Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer and national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), opens his new book, “It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable—And How We Can Stop It,” with a recent memory of a trip he took to his grandfather’s hometown in Germany. What he finds when he arrives is a desolate town, made more haunting because most of the Jews in the town were deported to their deaths. As Greenblatt recently told JewishBoston, after fleeing the Nazis, his grandfather never could have imagined a haven like America, a country that has given Jews the most secure diasporic home they have ever known. And now, Greenblatt has made it his life’s work to fight and overcome domestic hate and antisemitism.

In a recent and wide-ranging interview, Greenblatt talked about the spike in antisemitic violence and anti-immigrant hate in recent years. He considered how American attitudes toward Jews have been more tolerant as antisemitic incidents have risen and how the demonization of Israel imperils American Jews. 

What compelled you to write a book called “It Could Happen Here”?

I wrote this book for multiple reasons. One was to capture the moment that we’re in here at ADL. We’ve seen this doubling in antisemitic incidents in the past five years. We’ve seen the amplification of intolerance, thanks to social media, in ways that we’ve never seen before in the United States. We have had white supremacist flyers dropped in six states across the country. We’ve had an Islamist-inspired lunatic—an evil person—trying to take a rabbi and his congregants hostage in a synagogue in Texas. We’ve had a major media personality in many ways discount the Holocaust and why it happened. That demonstrates tremendous ignorance. We’ve had swastikas in Union Station just a few blocks from the White House. We’ve had a Jewish man beaten up and brutalized by neo-Nazis in Florida. We have the Amnesty International report, which demonizes and delegitimizes the Jewish state. So, literally in the last few weeks, we’ve had a series of antisemitic events from all sides.

Secondly, I wrote the book to work through what I saw as ADL’s CEO. This is my first job in the nonprofit world and my first time working in the Jewish communal space. It’s been a dizzying few years, and I wanted to process all those things. Thirdly, I also wrote the book because we have reached a very perilous moment. I think about what my grandfather lived through in Germany. Before the rise of the Third Reich, he could never have imagined that one day his country would regard him as an enemy of the state and destroy everything that he loved, including his entire family and all his friends. He could never have guessed that one day, he’d have grandchildren in America.

How does this history of Jewish persecution connect to the “It” in your book title?

The “It” of my book title could be the social unraveling that happened to my grandfather. The “It” could be the kind of civil war the experts tell us is more likely to happen today than at any point since the 1860s. The “It” could be the persecution of a marginalized group, like our community. I think all of us can look at the title and see what we want in the “It.” But if there is one takeaway for your JewishBoston readers, it is that America is the greatest democracy in the history of humanity. It has been resilient, it has been durable and it has flourished. Outside of the State of Israel, it has been the greatest gift to the Jewish people in 2,000 years. There is no natural law that dictates that democracy will persist. And we need to recognize the threat, and address it directly, if we hope to keep what we have.

It Could Happen Here_cover art
(Courtesy image)

The ADL logged more antisemitic incidents in 2019 than any year in the past four decades, and we’re off to a difficult start this year. However, the ADL has also tracked a decline in antisemitic attitudes among Americans, and yet we have these spikes in violence. How do you reconcile that seeming contradiction?

The ADL is a very data-driven organization. We’ve been collecting data on antisemitic attitudes in the United States since the 1960s and compiling our audit of antisemitic incidents since the 1970s. Before we started doing this kind of research, third-party data suggested that the antisemitic attitudes of Americans in the mid-1930s was somewhere in the ballpark of 40%. In 1964, we surveyed people and found the attitudes were close to 30%. That was a notable decline. We last did the same study in 2019 and found those attitudes in a little less than 10% of the population. So, that is a dramatic decline and an unambiguous success. It reflects the fact that as Jews we can live openly like other religious minorities. We’re able to practice our religion freely; we can participate actively in all aspects of life, like all Americans.

