Only a few days before Donald Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, the Anti-Defamation League chastised the president-elect for an inappropriate analogy. Trump had expressed shock about reports that U.S. intelligence agencies had been spying on his campaign as part of an investigation into alleged Russian intervention in the 2016 election. “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” Trump asked.
Seen in retrospect, Trump’s anger about a false claim of Russian collusion that cast a pall over his administration was more than justified. While the behavior of the Obama administration in its waning days was outrageous, dragging Nazi Germany into the argument was wrong.
In response, the ADL reiterated a principle it had articulated many times before:
The President-Elect’s use of Nazi Germany to make a political analogy is not only an inappropriate comparison on the merits, but it also coarsens our discourse and diminishes the horror of the Holocaust. … ADL always has maintained that glib comparisons to Nazi Germany are offensive and a trivialization of the Holocaust. We have a long record of speaking out when both Democrats and Republicans engage in such overheated rhetoric. It would be helpful for the President-Elect to explain his intentions or apologize for the remark.
Fast-forward to September 2020, and it appears the ADL is no longer quite so zealous to police inappropriate Holocaust-related rhetoric or to maintain at least the veneer of nonpartisanship. On September 25, during a diatribe in which he blasted Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden crossed the same line Trump had in 2017.
Speaking with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, Biden responded to Trump’s claims that Democrats were pushing the United States toward socialism, saying, “He’s sort of like Goebbels. You say the lie long enough, keep repeating it, repeating it, repeating it, it becomes common knowledge.”
The reference to Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels is telling. Calling your political opponent a Nazi may not be civil or consistent with Biden’s pose as a champion of normative and decent leadership. And it’s impossible to deny that Trump sometimes plays fast and loose with the truth with his instinctual “counter-punching” against those who criticize him.
Still, it’s possible to call out Trump for inaccuracies, even those that might be termed deliberate, without linking a rival to the memory of the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust. Yet it’s a common meme articulated by liberals and Democrats on social media and represents a belief that Trump is so awful that even identifying him with the mass murderers of the Holocaust isn’t considered over the top.
Indeed, the left has spared no effort in its attempt to paint Trump as both an extremist and an antisemite. It is justified largely by taking out of context Trump’s quote about the August 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in which he actually didn’t say that the Nazis were “very fine people.” Given that Trump’s is the most pro-Israel administration in history and that he has done more to combat antisemitism on college campuses than his predecessor did, not to mention his close personal ties with Jews, including having a Jewish daughter and granddaughter, the charge is absurd.
While tying Trump to Nazis is a familiar talking point among Democrats’ base, for their presidential nominee to use such a brazen smear is bizarre. It was equally scandalous for the National Jewish Democratic Council to double down on this slander with a web ad that reaffirmed even more provocatively the argument that Trump was encouraging a drift toward a new Holocaust.
This is exactly the point where the nation’s leading antisemitism monitoring group would normally step in, as it did in January 2017, to uphold the principle that the Holocaust is not a political football or an analogy to be bandied about for cheap political gains.
But the ADL was curiously muted about both incidents.
Although the day after Biden spoke with Ruhle was the eve of Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in the Jewish Calendar, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt found time to tweet about offensive Google search results and the United Arab Emirates, and to criticize Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for withdrawing from a virtual event hosted by a left-wing Jewish group honoring the memory of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But he had nothing to say about Biden’s invocation of Goebbels to abuse Trump.
It was only two days later that, after repeatedly being called out on social media by conservatives that Greenblatt finally spoke out. To his credit, he did condemn the NJDC ad as something that “has no place in the presidential race and is deeply offensive to the memories of 6M+ Jews systematically exterminated during the Shoah.”
But while he mentioned in passing that references to Nazi leaders were wrong, he didn’t specifically call out Biden by name for invoking Goebbels. And he balanced that with what, at least to his donors, was a clear reference to Trump by saying, “Elected leaders who engage in lying, scapegoating, and routinely call for violence should be condemned, full stop.”
So although the only ones violating the ADL’s principles about misusing the Holocaust in the past few days had been the former vice president and Democrats, Greenblatt’s response to downplay or ignore Biden’s egregious remarks while balancing it with a dog whistle to liberals that made it seem as if he was clearly endorsing the Democrat’s unhinged attack on the president as being justified. Rather than being consistent with the group’s past stands, the ADL was, once again, clearly tilting to the left.
This isn’t surprising. Since Greenblatt, a former Clinton and Obama administration staffer, assumed the leadership of the ADL, he has steered it steadily left. Under his predecessor Abe Foxman, who led ADL from 1985 to 2015, the group was liberal-leaning but maintained its bipartisanship and largely stuck to speaking out about antisemitism. But under Greenblatt, a partisan tilt has become part of everything the group does.
That has included involving ADL in various aspects of the anti-Trump “resistance,” including advocacy on behalf of “undocumented” — illegal — immigrants, support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and even diving into the fight to oppose the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Following the desires of the group’s leftist donors, it took up support for abortion and damned opponents’ efforts as “an assault on religious diversity on reproductive freedom,” a stance that Seth Mandel rightly termed “an Orwellian mangling of language and faith” in Commentary magazine.
In keeping with Greenblatt’s close ties with the Obama administration, it shifted from its former stance as a staunch defender of Israel to a persistent critic of the Jewish state’s government. For the last three years, ADL has also been focused on attacking Trump.
In the first months of the administration, the group promoted the myth that Trump was inspiring a spike in antisemitic attacks, including, most prominently a spate of bomb threats at Jewish community centers throughout the country. Although the person responsible for the threats turned out to be a disturbed Israeli teenager, the ADL never retracted its statements linking the incidents to Trump.
Instances of violence against Jews from the extreme right, such as the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, California were blamed on the president no matter how often Trump condemned such violence and antisemitism. The notion that he had somehow unleashed a wave of right-wing violence against Jews became an article of faith on the left. At the same time, the ADL struggled to maintain consistency by condemning with the same fervor a rising tide of Jew-hatred on the left from supporters of the movement to boycott Israel and African-American sympathizers of hatemonger Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.
By not immediately condemning Biden’s smear of Trump, the ADL has betrayed its mandate. By winking at or even encouraging blatantly false comparisons between the administration and Nazis from Democrats while rushing to join condemnations of Trump when doing so was unjustified, the ADL has reduced itself to a mouthpiece for the left.
The decline of this once-important group is troubling. Even worse, by leaving a vacuum in which the only groups condemning misinformation about antisemitism and inappropriate Nazi analogies are those directly linked to Republicans, Greenblatt’s group has materially undermined the fight against antisemitism.