Taking the First Step

Why I took the top job at ADL, and what we can do to secure fair treatment and justice for all

A little over a year ago, I was working in what, in many ways, was a dream job. After years as an entrepreneur, starting and scaling companies, I was asked by President Obama to join his team at the White House and lead the Administration’s efforts to use social innovation — steering how we use private-public partnerships, innovative finance, and creative policies to tackle problems from boosting job creation to reducing recidivism. Then, I got the call.

Would I be interested in being considered to lead the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)?

I was flattered. I knew ADL from working as an intern in the Boston office back in college. And my wife had been an associate director in ADL’s Los Angeles office. But the truth is that ADL had been led by the legendary Abe Foxman for decades. The organization is more than a century old. Why would a serial entrepreneur and social innovator be interested?

Yet, I was intrigued. ADL was an organization with a storied history and a powerful mission. And today, on my first day as the new National Director of ADL, I can say that I am humbled and excited to lead this national institution deep into its next century.

The founding mission of the organization — to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure fair treatment and justice for all — is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. We have come far. Indeed, very far. But there is more work to be done on both of these interlocking goals.

  • While Jews are in positions of prestige and power in the U.S. that were unimaginable at the turn of the last century, anti-Semitism persists. And, in some places, it is surging.
  • While an African-American sits in the White House, we still see the tragedies in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, which have highlighted the very real problems of racism that persist in our country.
  • While the Supreme Court has affirmed that anyone can marry, our friends and family in the LGBT community can be fired from a job or denied housing simply because of who they love.
  • While the Jewish state of Israel is strong and thriving, there is a growing movement — on our college campuses and in many world capitals — to delegitimize and demonize it.
  • And there are nations like the Islamic Republic of Iran and non-state actors like ISIS that peddle virulent ideologies, finance and propagate terror, and assault the rights of women and minorities within their midst and beyond.

Just as the Jewish Bible inspired America’s founders, both inspire the work of ADL. We are motivated by Judaism’s enduring call of “justice, justice you shall pursue,” and we are propelled by our nation’s quest for a “more perfect union.” When fair treatment is secured for all, democracy is strengthened and that is good for its Jews and other minorities. And when Jews and other minorities can live safely and securely, that is good for our country.

This is not some abstract notion for me. I learned it as a child.

Below is a picture of my grandfather, taken in 1938. Before his family was taken to the ghetto, before most of them were slaughtered, my grandfather — thankfully — came to this country as a refugee. He came to America without language and without resources. Despite the obstacles, he forged a sort-of middle-class life in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

My grandfather, Bernard Greenblatt, in a picture taken in the mid-1930s in Germany.

What amazed me is that he never lost his sense of optimism. He never lost his sense of hope. This helped to inspire me as a kid to participate in a small way in the grassroots movement in the late 1970s and 1980s to free the Soviet Jews who were not allowed to practice their faith or emigrate. We walked down Park Avenue in Bridgeport holding placards. There were letter-writing campaigns. And march after march, letter after letter, it started to make a difference — and then it worked. They were freed.

Now, I never was so naïve to think that I alone affected this change, but participating in the movement gave me the sense that every person could change the world. It was that spark that first took me into public service and then into the field of social entrepreneurship. I focused on creating brands and building companies that were all about doing well by doing good — finding ways to create economic value and social benefit. Some refer to this as a “double bottom-line.” I think it’s just a model that works — and makes sense.

ADL is a natural extension of the work I have done, not just because of its illustrious history, but because ADL’s mission is so critical today.

Consider two reports that ADL just issued.

In the first, our “With Hate in their Hearts: The State of White Supremacy in the U.S.,” we found there has been a resurgence of white supremacists and the violence generated by them which rivals what we saw in the era of Oklahoma City bombing two decades ago. The report lays out how white supremacists have used the Internet to engage with each other without having to join an organization or even leave their couch. As the report says:

White supremacist discussion forums like Stormfront allow huge numbers of white supremacists to network and converse with each other without belonging to a group. The social networking revolution that began around 2006 amplified this trend; today, it is easy for white supremacists to connect, even on a one-to-one basis, on social media platforms like Facebook. These interactions need not be solely virtual, as on-line interactions often lead white supremacists to meet-ups and interactions in the real world.

In the second report, a follow-up to ADL’s study of anti-Semitism in 19 countries called the Global 100 Index, despite finding significantly lower levels of anti-Semitic attitudes in France, Germany and Belgium where there were tragic incidents of violence against Jews, ADL found increases in anti-Semitic attitudes over the past year in some of the other most developed European countries. This occurred despite public condemnations by European leaders. Disturbingly, ADL found that on average more than half the Muslims living in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK hold very strong anti-Semitic views. Many have been exposed to anti-Semitic stereotypes by hateful speech spread via the Internet.

Findings from ADL’s Global 100 Survey

These trends point to the need for vigilance — at home and overseas — to protect the interests of the Jewish people and to use modern tools and new strategies to combat the threats that confront the Jewish community and other minority groups.

The world is increasingly interconnected and online. Social media certainly can be a source of divisiveness and a vehicle for hate, but it also is among the most powerful innovations that the world has ever seen. The medium offers extraordinary opportunities for impact, bringing people together and building communities across borders. There is so much that can be done.

So whether through new technology or just old-fashioned organizing, we need to commit ourselves to bringing people together so they and we can appreciate our differences and our commonality, and thus we also must stand up for one another. As the sage Hillel taught, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” And, as we know from our American tradition, e pluribus unum: out of many, we become one.

Inspired by ADL’s history, I will work ferociously to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred and bigotry, and I will labor tirelessly to expand the organization’s reach and partnerships — to elevate ADL as a vehicle for change and progress. My ambition is to ensure that ADL makes as big an impact over the next 100 years as it has made in its first 100 years.

I know this will be difficult. It will be a long journey. I know that progress is sometimes incremental, slow, and even frustrating. It’s too easy for people to give up, turn against each other, or turn a blind eye.

But in my lifetime — whether it’s freedom for Soviet Jews or rights for the LGBT community, we have seen extraordinary progress. I am inspired by ADL’s heritage and have faith that its legacy will lead us forward. Indeed, as Dr. King said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

I hope you will join me and ADL as we take this first step.