But the challenge is in the question you asked—this steep increase in incidents, which is also unmistakably and unambiguously bad. I would attribute it to a few things. First, public figures have given license to antisemitism and intolerance in a way we’ve never seen before. You see this on the extreme right, you see this on the far left. You saw this with Donald Trump’s candidacy and then his presidency. His language from the lectern in the briefing room or the Oval Office was diametrically different from his predecessors. You saw it with the people opposing Trump. The things said about him and those who followed him were very different from the moderate and nuanced dialogue we’d had in the past.

And so, why is there this change? People in public life have given license to this kind of behavior when they say bullying things and use [inappropriate language]. Antisemitism has also become weaponized, by both sides. Donald Trump would say things like, “If you don’t love Israel, you’re not really Jewish.” Or he leveled accusations of dual loyalty. Deeply, deeply disturbing. Then the far left routinely demonizes the Jewish state, like in the new Amnesty International report. There’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions about Israeli policy, but suggesting the state doesn’t have a legal right to exist doesn’t bring us any closer to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The word “apartheid” doesn’t advance a constructive narrative. In fact, it uses a kind of hyperbole that harms everyone involved. No one who has been inside the State of Israel can accuse it of apartheid. How can anyone say that when there are Arab members of the coalition and [Arabs] participating in all stations of public life? So, all this being said, I worry a lot about this divergence. The low number regarding [antisemitic] attitudes gives me hope, but the high incidents give me pause. It’s up to all of us to turn this around.

You write that the demonization and hatred of Israel imperils the Jewish people. Can you elaborate on that?

There is nothing wrong with criticizing policies of the Israeli state. When you delegitimize Israel, when you demonize its people and you hold it to double standards that aren’t applied to any other country in the world, one must ask, “What’s going on here?” To draw a parallel, one can have very strong feelings about what China is doing to the Uyghur people in western China. Or how Beijing is treating demonstrators in Hong Kong and the surveillance state in that society. Or how they dealt with the issue of COVID-19 out of the lab in Wuhan. I don’t think there’s anyone in America who would say, “Therefore you can harass Asian American people, you can vandalize Chinese businesses. You can assault elderly individuals in broad daylight because they present as Asian.” When those things happened, people appropriately said, “Stop Asian hate. We stand with the Asian American Pacific Islander community.” No one said, “Stop Asian hate; we stand with the AAPI community. Oh, and by the way, we need to talk about the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs.” Nobody said that. Everyone simply and appropriately said, “We stand with our Asian American brothers and sisters.”

Yet when Jews were assaulted in broad daylight, not enough people said, “We stand against antisemitism.” Too many said, “We stand against antisemitism. But when you talk about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, then maybe they brought it on themselves,” or horrible things like that. Again, the Amnesty International report or the Human Rights Watch report before that made wild, unhinged claims about Israel and accused it of committing genocide, which it is not doing by any measure whatsoever. Why are we surprised [that] when they make these wild, unhinged claims, people then do wild and unhinged things to Jews? We don’t tolerate people demonizing immigrants or demonizing other groups. Why would we tolerate them demonizing Jews? I don’t understand it, and I will call that out every single time.

I’d like to end with something you wrote: “I don’t believe the moral arc of the universe inexorably bends toward justice; we need to reach up, grab it with our bare hands and bend it ourselves to create the change that we want, including the movement toward a post-hate society.” That quote captures and encapsulates your book and your work.

I appreciate that. President Obama used that phrase a lot, which Dr. King paraphrased from a Protestant theologian. I love that quote, but what I’ve come to realize is that the moral arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice. You must reach up with your bare hands and grab it. You must twist it in the right direction. Going back to the “It” in my book’s title, if the “It” is left to its own devices, whether it’s a garden, a car or a relationship, if it’s not tended, engaged or nurtured, weeds will overtake the garden, the car will eventually break down and the relationship won’t last. Our democracy is as fragile and as precious as all those things. You can’t watch democracy from the cheap seats in the bleachers or just sit back with your feet up on the ottoman. Hate is the weeds in the garden, and hate is the grime on the engine. Hate is the distrust in the relationship. Hate is this corrosive force that eats away and slowly overtakes. This has become my life’s work, and I feel humbled every day to have the opportunity to be engaged with these issues.