Anti-Defamation League Director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt discussed the spread of hate in America on Monday, May 22, in Campbell Hall as part of UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures’ Justice for All initiative.
In conversation alongside Montecito Journal Editor in Chief Gwyn Lurie, Greenblatt spoke on the roots of hatred and antisemitism and discussed how to work against it as detailed in his book, “It Could Happen Here.”
According to Greenblatt, the inspiration for the title of his book stemmed from Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” the story of a dystopian America in which a new age Hitler rises to power and forms a dictatorship.
After taking a job with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in 2015, Greenblatt expected that he may one day receive a call regarding an extreme act of hatred against Jewish people from another country. When the call finally came, it was in 2018 after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“I thought it’d be a call from some far away place. I never expected … that the call would be coming from inside the house,” Greenblatt said.
From here, he said he began writing as an act of therapy. Greenblatt described the 2019 shootings at the Chabad of Poway synagogue and the kosher grocery store in Jersey City, NJ, as well as the Jan. 6 United States Capitol attack and other recent hate crimes as the “soundtrack to the book.”
Greenblatt said his family’s past motivated him to fight against antisemitism today, recounting the struggles of his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, who came to America as a refugee from Germany battling language barriers and lack of community.
Greenblatt shared an anecdote about how, when asked if they ever expected their grandchildren to be born in America, both his grandfather and his father in law said no. They both expected their families to stay in Germany and Iran and said the exact phrase, “Where else would we be?”
Greenblatt then made it his mission to fight against hate in America in order to guarantee a country in which his grandchildren can be born in and thrive.
According to Greenblatt, social media is behind the evident surge in hate and extremism. The real issue, according to Greenblatt, is that social media companies are not held responsible for any of the content presented on their platforms. This is due to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Greenblatt elaborated that this is the act that has prevented companies like Facebook from being held responsible for white supremacists making public hate groups on their website.
During the pandemic, Greenblatt observed the lines between the online and offline world merging to the point where people now get rewarded by internet algorithms for spreading hate. Greenblatt emphasized that this, coupled with the anonymity of the internet, has led to a world where people can say things online that they never would dream of saying in person.
With ADL, Greenblatt has three main focuses: “protect, advocate and educate.” He said the ADL monitors extremist chat rooms, the dark web and live Facebook streams in order to hand information to law enforcement. He recounted how they were especially instrumental in collecting information on individuals involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Another thing the ADL is known for is advocating for “education representation.” According to Greenblatt, the organization is one of the biggest sources of anti-hate education, with content being taught in schools across America and employing the “Pyramid of Hate” as an aid to show how hatred begins simply with biased attitudes.
Greenblatt expressed his views against cancel culture stating that he instead believes in “council culture.” He spoke on his personal friendship with former white supremacist Damien Patton and the rewarding experience of being able to make small differences in the lives of individuals as opposed to something on a grander scale.
Greenblatt believes that most extremists are broken people who turn to hatred to fill a void. He said that these people are not beyond the point of forgiveness as long as they have genuine remorse in addition to a willingness to take responsibility and learn.
“Hate is a latent psychological impulse,” Greenblatt said, and racism is encoded in our society. Despite this, Greenblatt strongly believes that “America is the greatest democracy in the world” and has hope that the pragmatic nature of future generations will restore American exceptionalism.
A version of this article appeared on p. 6 of the May 25, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.