WASHINGTON, DC—Corporate CEOs who spoke out against racism during the Black Lives Matter protests, or about anti-Asian hate during the Covid pandemic, have an obligation to speak out about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in America and around the world, Jonathan Greenblatt—chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League—told the audience at PRovoke Global in Washington, DC, this morning.

Appearing in conversation with Edelman chief executive Richard Edelman, Greenblatt, who is an MBA and has worked in senior roles in the corporate world, told the audience: “You can be like Brian Armstrong from Coinbase. We don’t take a positon on anything. That’s fine. But if you are a CEO who took a position on Black Lives Matter and anti-Asian hate and you’re not taking a position on flagrant anti-Semitism… You have to speak out about anti-Semitism.

“If you spoke out about Ukraine, you have to speak out.”

Edelman began the conversation citing FBI statistics showing that 2022 saw the highest number of hate crimes since the Bureau began tracking statistics. “America is turning on itself,” he said. Greenblatt responded with ADL research showing a 500% increase in racially-motivated vandalism and violence even before the Hamas attacks on October 7. And he pointed to the attacks on Jewish students at universities across America over the past month.

“There is no question that right now we are dealing with a tsunami of hate,” said Greenblatt. “There are three main factors driving it. First, there’s the coarsening of the public conversation, which I think started in 2016 with Donald Trump running for president.” The ADL, he emphasized, is not a partisan group. “I don’t care how you vote but I care what you value. Donald Trunp started saying and tweeting things we had never seen before from a serious politician, about Muslims and Mexicans and the Star of David, he coarsened the conversation and we saw a huge spike in hate as a result.

“And as President Trump coarsened things we have seen hard left extremism hardened yesterday, and we are seeing it on college campuses like Harvard and NYU. Jewish students will tell you about the micro-aggressions they face every day.”

The second factor, he said, was that as a result “extremists feel emboldened. They are running for office at the federal level and local level. Proud boys and oath keepers running for school boards.

“And third, social media, from Twitter to TikTok from YouTube to Facebook, social media is a super-spreader of hate. It had diminished dialogue and our intelligence by reducing everything to 280 characters. The algorithms are designed to get your dopamine levels surging.”

Social media, Greenblatt said had become “the main vector for prejudice today,” although he added: “It’s not just social media. You need to monitor gaming. Even if you’re not paying, your kids and grandkids are playing online games. Messaging apps. Artificial reality.”

The need to balance free speech with the obligation to speak out about hate speech was important, he said. “ADL has been fighting for the First Amendment for more than 100 years and I believe it’s absolutely pivotal. But freedom of speech is not the freedom to slander people, it’s not the freedom to incite violence against people. That’s not my view, that’s the Supreme Court’s view.

“Hate speech may be the price of free speech, but that doesn't mean this stuff should be algorithmically amplified. So we worked with the NAACP and others to campaign against social media companies that were profiting from hate. We had more than 1,000 companies support our campaign, and that forced Facebook to change, to reduce white supremacy and Holocaust denial. The new leadership at X is a little less receptive, I think it’s fair to say.”

And brands, he told the audience, can help by refusing to allow their ads to appear next to hate speech.

Edelman pointed to research from his firm’s Trust Barometer suggesting that companies are among the most trusted sources of information for any people around the world, and that employees are looking to their companies to provide safe spaces.

Said Greenblatt, “Cynicism and distrust of the government, the media, organized religion, are so high right now. For the chief executive, that’s complicated, you thought you were here to drive ROI and now you’re responsible for making people feel safe.”

The ADL, he said, has created a workplace pledge that can help companies address the needs of Jewish employees.

“If you have employee resource groups and your Jewish employees want one, you should support that. You do it for Asian employees and Black employees you should do it for your Jewish employees too. If you have DEI, make sure your training includes anti-Semitism. Many of them don’t, they focus on racism and anti-gay or anti-trans prejudice. And you need to allow religious accommodation.

“Those things are easy. It’s a pretty low bar that anyone should be able to meet.” Companies such as Google, Adidas, Omnicom, and KKR, he said, have taken that pledge.

Edelman also asked, in the wake of violence and harassment against Jewish students on campus, what advice Greenblatt had for college presidents and their communications advisors.

“If I am a college president, every university has a code of conduct, an honor code, and if you have seen the vdeios of Jewish students being harassed and shouted down and threatened, that is a violation of those honor codes. The fact that so many university presidents are un willing to call that out is why we are in this situation.

“People in positions of authority need to be accountable to a shared set of values. Leaders need to lead, not just appeasing the majority, but protecting the minority.”

As for the current conflict in Israel, Greenblatt said he believed that the ADL’s strong positions on Black Lives Matter, on anti-Asian hate, and on President Trump’s proposed Muslim ban (“despicable,” he told the audience), “helped us establish the ADL speaking out against all forms of hate. And that has given us more credibility when we speak out against hate.”

Having said that, of course, the organization has taken a high-profile position on Hamas and Israel. 

“I would argue that Gaza is an open air prison and the warden is Hamas. The occupier is Hamas. It has been squelching the rights of its own people,” he said. “We need to recognize that Palestinians deserve dignity too and you can talk about the innocent lives of people in Gaza at the same time.”

But he remains unequivocally opposed to the victimization of all Jewish people by some of those who oppose the Israeli government or current Israeli policies. “Jewish people are held responsible—here and around the world—for the policies of Israel, and that is racist.

“Think about the anti-Asian hate triggered by the Covid pandemic. You can be upset about the government in Beijing but that is not an excuse to attack Chinese students or vandalize Chinese restaurants. And being opposed to the government of Israel is not an excuse to attack Jewish people. That’s hate, and it’s racism.”

Finally, he was asked about fighting disinformation online and the need to intervene when false information isdistributed online. 

“I learned from communicators years ago that you should just ignore it,” he said. “But that doesn’t work. It just stays there and eventually it gets repeated and legitimized. You are better off countering the slander and pushing back against the lies. There is always a risk that you can dignify what should not be dignified and give it oxygen. So you have to be clever about how you push back

“Communicators have to play three-dimensional chess. You need to have a degree of digilence in terms of listening and monitoring and you have to have a proactive ability to respond.”