Renewing America Series: Countering White Supremacist Violence

Monday, March 7, 2022
Leah Millis/Reuters

Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice, Harvard Kennedy School; Former President and Chief Executive Officer, NAACP

Chief Executive Officer and National Director, ADL (Anti-Defamation League); Author, It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable—And How We Can Stop It; CFR Member

Director, Einstein Forum; Former Professor of Philosophy, Yale University and Tel Aviv University; AuthorLearning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil


Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; @Farah_Pandith

According to a recent ADL report, white supremacists were responsible for more murders in the United States in 2021 than any other type of extremist. Panelists discuss how various forms of hate take root in society and grow into larger acts of violence, both in the United States and abroad.

With its Renewing America initiative, CFR is evaluating nine critical domestic issues that shape the ability of the United States to navigate a demanding, competitive, and dangerous world.

This meeting is cosponsored by CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program.


PANDITH: Welcome to Council on Foreign Relations Renewing America Series. Today’s conversation is going to be about “Countering White Supremacist Violence.” My name is Farah Pandith and I’m an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. It is my pleasure to include you today to a conversation that is a really important one, not just for our country but for the world. We have three outstanding speakers today. I would like to welcome them. The first is Jonathan Greenblatt. Jonathan is the CEO and national director of the ADL, the world’s leading anti-hate organization. He has—with a distinguished record of fighting anti-Semitism and advocating for just and fair treatment for all. Jonathan’s career has included service at the White House along with business leadership, as a successful social entrepreneur and corporate executive. He’s the author of It Could Happen Here: Why American is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable and How We Can Stop It.

I’d like to welcome also Dr. Susan Neiman. She’s a director of the Einstein Forum in Germany. She’s formerly a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and at Yale University. She’s the author of eight books, most recently Learning From the Germans: Race and Memory of Evil.

And finally, I’d like to welcome Reverend Cornell William Brooks. He is the former CEO and president of the NAACP. He is now the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organization and professor of practice of public leadership and social justice at the Harvard Kennedy School. Thank you all for being here today.

We are going to begin this conversation with Jonathan, if you would be kind enough to give us your opening—your opening remarks. Thank you.

GREENBLATT: Thank you very much, Farah, for that nice introduction. I appreciate it. It is really a privilege for me to be here as a member of CFR on this platform, and sharing it with Dr. Neiman, who I look forward to getting to know, and my good friend Cornell Brooks, who is an advocate and an activist and an inspiration on so many levels for his career and service at the NAA and at Harvard, at the Kennedy School today. And, of course, you, Farah, whose work I have so long admired, I feel so grateful to be in relationship with.

I’m here today as CEO of the Anti-Defamation League or ADL. We’re the oldest anti-hate organization in the world. We were founded in 1913 in the wake of a Jewish being man being lynched, falsely accused of a crime, wrongfully convicted, and ultimately hung from a tree. And in that moment, this organization was created. And its founders, they wrote, again over a hundred years ago, that their purpose would be to, quote, “stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment to all.” And so for over a hundred years this organization has been at the forefront of fighting anti-Jewish hate, anti-Black racism, anti-Muslim bias, anti-Asian xenophobia, and all forms of intolerance in this country.

You know, my predecessors marched with Cornell’s predecessors together in Selma, stood together in the Rose Garden, and worked together to make America a better place for Black Americans, for American Jews, and for all its minorities. And I think as we look across the span of our work, whether it’s protect—responding to incidents, for investigating the extremists before they commit a crime, advocating for change at the courts or in Congress, or educating young people—all of that work I think has come to a fore now in this moment, when we have seen indisputably the rise of right-wing extremism, most notably in militant White supremacy. And it isn’t a new phenomenon.

You know, there’s a wonderful book—wonderful may be the wrong word—called Bring the War Home, written by a University of Chicago professor about how after the Vietnam War we saw veterans come to America, come back from the theater of war, and really start to catalyze the White supremacist movement. But we know that White supremacy has been a part of the fabric of this country for centuries. And I say this as someone who believes in American exceptionalism. I believe this is the greatest democracy in the history of—in the annals of history. It’s shown an ability to recognize that we need to strive to be a more perfect union.

