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Anti-Defamation League (ADL)

The Anti-Defamation League (originally "The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith") was founded in 1913 in reaction to the crude and overt antisemitism of the period, specifically to the Leo *Frank case. The ADL's goal, as stated in the charter that established the League, is "to end the defamation of the Jewish people … to secure justice and fair treatment for all citizens alike."

Originally headquartered in Chicago, the offices of the League are in New York City. The ADL works out of 31 regional offices located throughout the United States. The ADL has as well a cooperative relationship with the B'nai B'rith Canadian office, an office in Jerusalem, and representation in Rome and Moscow.

The ADL is governed by a National Commission of 700. Unlike the *American Jewish Congress , *American Jewish Committee , and other community relations organizations, the ADL is not a membership organization. It has evolved from being a commission of its parent body to an organization with independent board and fundraising structures, and in reality is fully autonomous. The ADL is staffed by career professionals who are specialists in various disciplines related to community relations: religions, law, communications, promotion, education, labor, foreign affairs (especially Israel and the Middle East), social sciences, politics (national and local), and government.

The ADL recognizes threats to Jewish security coming from an antisemitism that appears in new forms and guises, such as anti-Israel activity and radicalism of the right and left. The League views itself as being an "active" organization, responding in a timely manner to what are perceived to be threats to the rights and security of Jews. It sees itself as taking a pragmatic, rather than an ideological, approach to issues. The ADL, by virtue of its budget and its varied activity, is considered to be a significant voice among the community relations agencies.

The ADL's initial efforts focused on the blatant antisemitism of the pre- and post-World War I period, which included restricted neighborhoods and resorts, jobs, and schools that rejected Jews. (For example, model legislation drafted by the ADL helped unmask the Ku Klux Klan and drastically diminish its power.) The ADL's focus, however, in its early decades was not on legal remedies against discrimination but on countering defamation of Jews. For example, the League exposed the vicious antisemitism of the Dearborn Independent, which printed and circularized the infamous Protocols of Zion, and extracted an apology and retraction from its publisher, Henry Ford. Throughout the 1930s the League fought and exposed the many hate groups which sprang up during the Depression and the Hitler period, such as the Christian Front, the Silver Shirts, and the German-American Bund.

Particularly in the post-World War II period, the ADL was successful in advocating on behalf of legislation against such discrimination. It also dealt with vulgar stereotypes and caricatures of Jews on the stage and in communication media and with incidents of antisemitic vandalism, and played a role in strengthening interfaith and interracial relationships.

In the 1960s, the ADL played a role in the successful coalitional effort that resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and of subsequent fair-housing and voting-rights laws. The ADL's sponsorship of a comprehensive study of the roots of prejudice (the seven-volume University of California Five-Year Study of Antisemitism in the United States – the "Berkeley Studies") helped create a new climate of interreligious understanding and ecumenism, and was a factor in the deliberations of Vatican II that led to the watershed document Nostra Aetate, which re-defined the Catholic Church's attitude toward Jews.

On the international scene, advocacy on behalf of the State of Israel and other involvement in Middle East issues became, especially after 1967, an ADL priority. The League carries out an education and action program to help mold public opinion and exposes and counteracts Arab propaganda; ADL led the effort which resulted in the passage of anti-boycott legislation and worked within the European Economic Community to counter the boycott. The League is also active in protecting and securing the rights of Jews wherever they are in danger, and played an important role in the Soviet Jewry movement. Interreligious activities as well have been an important part of the ADL agenda.

During the 1970s, in response to what it then characterized as "the new antisemitism," which derived less from overt expression and more from apathy and insensitivity to Jews and to Jewish concerns and problems, including Israel, the ADL re-contoured its approaches to antisemitism. A major prejudice-reduction program, "A World of Difference," has been an ADL centerpiece since the early 1990s, as has been Holocaust education. Convinced that preferential treatment will destroy equality of opportunity and selection based upon merit, the League's position on affirmative action is nuanced in terms of ADL's opposition to the re-emergence of quotas.

