News and analysis
November 18, 2015

New Anti-Defamation League Leader Reflects on Paris Attacks

Anti-Defamation League
Social-policy guru and former White House official Jonathan Greenblatt sees tremendous pressure building on the Jewish community in Europe.

In July, serial entrepreneur and social-policy guru Jonathan Greenblatt took over as chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization with a storied history that stretches back more than a century. The league had been under the helm of, and largely defined by, the charismatic leadership of its longtime national director, Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and civil-rights veteran.

Mr. Greenblatt’s resume is quite different. He co-founded Ethos Brands, which donates a portion of its sales of bottled water to charity, served as an executive at Starbucks, and most recently was the director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

In a conversation with The Chronicle, Mr. Greenblatt reflected on his new job, his efforts to modernize the league, and the attacks last week in Paris.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity:

You were in Paris and Brussels two weeks ago. What are your thoughts about the Paris attacks?

There are extraordinary tensions there the likes of which we just don’t have here in the U.S. I visited with the community leaders and heard about some of the challenges they’re facing day to day, with anti-Semitism manifesting in the form of harassment and physical assaults. When you talk to people in the community, they’re feeling tremendous pressure, and you see that in the form of military presence in front of Jewish institutions.

Every day they are dealing with it and neutralizing threats and thwarting things before they happen. And then, of course, the terrible events unfolded on Friday, which really made it clear that this wasn’t a campaign against Jews per se, it was a campaign against society. It’s not like Islam any of us would recognize. It is some nihilistic evil branch of the religion. It’s a reminder of the perils of fundamentalism.

What’s troubling is the fact that ISIS is a genocidal gang of thugs. The reason we have a refugee crisis is because of the horrible acts they’ve perpetrated on innocent people, and in particular on religious minorities. We need to treat the cause. These blanket calls to reject all refugees from Syria really don’t address the problem. The root of the problem is fundamentalism, not the people fleeing fundamentalism.

What was it like to take over at the league after Abe Foxman?

I have long ties to the organization. I interned at ADL when I was a senior in college. My wife worked at ADL in Los Angeles for eight years. So I knew the organization. I’m also a grandson of a holocaust survivor.

Abe Foxman is an iconic figure. He’s a titanic leader. But I see the world differently. I’m an MBA and not a lawyer. I worked in business and government and never ran a large nonprofit or worked in the Jewish community before. I’d never set foot in the headquarters before I took the job. The forces that have shaped me are very different.

On my first day, I did an all-staff video conference, which was new at ADL. I’m tweeting every day. I occasionally use Instagram. These are modalities that are fairly different than my predecessor.

How will you take what you know about social entrepreneurship and apply it here? What do legacy organizations like the Anti-Defamation League need to do to stay relevant?

The nonprofit landscape of today looks different than the one of even a decade ago — lots of fragmentation, lots of new dynamics. Much has been enabled by technology. Some has been enabled by globalization.

In the past, to get a message out on a particular issue ADL might buy a full page in The New York Times, but the data tells us that people aren’t reading The New York Times like that anymore. People are spending more time online with The New York Times, with its app, than any other newspaper, but how are they getting their stories? They’re getting them on their Facebook feeds. They’re clicking through on Twitter links.

So we need to think differently about how we build and deliver our programs. How do we engage our regional operations and reach our people?

For instance, we launched an initiative in August called #50States­AgainstHate. We launched it on social media. And we’re not doing this alone. We’ve got a coalition of almost three dozen nonprofits we’re working in tandem with. The future is online. The future is a multicultural one where we’ve got to work in coalitions. We can’t do it ourselves.

And the future is not going to be driven by me alone in New York; its going to be effectuated across the country at the local level. #50States­AgainstHate represents the kind of initiative we’ll be driving going forward: decentralized, in coalition, and leveraging technology.

There’s no office for #BlackLivesMatter. You can’t write them a letter. It’s a hashtag campaign. It doesn’t have a fixed address. The way people are communicating today defies the ways nonprofits used to work just a few years ago. I don’t think its, "Oh, a hashtag campaign will lead to more revenue," but if you want to meet the public where they are, you have to be adapting and evolving.

How can the Anti-Defamation League make the case to donors that they’ll get a return on their investment?

The social sector today, much like business, is being reshaped by big data and the ability to understand efficacy. Even with anti-Semitism, bigotry, and prejudice, we can measure attitudes and how our programs can change attitudes. We have done some of this, and we’ll do a lot more of this.

At the White House, you oversaw pay-for-success efforts. Recent pay-for-success programs have either failed to deliver or the data being used to measure results has been criticized.

It shouldn’t surprise us that there are setbacks. It shouldn’t surprise us that things aren’t perfect. These are all iterative. The folks building these programs, the folks monitoring and funding these interventions, hopefully are all learning from the process.

More investors, especially millennials, are looking to deploy their capital in this way. There’s clearly something happening in the market. Of course, there will be investments that fail. Those are simply data points in a trend line that is moving in this direction.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Mr. Greenblatt is replacing Mr. Foxman as president. Mr. Greenblatt's  title is chief executive, and Mr. Foxman was national director.

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