Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith: Jewish Allies in the Black Liberation Movement?

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai B’rith originated as a Jewish organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism in America. It was founded in 1918 as a component of B’nai B’rith, the first Jewish fraternal society in the United States. The idea for the creation of the ADL stemmed from a B’nai B’rith committee created in 1908 whose purpose was to “see to it that the cause of the Jews shall be everywhere properly championed, and the name of the Jew shall everywhere be upheld as synonymous with a high sense of moral obligation.” The ADL expanded its agenda from anti-Semitism to upholding the civil rights of all during the 1940s and this largely included becoming associated with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement that was gaining traction within African American communities across the U.S.

An ADL report on the  foundation of anti-Jewish  sentiments among Catholics.

An ADL report on the
foundation of anti-Jewish
sentiments among Catholics.

The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith Race Relations Work records at the Amistad Research Center consists of correspondence, reports, pamphlets, publications of the ADL and reports collected from other institutions. Much of the correspondence is to Oscar Cohen, who served as the Program Director of the ADL from 1954 to 1975. Other prominent ADL correspondents include A.I. Botnick, Benjamin Epstein, Murray Friedman, Irwin Schulman, and Arthur Spiegel. Prominent non-ADL correspondents include Julian Bond, James Forman, Frank P. Graham, Floyd McKissick, Henry Lee Moon and Louis H. Pollack. The strengths of the ADL lies in its reports which cover a range of topics including anti-Semitism, the Black Power Movement, desegregation and the radical right in the United States.

Much of the early work of the ADL focused on fostering positive interfaith relationships between Christians and Jews. This was of primary interest because the ADL conducted a study which concluded that a large source of anti-Semitism stemmed from the Christian church. In 1960, a Chairman’s Report addressed the need for the ADL to increase the scope of its work, nationally and internationally, due to the 1960 outbreaks of vandalism to European synagogues, the bigotry that emerged in the 1960 U.S. presidential election, and the sit-ins that were intensifying the Civil Rights Movement in the South. It is apparent through correspondence and reports that ADL’s goal of decreasing anti-Semitism intersected with some of the major incidents, people and organizations of the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

A list of school incidents  involving the Little Rock Nine from the ADL's Little Rock Desegregation study.

A list of school incidents
involving the Little Rock Nine from the ADL’s Little Rock Desegregation study.

An aspect of the Civil Rights Movement that the ADL was particularly interested in was its potential to provoke anti-Jewish sentiments towards Jewish merchants that owned businesses in Black communities in the North and South. Their report, The Sit-In Demonstrations and Negro Anti-Semitism, and a 1964 story in their publication “Facts” about the Harlem and Brooklyn riots, outline their concerns regarding anti-Jewish beliefs African-Americans harbored towards Jewish business owners because of their position within the white power structure. The ADL presented alternative ways in which they could become involved in the Civil Rights Movement as facilitators between African-American communities and Jewish entrepreneurs.

Through correspondence between administrators and reports performed by members, it is apparent that the ADL sought to keep abreast of the ideas, people, programs, and events that were pumping life into the Black Freedom Movement. An example of this was a report of the Black Panther Party (BPP) that included an appendix titled, The Black Panthers on Jews, Zionism, Israel, the Arabs, and Al Fatah. The study delved into the political rhetoric of the BPP regarding the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The ADL also performed studies on desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, which included a list of attacks suffered by the students that integrated Little Rock Central High and their perpetrators, and a 1963 riot that occurred in Birmingham, Alabama. Both studies included interviews with white segregationists, black activists, and white and black political leaders. The records of the ADL can provide insight into the status of Jewish citizens as an ethnic minority and illuminate how the Black Freedom Movement was covered by an ethnic organization outside of the traditional racial purview of black and white communities.

Post by Chianta Dorsey

Images from the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith Race Relations Work Records. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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