By Kent Osband
Last month, your vice-president issued two open letters to the Mountain Brook Schools community, berating MBS leaders for canceling a contract with the ADL for anti-bias education and impugning the motives of critics of the ADL program. As a highly educated, cosmopolitan Jew who grew up in the Mountain Brook area, and has resettled there after several decades outside, I feel obliged to speak out against these broadsides. In my opinion, MBS leaders deserve praise for launching a program to curb antisemitic acts and other hateful behavior, and for seeking advice on this program from various quarters.
MBS leaders are justified in canceling their contract with ADL because the ADL refuses to publicly reveal its training materials. Critics are justified in identifying ADL as highly partisan, which makes transparency even more important.
Also, the two open letters contravene the ADL’s proclaimed principles through loss of perspective on antisemitism and defamation of critics.
To me, transparency is critical for three reasons. First, parents have a right to know what their young children are being taught. Second, transparency can build community awareness and support for curbing hateful behavior outside schools. Third, transparency checks fears that new forms of hate are being smuggled in under the guise of fighting alleged haters. This Is particularly sensitive for Jews, since in medieval Europe they were frequently persecuted as alleged Christ-haters.
The only defense I have heard from ADL for the lack of program transparency is concern about commercial piracy. I do not find this convincing. ADL’s trademarks on its No Place for Hate® and A World of Difference Institute® programs offer some commercial protection. Its claimed tailoring of programs to specific school district needs offers additional protection. Most important, ADL’s open letters assert the centrality of fighting bias and hatred, the failures of Mountain Brook, and the value of enlisting ADL’s help. Why not throw the doors open to all MBS parents instead of shutting them out?
Concerns about partisanship heighten the need for transparency. While ADL repeatedly claims that it is nonpartisan, the educational materials I found on the ADL website all took the same highly partisan perspective. They pitch a controversial issue tendentiously, provide some anecdotal evidence, link to supporting articles, and exclude all contrary evidence and links to disconfirming articles. For example, police killings of unarmed Blacks receive huge attention, and police misconduct is rightly denounced, but no mention is made of the abundant evidence that reduced police presence costs Black lives.
I would mind the partisanship less if ADL did not deny it. It makes me wonder how ADL defines other contentious words. For example, my youngest son was taught a few years ago at his elite boarding school that Blacks cannot be “racist” and females cannot be “sexist” because they have no “power.” Suppose we accept the revised meanings as pointing toward a world without hate. Would then it not be useful to redirect the older meanings into words like “racialist,” “misandrist” and “authority,” so that we all understand each other better?
Here is another example. Thanks to decades of struggles for civil rights, identification as a racist, sexist, white supremacist or male supremacist threatens ostracism, loss of jobs or university placement, and death threats. While I am glad those words have gained such negative connotations, the flip side is an obligation not to invoke them as idle epithets.
To be clear, I am not criticizing ADL’s definitions of hatred, just asking for more clarity on what they are. However, one phrase in the open letters does have sinister connotations for me, namely, the repeated demand for “accurate history” without any explanation of what the ADL deems inaccurate and why. I say that as someone who studied history for my Harvard BA and UC Berkeley Ph.D., taught economic history at Harvard, and has read many dozens of history books since.
History summarizes the experiences of billions of people and their interactions. Reasonable people are bound to disagree about which interpretations of which topics are most important to convey. To insist on a single “true” interpretation recalls the purges of serious scholarship in the 1930s by third-rate Nazi or Stalinist academics.
Along with “accurate history,” the open letters claim to defend the teaching of “divisive concepts.” Yet I see ADL educational materials avoiding major questions and burying important facts whenever they don’t support the preferred narrative. Here is an example. One of the worst racial disparities in this country is Blacks’ higher risk of getting murdered. This is a huge tragedy, not only for the direct losses but also for the disruption to families and the fears of Black students for their safety. Why doesn’t ADL highlight this? I think we both know why: most murderers of Blacks are Black, and the ADL views that disclosure as an unpleasantly “divisive concept.”
