An Interview with ADL’s Regional Director
Jlife: Although the vast majority of the community has heard of the ADL, I am not sure everyone truly understands what the organization does. Can you share an overview of the work the ADL does?
Jeffrey Abrams: Sure. So, it really goes back to our original mission when we were founded in 1913 which was to stop the defamation of the Jewish people. And obviously that goes far beyond just defamation but really to protect Jewish people from antisemitism and secure justice of fair treatment are sort of baked into the mission of the organization. And the ADL is an integrated civil rights organization that works to keep not only the Jewish community safe and secure, but other communities as well. There are three components of our work: combating antisemitism; second, combating extremism; and third (where we’re also currently spending a lot of focus) helping to preserve our democracy. We do this work both nationally (and internationally) and also locally in 25 regions across the country. We have a very large government affairs team based in DC that works on advocacy, along with executive agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and even with the Department of Justice.
One of the newest areas we have started to focus on is antisemitism research. There’s surprisingly little in the way of real academic research. Our hope is to use this information to help strengthen the tools to effectively combat it. We are also focusing on the online environment (social media companies and Internet) with the significant increase of online hate, Holocaust denial and the like.
Jlife: You mentioned advocacy work. And the ADL helped sponsor California Assembly Bill 587 last year. This is a bill that requires social medial companies to file quarterly reports with the Attorney General’s office on their content moderation policies. Is your organization working with state legislatures on other bills?
J.A.: I think so much of our work gets nationally recognized but people don’t always see what we do locally, as well as at the state level. There are a few different ways the ADL works. We work both very publicly at times but we also work very quietly behind the scenes. And that often is one of the most effective ways, and that includes both partners, including our work with law enforcement. When it comes to elected officials… we have the credibility because ADL has been around since 1913. We’ve been in the Southern California area for approximately 80 years. You know, I’m only the 5th Regional Director in that entire time. And so, we have the credibility and we use that to build relationships with our elected officials. For example, when LA Mayor Karen Bass came into office, I was able to meet with her within the first days of her being in office. That became critical in mid-February when we had shootings in the Pico Robertson area on two consecutive mornings, where because of the relationship built with the mayor’s office, I heard personally from the mayor to make sure that all the resources that were needed were being properly deployed. And I could answer her with an affirmative and loud yes because of the same kind of relationships that we’ve built through the years with law enforcement. Those same relationships were tremendously helpful following those shootings as well. The same was true when it came at the state level with AB587. It was because of those kinds of relationships that were built that also enable ADL to respond in a moment of crisis for another community when just weeks earlier there was the shooting in Monterey Park at the dance hall which claimed 11 lives. Through our relationships we reached out to the AAPI community and offered whatever kind of resources connections communications assistance we could. It is through this proactive relationship building we have done that has allowed us to do what we can.
Jlife: Thank you for that explanation. Let’s spend a few minutes looking at antisemitism. In the most recent ADL audit it was reported that there was a 36% increase of antisemitic hate incidents including attacks over 2021. What do you believe has been the cause of the latest increase and how is the ADL working to combat it?
J.A.: First, it’s not just a surge… it’s a trend. There’s a clear unmistakable rise over several years. If you look at the numbers between 2016 and 2022 it’s actually TRIPLED in Southern California. There’s no one particular thing that’s caused all this. But I think you can contextualize it by comparing it to a wildfire. First the conditions have to be right, think of a dried field of grass. We are in a period of incredibly polarization and society is extremely anxious. Second, you need the right propellant on that dried out grass. What’s the gas? The gas is social media. It used to be that people who harbored these horrible thoughts and beliefs would do so in the corners of the world. Now all they need to do is post them online and they are spread as a result of the algorithms of the social media sites that are designed to spread it. But the dry grass and the gasoline still needs a spark. The spark is the enormous following elected officials or prominent athletes or celebrities have. So, when they make statements the fire starts. Many of these famous people have more followers than there are Jews on the planet.
In 2022 you saw this proliferation. The year starts with Colleyville which put the entire Jewish committee around the nation on edge. Then we had a year filled with flyers dropped by these white propagandists in neighborhoods all of others all over Southern California from Pasadena and San Marino to Santa Monica to Brentwood to Beverly Hills and almost everywhere. Then we saw billboards go up and the banners hung from freeway overpasses like the one supporting Kanye West over 405 with people giving the Nazi salute.
So, to answer your second question… what can we do? We need everyone to feel like it is their responsibility to speak up. It is not any one organizations job to do this, everyone needs to play a role and their needs to be overlap. Look, all of our organizations, the ADL, Jewish Federations, and others are working together with law enforcement in unprecedented ways. We need everyone to use our individual and collective voices. And we need to keep doing it.
