Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith

2011-11-01 11:07:09

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was founded in 1913 by Sigmund Livingston, a Chicago lawyer, to combat the anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews that was prevalent at the time. The charter of the league states: ‘‘The immediate object of the League is to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people. Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.’’ Livingston’s action was in direct response to the infamous case of Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of a Georgia factory, who was falsely convicted of the murder of a young female worker and later dragged from his jail cell and lynched by a mob after the governor of Georgia announced he was commuting Frank’s death sentence.

From its inception the ADL has been associated with the Independent Order of B’nai Brith, a Jewish fraternal and service organization founded in New York City in 1843. The parent organization is engaged in a wide variety of community service and welfare activities, including the promotion of human rights, assisting hospitals and victims of natural disasters, and, through the ADL, opposing anti- Semitism and other forms of racism.

In the first three decades after its founding, the ADL mission centered on combating anti-Semitism. It pursued this goal in two major ways. First, it sought to expose and counter the bigotry of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and individuals, such as Henry Ford, whose newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, was notoriously anti-Semitic, even going so far as to publish the notorious Czarist anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the 1930s, with the ascendance of Adolf Hitler, the ADL also had to combat the rise of domestic groups eager to mimic the Nazi’s anti-Semitic actions, including German- American Bund and the Christian Front, headed by Father Charles Coughlin. Second, the league combated the pervasive economic and social discrimination against Jews, as exemplified by quotas on Jewish applicants to colleges and professional schools; company, or even industry-wide, policies barring the hiring of Jews; and discrimination against Jews in hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations.

After the Second World War, the ADL expanded its mission to include the eradication of bias and discrimination against people of all races and religions. The organization at this time began filing amicus curiae briefs in Supreme Court cases involving religious freedom and civil rights and has remained active in this area ever since. The league has, for example, filed an amicus brief in every major Supreme Court case concerning church–state separation since 1947, as well as numerous cases on Affirmative Action, hate crimes, and other subjects.

The positions the league has taken in its amicus briefs are generally unsurprising given its stated goals. In religion-clause cases, it has argued for a strict view of the separation of church and state, tempered by a broad view of religious accommodation in cases in which minority religions may be threatened. Thus, it opposed a Christmas display on government property in County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989), and the display of the Ten Commandments on such property in Van Orden v. Perry, 125 S.Ct. 2854 (2005), and McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, 125 S.Ct. 2722 (2005); opposed school prayer in Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000); and opposed publicly funded tuition vouchers for religious schools in Zelman v. Harris–Simmons, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), and government aid in the form of instructional materials and equipment to religious schools in Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793 (2000). However, the organization defended the constitutionality of a federal statute that protects the religious rights of prisoners as a valid Accommodation of Religion in Cutter v. Wilkinson, 125 S.Ct. 2113 (2005).

With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the ADL began combating what it viewed as anti-Zionist organizations and publications. In more recent years, the intense debate over the Palestinian–Israeli conflict has led the league to attack what it views as a new form of anti-Semitism: the claim that Jews and Jewish organizations unfairly tag any criticism of the State of Israel with an anti-Semitic label. The league has explicitly stated that criticism of specific Israeli actions or policies in and of itself does not constitute anti- Semitism, but also notes that there are those who attempt to mask anti-Semitism under the guise of criticism of Israel or Zionism.

In the 1960s, the organization became actively involved in the emerging civil rights movement and actively worked for the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—three of the most important pieces of legislation that resulted from movement. As happened with other predominantly white organizations involved in the movement, tensions emerged between the ADL and the African-American community in the 1970s and have continued to some degree to the present, in light of differing positions on Affirmative Action, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, and other issues. Affirmative Action in education has been a major dividing point between the two groups, with the ADL filing amicus briefs opposed to racial preferences in Bakke (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 1978) and Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003). Despite these tensions, the league remains strongly committed to cooperative efforts with the African- American community in fighting racial prejudice.

In more recent years, the ADL has identified and responded to new forms of bigotry and prejudice seen from the white-supremacist movement and other domestic hate groups. The organization has also expressed grave concern about the effect that the religious Right is having in eroding what the league views as the appropriate degree of separation between church and state in the United States. Finally, the ADL has grown increasingly concerned about, and is actively seeking to combat, what it perceives as the growth of anti-Semitismon American college campuses and the efforts by evangelical Christians to bring an explicitly religious message into public schools.


References and Further Reading

  • ADL in the Courts: Litigation Docket, Anti-Defamation League, New York 1991 through 2001
  • Dinnerstein, Leonard. The Leo Frank Case. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999
  • Ivers, Greg. To Build a Wall: American Jews and the Separation of Church and State. Clinch Wise, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1995

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989) 
  • Cutter v. Wilkinson, 125 S.Ct. 2113 (2005) 
  • Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) 
  • Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) 
  • McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, 125 S.Ct. 2722 (2005) 
  • Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793 (2000) 
  • Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978) 
  • Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000) 
  • Van Orden v. Perry, 125 S.Ct. 2854 (2005) 
  • Zelman v. Harris–Simmons, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)