Why the ADL Became a Partisan Mouthpiece

The realization that political debate in a free society is often raucous accompanied my journey from work as an ACLU staff attorney to becoming National Vice-Chair of the then-respected Anti-Defamation League. This journey was inspired in significant part by "refuseniks" -- met during an ACLU "mission" to the USSR -- who were consigned to the Gulag because there was no First Amendment to protect them.

You can thus understand the consternation, and not just mine, which greeted the ADL's hyped "Report" declaring that "rage" expressed against President Obama is un-American. These tidbits reveal the flavor of ADL's declaration:

Since the election of Barack Obama, a current of anti-government hostility has swept across the U.S. (creating) a climate of toxic rage (characterized by) shared belief that Obama poses a threat to the future of the U.S. (with) an intense strain of anti-government distrust and anger.               

ADL's perfervidly purple prose belies an abysmal ignorance of American political traditions. Thomas Jefferson -- savaged by the press in his day -- believed that the purpose of the press (which he said was more important than government)  is to express distrust of officialdom. Justice Holmes warned that "We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death." Justice Harlan the Second observed that "[o]ne man's vulgarity is another's lyric." Justice Douglas wrote that free speech "serves best its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger." Understanding our constitutional patrimony, most of the press greeted the ADL's broadside with a massive yawn (e.g., N.Y. Times: "Group Finds More Anti-Government Sentiment"). Yet some commentators recognized the ADL's naked partisanship, e.g., Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of Commentary:         

Had ADL issued a report years ago that began by accusing Democrats of creating resentment against Bush and then linked opposition to the GOP to extremists who supported Hamas or denied al-Qaeda's role in 9/11, Democrats would have rightly cried foul. That never happened. By choosing to frame its reports so as to associate all those who oppose Obama's policies with the far Right, ADL has stepped over a line that a nonpartisan group should never cross (Emphasis added).                

Feisty Jerusalem Post editor Carolyn Glick likewise noted that the ADL's decrying only anti-Obama expression "is strange given that the ADL never put out a report against parallel anti-Bush movements." In condemning only conservative sentiment as unprecedented, ADL overlooks evidence stored in its massive files (twice in recent years, the ADL has paid damages for unlawful surveillance). Has the ADL forgotten that rage against President Reagan triggered an assassination attempt? Or that Jon Stewart called President Bush "a jackass who talks like he's four" while comparing him to a "drug mule"? Rage against Bush extended even to the self-defined intellectual press. A New Republic nerd named Jonathan Chait shared what he probably told his therapist by confessing at unseemly length: "I hate President George W. Bush," whom he called "a dullard with limited brainpower." Such mass frenzy among  mainline liberals (not Far-Left wackos) led Charles Krauthammer (remember, that man is a doctor!) to diagnose  in Time magazine Democrats' "contempt and disdain (for Bush) giving way to  a hatred that is near pathological." In the time of anti-Bush rage, the ADL held its tongue. Herbert Hoover accused Franklin Roosevelt of establishing fascism. The Chicago Tribune editorialized that President Truman "must be impeached and convicted (for acts) which have shown him to be unfit morally and mentally."

More fundamentally, the ADL misses the significance of supine pro-Obama bias in most of the media, who clearly felt that shiver running up their legs. Dan Rather insisted on his right to smear Bush with false documents! The ADL is not troubled by the partisanship of MS-NBC. It is scandalous, for example, that the press has not uncovered what Obama wrote and read while in law school and college, and that they have minimized the influence of Obama's ("G-d damn America") rageful pastor. The failure of mainline media to scrutinize Obama and his mentors -- which truly is unprecedented  (one of Obama's favorite words when describing his own policies) in American history -- incentivizes many who love this country to sound off. And in the age of the blogosphere, everyone with a laptop can be his own Thomas Paine. Or Pain. Many of us believe that the failure to scrutinize Obama is reflected in numerous disasters, e.g., his Mideast, Iran, and terrorism policies. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time; even Chris Mathews seems to be awakening from hibernation. The ADL could not have chosen a more infelicitous moment to try to shield Obama from anger generated by his policies. At least the ADL has not adopted the nonsense of Jimmy Carter and the usually sober Slate editor Jacob Weisberg (disclaimer: his brilliant father, the late U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernard Weisberg, was my mentor in the law) that criticism of Obama is essentially racist.

Sadly, there are explanations more embarrassing than ignorance of history (steeped in supercilious New York political bias) to explain why the ADL stumbled so egregiously. As observed by many, including myself, who have left the organization, the ADL has declined into an autocracy where no opinion counts other than that of its long-time National Director, Abraham Foxman, whom the New York Times described as "a one-man Sanhedrin for life." When Foxman hatches a crackpot idea like the "Rage Report," no one can restrain him.

Foxman is driven to justify his half-million-dollar-plus salary (matched in virtually no other Jewish organization, including far larger agencies with more complex mandates, and enhanced by imperial perks including a retinue of bodyguards and drivers). Foxman understands that the ADL has been eclipsed by the American Jewish Committee in human rights and inter-religious affairs, AIPAC in Israel advocacy, and Federations in defense work. To generate publicity for himself, he launches (and then summarily drops) foolish initiatives, such as his attack on Christian Evangelicals, Israel's most consistent supporters, and his bestowal of praise-cum-awards on Turkey's prime minister, who endlessly incites anti-Semitism. I found only one press column praising the ADL statement: that of Los Angeles Times writer Timothy Rutten, perhaps reconfirming  Saul Bellow's claim that "[t]hey tilted America westward, and all the loose screws ended up in California." Rutten's idea of free speech is that Glenn Beck, like Lou Dobbs, should be dropped from television. When I googled Rutten, I found that last year, he received an ADL First Amendment award.

Perhaps there's a simpler, if less kindly, reason for this debacle. Foxman, like President Obama, has expertise in conferring and receiving undeserved awards. Obama gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to ex-Irish President Mary Robinson, seen by many as anti-American and anti-Semitic. I suspect Foxman believes Obama will reward him similarly for trying to shield the administration from criticism. It is equally likely that history will judge Foxman harshly for turning a human rights agency into a partisan mouthpiece.

See also: Anti-Defamation League Runs Interference for Anti-Israel Obama