Faking rights: Why anti-racists detest the Anti-Defamation League

Emmaia Gelman
9 min readApr 20, 2018

Starbucks’ anti-racism announcement has put the ADL in the spotlight, and not in a good way. Twitter is running down facts on the ADL — including its work getting American cops trained in the tactics Israel uses against Palestinians. Why do corporations and politicians still believe the ADL is a “civil rights” organization? Sit down for some history.

[Update: More sources, and info about progressive groups’ pushback on the ADL, are here. You can also find more detailed look at these issues in the Boston Review.]


Starbucks’ plan to shut down stores on May 29th for anti-racist training, including the Anti-Defamation League, has brought new scrutiny to the ADL. Its inclusion in the Starbucks training panel isn’t a surprise: the ADL often provides publicly-funded trainings, and it has a long relationship with Starbucks’ Chairman, Howard Schulz.

But enlisting the ADL has instantly made things worse for Schulz. Across Twitter, Starbucks is being called to #DroptheADL. The other trainers on the panel are being called on to refuse to work with them. This may be confusing if you know the ADL as a provider of “tolerance education” to schoolkids. But the ADL’s brand as a civil rights organization is built on a long history of pushing aside people of color. And the Starbucks Moment may undo the ADL’s success in whitewashing that history.

How the ADL pushed its “tolerance education” into schools over the objections of people of color and LGBT groups

The ADL’s history grimly resembles its present. In 1988, the Anti-Defamation League set out to seed its new “tolerance education” program in cities across the United States. In San Francisco and the Bay Area, a region bustling as much with strong communities of color, queers, and people with disabilities as it was with entrenched inequality, they recruited 50 local civil rights groups to create a new non-profit organization, Bay Area United, to help manage the curriculum. A steering committee of LGBT, Asian, Latinx, Arab*, and Indigenous groups enthusiastically tackled the work. But their partnership with the ADL quickly went sour.

The ADL had stumbled into the educational space a few years before in the wake of Boston school desegregation troubles, when it partnered with a local TV station for videos and classroom activities on tolerance. They were wildly well received — at least by foundations and city officials. Who could object to teaching kids not to hate?

But in the Bay, there were big problems from the start. The AIDS epidemic was raging, deaths fueled by prejudice. When community leaders asked if LGBT acceptance would be taught, the ADL hedged, then refused. Then, instead of helping compose the curriculum guide, the coalition was given a finished draft and asked to quickly vet it. As feared, there was no mention of LGBT people. Also no mention of people with disabilities. Of women. When the civil rights groups objected, ADL explained that “tolerance education” would only be dealing with race, religion, and ethnicity — because that the ADL was working toward a national curriculum, and LGBT tolerance was not a nationally-shared value. Locally, at an educators’ conference on hate crimes, the ADL forbade the coalition’s LGBT teachers’ group to hand out materials.

Worse, the curriculum had been written entirely by white people and their distance showed. Civil rights groups called the ADL’s coverage of Japanese internment “horrifying in its brevity… disrespectful.” They objected to the section on Muslim and Middle Eastern peoples, which features an Iranian child “persecuted for liking America,” because it clearly reaffirmed Islamophobic stereotypes rather than undoing them. They noted that the ADL’s focus on hate groups ignored white middle class culture as a source of inequality and bias. “Hate violence,” wrote one steering committee member to the ADL, “comes, overwhelmingly, from the ‘mainstream.’”

The ADL had created an important platform for challenging bigotry — convincing the state’s Department of Education to implement a civil rights curriculum — so Bay Area civil rights groups made a heroic effort to fix it. With the support of San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission and Board of Supervisors, they worked their way up the ADL’s chain of command. The ADL wouldn’t budge. After a year of effort, the entire steering committee resigned, charging that the ADL had been using civil rights groups as cover for some other agenda. The ADL’s brand of tolerance education, they said, didn’t undo discrimination; it taught it.[1]

The ADL spying scandal. Really, they did that.

