PayPal and the ADL: A Match Made in Censorship Hell

PayPal has announced a partnership with the Anti-Defamation League to defund extremist and hate movements. The problem is that, for the ADL, that often means groups fighting against Israeli apartheid.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, speaks in Washington, DC, in June 2019. (Michael Brochstein / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, PayPal and the Anti-Defamation League announced a joint project focused on “uncovering and disrupting the financial pipelines that support extremist and hate movements.” As the ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt explained, after first looking into how these movements use services like PayPal, the collaboration will aim to ultimately bar them from these platforms and starve them of funds, focusing on everyone “from those who marauded through the Capitol to those who were beating up Jews in broad daylight just a few months ago.” Sounds pretty uncontroversial. Who could possibly be against that?

Except the trouble, as it always is when it comes to measures like censorship, is that the people doing the censoring usually have a very different definition of what an “extremist and hate movement” is than you, the reader, does. For them, it might be someone who talks about “revolution” or “eating the rich,” someone who protested against police brutality last year, or simply groups and people that fight for the rights of Palestinians.

In fact, this exact thing has already happened once before with PayPal, which has been banning and cancelling the accounts of various groups and individuals over the last few years. In 2018, the company came under fire when, alongside its ban of the far-right Proud Boys, it also threw in the accounts of several anti-fascist groups for good measure. Just like when Reddit included a host of left-leaning subreddits in its purge of violent and hateful content last year, these platforms have a commercial interest in appearing to be equally opposed to extremists on “both sides,” even when one of those sides is violent racists like the Proud Boys and the other is people who oppose and confront those racists.

But PayPal’s partnership with the ADL threatens to go even further down this worrying road. The ADL, which was founded in 1913 as the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, has been on the right side of many issues related to racism and intolerance, but it also has a long history of acting as essentially an informal lobbying group for the Israeli government, and in the process conflating opposition to Israel’s apartheid policies with actual antisemitism — as well as attacking the Left and skirting dangerously close to bigotry itself.

A Checkered Past

This history goes all the way back to the 1960s, when the ADL’s then-leader attacked the famed civil rights group the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee over its anti-Zionist stance, charging it with “extremism” and ties to “the Chinese-Soviet and now Arab propaganda machines,” and putting it in the same league as the Ku Klux Klan. In the words, in 1961, of its national director, the ADL “for many years has maintained a very important, confidential investigative coverage of Arab activities and propaganda” and “an information-gathering operation since 1948” focusing on Arab state organizations and groups. By 1993, a police raid on its California headquarters found this surveillance went much, much further, encompassing more than six hundred mostly liberal organizations, including the NAACP, ACLU, and the International Indian Treaty Council.

But that’s ancient history by now, right? Unfortunately not. Under its former president Abe Foxman, with whom the ADL was virtually synonymous for years, the organization began increasingly embracing Washington’s Islamophobic “war on terror” and subsuming its stated principle of ensuring “a world in which no group or individual suffers from bias, discrimination or hate” to the more central goal of defending Israeli apartheid and maintaining the government connections to do so.

When the Right freaked out over the intentionally misnamed “Ground Zero mosque” — a classic case of right-wing cancel culture, targeting a planned Islamic cultural center with a pool and basketball court that was to be built two blocks away from where the Twin Towers had stood — Foxman sided with them. Just as “survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said to widespread condemnation, September 11 victims’ families’ “anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.” On the ADL’s one-hundred-year anniversary, Foxman claimed that Jews had it worse than Muslims and that anti-Muslim hatred “didn’t happen” after September 11, before explaining that Rep. Peter King’s call for more surveillance of Muslims was “a natural response,” and blaming “Muslim communities that have been brought in and are not assimilating.”

Fittingly, the ADL never said a thing about the NYPD’s outrageous spying on Muslim New Yorkers, and actually bestowed an award on the man who had overseen it. He was one of the officers who had been trained in the counterterrorism exchange program with Israel that the ADL has sponsored since 2004, educating US police in the tactics used by the country’s abusive security services. For the ADL, a commitment to the defense of the Israeli government came to supersede all other considerations, as when Foxman opposed a congressional resolution to finally label the Turkish slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians a genocide — a stance the ADL reportedly adopted to protect Israel’s strategic relationship with Turkey.

During this period, the ADL often set its sights and energies not so much on white supremacists and neo-Nazis but on liberal Jewish organizations critical of Israel and various college campus groups that organized around Palestinian justice. Among its semiregular list of the “Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups in the U.S.,” it listed institutions like J Street, New Israel Fund, Code Pink, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a coalition of 380 organizations opposing Israeli apartheid, some of them Jewish, charging they were “fixated with delegitimizing Israel” and pushing a “misleading narrative” about the country.

It praised a 2010 Education Department decision to use the 1964 Civil Rights Act to “protect” Jewish college students from “anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment that crosses the line into anti-Semitism,” compared a talk at Brooklyn College about boycotting Israel to the Ku Klux Klan holding an event about maintaining a white-dominated America, and denounced a Harvard conference on the idea of a one-state solution — in which Jews and Palestinians would live together within a single state — as “the elimination of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.”

