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Anti-Defamation League Ramps Up Lobbying To Promote Controversial Definition of Antisemitism

Federal records show a dramatic spending increase that critics say is primarily intended to punish criticism of Israel and target pro-Palestinian groups

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt,(photo credit: GAGE SKIDMORE)

The Anti-Defamation League has spent record amounts on lobbying in recent years, including on bills opponents say are meant to punish criticism of Israel and target Jewish peace and Palestinian rights groups.

The Jewish civil rights organization, founded in 1913, is the self-described “leading anti-hate organization in the world”, and has historically focused on combating antisemitism by shaping public opinion. Its lobbying spike marks a dramatic shift – it spent about $100,000 on lobbying in 2020 and is on pace to spend nearly $1.6m this year based on its first quarter expenditures, a Guardian analysis of federal records finds.

The spending positions the ADL as the largest pro-Israel lobbying force on domestic issues. Records show the surge’s broader aim is to promoting a controversial definition of antisemitism across a range of federal agencies and mobilizing the government to enforce it.

The 16-fold spending increase is “breathtaking” and currently unmatched on Capitol Hill, said Craig Holman, who monitors lobbying issues with Public Citizen, a government watchdog non-profit that does not take positions on the Israel-Palestine debate. It comes amid a “fundamental shift in public opinion about Israel”, Holman said, pointing to nationwide anti-war demonstrations on college campuses.

In a statement, the ADL denied that its lobbying targeted its opponents. It developed its “vast legislative agenda” in response to synagogue shootings and other violent incidents, and the organization “made a strategic decision to invest in its policy apparatus which has culminated in more robust government relations capabilities”, a spokesperson said.

The House in late April approved the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which the ADL lobbied for and would codify a definition of antisemitism that would limit some speech around Israel. It would be used in federal civil rights investigations in schools and, critics say, could ultimately limit protests and criticism of Israel on campus. The bill has yet to come before the Senate for a vote.

Records also show lobbying on the so-called “TikTok ban”, which Joe Biden recently signed into law. The bill’s authors developed it over fear that the Chinese government was using the app to collect US data, but pro-Israel US lawmakers argued that TikTok should be banned in part because it promotes pro-Palestinian content over pro-Israel viewpoints.

In a statement, the ADL said it only had conversations with lawmakers and did not support a ban.

Public media pushes have coincided with the behind-the-scenes lobbying. The ADL also lobbied for a bill supporters say is aimed at pro-Palestinian protesters. It would grant the Internal Revenue Service power to eliminate the non-profit status of groups determined to support terrorism.

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In late April, during a CNN appearance, the ADL president, Jonathan Greenblatt, likened the student groups to Hezbollah, a US-designated terrorist organization. In its online antisemitism tracker regularly cited by mainstream media, the ADL often attributes “support for terror” to anti-war and ceasefire rallies by Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace.

“Iran has their military proxies like Hezbollah, and Iran has their campus proxies like these groups, like Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace,” Greenblatt said on CNN.

Days later, the House approved the bill with only 11 votes against.

Stefanie Fox, Jewish Voice for Peace’s executive director, said the bill highlights how the ADL has “set up the arguments through lies in the mainstream media … and on the lobbying side sets up the architecture by which those things can be laundered into real criminalization of the anti-war movement”.

Public support for the war is at a low, Fox added, so the ADL “uses their power and resources in an attempt to maintain unjust policy against the will of the people”.

A sign reading ‘Reinstate SJP & JVP’

Students protested the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace at Columbia University on 20 November 2023. Photograph: Michael M Santiago/Getty Images

The lobbying surge coincides with a controversial 2022 Greenblatt speech in which he equated anti-Zionism with antisemitism, and promised the ADL will “use our advocacy muscles to push policymakers to take action”. While the ADL has long aligned itself with pro-Israel goals, the speech marked a “critical turning point” in its tactics, Fox said.