And yet, it is far from perfect today. And, again, a White supremacy, the kind of racism, is at the root, I think, of our imperfections. What happened to the Native American people and the genocide to the enslavement of Africans, upon whom this country’s economy was built and upon whom so much of our political system was structured. So today as we struggle with that legacy, it is unfortunate that this threat not just of casual, if you will, anti-Black racism or White supremacy, but I am very focused at ADL on the kind of White nationalism that has been a clear and present danger for Blacks and for Jews, who so prominently figure in the mythology and the distorted worldview of this movement.

Over the last twenty-five years, we have seen the vast majority of extremist-related murders in the United States being committed by White supremacists or by people with relationship to armed militias or sovereign citizens or other groups affiliated with a kind of right-wing extremism. And we see that not just over the last twenty-five years, but every year, as we do at ADL, we track the extremist-related murders. And unfortunately, a large number of them are committed by these right-wing extremists. The vast, overwhelming majority. And there is a bit of a through-line, I would say, from what happened at Capitol Hill, working backwards to El Paso, Texas, working backward to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, working backward to Charlottesville, working backward to Charleston, South Carolina, working backward to Oak Park (sic; Oak Creek), Wisconsin, working back all the way, if you will to Oklahoma City.

So again, White nationalism in its militant form has been the cause of so much mayhem and murder it’s indisputable. Now, I think the reality is we’ve seen it rise today for a few reasons. Number one, it’s been given a kind of license by people in political office. And again, I don’t really care how people on this Zoom vote. I care about what they value. And when we have a president, in our prior leader, who literally credentialed White supremacist media for his campaign events back in 2016, to founded his political chops in militating against President Obama, making these birther claims, and so on and so forth. He gave a kind of license. He let the lunatic fringe, if you will, move from the fringe into the forefront of the conversation.

And from him to the Marjorie Taylor Greenes who spent two weekends ago at, you know, a conference hosted by Nick Fuentes—an avowed and openly and unapologetic anti-Semite and racist. And again, Marjorie Taylor Greene’s one of the largest fundraisers on the right. And Paul Gosar, who’s also a darling. And we saw condemnation on social media in the most performative, perfunctory way, but no real political consequences for these people from the Republican leadership. So I think that’s very problematic, number one.

I would say, number two, we’re in an environment where social media has facilitated that. And we know that disinformation from, you know, the halls of the Kremlin to the platforms of Meta has been such a prominent part of our information landscape today. And I think we’ll talk about the role of social media and tech. It’s very problematic. And then I think the third thing is these forces have played into polarization. And I’ll close on this before, you know, giving you back the microphone, Farah. I mean, I think we’re in a polarized society today, a polarized world really, where everything from masking precautions, COVID-19 precautions, to the books our kids read in school, to everything seems to be now not just open for discussion but ferocious, partisan, vicious debate.

And in that environment, where systems are failing and polarization flourishes, it creates a space for the kind of scapegoating, the kind of invective that White supremacists long have enjoyed. And on this I will close: While I said before, and I mean it with all sincerity, the data tells us that the right-wing extremists have been responsible for the far majority of murder and violence in this country, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. And as we have seen the far-right emerge in our polarized world, I’m also worried about the different type of threat but a real one posed by the illiberal left, which I think we also need to reckon with.

And that might fall outside the zone of violent White supremacy, I believe it does, but if we are going to repair the fabric, if we are going to rebuild, if we’re going to achieve the sort of beloved community that Dr. King talked about, we got to bring everyone together. That starts by acknowledging the issues and embracing everyone, not despite their differences but even for them. And finding the common ground that we all so desperately, I think, want to share together.

All right, Farah. Back to you.

PANDITH: Thank you so much, Jonathan. Gave us a lot to think about.

Reverend Brooks.

BROOKS: Sure. So, first of all, let me just begin with a word of appreciation to the Council on Foreign Relations for convening this conversation in this critical hour, and to Farah who I’m just coming to know and appreciating your work, and to Susan, to your work. Much appreciating for writing, thinking critically, and lifting up these issues in this time. And to my brother Jonathan, who has been fighting the good fight, the tough fight, the difficult fight, the controversial fight. Much, much respect.

