The ADL after Abe Foxman is it even possible

What message is the Anti-Defamation League sending to the Jewish community through its recent selection of White House aide and social entrepreneur Jonathan Greenblatt to succeed longtime National Director Abraham Foxman?

While some are praising ADL for thinking outside the box and trying to appeal to a younger demographic, others are concerned that Greenblatt is too visibly partisan and that his past experience may signal ADL’s de-emphasis of the fight against anti-Semitism in favor of civil rights work. But all agree that replacing Foxman, who will retire in July 2015, is no small task for one of the highest-profile American Jewish organizations.

Vice President Joe Biden sings “Happy Birthday” to Abraham Foxman, ADL national director, at the ADL’s centennial celebration in 2013 in Washington, D.C. photo/jns-david karp

The 74-year-old Foxman — almost an institution unto himself and sometimes considered a de facto spokesman for the Jewish people — has been ADL’s national director since 1987.

“When you [as an organization] are coming off of a period that has been so dominated by a leader, the history is that the next person often becomes kind of a human sacrifice,” said Ed Rettig, a consultant for Jewish organizations and former director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office.

ADL’s mission statement says that it “fights anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all.” At a time when global anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism (and the convergence of the two) is on the upswing, particularly in Europe, some Jews have criticized ADL for taking too many detours into alternate issues and fear that Greenblatt’s lack of experience in the area of anti-Semitism will exacerbate the trend.

Greenblatt, a 43-year-old grandson of a Holocaust survivor, currently serves in the Obama administration as special assistant to the president and director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the Domestic Policy Council. He also founded the Impact Economy Initiative at the Aspen Institute think tank and co-founded the bottled water producer Ethos Brands, which donated to global clean water programs and was eventually acquired by Starbucks.

“We had a number of terrific candidates, and it was a difficult decision,” ADL national chair Barry Curtiss-Lusher wrote in an email statement. “What set Jonathan apart was his passion for our mission, how he articulated his core values and his Jewish identity in the context of our mission, and his experience (and success) in ‘thinking outside the box’ as a social innovator. We think he represents continuity of purpose and policy, but with a fresh approach.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the next national director of the Anti-Defamation League, speaks at the ADL annual meeting in Los Angeles on Nov. 6. photo/jns-adl

Yet the fact that Greenblatt’s area of expertise is “social domestic policy” suggests that ADL “wants to continue moving in the direction of emphasizing liberal social policy positions, as opposed to emphasizing fighting anti-Semitism and defending Israel,” said Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein.

Echoing that sentiment is Chicago-based attorney Joel J. Sprayregen, a former national vice-chair of ADL who ended his involvement with the organization about a decade ago.

“The ADL has been a great champion for civil rights over the years, but of course it’s a defender of the Jewish people, and I think they’ve blurred that mission in recent years, getting involved with things like bullying, which are not part of an essential civil rights or Jewish mission,” he said.

ADL’s Curtiss-Lusher, however, denied any shift away from the organization’s prioritization of fighting anti-Semitism.

“We do advocate for civil rights for all people, and have done so since our founding in 1913,” he said. “But what makes ADL special is distinctly our focus on anti-Semitism. That is needed in today’s world more than ever, and our succession committee had that in mind when we selected Jonathan.”

Steven Windmueller — a professor of Jewish communal service at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College and the author of a 2013 assessment of ADL’s role in American Jewish life — praised ADL for choosing a successor to Foxman whose “story reflects the new generation of Jewish leaders, whose careers have joined together social entrepreneurship and political act-ivism.”

“With his array of business and political connections, Jonathan should be able to attract a broad circle of millennials and Gen Xers to the ADL enterprise while retaining the loyalty and commitment of the agency’s existing leadership base,” Windmueller said.

“The fact that ADL reached out to an achiever like Greenblatt bodes well for the organization,” said Rettig. “It shows a lay leadership with creativity, willing to reach outside its comfort zone.”

Even so, Windmueller believes that fundraising may be a challenge for Greenblatt because donors “identified with Abe and gave to Abe on behalf of their interests in fighting anti-Semitism, or building advocacy for Israel, or dealing with civil liberties issues and other matters that are a focal point of ADL’s agenda.”

He said the question for ADL will be, “How will they be able as an institution to hold on to and retain the loyalty and support of traditional donors who were so tied to and so aligned with Abe?”