AG Garland gives voice to Jewish Americans’ fears in keynote address at ADL summit 

Emotional speech references his family history; Kushner award protested as ADL’s Greenblatt defends decision.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose own grandmother fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe, leaving behind two siblings who were murdered in the Holocaust, may be uniquely positioned to understand this moment in America, with antisemitism running at historic levels in the wake of Oct. 7. So when he quietly referenced a statistic — that between Oct. 7 and Jan. 30 of this year, the FBI opened more than three times the number of anti-Jewish hate crime investigations than in the previous four months — it landed with a punch.

Yet even that striking statistic, Garland said on Thursday morning during his keynote address at the Anti-Defamation League’s Never is Now Conference, does not “begin to capture the fear in which I know Jewish communities have been living.” 

“They do not capture the fear of Jewish Americans that any sign of our identity could make us the target of an attack,” the attorney general continued. “They do not capture the hours that congregations have spent planning for the worst. Many of you gathered here today have experienced fear in your communities.” 

The FBI figure — which shows how profoundly Hamas’ terrorist attack in Israel and the subsequent war has changed life for Jews in America — coupled with Garland’s emotional recount of his family’s story set the stage for the second day of the summit, where some 4,000 attendees packed the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan to hear numerous eye-popping statistics and firsthand accounts of Jew-hatred, like Garland’s. 

“I am here today because this country took my family in and protected them when they had nowhere else to go,” Garland said, sharing the story of his grandmother. “I also know that the protections afforded to my family have not always been afforded to families that don’t look like mine. Ensuring the protection of law for all of our country’s citizens has been the responsibility of every generation in our country’s history,” he continued. “Today, it is our responsibility.” 

Thursday’s keynote address was a contrast from the day prior, which included a controversial opening session. The political divide was palpable on Wednesday morning — despite the ADL’s calls for unity in response to the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. 

Dozens of attendees exited the room as Jared Kushner, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and former senior adviser, took to the stage on Wednesday morning to be presented the inaugural ADL Abraham Accords Champion Award for his role in helping to broker the Accords, the normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab countries, in 2020. The ADL has credited the Abraham Accords with helping in the efforts to secure the release of hostages in Gaza.

Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL’s CEO, defended his decision to honor Kushner, less than a day after the former president nearly swept the Super Tuesday primaries, essentially guaranteeing him the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Greenblatt noted that he received pushback regarding the award, including from ADL board members.  

“Our next speaker is someone who I disagree with strenuously. He worked for a White House that I consistently, and we at the ADL, publicly criticized in the strongest terms. And we’ve had more than enough phone calls,” Greenblatt said, stressing that the ADL is nonpartisan. “But I invited him to speak here.” 

“I really don’t care how you vote, but the Abraham Accords are a groundbreaking achievement,” Greenblatt said — a line that sparked condemnation from Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. 

“For the record, I care how you vote,” Soifer wrote on X.  “And I can’t fathom why anyone would normalize a former president who mocked Israel, praised terrorists, incited an insurrection, emboldens antisemites, aligns with Putin, refuses to condemn white supremacy, pledges to be a ‘dictator on day one,’ and called 75% of us ‘disloyal.’”

As Kushner took the stage and dozens of attendees walked out, three protestors, chanting “cease-fire now” were escorted out by security. 

Accepting his award, Kushner pointed to the rise of antisemitism and that the Abraham Accords serve as a counter to that. “I believe that a small fraction of antisemitism comes from evil intent, a larger fraction from opportunists and the largest fraction by far comes from ignorance,” he said. 

Idit Klein, the executive director of Keshet, a nonprofit that promtes equality for LGBTQ Jews, was among those who “quietly” walked out on Kushner’s speech. 

“What’s most troubling about Jared Kushner being honored by the ADL is the signal that it gives legitimacy to the former president,” Klein told eJewishPhilanthropy. She emphasized that there is a distinction between “giving legitimacy” to Trump and endorsing him as a presidential candidate. “I do not see honoring Kushner as a formal or informal endorsement of Trump, however I do see it as normalizing support for him, and I think that is profoundly dangerous,” Klein continued. 

Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, supported the ADL’s decision to invite Kushner to address the summit, calling it “very appropriate.” 

“As Jonathan Greenblatt said in his introduction, ‘we as a Jewish community cannot afford to be divided’ — especially in the aftermath of Oct. 7,” Diament told eJP. “And, like the ADL, we at the OU believe in engaging with policymakers and leaders across the spectrum — including those we don’t agree with on all issues. The Abraham Accords were a historic accomplishment; they advanced peace and security for Israel, and they will be a critical catalyst for Israel’s security after the Gaza war.” 

Throughout the two-day gathering, dozens of high-profile speakers — global experts, advocates and leaders in the fight against antisemitism — took the stage and lead panels, including Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism; Marc Rowan; CEO of Apollo Management and UJA-Federation of New York chair; Rabbi David Wolpe, the ADL’s inaugural rabbinic fellow; Daniel Lifshitz, an advocate for Israeli hostages in Gaza whose grandfather, Oded, is in captivity and whose grandmother, Yocheved, was released in November. Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed the audience by video.

In her speech, Lipstadt expressed gratitude that a report this week from the U.N. envoy on sexual violence in conflict found evidence of the sexual violence Hamas committed on Oct. 7, but called the report’s slow pace “concerning.” 

“What happened to ‘believe women’ from MeToo?” the ambassador asked. “It’s hypocritical and antisemitic.” She pointed out that Holocaust denial took two decades to develop while Oct. 7 denialism took two days.

Panel topics ranged from “How the National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism Impacts You,” “Protecting Jewish Communities Against Swatting,” to “The Unique Threats of Antisemitism on the Orthodox Community.” 

For the first time, the summit also featured college and high school tracks geared toward students, who have been facing considerable antisemitic incidents in recent months. The ADL has recorded a total of 746 antisemitic incidents on university campuses from Oct. 7 through Feb. 20, compared to just 87 incidents during the same time frame a year ago.