This regular conflation of Israel with all Jews everywhere, and the implication that the distinct interests of each were really one and the same, somehow coexists with the organization’s practice of lobbing accusations of antisemitism at left-leaning targets over poorly phrased statements that could be interpreted as advancing the racist idea of “dual loyalty.” To wit, when former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would be trying to torpedo Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran by delivering an outrageous speech to Congress as “a representative of the entire Jewish people,” the ADL didn’t condemn this clearly antisemitic trope. Instead, it criticized J Street for asking Jews to sign a petition saying that Netanyahu “doesn’t speak for me,” which Foxman called “inflammatory and repugnant.” Note that at the same time the ADL fixated on criticism of Israeli policies, and kept a laser focus on pop culture and obvious satire, it was deathly silent about the many, many stunningly racist things that actual Israeli officials regularly said out loud.

Meet the New Boss

All of this was, of course, closely tied to Foxman’s personal influence as the longtime, defining leader of the ADL. Perhaps it went away once he passed the torch to Greenblatt in 2015? Unfortunately, the record of the past few years hasn’t borne this out. Sure, there were some shifts, like the League’s belated acknowledgement that the Armenian genocide was, in fact, a genocide. But old habits die hard.

The ADL’s often wildly inconsistent standards over who deserved condemnation remains. When Trump made a series of patently offensive statements to a group of Jewish donors in 2015 — “I’m a negotiator like you folks”; “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals?”; “This room negotiates a lot. This room perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to” — Greenblatt declared that “we do not believe that it was Donald Trump’s intention to evoke anti-Semitic stereotypes.” When asked point-blank a year later if Trump was an anti-Semite, Greenblatt replied: “Absolutely not. In fact, he’s been a very strong supporter of the State of Israel and of Jewish charitable causes generally.”

Compare this to how Greenblatt and the ADL have led the charge against left-wing (and, incidentally, Muslim) members of Congress over phrasing that it construes as approximating antisemitic tropes, such as over Ilhan Omar’s demonstrably true point that oodles of money from pro-Israel groups have an impact on US policy in the Middle East. The League later played a leading role in getting college professor Marc Lamont Hill fired from CNN, dishonestly claiming his UN speech calling for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” was calling for “divisive and destructive action against Israel.”

Or look at their campaign against Keith Ellison, now Minnesota’s attorney general, when he was running for chair of the Democratic National Committee. After reporters dug up Ellison’s 2010 comments that US “foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people,” meaning Israel, Greenblatt called them “deeply disturbing and disqualifying.” Tellingly, he also referenced Ellison’s “positions” on Israel-Palestine and the Iran deal, and charged that his words raised “doubts about [his] ability to represent traditional Democratic support for Israel,” suggesting that the ADL’s concerns were about something other than antisemitic tropes. Greenblatt would later cite various left-wing groups’ criticism of Israel — including a line in the Black Lives Matter platform written by a Jewish activist accusing it of “genocide” — to charge that “anti-Semitism is creeping into progressivism.”

The ADL still regularly conflates activism against Israeli policies, especially on college campuses, with antisemitism, as when it accused Jewish Voice for Peace of “increasing anti-Israel radicalism,” or when it called the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement — modeled on the boycott of apartheid South Africa — “an anti-Semitic movement” motivated by “irrational hatred of the Jewish people.” When public sentiment toward Israel soured this year over the country’s shocking land grab and subsequent bombing of Palestinians, the ADL put out a widely cited report claiming an increase in antisemitism, which listed swastika graffiti and praise for Adolph Hitler alongside anti-Zionist slogans and comparisons of Israeli policies to Nazi Germany.

And it still veers away from its stated mission into nakedly representing Israeli interests, as when it condemned a UN resolution criticizing the country’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land in 2016, while later praising Trump’s inflammatory move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. Fittingly, given its partnership with PayPal, at one point it even urged police to infiltrate and surveil antifa activists, before scrubbing the advice under criticism. All of this has driven a broad coalition of progressive groups to start the #DropTheADL campaign, asking organizations to sign on and stop partnering with the League or using its resources in their social justice work.

In short, the ADL is far from a dispassionate fighter against hate movements, and has consistently twisted or folded that mission into pro-Israel advocacy while conflating left-wing criticism of Israel and US policy toward it with far-right hatred and white supremacy. Greenblatt’s statement that its work with PayPal will look at “groups across the ideological spectrum” suggests pro-Palestinian and pro-BDS groups and individuals have much to fear from this partnership, the potential of which we saw eleven years ago, when PayPal froze the account of WikiLeaks under pressure from an irate US government.

Various political forces will continue to push for more and more censorship of the internet, and they’ll cite white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other widely reviled groups and figures to justify it, though they will only be some of the targets. And the more this push picks up steam, the more the Left has to fear from them.