Jlife: One of the many programs the ADL has created in the last several years is a program that schools can sign up for called “No Place for Hate.” Can you talk about the impact programs like this have had on the students and the schools themselves?
J.A.: The impact is hard to calculate. So most of the information is anecdotal. What schools have shared with us is that it provides effective tools to help them address issues when they arise. We find that when one school signs up and goes through the program, very often other schools in the same district sign up. For example, Manhattan Beach a program that we started in one of the elementary schools is now all the elementary schools all the middle schools and the high school It’s a district wide program so part of it is to invest heavily in that kind of program which is for the students and students lead them. They come up with their activities We provide the framework but in the school environment it’s also critical that the faculty and the administrations get trained So we spent a lot of time with our training programs and that’s everything from public school districts for public school senior administrators your private schools where we’ve done for faculty in school just this year for a number of private schools hundreds of faculty and administrators and trained So all investment put in is to make sure they have the right environments so that any hate that begins never really has a chance to grow.
Jlife: It seems that by working within the schools, you are beginning to help adjust and change the culture. But what we are seeing on college campuses today is unlike anything we have ever seen. What is the ADL doing when it comes to college campuses where antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment is rampant?
J.A.: We’ve seen the rise of antisemitism on campus and particularly the rise of anti-Zionism on campus is deeply disturbing. We recognize that there is power in partnership. And so, we work very closely on a national level with Hillel International on college campuses. One way we help is reminding everyone that they can do their part by reporting any and all incidents of hate they see on campus—whether it is vandalism, harassment, assault… really anything. We encourage them to report it to their local ADL office. In fact, we have established a specific tool for Hillel to use on their campuses so that people can report these incidents. Look, if we don’t know about them we can’t do anything about them. It is through this collective power that we have been able to do our annual audit for over 40 years. The data we receive drives policy at the local, state, and federal level. We have also helped designed programs and and educational opportunities. As an example, we developed a three-part video series that specifically designed so that it could be used by students with non-Jewish students. It’s a tool to really talk about what does antisemitism look like historically and what does it look like today.
The other thing we do and again is part of ADL’s public working on the inside and outside is we work very closely with a lot of Hillel directors when incidents occur on campus. And we support them, but we do it in a way that makes the most sense and is the most respectful for their student population. We don’t want to do anything to make the students feel LESS protected. So particularly when it comes to campuses we work very carefully. We are very cautious. However, at the same token, when we are seeing nothing addressed, no action taken, and we feel that our voice needs to be heard and heard loudly, there have been times that I, or our National Director Jonathan Greenblatt will interact and reach out to the University President.
Jlife: You become the ADL’s Regional Director back in December 2020. Over the course of the last two-plus years, what do you feel has been your greatest accomplishments?
J.A.: People should know that here in the greater Los Angeles community, the ADL is here fighting for them, each and every day, and that we are both ready and prepared to respond in a moment of crisis. The ADL is here fighting for them each and every day and that we are both ready to respond in the moment of crisis. And that we serve as a convener in many unique ways. When I took the job, I wanted to dramatically increase ADL’s public profile not simply to increase the profile but so that we can do the work and bring our community together. And while unfortunately there have been many incidents, we’ve had the opportunity to show what we’re capable of. And for that I’m very proud that we’re in a position now to really provide purposeful leadership to both the Jewish and the greater Los Angeles community.
Jlife: I think we all wish that the ADL didn’t need to exist. But being that it does and it has been around for over 100 years, I know that people appreciate knowing that there is somebody out there that’s addressing antisemitism that is 24/7 focused on it.
J.A.: I want to add one more thing to your last question. I think we’re living in a special moment right now for the community and the Greater Los Angeles area. I think it’s a moment where organizations and the leaders of each of these organizations truly recognize the wisdom but the absolute necessity of partnership. In the last several years there has been a transition of leadership and a lot of different organizations with a range of different types of people who see value in the possibility of real partnership and are willing to work together in ways we have not previously seen. That makes me hopeful and optimistic.
Jlife: Are there signs here in Southern California that make you feel optimistic about where we’re headed?
J.A.: The biggest reason for hope right now is really purposeful leadership and combating the rise of hate. There is purposeful leadership in every level of government, that includes LA Mayor Karen Bass, LA County Supervisors, and others. There are also new efforts underway, including a round table that’s been developed—Jewish Federation of Greater LA, Holocaust Museum LA, LA Board of Rabbis, and others that sit together at the same table working together, along with leading non-Jewish organizations. So, the hope comes from partnerships. We want to protect ourselves but also still be warm and welcoming. It’s going to come from working together and partnering and loving thy neighbor. That’s the key.