In my view, frank discussion of this disparity would generate more genuine compassion and constructive remedies than a host of other ADL lessons on racial bias. At the very least, it would help students understand why so many Blacks favored a self-styled “pro-cop” candidate in the recent New York City mayoral primary, whereas elite whites living in low-crime areas with more private security guards favored a more “defund the police” candidate.
If ADL disagrees with me, fine. The most important diversity is the diversity of thought. If we always agreed, how would we correct mistakes or learn anything new? In several decades of work in research departments at think tanks, banks and hedge funds, I learned that good analysts answer the questions they’re posed, while great analysts reframe the questions. I hope MBS will teach a broad, truly critical perspective and encourage reasonable, respectful debate.
This brings me to my last set of criticisms, namely the ADL’s contravention of its own principles through defamation and loss of perspective. The most blatant defamation is the allegation of MBS “failure to consider implementing anti-bias education in schools” when MBS leaders originally invited ADL in to consider exactly that. That is softened elsewhere to portray MBS as abandoning anti-bias education. Yet MBS leadership has consistently said that it is simply canceling its project with ADL and pledges to continue that education in other forms.
A third defamation is the claim that a critical Parents’ Guide “revealed a disturbing discomfort with teaching accurate history in our children’s schools” when the Guide does not use the word “history” or surrogate and does not mention any historical facts other than some involving ADL.
The open letters also evince a double standard of criticism. One explicitly objects to critics questioning ADL intentions but fails to offer critics the same courtesy. Instead, it insults them by framing the questioning as an assault on “a storied organization that fights antisemitism and hatred.” This casts doubt on critics’ morality and ignores the explicit distinction they drew between the ADL’s heritage and its alleged partisan turn.
To gauge perspective, consider the ADL’s five-level “Pyramid of Hate,” which identifies “bias-motivated violence” (level 4) as far more severe than verbal putdowns that don’t threaten violence (level 2), which in turn is more severe than biased beliefs. Yet the press releases posted on the Atlanta ADL website devote more attention to slurs and biases in Mountain Brook than their counterparts on other regional ADL websites devote to all recent bias-motivated violence. The Los Angeles ADL reported numerous antisemitic assaults but gave more space to its efforts to train private security guards for Jewish facilities. (Side question: if those efforts are good, why is hiring more police bad?). The New York ADL devoted two short paragraphs to groups in Brooklyn that chanted “Kill all the Jews” with two Jews punched and threatened with baseball bats until they yelled “Free Palestine.”
Numerous communities in the U.S. harbor perpetrators of repeated anti-Jewish violence but none seem to have been publicly berated by ADL for the association. In contrast, ADL has publicly berated MBS twice for incidents that never became violent, and where the most publicized incident immediately triggered hundreds of outraged criticisms and the MBS decision to seek advice on anti-bias education.
The ADL’s open letters link MBS actions to “soaring antisemitism and hatred across the nation” when the main perpetrators are radical Islamists, wayward Black youth, lower-class white supremacists, or elite university activists. None of these groups are well represented in Mountain Brook.
It is hard not to notice that ADL has a double standard on antisemitism. It soft-pedals criticisms of leftists or non-whites and amplifies criticisms of whites leaning right. It seems that Mountain Brook was caught in ADL’s selective outrage, even though the community doesn’t lean far right and is politically diverse.
Let me close with one request. There are many decent Mountain Brook parents on each side of this dispute who are deeply upset. Some feel that nastily partisan plotters have derailed a would-be excellent program with the ADL. Others feel they are being trashed on social media for halting a surreptitiously partisan campaign. Would an ADL leader consider returning to Mountain Brook for a respectful discourse with me, covering an agreed subset of what we are disputing, before an audience formally pledged to good behavior and with tight enforcement against any miscreants? The point would be let each side hear the other and search for common ground.