The ADL's traditional ideology was that aggressive use of litigation and other legal remedies to counter discrimination and church-state violations was too confrontational and would ultimately damage the constructive relationships that Jews had built up with other faith communities over the years. From its earliest years the ADL, unlike its sister "defense" agencies, rejected advocating on behalf of antidiscrimination legislation, and instead focused on combating prejudice and defamation. The League's national director until 1947, Richard E. Gustadt, articulated the view that held that intergroup negotiation and education programs emphasizing cultural pluralism offered the best chances to remedy societal abuses. Certain societal evils could not, in the view of the ADL, be eliminated, only tempered. This view (shared in large measure by the American Jewish Committee) marked a fundamental ideological difference with the American Jewish Congress, which believed in direct legal action.

From the late 1940s until the late 1970s the ADL was led by a tandem of Benjamin Epstein and Arnold Forster, who together began aggressively prosecuting a civil rights agenda for the League. Beginning in the early 1980s, however, with a marked shift in the national public policy agenda back to church-state and other First Amendment matters, there was again a shift in the priorities of the ADL. During the tenure of national director Nathan Perlmutter additional legal expertise and resources were added to the agency's staff (the ADL's litigation capacity dated back to the late 1940s and was a result of the decision by the American Jewish Congress to organize its Commission on Law and Social Action), and the League became an aggressive "player" in the church-state arena. During this period there was a certain degree of de-emphasis of the traditional civil rights agenda, resulting in large measure from antisemitism within some black civil rights groups.

Even with a new emphasis placed on church-state separation and other legal matters, the ADL always viewed church-state concerns to be but one of several major civil rights and liberties issues on its organizational palette, which includes countering racial supremacist organizations, judicial remedies for "hate crimes," and discrimination and harassment. Changes within the organization arising out of exogenous factors did not mean that the ADL intended to abandon its charter purpose of public response to anti-Jewish defamation.

From the mid-1980s, under the stewardship of Abraham H. *Foxman , the ADL has become one of the most "visible" national Jewish organizations on the American – and indeed international – scene. Although viewed as increasingly conservative in some areas of activity, the reality is that the ADL has carved a highly nuanced political path, especially on Israel-related issues, threading its way skillfully between agencies such as the rightist Zionist Organization of America and Jewish groups of the left. This "centrist" approach has been evident in a range of domestic public affairs issues as well. Newer areas of activity for the ADL include threats of global antisemitism, "hate" activity on the Internet, working with law-enforcement agencies, a new generation of church-state situations, and balancing traditional civil liberties concerns with those of national and local security. The ADL has commissioned a series of public opinion surveys, both in the United States and in Europe, which have elicited valuable data on antisemitic attitudes and on attitudes toward Israel.

The core mission of the ADL – to combat antisemitism – remains as it has been. The related mission of the League – working for justice for all – has in the view of the ADL not only intrinsic value but instrumental value as well, as it assists in the ADL's core mission.

In terms of institutional considerations, until the early 1980s the leading "defense" agency, in terms of budget and stature, was the American Jewish Committee; the annual budgets of the two agencies were at approximate parity, at around $12 million. The ADL budget ($5.5 million in 1971) began increasing in the 1980s at approximately $3 million per year in that decade, and soon far outstripped the other "defense" agencies, reaching some $30 million by the early 1990s and approximately $60 million by 2005. The League's staff and programmatic initiatives have increased commensurately.

Also important in terms of institutional dynamics is the ADL's relationship with *B'nai B'rith . The ADL began life as a commission of B'nai B'rith, but tensions developed between the two agencies as B'nai B'rith was reshaping itself from being primarily a fraternal and service organization to one that addresses community relations issues. In the mid-to-late 1990s the issue with B'nai B'rith came to a head, with B'nai B'rith – itself seeking finally to reshape its own identity – asserted that its community relations and "defense" agenda would be pursued aggressively. The ADL, maintaining that it was B'nai B'rith's "defense" arm, in effect severed its ties with its erstwhile parent. (The ADL does retain a de jure legal connection with B'nai B'rith.)


N.C. Belth, A Promise to Keep: A Narrative of the American Encounter with Anti-Semitism (1979); J.A. Chanes, "The Voices of the American Jewish Community," in: Survey of Jewish Affairs 1991 (1991); A. Forster, Square One: The Memoirs of a True Freedom Fighter's Life-long Struggle against Anti-Semitism, Domestic and Foreign (1988); G. Ivers, To Build a Wall: American Jews and the Separation of Church and State (1995); S. Svonkin, Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties (1997).

[Jerome Chanes (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.