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April 20, 2019

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Q+A: ADL leader says that as Trump surged, so did hate crimes

The hateful, threatening tweets came in an avalanche — hundreds or even thousands per hour.

Their targets: Jewish journalists who had written stories about Donald Trump or his family during the 2016 election.

“I would hear about this while talking to reporters who were interviewing me for stories they were doing,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and director of the Anti-Defamation League. “And I heard several of these stories — ‘I’m getting out of the business when this is over.’ I’d say, ‘Why?’ They’d say, ‘Well, because I’ve been so harassed. I wrote a story and I was inundated not just with horrible images and language and stuff coming at me on Twitter, I started getting phone calls. Or I started getting emails.’

“Or I heard people say to me that they weren’t writing certain stories anymore. They were self-censoring, basically.”

Click to enlarge photo

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Greenblatt’s conversations helped lead to a study by the ADL on attacks on journalists during the election. Among the findings: There were more than 2.6 million anti-Semitic messages on social media during a 12-month period that included the election, at least 800 journalists received hateful messages and images, and the majority of the messages sent to journalists (68 percent) came from 1,600 Twitter accounts.

“These people would send images of the face of the reporter photoshopped on Holocaust victims, or send them pictures of lampshades or bars of soap and ovens -- really grotesque stuff,” Greenblatt said.

Based on the study’s findings, the ADL successfully pressed Twitter to take action on the offensive messages.

“But it’s not just Twitter,” Greenblatt said. “The industry in general and policymakers have work to do. Our laws need to catch up with the technology. So in the same way you can’t stalk people offline, you shouldn’t be able to stalk them online.”

Greenblatt stopped by the Sun’s offices last week to discuss the study and talk about other issues involving the ADL’s work.

A former start-up entrepreneur, Starbucks executive, White House staff member and philanthropist, Greenblatt returned to his roots in a sense when he became the ADL’s leader last year. Greenblatt had served as an intern for the organization during college, inspired by a visit to Germany while studying abroad in 1990.

“My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor from Germany,” Greenblatt said. “So for my December break, I was able to visit the town in Eastern Germany where he had grown up. And there were still lots of Soviet soldiers there, but there were no Jews. And this was a very traumatizing sort of thing to discover: There was no synagogue there, there was no Jewish community. They were gone.

“When I went back to Boston my senior year, I wanted to do something about anti-Semitism, so I talked myself into an internship with the ADL office in Boston.”

Now, Greenblatt oversees one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations. The ADL advocates the First Amendment, church-state separation and other constitutional measures at the federal, state and local level, conducts educational programs in schools nationwide and works with law enforcement to investigate hate crimes and train authorities in how to deal with extremism and hate.

Following are excerpts from the interview, edited and condensed for clarity:

Who was making these attacks on Jewish journalists?

“A lot of this stuff would start on threads or bulletin boards frequented by white supremacists.

They go by that term alt-right, but I don’t like to use that term. It sort of dilutes or repositions them as something fashionable. Look, 50 years ago these people hid behind white hoods; today they’re hiding behind their smart phones. But they’re the same: Racists, anti-Semites, sort of inveterate, unapologetic bigots.

“Maybe 50 years ago their victims were black people and Jews. Today, they’re also Mexicans and Muslims. But they have a particular animus towards Jews.”

What needs to be done in terms of policymaking?

“We are ferocious champions of the First Amendment, but free speech doesn’t give you the right to intimidate and terrorize people, right? It doesn’t give you the privilege to threaten people and wish them harm. And so we are deeply concerned about these companies and the behavior. So since I’ve come back on board with ADL, we’ve been really focusing on cyber.

“(As for areas in need of stronger laws), cyberstalking is a good example. Doxing is another one. This is where hackers will sell people’s personal information on the dark web, and you can go buy it. So you can post my personal files or my personal email correspondence. This happens with, unfortunately, some frequency. We need to make sure that our legal regime is responsive to these contemporary challenges.

What trends did you see during the campaign in terms of hate speech and hate crimes?

“There’s no doubt that during this campaign season we saw a mainstreaming of bigotry in ways that we hadn’t seen before. Some of the language used to talk about immigrants was reprehensible. The talk about Muslims was revolting. And certainly we saw the normalization of anti-Semitism. We saw these images like stars of David being inserted into the campaign, into the Twitter account of a particular candidate, in ways that were really perplexing and troubling.”

How are you feeling about the Trump presidency and how it relates to these issues?

“We’ve spoken out repeatedly. Yet we were encouraged about President-elect Trump’s acceptance speech when he talked about unity and bringing the country together. We know we need that. In the last month, interestingly, we’ve seen a surge in hate crimes since the election. I mean, I have 26 field offices across the U.S. And those offices are on the ground, in communities working with principals and police chiefs and city council members, where they’re sort of the feet on the street. And we have gotten inundated with phone calls and emails and in-person visits about verbal harassment and vandalism against personal property and public institutions, like houses of worship. And certainly physical assaults. We had an issue in San Diego where a Muslim woman was assaulted and her hijab ripped off her head. We had an issue just last week in New York where a police officer was assaulted by several men who again attacked her and pulled off her hijab. We had an incident in Michigan where a bunch of kids at a middle school were yelling ‘Build that wall!’ at a bunch of Hispanic students who were sitting at a table.

“The state of homophobic violence has also gone crazy.”

What needs to happen now?

“It’s concerning that we have not heard our leaders speak out firmly and forcefully about this when it would be easy to tweet out a few messages. So there’s more that our elected leaders could do at all levels, and it’s not just the president-elect. You’ve got federal, state and local level, and we need our religious leaders to step forward.

“On the other hand, what’s been heartening is we’ve seen our online fundraising go up dramatically. We’ve had calls from people who want to volunteer. We’ve seen support come from places like Facebook and Twitter where there are people stepping forward. So you’re seeing a really interesting rekindling or renewal of a sense of shared responsibility, a sense of shared struggle, a sense of shared identity, which is also really encouraging.“

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