Critics have said the ADL has aligned itself with rightwing organizations, which was a central issue in the 2022 Drop the ADL campaign calling on progressives not to work with the group. The group has also joined forces with rightwing donors and groups pushing for the same legislation, said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

“The way that ADL and company are arguing for Jewish safety makes a zero-sum battle between that and the right to protest, and it’s weird for an organization like the ADL to play a key role in accrediting that paradigm,” Friedman said.

The ADL said claims it is trying to end debate about Israel or is aligning itself with rightwing groups were “patently false”.

‘Weaponizing’ the IRS

As anti-war protests proliferated in November, Greenblatt went on MSNBC and called for the IRS to investigate student groups for financial ties to terrorism: “We need the right governmental authorities – like the IRS and FBI – to make sure that the national organizations aren’t providing material support to Hamas, which is a foreign terror organization.”

A day later, the US House ways and means committee approved the IRS bill.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the House ways and means committee, Representative Jason Smith of Missouri, said in a November hearing that the legislation was intended to target Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), suggesting without providing evidence that the group was linked to Hamas.

man in a pale blue suit and striped tie in front of an american flag

Jason Smith at the Capitol in Washington DC on 27 September 2023. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Supporting terrorism is already illegal and prosecuted in federal court, legal observers note, but the new law would allow the government to circumvent due process for non-profits.

The legal definition of “material support” includes financial assistance, weapons, and expert advice and assistance. The ADL in a statement to the Guardian called for “SJP to be investigated for potentially providing material support to a terrorist organization based on SJP’s documented vocal support for Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization”.

It offered a range of statements in support of the claim, but the ACLU attorney Kia Hamadanchy, who reviewed the allegations, said absent additional evidence that they were at the direction of or in coordination with a foreign terrorist organization, none rose to the level of “material support”.

Groups found to be supporting terrorism could theoretically appeal against the designation, but it would be crippling, he said.

“The reputational and financial costs of fending off such a designation could functionally mean the end of a targeted non-profit before they ever see their day in court,” Hamadanchy said.

Expanding the definition of antisemitism

At the center of the firestorm over campus protests is a debate about whether some criticism of Israel and the protests are protected political speech. Under ADL-backed legislation, much of it would be defined as antisemitism, lobbying records show.

The Antisemitic Awareness Act would require the federal government to “consider” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which includes some criticism of Israel and Zionism, as it investigates civil rights violations.

The IHRA definition includes examples of antisemitism that are considered by free speech advocates to be protected by the first amendment, such as labeling Israel a racist state, questioning its right to exist and “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.

If enacted, universities that allow such speech on their campuses could face funding cuts from the US Department of Education. The mere threat is pressuring schools to crack down on protesters, Fox said.

Other records also show that the ADL lobbied for a $48m increase in funding for investigations under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which currently employs the IHRA definition under a 2019 executive order.

“If [the government] cannot appropriately investigate these cases, it cannot protect the rights, safety and wellbeing of students,” the ADL wrote. “We must ensure [it] has the resources it needs to be effective, fast, and robust in their investigations and response.”

The new budget, which goes into effect in October, includes a $22m increase for Title VI investigations.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act is opposed by groups and politicians across the political spectrum. The ACLU called the legislation “overbroad”, writing: “Criticism of Israel and its policies is political speech squarely protected by the first amendment.”

In a statement, the ADL disagreed, arguing the bill “does not stifle speech about Israel”.

“At a time when antisemitism is at record levels since ADL began tracking incidents, it is essential for the government to have a clear and cogent definition of antisemitism to provide appropriate remedies to those whose civil rights are being violated,” an ADL spokesperson said.

The legislation is solely an attempt to silence criticism of Israel, a progressive US House staffer for a Congress member opposed to the legislation told the Guardian. But it has a real chance of becoming law.

“The ADL, [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and the Israeli government are losing the narrative battle with the majority of American people, but not on Capitol Hill with establishment politicians,” he said.