The ADL & the right-wing-led White House antisemitism strategy

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The White House has placed right-wing groups at the heart of a strategy intended to oppose racism

By Anna Baltzer, Laura Barrios, Emmaia Gelman, Heike Schotten, and US Campaign for Palestinian Rights

In June 2023, the White House launched a National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism that dangerously weaves right-wing groups even more tightly into US governance, rather than countering racism and violence. Combating antisemitism is critical, but calls to stop antisemitism are also outrageously exploited by right-wing and Zionist organizations to insulate the Israeli apartheid state from criticism, and to keep billions of dollars flowing to the Israeli military to kill and oppress Palestinian people. This “weaponization of antisemitism” is a defining condition of US and international politics and academia, and a red hot topic in Jewish communal discussion. Many institutions are making progress against it – a growing list of legislatures, academic bodies, and civic institutions have rejected pressure to adopt the “IHRA definition” of antisemitism, for instance – but it continues to be powerful especially when policymakers pretend it doesn’t exist. The White House plan flatly ignores these realities.

The National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism sets out four pillars of policy that sound sensible and necessary as means to oppose racism: education, safety measures, cultural work, and building cross-community solidarity. In practice, though, each pillar names a policy arena where the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other right-wing groups have already positioned themselves as opponents of antisemitism, and are pursuing repressive policy that is packaged as racial justice work. These groups attack progressive and left antiracist work, which is often led by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and Jewish organizers, calling it antisemitic or “extreme.” Many millions of dollars in new and existing contracts in the National Strategy will largely flow to those right-wing groups. 

The White House plan should – but doesn’t – account for the ways that white nationalism draws strength from pro-Israel politics, that cross-community solidarity is being built through shared opposition to militarized and anti-Black policing, and that Jewish communities are fighting against right-wing framings of Jewish safety. Instead, the White House plan endorses and funds the long-running, harmful right-wing work of the ADL and its partners. Indeed, the ADL is celebrating its victory in accomplishing every goal it set for this new national program.

Below are just some of the ways that the White House plan works to bait-and-switch, replacing important antiracist work with attacks. Below, also, are ways that we can defend our communities, and take on the work of fighting antisemitism and racism together.

Supercharging the ADL’s weaponization of antisemitism

The White House plan supercharges the ADL and a new astroturf, billionaire-backed sector of dozens of groups modeled on the ADL. These include groups like StandWithUsAmcha, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center who are actively engaged in attacks on BIPOC organizers, educators, elected officials, and progressive Jewish groups. Their right-wing work is not limited to advocacy for Israel; they pursue right-wing policy through the major institutions of everyday life. Targeting public education, for instance, they are trying to derail ethnic studies and attacking Critical Race Theory. Targeting social media, for instance, they mobilize trolls to silence Palestinian accounts of Israeli ethnic cleansing. While social justice movements advocate against repressive policing and surveillance, the ADL and its allies advocate for more. To portray these attacks as “antiracist”, they frequently claim they are aligned with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and smear their opponents as “antisemites.”

Expanding the reach of right-wing organizations into communities

In the White House plan, the political right is given a new mandate and greatly expanded federal funding. The plan calls for Congress to budget millions of new dollars for curriculum and education, the policing and documentation of hate crimes, the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to “harden” community spaces with surveillance and security infrastructure, and the federal Office of Civil Rights. It also names the ADL as an international voice on behalf of the United States. Each of those program areas is consistently misused as a platform by the ADL and astroturf right-wing groups, and now that misuse will expand. For instance, the ADL is currently actively working to dismantle antiracist education policy by leveraging its perceived expertise as a provider of curriculum on antisemitism and “ending hate.” While there are good alternative sources for education and training about antisemitism within an antiracist framework (e.g. the Participatory Action Research Center (PARCEO) the ADL is positioned to get most of the training work generated by the plan.

Legitimizing the ADL’s misleading statistics

The ADL’s central place in the White House plan is not accidental. The ADL has conducted a decades-long statistics campaign to create outsized fears about Jewish unsafety, and portray it as a singular problem. The ADL’s reports on hate and antisemitism use a long list of worst practices. The ADL publishes statistics based on opaque and spotty data-gathering, giving the false impression that they are grounded in scientific research. It uses push polls that lead respondents (including Jewish respondents) to “anti-Jewish” answers. It misclassifies political protest and community events (whether for Palestinian rights, queer rights, or others throughout history) as “antisemitic incidents”. It leverages the reputation of the ADL itself and its partners – like the White House – to make this bad data seem authoritative. The ADL’s alarmist reports about antisemitism in particular use data to misdirect Jewish and non-Jewish communities to create fear. 

How did ADL statistics get us here? In almost every year since the early 1980s, the ADL has published headlines declaring a spike in antisemitism, which are egregiously sensationalized as well as lumping protests criticizing Israel (and the ADL) into their numbers. For instance, in 2022, the ADL reported that Jews are now the group “most targeted religious community” in the United States. This misleadingly separates antisemitism from its usual universe of hate crimes statistics to create an alarming headline. In fact, religion-based incidents comprise only about 14% of reported incidents overall, and anti-Jewish incidents are about 8% of the whole. Unsurprisingly, the full dataset shows that Black and LGBTQ people are “most targeted” several times over, even though they dramatically underreport such experiences. These statistics have not led the White House to call for a “whole of society” push to combat anti-Blackness, nor call on BIPOC civil society organizations as policy experts.