Just four years later, in 1993, the ADL was discovered to be spying on hundreds of civil rights groups and thousands of activists in San Francisco and other cities. An FBI raid revealed that ADL staff had infiltrated ACT UP, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, and other groups. They had also bought surveillance of civil rights groups from a San Francisco Police Department officer, who had stolen them from the SFPD’s Intelligence Unit, which had recently been shut down because of its own illegal spying. Among the groups the ADL spied on: the NAACP, Greenpeace, the Arab-American Democratic Club, New Jewish Agenda, the Mandela Welcoming Committee, the United Farm Workers, Northern California Ecumenical Council and the ACLU. The ADL’s operative had sold the information to the South African apartheid government, and to the Israeli Mossad. One activist had subsequently been killed in Israel. Some of the spying targets had been core participants in the Bay Area tolerance education project.

The ADL’s approach to “civil rights,” courtesy of neoconservative theorists.

Why? The most compelling explanation for the ADL’s spying came from a reporter’s interview with the ADL’s Irwin Suall, head of the ADL division that — as far as the public knew — monitored white supremacist groups. The reporter, Chip Berlet, wrote that Suall told him and a colleague: “The right-wing isn’t the problem. The left-wing is the problem. The Soviet Union is the biggest problem in the world for Jews. It’s the American left that is the biggest threat to American Jews.” Later, Berlet reported that the fall of the Soviet Union had not eased that neoconservative panic. Neocons psychologized political unrest as a form of maladjustment: the inability of “extremists” to pursue the “compromise” offered by the American democratic system. This makes sense: the focus on prejudice, not systemic inequality, is exactly what neoconservatives preach. They reject the idea that racism is enacted through politics, culture, and the ways that state and financial institutions keep people of color from wealth, education, and other resources that together yield power. Martin Luther King, Jr. was clear on systemic racism, but the ADL’s copious quoting of Dr. King doesn’t include his analysis.

Again: why? Histories of Black-Jewish relations show that, after (some) US Jewish populations attained the benefits of whiteness, mainstream Jewish organizations were reluctant to challenge the system that had let them in. The cultural racism of the 1970s (which faulted Black people for not “making it” as other immigrant groups had) helped rationalize not supporting Black equality demands. Still others theorize that the ADL’s intense commitment to the Israeli state, combined with its equally intense anti-Communism, naturally aligned it with neoconservatives. The neocons’ anti-Black, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and hawkish ideas — and the sense that white people’s civil rights need to be defended against people of color — have come to define the organization. [Berlet/NYT] Indeed, the ADL’s notion that everyone is anti-Semitic has been its constant rationale for undermining anti-racism, including anti-racist work by other Jewish groups.

Present day: the ADL, cops, and Islamophobes vs. the rising anti-racism movement

This is not just a historical view of the ADL, which has consistently posed itself against civil rights — and fought people of color’s efforts to achieve them — at the same time as claiming to advance them. The ADL has long opposed affirmative action in college admissions. It has supported mass surveillance of Muslims, and advanced Islamophobic positions around public controversies like the planning of New York City’s Park 51 mosque. Under its new director Jonathan Greenblatt, an international business developer, the ADL carefully withheld support from Black Lives Matter. Greenblatt was outraged when BLM’s organizers connected the systemic racial repression in the US with Palestinians’ experience with racialized, militarized dispossession by Israel. (That outrage is mystifying, since the ADL itself coordinates trainings where Israeli forces teach American police the advanced, repressive methods used against Palestinians and the Israeli left.) The conflict with the modern civil rights movement came to a head in 2016, when the ADL denounced the expansive, inclusive, and widely-embraced platform of the Movement for Black Lives. Without irony, Greenblatt used a Black church-and-protest message, “keep your eyes on the prize,” to explain why Black organizers’ conception of racial justice was wrong.

