Greenblatt says understanding history is key to combating hate in America


Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, stressed the importance of understanding history to effectively combat racism, intolerance and other forms of hate in the United States during a virtual forum with Blank Slate Media last week.

Greenblatt, who became CEO of the world’s leading anti-hate organization in 2015, said he is “very alarmed” by individuals trying to “erase the Jewish experience” and other historical instances of racial intolerance. 

“If we want to address racism and hate, we need to make sure we understand where we’re coming from, so we know where we’re going,” Greenblatt said.

Greenblatt also discussed a recently published book he wrote, “It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable – and How We Can Stop It.” 

Greenblatt, whose wife is an Iranian refugee with deep roots to her home country, said some Americans could face the fate of his wife and his grandfather, a Jew from Germany, and be forced to leave the nation if these acts of hatred are not properly combated. Greenblatt said he does not believe it to be far-fetched that future family members may have the same fate of his wife and grandfather if antisemitic trends continue to rise.

“I don’t think it’s unthinkable for me as a Jew to imagine that one day my grandchildren might not be born here,” he said. “This country, the only one that I’ve ever known and loved, could one day change so dramatically that it forces me and my family to flee.”

The ADL, Greenblatt said, has been tracking antisemitic trends and instances for roughly 60 years, with antisemitic attitudes being held now by 8 to 10% of the American population.  Despite the fact that millions of people still have those mindsets, he said, the statistics provide some encouragement though more work needs to be done.

“My wife’s story tells me that it could happen here and the only way we stop it is we roll up our sleeves and get engaged,” Greenblatt said. “That’s the only way to prevent the unthinkable.”

Social media, he said, plays a large role in fueling the fire that projects antisemitism and other forms of hate onto different individuals and groups. Algorithms on sites such as Facebook that are engineered to “drive clicks,” he said, result in the amplification of hatred.

“Social media is a superspreader of extremism and intolerance, from Facebook, to Twitter, to TikTok,” Greenblatt said. “The level of antipathy that it enables and how it amplifies the worst voices, algorithmically elevates them.”

Greenblatt said he interviewed Barbara Walters, a political science professor at UC San Diego, who said indicators suggest that a civil war could occur in the United States. He said the need to ring the alarms to become more engaged on how to combat antisemitism and intolerance was why he wrote the book.

“I’m not yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” Greenblatt said. “I’m in the theater and I smell smoke. We have got to get engaged.”

Greenblatt said treating individuals with decency, discerning facts from fear-mongering and calling out individuals who promote hatred are some of the ways that people who want to combat intolerance can do so on an everyday scale.

“I believe those small acts can spur change,” Greenblatt said. “I think showing strength is about leaning in, it’s about engaging, it’s about remembering that we all have a stake in this democracy.”

Those who were unable to view the forum live can watch online at The Island 360’s YouTube page.


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