As the CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Jonathan Greenblatt oversees the world’s largest anti-hate organization. While the ADL was founded in 1913 to combat antisemitism, today it works to protect marginalized groups of all kinds, and fights many different forms of extremism and hate—from cyberbullying to terrorism.
Since joining ADL in 2015, Greenblatt has been instrumental in this transformation. Previously, he served in the Obama White House, and before that led several successful business ventures.
Greenblatt discusses joining forces with civil rights leader John Lewis, how being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor guides his work and why the next generation gives him hope.
What has been your biggest victory or accomplishment through your work at the Anti-Defamation League?
When I came to ADL in 2015 one of the things that stunned me was to learn that there were still five states across the country that lack hate crime laws. These included Wyoming, Indiana, Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia. Georgia really hit home because it’s the place where Leo Frank was lynched—the murder that precipitated the creation of ADL itself a hundred years ago. So I set out to do something about that and we launched an initiative called 50 States Against Hate in Atlanta. I launched it with my friend and one of my role models, Congressman John Lewis.
In August of 2015, on the 102nd anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank, we launched an effort to create hate crime laws in the five states that lacked them, including Georgia. I’m incredibly proud of the fact that this past summer, after five years of coalition building and lots of politicking, we were able to finally get a hate crime law passed in the state of Georgia. I’m proud and pleased that John Lewis lived to see it.
Do you have a personal story or experience that led you to this work?
Even though I didn’t have experience in the nonprofit world, I was really motivated when the opportunity came to join ADL. First, I’m the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. And that experience—the fact that my grandfather lost almost all of his family when six million Jews were slaughtered in Europe in the second World War—that’s always stayed with me. The antisemitism that created an environment in which neighbors would butcher their neighbors, in which governments would exterminate their own citizens—it’s kind of the backdrop in many ways for the work we’re doing today to prevent that kind of systemic hate from taking hold.
What makes you hopeful right now?
Even though I think we’re going through a moment of incredible tension and some degree of despair, I feel tremendous hope. First of all, the Black Lives Matter movement has been the largest protest movement in the history of the country. Secondly, you’re seeing ordinary citizens exercise their civic capacity, showing up in the streets, demanding more of their lawmakers, exercising their own constitutional liberties. And thirdly, I think young people have the capacity for enormous change. They’re leading this movement today and I’m just inspired by the strength and the will of the next generation. They’re just amazing and we all could learn so much from them and their leadership.
What is your vision for the future in an ideal world?
My vision for America would be that we would realize our potential as a pluralistic democracy, where all people feel empowered to show up as their true self, regardless of their race or their religion, their sexual orientation or their national origin. That diversity is our strength. And so whether it’s in the corporate boardroom or at the small startup, whether it’s in the halls of Congress or at your local town council, whether it’s at a small community based organization or a global NGO [non-governmental organization] like ADL, I want everyone to be able to bring their full selves to the work, to restoring our democracy and strengthening our society once and for all.