Indeed, among the many civil rights groups it chastises, the ADL’s most vocal attacks are reserved for those who challenge Islamophobia, the terrifyingly vague War on Terror, and Israeli violence. The ADL is a European Jewish-led and –staffed organization that doesn’t take note of the vast racial or ideological diversity even among Jews. It seems as untroubled by its position as a white organization condemning Black organizers as it does condemning Muslim and Jewish groups; in fact, it never acknowledges its whiteness (nor its straightness, as it targets LGBT groups.) It seems also untroubled by its ties with the right-wing machinery fueling racism: beyond its ongoing connections with the FBI and police departments, last year it didn’t object to $1 million bump from James Murdoch, who effectively controls Fox News.

How the ADL preserves its reputation, despite what everyone knows.

How on earth is the ADL still considered a civil rights organization? Much of the answer lies in its aggressive marketing of tolerance education. (The ADL’s work on hate crimes legislation is another answer. Like tolerance education, hate crimes laws have a troubled relationship with racial justice.)

Over the objections of San Francisco and Bay Area civil rights groups, the ADL’s pilot tolerance education program went forward in San Francisco. Soon after, it became a nationwide presence. In New York City today, the DOE’s materials materials on anti-racism, including Islamophobia, come almost exclusively from the ADL. This is largely what has allowed the ADL — again, a white organization — to proclaim itself “the premier civil rights organization in the United States” with a straight face. In the political climate of the AIDS epidemic, San Francisco city officials were eventually somewhat successful in demanding the inclusion of LGBT issues. But the united anti-racist demands of queers, immigrants, and people of color were lost when the steering committee resigned. Islamophobia and ethnocentrism were allowed to proceed in the ADL’s tolerance education unchallenged. As the ADL intended, their curriculum did indeed go national. That is the legacy that persists today.

In recent years, the ADL has gambled on open conflict with most of the strongest representatives of groups whose civil rights it purports to represent. It has denounced Jewish Voice for Peace, a national organization of many thousands of American Jews who oppose Israeli apartheid, calling them “anti-Semitic.” It has denounced LGBT groups who oppose Israeli pinkwashing (the practice of touting Israel as a great place for LGBT equality without noting that Palestinians, queer or otherwise, have no such rights under Israel “democracy.”) The ADL has denounced the Movement for Black Lives, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Women’s March. In civil rights circles, ADL is charged with making it nearly impossible for public figures to meaningfully combat Islamophobia, and of dangerously diluting the meaning of “anti-Semitism” in a moment when real anti-Semitism needs critical attention as an element of white supremacy. Anti-racist activists, in short, detest the ADL. Despite this, the ADL has remained the go-to source for politicians, public agencies, and media on matters of bias; so its reputation as a civil rights player has been preserved.

The Starbucks Moment: can social media unravel 30 years of ADL spin?

But this is something new. Starbucks’ public racism scandal has played on out social media, where discussion is not limited by the facile choices of politicians or media. The wave of outrage that led Starbucks to announce its training has been generated by the rising anti-racist movement that the ADL has continuously attacked. Starbucks’ CEO has badly miscalculated: he cannot use the ADL to calm this storm. And he has accidentally shined a brighter light on the ADL’s pretensions than anyone else has been able. As a result, the ADL appears to be losing two of its big claims: that it can do civil rights better than the people it represents; and that anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian racism can march under the banner of civil rights. We won’t miss either one.


Emmaia Gelman is a PhD student writing a dissertation on neoconservative uses of LGBT and (Zionist) Jewish rights projects to advance Islamophobia and anti-Blackness.

[1] This account draws on original research in the GLBT Historical Archives in San Francisco.

* Correction on 4/23/18: None of the Bay Area’s many Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern groups were originally invited to the “tolerance education” coalition by the ADL: they had to ask specially to join and were added later.



Emmaia Gelman

Queer/anti-racist activist, PTA mom, yr classic Irish-Jewish New Yorker. PhD candidate, NYU American Studies. Tweet @mishmoshk