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Anti-Defamation League Chief Finds Trump Campaign Rhetoric Problematic


Let's hear from a man who has been involved in one political battle after another in 2016. Jonathan Greenblatt leads the Anti-Defamation League, which for years has surveyed Americans about their views on Jews.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Do you believe Jews have controlled the media? Do you believe Jews have excessive power in finance? And there's a series of questions which were developed to identify whether or not someone holds anti-Semitic attitudes.

GREENE: Greenblatt says fewer and fewer Americans hold such attitudes, but those who do are speaking more loudly. And throughout this election year, as we'll hear, Greenblatt has clashed with Republicans and Democrats. He critiqued a campaign ad for Donald Trump.


DONALD TRUMP: It's a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class.

GREENE: In that ad, the talk of a global power structure is accompanied by images of financial leaders who happen to be Jewish. It was one of several times Trump was accused of winking at white supremacists. Yet Greenblatt knows some conservative Jews have sided with the president-elect, and he spoke about this with our colleague, Steve Inskeep.

GREENBLATT: Donald Trump comes to the job with a more intimate relationship with the Jewish people than any of his predecessors. His business career took place here in New York City, working with lots of people in the Jewish community. His own son-in-law and daughter are observant Jews. This is an individual who understands the community. That's why we found it so deeply problematic when some of the images and some of the rhetoric seemed to evoke longstanding anti-Semitic conspiracies.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Is it possible it has been unconscious or unintended, then?

GREENBLATT: Whether intentional or not, the use of this language is deeply problematic.

INSKEEP: How did you come to get into a dispute, if that's the right word - a debate - with David Friedman, the man that President-Elect Trump has named as his proposed ambassador to Israel?

GREENBLATT: Well, look, I don't think that I'm in a debate with David Friedman. I've never met David Friedman. I've never spoken to him before. I know that before he was named to this post, he said some things - let's just say, like, denigrating the ADL or likening other people in the Jewish community to Nazi collaborators. I think he said some things that were hardly diplomatic.

INSKEEP: And he was also referring specifically to the Anti-Defamation League when you complained about the Trump ad which criticized a number of people who happened to be Jewish. He said that people like you sound like morons when you claim that's anti-Semitic. That's a quote.

GREENBLATT: Yeah. Look, I mean, let me be clear. The ADL was founded over a hundred years ago, and we've been engaging with, you know, administrations since Woodrow Wilson. And during the course of that time, we're used to being attacked. So we are not going to stop, no matter what names we're called or whatever threats are leveled against us.

INSKEEP: Is the Jewish community becoming more strictly divided, the way that many people feel the country as a whole is?

GREENBLATT: I definitely think this trend of polarization is infecting the body politic broadly. I think you see signs of it in the Jewish community as well. Those of us who are proud to stand strong in the center have got our work to do to try to bridge that divide between right and left.

INSKEEP: What are the issues that become flashpoints? I would imagine the particular brand of your support for Israel would be one thing.

GREENBLATT: I think, yeah. But you know what? To be honest, Steve, Jews are the people who invented dissent, right? They have been engaged in commentary for millennia, so it really isn't a surprise that you have two Jews and you have three sets of opinions.

INSKEEP: That's a stereotype you're happy to lean into, it sounds like.

GREENBLATT: If you've ever been at the dinner table at my house, you'd know it's very true.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Well, let's talk about another story in which you have become involved. The Democrats are choosing the next leader of the Democratic Party. One of the candidates is Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who is Muslim, by the way, who has also made a number of remarks about Israel that you found offensive.

GREENBLATT: I don't know if I would characterize it like that. We did get involved with regard to Keith Ellison to speak out and express the fact that, while our offices worked with him on civil rights issues in the past, we had some questions about some of his recent votes and views about Israel. And we wanted to express those concerns.

INSKEEP: There was a 2010 tape that surfaced - a recording. Ellison says, by the way, it was edited. But what he's heard saying on the tape is that U.S. policy is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people, suggesting that the U.S. is just thinking about Israel when it frame's policy in the Middle East, where there are hundreds of millions of other people. What's wrong with that statement?

GREENBLATT: Well, look, I mean, I think, as we were talking about earlier, there are longstanding conspiracies about Jewish people, you know, controlling government or controlling finance or controlling the media. So we are constantly in a struggle to battle back against those bigoted ideas. What I found particularly difficult - and I think it is a disqualifying idea - if you believe that there's a Jewish conspiracy to control the U.S. government to serve our own interests. I think it's deeply troubling to consider that the leader of either political party would hold that kind of prejudiced idea.

INSKEEP: Well, he has put out an open letter to you, as a matter of fact, in which he said, look, the tape was edited. That's not all I said. I was just answering a question. I was encouraging descendants of Arabs - other people from the Middle East besides Jews - to be involved politically in the United States, and that might change U.S. policy. That's what he says. Does that reassure you at all?

GREENBLATT: I think the issue for me is, can you help confront these conspiracies and prove them wrong? And it's useful to say it in an open letter on Facebook, I suppose. It may be better to say it with your own voice in public. And so, look, I hope the congressman will do that. And I hope whoever is selected to run the Democratic Party, just like we would see on the GOP side, will have an open and inclusive view of America.

INSKEEP: What are the deepest concerns that you hear from people as you do your job?

GREENBLATT: The deepest concerns? Look, I'll tell you this. So when I was in high school, I did an interview with my grandfather for a school project. And he was a Holocaust survivor from Germany. And I asked him if, when he was a young man, he ever imagined that his grandchildren - me and my brother and my cousins - would be born in America. And my grandfather said to me in his very thick German accent, never. I've always imagined I would be in Germany. Where else would I be? So what I would say to you, Steve, is I don't think we can take for granted, considering the contemporary Jewish experience, that our grandchildren, my grandchildren will be born here in America unless we fight for what we have.

INSKEEP: I want to make explicit what you're laying out there. You're suggesting a fear, a concern that there could be a day when Jews are unwelcome in America.

GREENBLATT: What I'm suggesting is that, for over 2,000 years until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jewish people have lived in this constant dilemma where we have lived in societies but always been aware of the fact that there is some degree of risk.

GREENE: Jonathan Greenblatt there. He is president and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and he was speaking to our colleague, Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.