. He said: “We would like to see the president convene a federal inter-agency task force, and convene all of the right players around the table: the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the Department of Education and others to develop a series of policy measures.”
He appealed to the president about the Countering Violent Extremism programme, or CVE. “There are rumours that this programme would be reduced to focus solely on radical Islam; that is a problem in the US as it is around the world, but we think that the programme must encompass neo-Nazis and white supremacists.”
The ADL director warned that the Jewish community worldwide was “sailing in uncharted waters” and said he would use the “privilege” of speaking to British parliamentarians to share American Jews’ experience.
During last year’s US election campaign, Mr Greenblatt said, “we saw rhetoric from the extreme right move from the margins to the mainstream. We saw some of their tropes come out of the shadows and find their way into the Twitter feeds of the candidates.” The ADL channelled much of its energies into analysing social media, particularly Twitter, where it discovered in the previous 12 months over 2.6 million antisemitic messages. “The nature of the abuse was horrendous,” said Mr Greenblatt, noting that the embrace of technology by the “alt-right” had meant a shift “from white hoods to smartphones”.
He believed that extremists in the US had exploited the First Amendment of the US Constitution — free speech — and said that US law had not caught up with the manipulation of technology by those who dealt in hate abuse. “We have a challenge, and one of the measures we would like to see is new legislation that will tackle and create real penalties for those who do these things on-line”.
Though reluctant to pin President Trump directly with the responsibility for the surge in hate crime, Mr Greenblatt did say that “words have consequences. A statement like that issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day which did not mention the six million Jews who were slaughtered sent something of a signal to antisemites. Or when asked by a Jewish reporter, a friendly Jewish reporter, about antisemitism, and you shout that person down, that sends signals.
“I also think the lack of words have consequences, too. We were very frustrated and somewhat perplexed that the Administration had not called this out sooner, firmly and forcibly.” He said that President Trump’s most recent denunciation of antisemitic attacks, made during a visit to an African-American gathering, was very important, and praised Vice-President Pence for his visit to Dachau and his vigorous denunciation of the attacks.
“What we would like to see from the president is how he shifts from saying it’s offensive, to take measures to deal with the offence.”