The ADL’s misleading soundbites move easily into pop culture, generating a demand to do something about the threat they evoke. For instance, in March 2023, an astroturf group turned the “most targeted” statistic into the $25 million Blue Square campaign, which uses celebrities, social media, and mainstream civic organizations to endorse pro-Israel talking points. Selective statistics like these play on people’s real fears and desires to stand up against racism and antisemitism. They are so powerful that Jewish groups and researchers struggle to correct them, and to prevent Jewish communities’ concerns from being instrumentalized by racist forces.

Amplifying racist attacks by right-wing organizations

In this fraught environment, the White House has placed right-wing groups at the heart of a strategy to oppose racism. The plan does not call for an end to racist abuses by right-wing organizations who claim to do civil rights work. It does not acknowledge the weaponization of antisemitism as a major obstacle to confronting actual antisemitic violence, despite urgent calls from Jewish communities to do so. Terrifyingly, it does not take any measures to prevent the National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism from fueling even more right-wing attacks on BIPOC and Jewish communities fighting racism together. 

Implementing the IHRA definition of antisemitism, despite progressive groups’ work

Some have celebrated the plan as a partial victory for progressive Jewish voices who were consulted during the process, because it doesn’t explicitly adopt the right-wing’s preferred “IHRA definition” of antisemitism, and it names the progressive strategy of building cross-community solidarity. Unfortunately, the plan still does IHRA’s work. It also hollows out solidarity work by appointing the ADL to lead collaborations with Black, Latinx, and Asian organizations. This comes not long after more than 200 racial and social justice organizations, including the Movement for Black Lives, signed an open letter concluding “we cannot collaborate with the ADL without betraying our movements.”

The IHRA definition outrageously equates the Israeli state and military with Jewish people and says that criticizing Israel or Zionism is a denial of Jewish rights. While the White House plan doesn’t specify IHRA, it elevates the IHRA definition’s strongest advocates as authorities on antisemitism, calling on government and institutions to take their trainings. A recent report on IHRA implementation in Europe confirmed that it has been used to silence criticism of Israel by Palestinian people, other people of color, and Jewish people, and to violate their human rights.

By combining the IHRA definition with a mandate for Jewish inclusion, the National Strategy weaponizes DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) policies, too. For instance, the plan confuses a student’s experience of being challenged on Zionist ideology with “experiencing discrimination on the basis of Jewishness”, and calls university administrators to intervene. Over the past several years, Zionist organizations have increasingly demanded that colleges do exactly that: treat “Zionist” as a protected identity akin to Black, Jewish, or queer identity, rather than recognizing it as a political ideology. Doing so allows them to instrumentalize DEI policies, to pressure university administrators to surveil, discipline, and police student groups that seek to create safe antiracist, anti-Zionist spaces for marginalized and oppressed people.

The National Strategy technically leaves room for progressive organizations to be heard, and presumably to offer other definitions of antisemitism (it calls on government agencies, schools, and civic groups to seek out Jewish voices, without specifying which ones). However, in practice it is the ADL and the right-wing astroturf groups that have the resources and access to claim that role. Institutions, including Jewish ones, that refuse to work with right-wing groups will be accused of antisemitism.

What does this do for the ADL?

The ADL has already begun making use of the National Strategy to expand its reach. It rolled out the strategy in a webinar co-branded with the White House, and immediately began recruiting CEOs to adopt its trainings based on the White House’s call to corporations. The likely outcomes of the National Strategy are chilling. It isn’t hard to imagine the ADL instructing corporations to discipline employees who speak up for Palestinian rights, critique Israel, or challenge right-wing “antisemitism watchdog” organizations. As the plan expands prosecution of ADL-defined “hate incidents”, it isn’t hard to imagine the criminalization of Palestinians advocating their own human rights – mirroring the attacks on CUNY Law graduate Fatima Mohammed – or the criminalization of the Movement for Black Lives, which the ADL has censured for connecting police violence in the US and Palestine.

What We Can Do

Don’t be a bystander as the White House plan boosts the legitimacy and reach of right-wing groups to cause further harm. Those who care about challenging racism, antisemitism, pinkwashing, and all systems of oppression can join the progressive movements and institutions calling to #DroptheADL. Refuse the ADL as a partner in social justice and DEI work, and spread the word by circulating the open letterprimer, and other resources.

Support antiracist organizing and education, especially those under attack including the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum and National Liberated Ethnic Studies Coalition. Refuse attempts by the ADL to bring their trainings to your institutions, schools, faith centers, and other spaces; instead, seek out resources and consultation from groups like PARCEO, including their Curriculum on Antisemitism from a Framework of Collective Liberation

Fight the creep of the ‘IHRA definition”, “Zionist identity” claims, and the many astroturf groups that have sprung up in the new “fighting hate/antisemitism” sector that targets Palestinian and other liberation movements under the guise of Jewish safety. Instead, insist that challenging antisemitism is part of a larger struggle for collective liberation that cannot leave anyone behind.