SCHENECTADY — Last week, Jonathan Greenblatt, 51, was at the White House for a summit discussing the corrosive effects of hate-fueled violence on our democracy and public safety. On Wednesday, Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, will be at the Proctor’s GE Theater for a free event hosted by the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York at 7:30 p.m. Greenblatt will be discussing his book “It Could Happen Here.” He connected with The Daily Gazette ahead of the event. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
The Daily Gazette: Your visit in Schenectady is part of nationwide travels discussing your book and the dangers of extremism and hatred. Have you had any memorable interactions while out on the road?
Jonathan Greenblatt: I’ve been all over the country, and what’s remarkable is meeting people – in big cities and small towns – who identify themselves as being on the right or on the left, and their concern is the same: the alarm over polarization. They worry not just over antisemitism, but all forms of hate and the toxicity of our politics in public life. I hear about it from moms who complain about WhatsApp groups. I hear about it from people who complain about situations in the workplace. I hear about it from individuals who say to me ‘your book really resonated because I have this family member or this friend I no longer talk to because things are so polarized.’ I finished the book in 2021, but I started writing this before January 6. (Greenblatt began writing the book after the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018). I would not have guessed that I would see the day when people would be rampaging through the Capitol.
D.G.: What was going through your mind on Jan. 6, especially given that you were working on this project?
J.G.: At the ADL, every day our focus is on fighting extremism and hate, so we had been alarmed at the runup to Jan. 6. We were on high alert in terms of what might happen at the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally, and it turns out it was far worse than we could have imagined. We were bewildered by the law enforcement response, but also just the level of preparedness seemed way off from what we expected. So I was watching in that moment focused on what is going to happen to these legislators, and is this going to spark incidents at state capitols across the country? What do we need to do? And in the back of my mind I was like ‘it is happening here.’ It was validating in some ways the thesis of the book that the wheels can come off.
D.G: Do you think the broader nation is ready for the kinds of conversations you’re having with folks as you travel the country?
J.G.: I think we don’t have a choice but to be ready. If we don’t address these issues, if we don’t get our arms around them, if we don’t wrestle them down and resolve them, it’s like not treating some condition that could metastasize into something fatal. I think the stakes are literally that high.
One of my conclusions in the book is that I don’t think democracy is a spectator sport. What I mean by that is I think many of us believe you vote or you don’t vote. It doesn’t really matter. A person will get elected and you could vote the next time. There is a feeling among people that we take that for granted. Much like if you’re watching a game and your team loses they can show up the next day. In baseball, we know there are going to be nine innings, 27 outs per team, and then if they lose, guess what? It’s a 162-game season, so how bad could it be?
I think one of the lessons from Jan. 6 or one of the lessons from Germany or from Iran or from what we’re seeing around the world is that democracy is not a spectator sport. Democracy doesn’t have nine innings. The stakes are so much higher, which means if we don’t lean in, if we don’t get on the field and play, there is no natural law that things are going to go the way that they always have. Our institutions are strong. We have almost 250 years of constitutional democracy in this country that has endured so much because we have been through economic calamity, we have been through global conflict, we have been through civil war, we have been through political unrest, we’ve been through social upheaval, and the country always bounces back and always comes through stronger. Yet one cannot say with certainty that there is going to be another game tomorrow if we don’t ensure that we can hold onto this republic. The reality is at a certain point if this thing unravels, everyone loses.
D.G.: Would you say you’re more optimistic than pessimistic, and, if so, what continues to give you hope?
J.G.: I have a lot of hope because this country has again and again and again bounced back from extraordinary circumstances…
And then when I talk to young people, the amount of creativity and energy and passion is through the roof. The younger generation is more tolerant, they are more intuitive, there are a lot of things that make me excited. We have real challenges in front of us – I’m not going to shy away from those – but I think the opportunities are still incredibly bountiful if we can make it through this moment.
D.G.: The Anti-Defamation League makes a point of calling out leaders who have ties to known hate groups. (Earlier this month, Broadalbin Town Board member Dave Bardascini was one of five elected local officials in New York state that the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism has identified as a current or former member of an anti-government extremist group called the Oath Keepers.) Why is it important for the ADL to make such announcements?
J.G.: It’s important because so many of these hate groups are antithetical to democracy and are marginalizing people because of how they worship or who they love. That’s deeply, deeply frightening.
D.G.: Do you worry that some of this work infringes on free speech?
J.G.: This is a civil rights organization. We have been ferocious defenders of the First Amendment for more than 100 years. Freedom of expression isn’t the freedom to incite violence against people…I think hate speech is the price you pay for the First Amendment. We don’t believe in censoring speech, but, again, when someone is promoting ideas that could lead to violence, that’s a problem. That shouldn’t be considered protected speech.
D.G.: What’s something that you’d like to see happen over the next few years that would assure you the country is heading in the right direction?
J.G.: Democracy protected at the ballot box. A peaceful transition of power in November in two years. I’d like to think that our work is shining a light on these issues, because there is now, more than ever, a national focus on these topics.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.