Melanie Robbins on the Campbell Conversations

Mar 31, 2018

Anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise in recent years, across New York and the nation. This week on the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Melanie Robbins, the Senior Associate Regional Dirtector of the Anti-Defamation League's New York chapter. They discuss their work in identifying the problem and educating citizend and government organizations on the best ways to combat the rise in anti-Semitism.

Interview Highlights

Reeher: Give our listeners a brief background on the Anti-Defamation League, its history, its mission and some of its current activities.

Melanie Robbins
Credit Melanie Robbins

Robbins: The mission of the Anti-Defamation League is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment for all. We are a 100-plus-year-old organization pursuing agenda items across the spectrum of civil rights issues, notably on the issue of hate crimes. We do a lot of educational work. We also work very closely with law enforcement. So, we address the issue of hate initially through the lens of anti-Semitism, which is where we were founded from, but as you heard in that mission, it has always had a dual mission…That was really prophetic in some ways for an organization that was established in the early 20th century. And we always understood that if minorities anywhere were under threat, so too is the Jewish community, and vice versa…We have a lot of different areas of our work, including our work on anti-Semitism, but again, that is just one way that we address hate more broadly through education, advocacy and our work even investigating extremism and working to train law enforcement on these issues as well.

Reeher: Is there anything specific to the New York chapter, as opposed to other chapters around the country, that people should know?

Robbins: We are a nationwide organization…We have 26 regional offices and an office in Israel. Here in New York, we cover all of New York state, and we also have a very important focus on inclusivity and interfaith and intergroup engagement, as we call it. So, we are working very closely with community partners so that our advocacy work is not only in the halls of Congress or here in the state legislature, but also in our communities, building up coalitions and meaningful partnerships to address our shared issues and concerns in our communities.

Reeher: I was struck by looking at some of the activities of the organization that you take a stand on a variety of issues. You’ve taken stands on immigration, the Trump administration’s travel ban…Has that always been a signature aspect of the organization—to have that broad portfolio—or has that been something that has changed in recent years?

Robbins: Both are kind of correct. Our mission has always had a broader scope, and during different times of our nation’s history, we have certainly emphasized different areas of our work. We’ve been active on voting issues or equal-access issues…Today, what we see is that the scope and just broad impact of hate has really encouraged this need to look at this in more ways than one, so that’s part of the rise in the importance of our work in the center on extremism, for example…This underlying mission has always seen that hate is correlated one to the other. If one community is feeling targeted, others communities are too. So, while we are founded in our Jewish tradition and community, we’ve always understood that if we’re only for ourselves, that’s not going to fix the problem either.

Reeher: You had talked before…about it seeming like people were feeling just more empowered and less hesitant to put these things out there in comparison to the past, so the big question of course is why is that happening? Why do you think that there has been this really significant uptick in these kinds of incidents in the last few years?

Robbins: One thing I want to make really clear, and it seems silly sometimes to just lay it out as simply as it is, but anti-Semitism is real, and it’s growing, especially among certain segments of society. So, we have to start by at least recognizing and understanding that. We see it every day, and it’s widespread, so this growth is certainly part of that emboldenment that we’re seeing. But, one thing that people often raise is, “OK, well, maybe there’s an increased awareness of these issues, and so, people are reporting more.” That is certainly part of the answer, but there’s a confluence of factors that we believe are contributing to the increase. So, I mentioned before this notion, the diminishment of civility in society. Whether that was the rhetoric around the election or what has happened since the election, we definitely see that diminishment of civility in our discourse, and we believe that is part of the issue…There’s certainly an extent in which reporting has increased, but that does not explain a 90 percent increase, for sure…You’re seeing a platform being given in new ways and in different ways than what we’ve seen in addition to these other concerning issues around the civility and the fact that, of course, there is an actual issue here to begin with. In addition to that, you have copycat effects…You also think about online hate. This is a huge area of our work, is looking at hate online and how we can address it and combat it. But, that’s certainly been a factor in all of this as well.

Reeher: There may be some kind of progression of emboldenment that starts with online conversations and then gets taken offline…The more that we see of this, then, it’s kind of a pathway toward more expression of these kinds of things. Do you think there’s something to that?

