Why are the letter and primer necessary?
The letter and primer are necessary to protect our communities and movements from the harm the ADL is able to do through its presence in coalitions, schools, and other institutions.
The letter, primer, and website grew out of requests from community organizers, educators, administrators, students, parents, and many others to publicize information about the ADL’s harmful actions, and to speak out collectively. While many have long opposed the ADL’s practices, most have not felt safe publicly exposing the ADL because of the extreme backlash. It has become clear that ignoring or minimizing the ADL’s harm is an option only afforded to those not targeted by it. The letter was necessary to stop placing the burden on targeted communities by coming out together to say we are not alone and an attack on one is an attack on all.
Why not engage with the ADL rather than dropping the ADL?
If the ADL were a civil rights organization that had gone astray from its mission, appealing to it to change its policies might make sense, at least for a time. Unfortunately, as this recent Jewish Currents article on the origins of the ADL makes clear, “attempts to subvert progressive efforts are not deviations from the group’s 1960s civil rights credo, but expressions of their more than century-old mission.” (See the next FAQ.)
This leaves a situation in which appealing to the ADL actually reinforces the false narrative that allows the ADL to harm social justice movements. The signatories of the letter chose to appeal to progressives rather than to the ADL in part because it has been the pattern of well-intentioned organizers for decades to appeal to the ADL, allowing it to target movements in perpetuity without any danger of repercussions.
The ADL is very well-versed in welcoming dialogue, portraying those asking for disengagement as unreasonable. It is in looking at the ADL’s mission and the decades of failed engagement that the open letter can be understood.
Are the ADL’s attacks deviations from, or consistent with, its mission?
The common misconception that the ADL is a civil rights organization that has strayed from its noble path, or that the ADL is good except for its support for Israel, is both ahistorical and damaging.
This historical account of the anti-left origins of the ADL makes clear that the ADL’s “attempts to subvert progressive efforts are not deviations from the group’s 1960s civil rights credo, but expressions of their more than century-old mission.”:
“The ADL and AJC were formed at the turn of the 20th century as a conservative effort to overshadow the organizing efforts of the immigrant, working class Jewish left… At the time, radical politics were flourishing among new Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the United States. Some had been involved in revolutionary politics in Russia; others had been radicalized by the violence and exploitation they’d fled; many worked in sweatshops and had become involved with unions upon arrival in the US. Propelled by their experiences of American racism and labor exploitation, they organized groups like the socialist Workmen’s Circle, which quickly grew bigger than B’nai Brith, the lodges for German-speaking Jews that had been established 60 years before… In the eyes of German Jews who had arrived decades earlier—many of whom had started out upper class or had risen there—this new ethnic, politically-dissenting Jewishness threatened the genteel white identity they enjoyed.”
The Jewish immigrant, working-class left was rising and—as happened with many immigrant groups in the US—conservative upper-class Jews created their own “representational organizations” to marginalize them.
The misconception that the ADL would be better on civil rights, if only its Israel advocacy didn’t push it in the wrong direction, incorrectly portrays the ADL as a fundamentally progressive organization that can be coaxed to “return to its real mission” with enough education and engagement—an assumption that has allowed it to cause more harm every day. It invisibilizes the harm the ADL has done and continues to do to many communities, including communities of color targeted by the police. It is used to attempt (unsuccessfully) to divide coalitions with the false notion that solidarity with Palestine comes at the expense of other freedom struggles that the ADL is purportedly advancing. It can also cause ambivalence rather than clarity about how to relate to the ADL, often resulting in defaulting to the status quo.
Understanding the ADL’s consistent positioning of itself for more than a century as a more moderate, white-led, state-oriented alternative to movements challenging corporate and state power helps to make sense of the things documented in the primer, demystifying what may originally seem like a contradiction.
Isn’t the ADL good on some things, like immigration?
The ADL supports militarized policing, partners with and rewards anti-immigrant right-wingers, and sends ICE officials to trade techniques with the Israeli military and security. For example, in 20`5, the ADL sent DHS ICE Homeland Security Investigations Executive Associate Director Peter Edge, later promoted to ICE Acting Deputy Director under President Trump, to Israel as part of the ADL’s National Counter Terrorism Institute Seminar to, in Edge’s words, learn how Israel’s law enforcement “techniques can be applied more broadly.”
The fact that the ADL’s VP for Programs, George Selim, was hired from a major surveillance role at DHS makes clear that the ADL is not an ally to immigrant rights groups.
Racial justice and immigration justice cannot be separated. The ADL’s self-declared support for immigrant rights is inconsistent with its undermining of the anti-racist and anti-colonial movements led by people of color.
The ADL’s support for US wars and the expansion of global power contributes significantly to the violence and displacement that push immigrants from their home countries. Supporting immigrant rights in the US must go hand in hand with opposing US global policies that harm immigrants and communities world-wide.
Is the ADL under the new leadership now a more progressive organization?
The primer took over two years to write because every day the ADL committed new harms, and because communities’ experiences with the ADL had largely been kept quiet rather than publicly documented. Communities have come forward with new stories since its publication, some of which are listed on the More Stories page of the website, including the ADL’s recent attacks on ethnic studies.
The ADL was created as a counter to leftist movements and its actions have consistently served this mandate for more than 100 years. Asserting that the ADL has suddenly and secretly become a totally different organization doesn’t hold up to ongoing documentation. It is a way to avoid addressing the content of the primer, which includes many recent stories.
Shouldn’t we distinguish between individual ADL staff and the national ADL?
Local ADL staff, especially those working with local groups on local issues, are often friends and valued colleagues. Many staff surely join the ADL to do good and out of genuine concern for antisemitism and racism. As with the case of police officers, this is not about individual ADL staff being good or bad; it’s about the function and harmful impact of the ADL as an institution.
At a national level, ADL often trades on the relationships built by local staff to leverage support for its policies. Since the letter was released, the Drop the ADL working group has been contacted by former ADL staff sharing their stories of discovering the contradiction between the type of organization they thought they were joining, and what the ADL turned out to be.
Published May 11, 2021 by the Drop the ADL Working Group