So I come to this conversation, like Jonathan, having led an organization that was birthed—its genesis moment was a moment responding to hate. Bearing in mind that there are only two organizations in this republic that are a hundred years old that came into being as a consequence of racialized violence. That is to say, the Anti-Defamation League in response to the lynching of Leo Frank, and the NAACP a few years before in response to lynching literally in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln.

So now when you come out of this lineage and legacy, it punctuates, it underscores the degree to which—let me note this parenthetically and prominently—Blacks and Jews are on the frontlines. And on the frontlines, as in the frontlines of being called to respond and to fight against hate, but also on the frontlines in terms of being victimized, and being targeted, and being harassed. And to illustrate this point, let me paint a picture for you. So in my first year as the CEO of the NAACP I found myself standing in a pulpit 150 feet away from the place in which literally nine students of scripture were slain as they studied God’s word by Dylann Roof, who literally took out a gun and killed God’s students of scripture.

Now, standing that close to a Bible study in a pulpit, it reminded me that what we confront, what we’re up against represents not merely a legal challenge, not merely a policy challenge, not merely a challenge to our democracy, but profoundly a challenge of morality and ethics. There are three concerns that are before us in this moment. The first of which is underscored by the reality of the insurrection, which is to say that with respect to White supremacy, White nationalism, White people are not safe. White supremacy as a threat to our democracy means that not only are people of color not safe, not only are Jews not safe, but White people broadly, demographically understood, are not, in fact, safe.

If, indeed, any of us are imperiled, all of us are endangered. We have come to understand this in profound ways. It’s not merely Jews being beaten up on the streets of New York. It’s not merely Asian folks being assaulted. It’s not merely Latino folks and trans folks and Black folk being beaten up. It is also that our democracy itself is threatened by White nationalists, by White supremacists, by people quite willing to take up arms to intimidate, to terrorize, and to harass. And so, being clear, in this moment White nationalism, White supremacy as an ideology is a threat to all of us.

Let us know this, number two, not only are we challenged with respect to hate offensively, but we’re challenged in terms of violent hate defensively, where we have state legislatures all across the length and breadth of our republic, waging campaigns ostensibly, supposedly, against critical race theory. Which really represents, in its essence, not a ban against critical race theory, but the uncritical acceptance of racism. Which is to say, when we have a muddled and confused ban on Holocaust education, on books like Maus, and Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin, and Derrick Bell, this puts us in a weakened position, an enfeebled position, a position in which we are less well-positioned to challenge hate.

Why? Because if we cannot assert the ways in which Blacks and Jews have stood together in terms of Black history, if we cannot tell the story, the ways in which in the Civil Rights Movement and subsequent movements good people have come together to stand on the side of democracy, to stand on the side of the beloved community, to stand on the side of what is best in this country—if we can’t tell that story lies are told. Misinformation is spread. Hate is propagated. And we are all made more vulnerable.

Last point here, when we think about those who wear the uniform—who are the law enforcement or wear the uniform in terms of the military—when we think about White supremacist, White nationalists endeavoring to worm their way into the military, to worm them way into law enforcement, this should be a concern. When the FBI warned us about this, the Department of Homeland Security warned us about this well before the insurrection, and we didn’t pay attention. Now we are witnessing a moment where people who wear the blue and wear green have literally be co-opted into this hate movement.

And so the point being here is we have to be vigilant not merely with respect to standing with our law enforcement as they stand against hate, not merely with our military in terms of their defending us from threats domestic and abroad, it’s also a matter of us defending our military, defending our law enforcement in terms of those who would infiltrate and literally corrupt and corrode and undermine. This is critically important. It’s not about, like, I’m a Gandhian. I believe in nonviolence. But I was also born at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. My father was a field artillery officer. We have to protect the military from the White supremacists.

When I was CEO of the NAACP, I raged against police misconduct, raged against police brutality. But there were police officers who ensured our safe passage from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C. on a historic march. And so in this moment we’re having a critical conversation that really demands the best of us, the most of us. And we have to approach this moment with an open heart, wide-eyed, and in a place where we’re open to the best ideas, the best policy prescriptions, with a deep, deep sense of resolve.

PANDITH: Reverend Brooks, that was so powerful. And thank you so much for what you said. I loved this idea of ownership, all of us. Each one of us has to make a difference.

