Anti-Defamation League marks 95th year<br />
"This agency was formed originally in response to anti-Semitism in the entertainment industry in vaudeville, cartoons and the arts, more than in terms of politics," says Amanda Susskind, regional director of the ADL's Pacific Southwest region.
The ADL began when a young lawyer named Sigmund Livingston formed a committee with fellow members of the Chicago chapter of the B'nai B'rith to protest unflattering Jewish stereotypes in vaudeville productions. They met with vaudeville managers who, to their surprise, agreed to remove the offending material from their shows. Emboldened by this success, Livingston officially launched the Anti-Defamation of the B'nai B'rith in 1913 with two desks in his law office and a $200 budget.
In the ensuing decades, the ADL has opened 28 additional regional offices throughout the U.S. and three in other countries, all the while fighting a multipronged
battle against racism and hatred in the arena of public opinion and in the courts. It investigates complaints of discrimination, publishes reports on the activities of extremists, and trains federal, state and local law enforcement how to identify them.
In the realm of entertainment, the ADL has continued to serve as an arbiter of appropriate content.
"There are many films where they've been asked by the people to read the script and make sure that they're not being derogatory and things like that," explains veteran director Arthur Hiller (1970's "Love Story"), who has served on the regional board of the ADL. "And when they've heard about a script, often they will go and offer their help and ask whether they want them to read it and offer advice. Sometimes they get turned down."
More frequently, the organization fields complaints about movies and envelope-pushing TV shows such as Comedy Central's "South Park" and NBC's "Saturday Night Live."
"Honestly, in most of those cases, we're the first to say, 'That's humor. That isn't intended to be offensive,'" Susskind says. "And in other instances, like 'Da Ali G Show,' we've understood that (creator-star) Sacha Baron Cohen is actually somebody who is a brilliant comedian and very supportive of the Jewish community. We were certainly recipients of a lot of complaints about his song 'Throw the Jew Down the Well,' the fear being that -- why we may understand that it's humor -- it's going so far as to be something that could be repeated by people or a tool for people who are haters."
Today, the ADL generally views the entertainment industry as an ally, not a problem, according to producer Mark Ordesky, who chairs the ADL's Pacific Southwest region Entertainment Industry Committee.
"In terms of my role and in terms of what the ADL is trying to do, it's not actually about combating anti-Semitism in Hollywood at all," Ordesky says. "It's about using and partnering with the media, be it film, literature or music, as something that can empower people and inform people a lot better sometimes than a textbook."
Some of that partnering will be occurring at the conference. In addition to briefings on such hot-button issues as the global threat of radical extremism and the anti-Semitism in the Arab press, the program will also feature a discussion of the changing portrayals of Jews and minorities in Hollywood, with Roz Weinman (executive producer, NBC's "Law & Order") and Matthew Weiner (creator-executive producer, AMC's "Mad Men"), and a screening of Paramount Vantage's upcoming World War II drama "Defiance," about three Jewish brothers who escape Nazi-occupied Poland and join the Russian resistance, which will be followed by a discussion with the film's writer-director-producer, Ed Zwick, and ADL national director Abraham Foxman.
Although Jewish issues remain its primary focus, they've never been the ADL's sole cause. In the beginning, Livingston wrote that its mission was not only to fight mistreatment of the Jewish people, but also "put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens."
In the past, this inclusive civil rights mandate has put the ADL at the center of the fight to stop the communist witch hunts in the '50s and abolish Southern Jim Crow laws in the '60s. Today, it takes a more proactive role, attacking prejudice at its roots through a preschool through grade 12 educational program, taught in both English and Spanish, promoting tolerance, respect and understanding.
"We're now the No. 1 purveyor of anti-bias education in this country," Susskind says.
In recent years, the ADL has stepped up its support for equal rights for same-sex couples and fair treatment of immigrants, regardless of legal status.
The positions have not been always been popular with some of the organization's core supporters.
"Sometimes organizations to some people are only good if they're supporting their one specific issue," observes Bonnie Hammer, president of NBC Universal's Cable Entertainment and Cable Studios, whom the ADL honored earlier this year for spearheading the USA Network's "Erase the Hate" and "Characters Unite" public service campaigns. "I know that, for my own parents, it took them years to get beyond their own myopia about what diversity is and how just fighting for your own cause and for anti-Semitism isn't good enough. You have to get beyond the ill you're fighting about and look at the bigger, broader spectrum that others are fighting in their own way and kind of say, 'Listen, if it wasn't good for you, why should it be good for some other issue that's coming up?' That's when real acceptance will happen."
Today, one of the ADL's most daunting battlegrounds is the Internet, where extremism is able to flourish, anonymous and unchecked. In its national office alone, the organization has 12 full-time employees, fluent in a variety of languages, monitoring the Web 24/7 for hate speech and threats and calling them to the attention of law enforcement when appropriate. And it doesn't matter if the targets are Jews, gays or Muslims.
"We're not just here for the Jewish community," Susskind says. "We're Jews who care about the entire community."
A 1942 letter from Henry Ford to Sigmund Livingston: