A Jewish Group's Shameful Smear

The Anti-Defamation League has a new list out tarring human rights activists in the name of protecting Israel. Michelle Goldberg on how the group is only disgracing itself.

10.15.10 12:48 PM ET

The Anti-Defamation League has a new list out tarring human-rights activists in the name of protecting Israel. Michelle Goldberg on how the group is only disgracing itself.

The Anti-Defamation League, the premier American organization devoted to monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, has long had a dark side. No one has done better work investigating and exposing neo-Nazi and white Supremacist groups in the United States. I’ve spoken at several ADL meetings about my own reporting on Christian nationalism. But the ADL has also shown itself willing to smear human-rights activists when it thinks Israel’s interests demand it. It is in this context that the organization’s misguided new report on the “top 10 anti-Israel groups in America,” which includes Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American Islamic Relations, has to be understood.

In the 1980s, at a time when Israel maintained close ties with South Africa, the ADL went on the attack against Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. As Sasha Polakow-Suransky reported in his recent book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, ADL National Director Nathan Perlmutter co-authored an article implying that the ANC was “totalitarian, anti-humane, anti-democratic, anti-Israel and anti-American.” The ADL sent spies into the American anti-apartheid movement, as well as other movements critical of right-wing American foreign policy. Eventually, the organization was surveilling much of the American left. In 1993, a California police raid on the offices of the ADL and one of its investigators yielded files on Greenpeace, the NAACP, Act Up, New Jewish Agenda, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and several Democratic politicians, among hundreds of others. The ADL eventually settled a class-action lawsuit brought by several of its targets.

The ADL’s absurd new report doesn’t rise to the level of such escapades; there is no skullduggery here, just stupidity. But the impulse to smear Israel’s legitimate critics is much the same. To be sure, there are groups on the list that deserve harsh criticism: the anti-war group ANSWER, for example, has an awful record of conflating Zionism and Nazism, and of supporting the most reactionary forces in the Islamic world, from Saddam Hussein to Hezbollah.

The reason young people’s views are changing isn’t because of sinister organizations. It’s because, given current Israeli policy, an unequivocal defense of the country requires ever more heroic feats of denial and rationalization.

But Jewish Voice for Peace? This is a group with a rabbinical council chaired by respected Jewish clergy and an advisory board that includes luminaries like award-winning author Adam Hochschild, playwright Tony Kushner and Democratic messaging guru George Lakoff. Oren Segal, the director of the ADL’s center on extremism, justifies the group’s inclusion partly on the grounds that it provides cover to other, anti-Zionist organizations. Jewish Voice for Peace, he says, has “propaganda value. Some of these other groups use the fact that they’re there to kind of shield themselves from criticism that they’re anti-Jewish.” This is clearly guilt by association.

The ADL’s list also includes The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a coalition that aims “to change those U.S. policies that sustain Israel's 40-year occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and deny equal rights for all.” Among its member organizations are the American Friends Service Committee-Iowa, Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA.

Peter Beinart: How U.S. Jews Stymie Peace Talks

Peter Beinart: Hateful Ground Zero Hypocrisy

The Council on American Islamic Relations made the list even though, according to spokesperson Ibrahim Hooper, it has no official position on the Middle East conflict “other than to say there should be a just and comprehensive resolution based on the interests of all parties.” Though the ADL says that CAIR has “a long record of anti-Israel rhetoric, which has, at times, crossed the line into anti-Semitism,” some of the examples it gives are laughable. For instance, the ADL informs us, “In response to the Israeli Navy's raid of a flotilla of ships heading to Gaza in May 2010, the executive director of CAIR-Chicago accused Israel of a ‘failure to apply Jewish values.’” If this is one of the worst quotes the ADL can rustle up, it gives one faith in the strength of American interfaith relations.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the ADL’s list is the desperation it betrays. Israel is now a country whose own social-affairs minister warns of “a whiff of fascism” in national politics. The New York Times documents brazen acts of theft and vandalism by extremist West Bank settlers, while Israeli intransigence on settlements is doing much to derail the current, ill-starred peace process. Last week, the Israeli government jailed the Palestinian non-violent activist Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a man whose supporters include Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On Friday, a new poll in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth found that 36 percent of Israeli Jews want to deny Israeli Arabs the right to vote. Israel is currently headed in a very frightening direction.

My most recent trip to the West Bank was a few days ago; there, it’s harrowingly clear how settlement expansion is killing hope for a two-state solution, how Israel is systematically making liberal Zionism an oxymoron. Among younger American Jews, identification with Israel is collapsing, and for obvious reasons. One 2007 study found that among non-Orthodox Jews under 35, only 54 percent are “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.” At campuses like U.C. Berkeley, young Jewish activists, outraged by Israel’s policies, are joining groups like Students for Justice in Palestine—another member of the ADL’s top 10.

The ADL recognizes that it is losing the propaganda war. One reason it put out the list right now, Segal says, is that students are returning to campuses where there’s been an uptick in anti-Israel activism. “Online activism, as well as what’s happening on college campuses, are seeping into the younger generation,” he says.

But the reason young people’s views are changing isn’t because of sinister organizations. It’s because, given current Israeli policy, an unequivocal defense of the country requires ever more heroic feats of denial and rationalization. It requires great barrages of defamation, against Jimmy Carter, against once-revered South African jurist Richard Goldstone, against Desmond Tutu, against J-Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace Washington group, and now, against groups like Jewish Voice for Peace. “This defense of Israel right or wrong makes them not have a moral compass,” Sydney Levy, campaign director of Jewish Voice for Peace, says of the ADL. “They cannot distinguish right from wrong. All they can do is defend Israel blindly.” George Orwell famously said, “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.” To refuse to see it requires a constant struggle as well.

Michelle Goldberg is a journalist and author based in New York. Her first book, the New York Times bestseller " Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism” delved into some of the reddest precincts of the United States to expose the ascendant politico-religious fundamentalism dominating the Republican Party. It was a finalist for the 2007 New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. Goldberg's second book, “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World,” explored the international battle over reproductive rights, and argued that the liberation of women is key to solving the planet's most urgent problems. It won 2008's  J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg has reported from countries including Uganda,  Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, India and Argentina, and her work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic among many other publications. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.