Editorial: With ADL admitting to problems with their curriculum, now what?

In the summer of 2021, a group called Mountain Brook Families alleged that the ADL’s mainstream school curriculum was teaching extremist ideologies. A year later, the ADL admitted some content was not in line with its values.

Now what?

What does one make of the admission by the Anti-Defamation League that there are problems with their school curriculum and that they need to address it?

Remember, this was a huge part of the passionate controversy raging in Mountain Brook over the last 18 months, after a group of parents claimed the ADL’s longstanding No Place for Hate curriculum was extremist.

The ferocity of the sudden attack on the ADL blindsided the Jewish community. It came in the context of the Mountain Brook School System finally addressing longstanding issues of antisemitism in the schools, and the ADL, with its storied century-old history, has long been a respected, even beloved, institution in the Jewish world — certainly not an extreme voice.

The No Place for Hate curriculum that was proposed has been in existence for decades as a mainstream program. And yet, here was a group saying it was extremist, ascribing to it many of the arguments that have been — rightly or wrongly — lumped under the phrase of “critical race theory.”

How could the mainstream ADL be spoken of this way? It was perceived in the community as an attack on a cornerstone Jewish institution, with predictable responses.

But there have been some cracks in the foundation, and even if Mountain Brook Families cherry-picked to paint the ADL in the worst light, there was smoke.

Many in the pro-Israel advocacy world have charged for several years that the ADL has been slow to respond to left-wing antisemitism under the guise of anti-Zionism. While right-wing antisemitism, neo-Nazism and the like continue to be easy targets, there has been a perceived reluctance to go after other forms of antisemitism, like “legitimate criticism of Israeli policy” that is instead outright antisemitism, or the physical attacks on Orthodox Jews in New York and New Jersey. Those don’t fit neatly into the white supremacy box, mainly because the perpetrators generally aren’t white.

Then earlier this year, the ADL had to change its online definition of racism after CEO Jonathan Greenblatt admitted “as I re-read it this past week, it struck me that it didn’t even speak to my own family’s experience with the racism they experienced as Jews from the Middle East.”

That’s because the ADL defined racism as “the marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges White people.”

In other words, the current vogue in “anti-racism,” influenced by critical race theory. It’s not about you, it is about your group and where it is on the privilege ladder. And only whites have the power to be racist.

Under this structure, because of recent societal success Jews are seen not as oppressed but as oppressors, even hyper-white. That is why so many anti-Israel activists are now trying to make the label of “white supremacist state” stick when referring to Israel.

Before 2020, the definition merely spoke of the belief that one (unspecified) race was superior or inferior  to another (unspecified) race.

The controversy over the definition was disturbing. But then came the recent Fox News analysis of the ADL curriculum, finding that a lot of the same sort of CRT-inspired arguments were in there.

For example, the curriculum includes references to whiteness being the root of racism, structural racism pervading societal institutions, that denying one is privileged is a sign of bias. The curriculum recommends a book that says whiteness is a ticket “to mess endlessly with the lives of your friends, neighbors, loved ones and fellow humans of color for the purpose of profit.”

The materials also present the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter movements as particularly praiseworthy, even though both have struggled with overt antisemitism at the national leadership levels.

The ADL responded that they are launching a thorough review because “clearly there is content among our curricular materials that is misaligned with ADL’s values and strategy.”

What are the priorities for the agency that was founded to fight antisemitism, and how did the curriculum go off track? It is instructive to examine the social media of Jinnie Spiegler, the ADL’s national director of curriculum since 2013. Certainly, someone in that position would be opining on antisemitism regularly.

Looking at her Twitter feed, one sees a wide range of issues highlighted — body shaming, racism, Islamophobia, Trump as treasonous, abortion, mass shootings, transgenderism, book banning, systemic oppression… there’s a tangential mention of a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt on a Jan. 6 protestor… but looking backwards, we decided to call it a day when we got as far back as October 2018 without a single mention of antisemitism, anti-Zionism or any other Jewish concern.

But that’s not the only problem. Earlier this year the ADL hired a director of Jewish outreach, Tema Smith, with a lengthy anti-Israel track record, including retweeting a piece admonishing Jews to repent for the death of Gazans killed in Israel’s response to Hamas rocket fire.

During the epidemic of attacks on Orthodox Jews in New York, mainly by people of color, Smith wrote in the Forward that it isn’t their fault — what Jews perceived as antisemitism by those in the Black community is merely a symptom of structural racism. She also has stated that Jewish reactions to Black antisemitism come from a racist fear of Black violence.

Fighting antisemitism… unless you have a good excuse.

So, now what?

There are increasing calls for Greenblatt, who has headed the ADL since 2015, to step down. Under his predecessor, Abe Foxman, the ADL was known for calling out antisemitism wherever it came from. Greenblatt was previously in the Obama administration, and some charge his close Democratic ties have led to the sluggishness to respond to left-wing antisemitism.

Lately, he has been trying to make up for lost ground, with several statements about anti-Zionism and campus antisemitism, a welcome change. It needs to be sustained and shown to be a priority. And social justice groups can’t be exempted from criticism over antisemitism just because their other motivations are supposedly pure.

The ADL is still the go-to organization on a wide range of topics, still generally the first call when there is an antisemitic incident. It is still an effective monitor and advocate in so many areas.

But the curriculum controversy threatens to put a dark cloud over even those efforts.

It will be interesting to see what the ADL ultimately says about its curriculum, and if there will be an effort to steer things back to the middle. But in our increasingly polarized society, where even mainstream anti-racism programs are drawing suspicion, can the damage be repaired and trust regained, especially among people like those whose activism led to ADL’s ouster from Mountain Brook?

When the Jewish community is under attack, we are loath to criticize our agencies, lest it be seen by our enemies as weakness, division or a chance to pile on.

But this is the season of introspection, and there is a lot of work that the ADL needs to do to correct course. There’s a long way to go, and in this divisive age, a short time to get there.