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How the Anti-Defamation League Fuels Islamophobia

The ADL's anti-Arab, pro-Israel mindset has led the group to perpetuate an anti-Muslim worldview.

The Anti-Defamation League bills itself, and is typically seen by many in the mainstream Jewish community and beyond, as the "nation's premier civil rights/human relations agency.”[1] In fact, the ADL’s conduct over the years is at odds with this one-dimensional view of the group as a long-time champion of civil liberties. The ADL mission statement, for instance, describes it as a group that “fights all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all."[2] Yet, a record going back decades shows something very different, including a shift “from civil rights monitoring to espionage and intelligence gathering.”[3] Mistrust of the ADL among those concerned about civil and human rights has deep roots.

In the 1970s, the ADL, which had been tracking neo-Nazis and other right-wing U.S. groups, began to also focus on critics of Israeli policies.[4] Since the 1970s, the ADL and its chapters have issued numerous publications to expose alleged “Arab propaganda” on university campuses and to silence and intimidate Arab Americans and others who did not share their perspective on Israel.[5] Branding any criticism of Israel as “anti-Semitism,” ADL publications like Pro-Arab Propaganda in America: Vehicles and Voices, a Handbook (1983) effectively developed a “ blacklist” of faculty, staff, and campus groups.[6] The Middle East Studies Association singled out “the New England Regional Office of the ADL for circulating a document on college campuses ‘listing factually inaccurate and unsubstantiated assertions that defame specific students, teachers, and researchers as 'pro Arab propagandists.’"[7]

Front-page investigative reports in the San Francisco Examiner during the winter and spring of 1993 revealed that the ADL had been carrying out surveillance of almost 10,000 people and 950 organizations.[8] The Examiner reported that the ADL particularly targeted Arab Americans and Arab American organizations and also spied on such groups as the ACLU, ACT UP, Artists Against Apartheid, Americans for Peace Now, Asian Law Caucus, Greenpeace, NAACP, New Jewish Agenda, and the United Farm Workers, as well as three current or past members of Congress.[9] The FBI had also found that the ADL had been sending surveillance information on U.S. anti-apartheid groups to South Africa (which was an ally of Israel).[10]

The San Francisco Examiner exposé revealed that the ADL’s domestic spying involved a San Francisco police officer and a “full-time salaried undercover investigator,” who had been working for the ADL for 32 years.[11] Running “a public/private spying ring,” the ADL received aid from local police and federal agencies.[12] The Examiner reported that “FBI documents released through the Freedom of Information Act show that special agents in charge of FBI field offices throughout the nation were explicitly ordered by Bureau headquarters in Washington, D.C. during the 1980s to cooperate with the ADL.”[13] Six years after the filing of a class action suit coordinated by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the ADL was fined in 1999 and “under the permanent injunction issued by Federal Judge Richard Paez . . . [was] permanently enjoined from engaging in any further illegal spying against Arab-American and other civil rights groups.”[14] As Nabeel Abraham has written in “Anti-Arab Racism and Violence in the United States,” “The overall effect of the ADL’s practices is to reinforce the image of Arabs as terrorists and security threats, thereby creating a climate of fear, suspicion, and hostility toward Arab-Americans and others who espouse critical views of Israel, possibly leading to death threats and bodily harm.”[15]


The ADL’s anti-Arab, staunchly pro-Israel mindset, which was behind decades of illegal spying, enabled it to easily incorporate an anti-Muslim worldview that has become increasingly pervasive after 9/11.[16] This has been a period of growing popularity for the “clash of civilizations theory,” which characterizes the causes of conflict in the post-Cold War world as fundamental “cultural” differences between Islamic and Western civilizations, rather than history, politics, imperialism, neo-colonialism, struggles over natural resources, or other factors.[17] Further, the Islamophobic belief that all Muslims were responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that all Muslims, as well as Arabs and South Asians, should be targeted provides a dominant U.S. narrative that brands all members of these groups as “terrorists,” “potential terrorists,” or “terrorist-sympathizers.”[18] Like others within and outside the Jewish community, the ADL views the U.S. focus on the domestic and global “war on terror” as integral to ensuring Israeli security and maintaining the United States’ “special” relationship with Israel.

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