Robbins: Certainly, and we see it [in] the incidents that we get here, that I see in our New York office alone. We get incidents where students start by bullying each other in various online platforms…and that has actually led to assaults, to harassment or continued harassment. So, we’ve certainly started to see, at least from a qualitative place, I can say 100 percent that we’re seeing this happening…It is certainly a big concern and something that we are consistently monitoring and working with law enforcement partners to ensure that when we see rising threats online and serious threats online that we are working with law enforcement to hopefully avoid any future violence as well.

Reeher: [It] is always a conundrum, I think, for thinking about the way the media reports things when it comes to behavior that we don’t want to have…You want the media to be paying attention to this because it’s important and we need to focus our collective attention on the problem. At the same time, it exposes this behavior to more people. And, I don’t know if you have a thought about that or how we should be thinking about where to come down on that, but it seems that there’s a double edge to that, that you can’t really escape.

Robbins: There’s certainly some truth to that, and it is just, I think, one of the catch-22s of the world that we’re in. But, we definitely see the importance and consistently encourage our elected officials, our leaders, our clergy and other public figures to call out and expose hate when they see it…Again, I would emphasize that this kind of hatred comes from extreme left, and it comes from the extreme right, and we need to be calling out it from all issues. This is not a partisan issue. But, we do really need the media also to be covering this so that we’re aware of just how impactful and devastating in times these scenarios can be—these incidents—and the impacts that it has on our community and hopefully bring that conversation back to a place where we can have an actual civil conversation about the issues. But the awareness-raising piece is very important, and it leads us also to new ways to fight back.

Reeher: There are a lot of citizens in this country who are very worried about these trends, and some of that worry, I think, has been channeled into political activism, and some of that political activism has been partisan. Some of it hasn’t. I’m curious to hear what you would suggest to people who are concerned about this. What can they do beyond or outside of political activity, perhaps, to help address the issue?

Robbins: There’s a lot of things people can do. It can begin even in your day-to-day interactions, making sure that when you see something that is concerning—vandalism, a graffiti that is hateful against any community—to make sure that you report that. I think that is the most basic thing people can be doing and one of the most important things people can be doing…Then, there are ways to be more actively engaged, bring anti-bias and anti-bullying programs into your school systems…Then, there’s just staying up to date, as you said, on the political side, but following policy issues that matter to you, whether that’s voting rights or hate crime legislation…These are all definitely ways that you can be involved. And, when I say report hate, I also mean reporting hate online. Everyone has to be part of the public square when they’re out there and calling these things out in the digital world as well as the physical world.

Reeher: Tell me a little bit more about the work that you do with law enforcement. You mentioned that at the very outset. I’m curious to hear a little bit more about what kind of things you do with the police force.

Robbins: We’re actually the largest non-governmental trainer of law enforcement, and we do that through a variety of different programs. One of them is our Law Enforcement and Society Program, which actually all of the new FBI recruits out of D.C. attend. And locally, we do this program also in Long Island…This is a program, really, to look at the core values of being a community police force and what does that look like today and how can we learn from the history of World War II and looking at the implications in today’s world. We also do work on hate crimes trainings…We also do implicit bias training for law enforcement, which is a newer program that we have recently rolled out across the country and something that we’re very excited to be engaging in because it’s such a core part of the values of community policing and something that we have been doing anyways for decades with our educational work…Lastly, we take our center on extremism and do briefings for law enforcement on very specific issues depending on what are the needs of that law enforcement agency…Then, we just work on the day-to-day with different partners…to ensure that when there are incidents of anti-Semitism that they’re aware that sometimes, community members feel more comfortable to come and report to us.

Reeher: Do you worry where we are as a country and where we might be going?

Robbins: I am not worried. I believe that this is a moment which we’re all going to look back on and say, “Wow, we made it through, and it was so important that we did.” I’m a mother of two young kids, and I do look at this question every day, but I do believe this is an important process and that we’re airing concerns that are important to the advancement of our communities and our society, and we’re doing the good fight. And I’m positive about that.