In the Philadelphia office of the Anti-Defamation League on a recent Thursday, ADL Deputy National Director Kenneth Jacobson was enjoying his lunch of a falafel and hummus platter from Mama’s Vegetarian while reflecting on the current state of affairs.
“Unfortunately, we have a lot of business,” he said. “When anti-Semitism is rife and when people are worried about it or there’s a general sense in society that hate is afoot, that hate is getting a safe harbor, that gives us a lot of business.”
But it’s not all bad, he noted.
“It’s both a challenge and an opportunity, because the opportunity is that we’re seeing different communities come together,” said Jacobson, who’s been with ADL for 45 years. “If things happen to Muslims or other groups, ADL is out there standing up for them and people say, ‘What are you doing? Why is that your business?’ And now when we see other communities standing with the Jewish community, maybe they understand. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do, and people realize we’re in this together.”
Jacobson and Stacy Burdett, ADL vice president of government relations, advocacy and community engagement, were visiting Philadelphia and meeting with various groups and supporters. Jacobson also gave a talk at Congregation Beth El in Voorhees during his visit.
For Burdett, who works out of the ADL’s Washington, D.C., office, no day repeats itself.
In her role in government relations, she is a registered lobbyist and often communicates with government officials.
But there is one big obstacle that can make it hard to communicate.
“Today, one of the biggest challenges is how polarized the political debate is and how polarized Congress is,” she said. “There is less space to break with your own party and it’s true for members of both parties.”
As ADL is committed to being nonpartisan, there are some issues for which they advocate that get more support from one party or another. The key is keeping an eye on the objective, she said.
“Our goal is to make as much progress as possible on ADL’s agenda in the environment of 2017 or 1969 or 2025,” she said. “We don’t shy away from issues that may be polarizing or what we call wedge issues, but we definitely seek out issues on which we can find bipartisan consensus … One of the challenges for us is being nonpartisan — not staying nonpartisan because we’re committed to that — but not wanting our issues to be used in a partisan way and making bipartisan cooperation a priority.”
For instance, in addressing the recent bomb threats to Jewish community centers across the country, if a group of all Republicans or all Democrats were working on an initiative, ADL would request that they try to find a bipartisan coalition or set of leaders to work on it, she said, “because we have a strong interest in the fight against bigotry and anti-Semitism to be a political winner in both parties.”
Today’s political environment includes the challenge of dealing with social media, a game changer for people to share thoughts and reach out to their representatives in new ways.
Of course, with Twitter, you’re sure to hear keywords like “alt-right” and “harassment.” ADL released a study in October 2016 that logged 2.6 million tweets containing language frequently found in anti-Semitic speech between August 2015 and July 2016.
The uptick in perceived anti-Semitic activity presents new worries, Jacobson said.
“There’s a level of anxiety in the community that we haven’t seen for a while. And so for us, it’s a question of how we deal with those anxieties,” he said.
With the added challenge of cyber hate, people with anti-Semitic attitudes may have more space to share their messages in ways they hadn’t before.
“I like to say that what’s changed is not that Americans have become more anti-Semitic in the last year — so far there’s no evidence to sustain that — but that among those who have anti-Semitic attitudes, they’re now feeling emboldened to act out on those things and that’s a dangerous thing,” Jacobson said.
“What’s happened during this election year is that hate has become more legitimized,” he continued.
He pointed to the anti-Semitic tweets directed at Jewish journalists and the cemetery vandalism in St. Louis and Philadelphia as well as the bomb threats, of which ADL offices were also targets.
“We don’t know who they are yet. The FBI is investigating and we don’t want to jump to conclusions, but clearly it’s meant to intimidate the community and create anxiety, and so that’s something that we haven’t experienced in a long time,” he said. “So I make the distinction America is still a very hospitable place to Jews, indeed an exceptional place to Jews … But there is a new anxiety because of the unleashing of hate and the anti-Semites are coming out of the woodwork.”
He and Burdett both feel that President Trump could do more with his powerful platform to speak out against anti-Semitism and hatred toward any group.
“I don’t want to just put it on him and his administration, this is a multilevel challenge,” Jacobson said, commending Trump for speaking out at the Joint Address to Congress, which took place shortly after the vandalism at Mount Carmel.
“This is the way ADL handles these issues,” Jacobson continued. “There’s no magic wand. You need education. You need more enforcement in training on hate crimes laws. You need to have different groups working in coalition.”
Added Burdett, “The president of the United States, every Cabinet secretary, every member of Congress has a powerful platform to make a difference when they call out hate. It can’t be said often enough that hate has no place in America. The words of leaders have a direct effect on the atmosphere in which our community and targeted communities live.”
While she said they were heartened by Trump’s statements and by Vice President Pence’s visit to Chesed Shel Emeth Society Cemetery in St. Louis, it needs to be an ongoing effort.
“The president isn’t the only person with this responsibility,” she noted, “but that is a very powerful podium and we think he has made an important statement, and now we’re actually looking at what are the concrete actions that the government can take.”
Going forward, there is an underlying lesson of solidarity.
“It’s been a real opportunity for people to rally together,” Burdett said, citing the diversity of people at the airport demonstrations across the country — including in Philadelphia — the weekend after Trump announced his initial immigration order. “What you saw on that Saturday showed that when the rights of one group of people are under attack, all of us feel offended by it and people will be willing to stand up for each other.”
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