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ADL: Why a universal message?

  • June 26, 2017


Jim Kurtz-Phelan

In a guest opinion piece published in the June 23, 2017 edition of the Intermountain Jewish News, Anti-Defamation League Mountain States Region Board Chair Jim Kurtz-Phelan reflects on ADL’s universal message, its history and its relevance today. 


For over one hundred years, it has been the mission of the Anti-Defamation League “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”

Why did our founders choose a universal, and not a solely particularistic, mission? I believe there are three reasons for this choice: our founders’ religious beliefs, their morals, and their understanding of political tactics and strategies.

First, I believe that our founders’ Jewish religious beliefs were the foundation of ADL’s mission.

As we learn in Genesis, all people are created in the image of G-d. Those words mean that all people are equal merely by the fact that they are human beings. If we are all equal in the eyes of G-d, we all have equal claims to G-d’s love and protection. This was something ADL’s founders recognized when they created a mission that recognized the importance of not only fighting anti-Semitism, but also securing justice and fair treatment for all people.

Second, I believe that our founders’ moral principles led them to this universal mission. Our fundamental moral principle is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Notice that we are not admonished to do to other people that which they have done to us; rather, the principle is aspirational—treat other people as you want to be treated yourself. Those “other people” were recognized by our founders to be not only Jews, but rather to be “all people.”

While many find a basis for their morality in their religion, morality does not only emanate from religious beliefs. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain and one of the great Jewish thinkers of our day, described the sources of ethical behavior in his book Essays on Ethics. Rabbi Sacks wrote, “You do not need to be religious to be moral.”

While he argued that religious ethics differ in a number of important respects from general morality, he also emphasized, “Every society needs a code of conduct that allows its members to live constructively and collaboratively . . . Some form of morality is a universal characteristic of human groups.”

In words that amplify ADL’s mission statement, Rabbi Sacks went on to say “that cooperation requires a pattern of behavior known as reciprocal altruism, meaning, roughly, if you behave well towards me, I will behave well towards you.”

Third, I believe our founders had a clear understanding of the political and strategic importance of coalitions in fighting against discrimination and oppression, and of the slippery slope of letting some people be oppressed some of the time.

They understood that the political power of a small group, like the Jews, would have an uphill battle if they did not join forces with other groups.

Our founders understood that if blacks or Hispanics or women or gays and lesbians were discriminated against, it would only be a matter of time before it was the Jews’ turn in the box. For those of us who are Jewish, we are keenly aware of what happened when those kinds of attitudes and actions are allowed to take hold in a society.

The recent rise in anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-women, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic actions and speech in our country makes that mission as relevant today as it was for the founders of ADL.