Barry Morrison’s grandfather did more than just fit customers’ deformed feet for orthopedic shoes — he took time to size up their personalities. His approach to people came from his experience growing up during the pogroms in Russia and facing opposition to Jews in pre-state Palestine.
When encountering adversaries, he tried to show them “a better way, as opposed to putting them on the defensive or obliterating them” with withering attacks, said Morrison, who got to know his grandfather while growing up in New York City.
This diplomatic approach influenced Morrison, who went on to spend 35 years working for the Anti-Defamation League, a job that requires a cool head.
The 65-year-old married father of three grown children retired as director of the organization’s Philadelphia regional office at the end of the year, though he will continue working there in a part-time consulting role. Associate regional director Nancy Baron-Baer is serving as acting director while a search for his replacement continues.
As his grandfather taught him, Morrison has mostly avoided pushing the panic button in directing the response when public figures made bigoted statements, or hate groups came to town or when buildings were vandalized with swastikas.
“My style has always been to say, ‘This is what appears to be the case. Would you please tell us how you see the situation and what you intended by your actions?’ ” Morrison said during a recent interview in his Center City office.
Hate takes different forms today compared to when Morrison started more than three decades ago at an ADL office in New Jersey. Then, Princeton University was still dealing with the end of quotas on Jewish students; now Rutgers is grappling with the aftermath of a student’s suicide driven by cyberbullying. But Morrison said he doesn’t think there is any less hate or anti-Semitism.
That does not mean he views the ADL’s efforts as fruitless. Morrison said he’s proud of the anti-hate programs he established, the bigoted people he helped reform and the conflicts he worked to defuse.
One such incident that stands out for him happened on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1989 while he was directing the ADL’s Chicago office. An episode on satanic killings featured two Jewish guests, one described as suffering from multiple personality disorder, who said she had witnessed infanticide practiced ritualistically in Jewish homes. The other, a counselor, mentioned a Passover seder in the context of satanic rituals, which alarmed viewers about associations of Jews with blood libel.
Facing significant outrage, Winfrey’s representatives asked Morrison to organize a meeting with leaders of Jewish organizations. During the gathering, the talk show host said she had made a terrible mistake.
Some of the leaders — including ADL board members — wanted Winfrey to offer an on-air apology. But Morrison said he and others thought that might feed conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the media. Instead, Winfrey and the organizations issued a joint statement.
“I asked people to trust me and to trust our judgment since she hadn’t acted maliciously or meant to harm anyone,” he said.
That tactic helped start a relationship between ADL and the show that continued even when Morrison moved to Philadelphia two decades ago. He helped arrange for Tom Martinez, a former neo-Nazi from Kensington, to appear on an episode with other ex-members of hate groups.
Martinez had been part of The Order, one of the most violent hate groups in the ’80s that was responsible for killing Jewish radio host Alan Berg. Morrison similarly helped former skinhead Frank Meeink, who reformed after being released from prison and teamed with the ADL director to start Harmony through Hockey, an organization that brings the sport to children who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
“I try to help people who have done harm, who are convicted of crimes, to make them whole people, make them good human beings and productive citizens,” said Morrison.
Despite his deliberate approach, Morrison has put his name and reputation on the line at times. The ADL once had to cancel a set of speaking engagements with Meeink because he brought a firearm with him to the airport. Another time the organization received a $500 bill for liquor from the minibar of Meeink’s hotel room. But Morrison has remained Meeink’s friend and advocate.
While Morrison has tried to resolve problems diplomatically, he has also gone on the offensive. In 1997, after a series of violent crimes allegedly committed by whites against blacks in the Grays Ferry section of the city, then-Mayor Ed Rendell tried to pre-empt a Nation of Islam march by organizing an ecumenical service and inviting Louis Farrakhan, an Islamic leader with a history of making anti-Semitic statements.
When Jewish public figures, including Morrison, declined to attend, Rendell, who is also Jewish, described them as “so-called Jewish leaders” and said, “If everyone cares, they should have been here” to talk and to listen.
Morrison said he understood Rendell’s reason for holding the event— President Bill Clinton was coming to town and he wanted to avoid a race riot — but the ADL, with Morrison’s name, still took out a full page advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer “to chide the mayor for what he did and to say that it was as if he stood with a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“It shows you how people in political life have to make difficult decisions. You can respect what they do or you can be cynical about what they do. Also, when it comes to these types of highly visible, controversial issues and you’re thrust into the limelight, there are lessons about leadership and what people do in times of crisis,” Morrison continued. “When the charge of ‘so-called Jewish leaders’ was leveled at us, we said, ‘OK, we’re going to turn to the most prominent Jews and others we know in town and ask them to communicate with Rendell that we, too, are upset by this.”
After tensions cooled, Rendell and Morrison worked together again, as they had in the past. In the early ’80s, the two had collaborated to push for the passage of Pennsylvania’s Ethnic Intimidation Act, making it one of the first states to pass hate-crime legislation. Morrison also started “No Place for Hate” in Philadelphia. The program, now national, works with schools to reduce bullying, name-calling and intolerance.
As he steps away from the helm of the agency, Morrison said, one of the things that bothers him most is widespread apathy.
“The world has changed in that it is in some ways much more enlightened, much more progressive, much more inclined towards helping others,” he said.
“But there is an apathy that I see, an insularity and disinterest and fear and ignorance and incivility.”