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Students, community leaders respond to Anti-Defamation League CEO’s talk

Community members stress importance of dialogue, debate Greenblatt’s definition of antisemitism

<p>Greenblatt “was invited to speak in September of ’23” in response to a series of antisemitic incidents that had occurred on campus in the fall of 2022, according to Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Sylvia Carey-Butler.</p>

Greenblatt “was invited to speak in September of ’23” in response to a series of antisemitic incidents that had occurred on campus in the fall of 2022, according to Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Sylvia Carey-Butler.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, spoke on campus Feb. 22 at an event sponsored by the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity. Greenblatt’s visit, which saw dozens of students walk out during his talk, provoked discussion and controversy within the University community.

Greenblatt received both praise and criticism from students for his statements on antisemitism. In the past few months, he has stirred controversy for comments regarding Students for Justice in Palestine — a national student movement with chapters at universities across the United States that has itself been criticized for its political positions — and conflict in the Middle East, including his description of pro-Palestine student activist groups as “anti-Zionist extremists,” The Herald previously reported

Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Sylvia Carey-Butler said that Greenblatt “was invited to speak in September of ’23” in response to a series of antisemitic incidents that occurred on campus in 2022. Carey-Butler added that she had reached out to the ADL because it was “the largest organization” dedicated to fighting antisemitism, “not knowing anything about the current leadership.”

She emphasized that the invitation did not necessarily reflect her personal views or the OIED’s views, nor did it constitute an endorsement of Greenblatt.


The University frequently invites guests with diverse political views to speak on campus. “Inviting a speaker implies no endorsement by the particular student group, academic unit or faculty or staff host of that speaker’s views or activities,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to the Herald. “We are a university that routinely hosts debates and discussions where speakers with varying and opposing perspectives confront many of the most difficult issues facing society today.”

For some students, the invitation added to the political tension on campus surrounding the war between Israel and Hamas.

The Graduate Labor Organization’s Palestinian Solidarity Caucus began an email campaign on Feb. 16, challenging OIED’s decision to invite Greenblatt to speak. Community members sent 600 emails addressed to Carey-Butler and Wendy Schiller, a Brown professor of political science moderating the event.

“We don’t see how this event will do anything except create more animosity on campus, ​​and we also disagree with the way that Jonathan Greenblatt has characterized Palestinian people and … anti-Zionist Jewish activists,” said Devon Epiphany Clifton GS, the caucus’s organizing co-chair.

But the email template did not explicitly ask the OIED to suspend the event, Clifton said. Instead, it expressed concerns about the effect of the talk on campus culture and the impact of an increased campus security presence on minority students. “We’re not even making a demand,” she added.

Zohar Slav ’26, who attended the talk, wrote in an email to the Herald that she was “excited” for Greenblatt’s visit but didn’t find that the event added to “the dialogue about the Israel-Palestine conflict on campus” as she felt that those with opposing views to Greenblatt’s paid little attention to his words.

After attending the talk, Slav said she felt that Greenblatt lent “intelligent insight on current antisemitism” and appeared “undeterred by the walkout.”

“It was also refreshing to hear such an authority figure say that anti-Zionism is antisemitic,” she wrote.

“At Brown, like many students demonstrated, it is controversial to say such a thing, and that is exactly why it was important to bring a speaker like Jonathan Greenblatt here,” Slav wrote. “If there is no dialogue, there will be no solution.”

Other students questioned Greenblatt’s definition of antisemitism, including Beckett Warzer GS, a member of the caucus. “Greenblatt makes me, as an anti-Zionist Jew — and especially the Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students on campus I am in solidarity with — more vulnerable to censorship and discrimination when he conflates just criticism of Israel with antisemitism,” Warzer wrote in an email to The Herald.


During the event, some students held up signs reading “Divest Now” and “Anti-Zionism ≠ Antisemitism'” before leaving the auditorium, The Herald previously reported. After the walkout, the students congregated on the Main Green, where they challenged his definition of antisemitism and shared a few brief remarks.

Ariela Rosenzweig ’24, a spokesperson for students involved in the walkout, wrote in a message to the Herald that students chose to leave the event because “the ADL, with its McCarthyite approach and — as described by its former employees — an ‘intellectually dishonest’ campaign against any criticism of Israel, goes against our community’s values and the University’s commitment to free intellectual exchange.” Greenblatt has sparked backlash within the ADL for his comments equating antisemitism and anti-Zionism, according to reporting from The Guardian.

Rosenzweig disagreed that the two are equivalent, adding that “the OIED talk last Thursday offered no opportunities for dialogue but rather a platform for Greenblatt to spread his dangerous rhetoric.”

“Greenblatt insulted and demeaned an entire class of Jews on the basis of their Jewishness and their politics,” Warzer said. “Walking out in protest of that was the only appropriate response.”

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Other community members saw the walkout as a refusal to enter into a dialogue with opposing ideas.

“I admire the ADL and I admire Jonathan Greenblatt for being such a strong, outspoken advocate for the Jewish community and for communities beyond the Jewish community as well,” said Rabbi Josh Bolton, the executive director of Brown RISD Hillel.

Bolton pointed to the antisemitism that he and Jewish students have experienced on Brown’s campus recently, adding that while the Greenblatt talk was a step in the right direction, “no one invitation to Jonathan Greenblatt is going to undo the impact of the sheer number of anti-Israel, antisemitic presentations that will take place, and the things that are said in classrooms, by faculty and by students every day.”

After the event, Bolton felt “tremendous support for the Jewish community in the administration,” he said. In an op-ed for The Herald published that same night, Bolton wrote that “OIED managed to do something that no other element of the University had” by bringing together students with completely different views.

In his interview with The Herald, Bolton expressed confidence in Brown students’ ability to find community and come together despite their differences. It is “not in character” for a Brown student “to get up and leave when exposed to ideas that are different than their own,” he added.

He recalled seeing a student about to leave, turning around and sitting back down for the rest of the event.

Maya Rackoff ’25 wrote in an email to The Herald that despite identifying as “a firm Zionist,” she does not “approve of the way the Anti-Defamation League has pursued combating antisemitism since October 7th.”

The “rhetoric of the ADL has paradoxically benefited the anti-Israel cause at the expense of the pro-Israel cause,” Rackoff wrote. “Anti-Israel students don’t take Zionists seriously when the Zionists conflate every instance of Palestinian advocacy with antisemitism.” But Rackoff expressed appreciation for OIED’s invitation.

Carey-Butler stressed the role of higher education in exposing students to ideas that challenge their own and expressed her hope that the Greenblatt event contributed to viewpoint diversity on campus. But she added that she understood the pushback from students — student activism is part of “what makes Brown, Brown,” she said.

Kate Butts

Kate Butts is a Senior Staff Writer covering University Hall. Outside of the Herald, she loves running, board games and Trader Joe's snacks.

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