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It Could Happen Here: A Conversation with ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt on Combating Hate in America

On Thursday, April 21, the Washington College of Law Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee concluded its three-series panel on rising levels of hate in the United States and around the world. The final panel featured Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League and was moderated by Dean Roger A. Fairfax, Jr. Greenblatt is the author of the new book It Could Happen Here, which details rising levels of hate and systemic violence in the United States and projects that more could be on the way without intervention.

Greenblatt gave insight into how both citizens and lawyers alike can proactively work to preserve the fragile state of democracy as it is today. “We are in this polarized world and our institutions are under siege,” said Greenblatt. “Our democracy is not pre-ordained, there is no world order in which we can assume that things will be here tomorrow as they were yesterday. Democracy is dynamic, yet a fragile and living organism. We must commit ourselves to the task of preservation.”

The ADL monitors the largest database of antisemitic incidents across the United States. After President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and after a 15-year decline, the ADL saw a 34% spike in antisemitic incidents. In 2017, the year of a deadly car attack against counter protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that number surged over 54%. Since then, Jewish communities have seen some of the most violent attacks within the United States, including the October 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.

Jonathan Greenblatt emphasized that the legal profession has a responsibility to recognize and to get involved with bad policymaking. In a personal anecdote, Greenblatt recounted how his grandfather, a German Jew who fought for Germany in the first World War, never expected to have to leave his homeland and settle in the United States. However, when law enforcement agencies across Germany enabled the Nazis by enforcing the Nuremberg laws, his grandfather was forced to leave the only country he ever knew. Greenblatt emphasized that lawyers must play a part in fighting back against the degradation of democracy.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport, it’s a contact sport,” Greenblatt said. “Lawyers are well positioned to join the fight against rising levels of hate. Our system needs a robust, two-sided process. That creative tension between sides is what has made America strong, balanced, and resilient for two centuries.”

Before ADL, Greenblatt served in the White House as Special Assistant to President Obama and Director of the Office of Social Innovation. He came to that role after a long career in business. In 2002, he co-founded Ethos Brands, the business that launched Ethos Water, a premium bottled water that helps children around the world access clean water. Ethos was acquired by Starbucks Coffee Company in 2005. Following the acquisition, Jonathan was named VP of Global Consumer Products at Starbucks and joined the board of the Starbucks Foundation.

“Democracy is dynamic, yet a fragile and living organism. We must commit ourselves to the task of preservation.”

Jonathan Greenblatt