Susan, I’m hoping that you can reflect on the comments of both Jonathan and Reverend Brooks and also, in addition to that, maybe say a word about the importance of understanding history, and are there repetitions that you have seen?

NEIMAN: Sure. And let me say, it’s a pleasure to meet all of you. A lot of admiration for both of your work. Jonathan, I’ve got to say, I’m not an American exceptionalist, and I will tell—say a few words about why I’m not in a moment. But that’s OK. We can agree to disagree on that. And, Cornell, I absolutely loved what you said in your few remarks. And I found it unfortunately unusual, a lot of the discourse. The idea that White supremacy affects all of us—it’s a danger for all of us can’t be repeated often enough. I’ve been in discussions sometimes where I have said: I’m not an ally, sorry. This is my fight too. And gotten a certain amount of flack for it, at which point I quote Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she said: Actually, Eichmann should have been tried for crimes against humanity rather than crimes against the Jewish people. I thoroughly agree. I think it’s a more important remark than she knew at the time.

And your injunction to tell the story of how in American history many different people have worked together to fight against hatred, to fight against White supremacy is something very close to my heart. When I had the privilege of interviewing Bryan Stevenson for my book, one of the—Learning from the Germans—one of the most interesting things he said to me was there are White people in the South who opposed lynching. There were White people in the South who were abolitionists. And you don’t know their names. And the fact that we don’t know their names is the most important fact of all. And he was arguing that, you know, in the same way that all over the South are plastered various reminders of the Civil War, one really needs to build reminders to that. I’m not talking about White savior complexes, which is, you know, sort of what you get hit with as soon as you insist that.

I will mention something that some people might—it might make some people angry. When last year the series Underground Railroad came out I was very excited. You know, it got a lot of hype in the beginning and said it was going to replace Gone with the Wind as the national narrative of the Civil War. And I thought, great. You know, that certainly needs to be replaced. But I was really disturbed by the fact that it was kind of a reverse-mirror image of Gone with the Wind, in the sense that Black people had all the virtues. They were strong, they were kind, they took care of each other. You know, they were inventive, creative, all of that stuff. And White people had none whatsoever, with the exception of the one person who turned out to father the slavecatcher, who was the worse person of all.

And I was even more appalled—I watched it—when I went to look at the reviews. Now, it’s a beautiful film. Barry Jenkins is a terrific filmmaker. There’s no question about that, cinematography. Not a single review that I saw addressed that question at all. And it’s simply not a true picture of the Underground Railroad. I’ve just been doing some work on one of my heroes, Paul Robeson, who talks about, you know, his own father who escaped from slavery and what he told him about the Underground Railroad. So I just—I truly appreciate the idea that this is all of our fight. It’s not a question of one tribe rather than another tribe. It’s a question of justice or injustice. And that’s my view.

About history, I imagine the reason I was asked to speak on this panel is because, as a—well, I should start out by saying I’m actually from Atlanta, although you don’t hear it anymore. I grew up in The Temple that really nobody outside Atlanta had ever heard of until Jon Ossoff was elected to the Senate, and then suddenly everybody knew it. There had been this very strong connection between The Temple and Ebenezer Baptist Church. And that’s kind of what my childhood was like. So that’s where I came from. I wound up many years ago, now going on four decades, in Berlin as a Jew, and as somebody who then had to think more than I had ever thought before about the Holocaust and—which my family was not directly affected by it; they were all safely out of the Ukraine, as a matter of fact, by the end of the last century—and to watch the way the German people have dealt with that part of their history.

Now, when I gave my book the rather provocative title Learning from the Germans, I did not mean to suggest that the Germans have done everything right. On the contrary, they haven’t and there’s plenty of stuff that they did wrong in the beginning and that they’re doing wrong today. But when I read about and hear about the battles that are going on in the United States, about, you know, how much historical information to give children and the idea that states are passing legislation arguing that nothing that ever makes anyone uncomfortable should be taught in—(laughs)—in American schools system, I have to shake my head more than shake my head.

What many people outside Germany don’t know is that in the forty years after the war, the Germans thought of themselves as the worst victims of World War II. It sounds incredible, but actually if you look carefully at what they were saying it sounds very much like today’s defenders of the lost cause, right? We lost our war, our cities were in ashes, we lost seven million people. I mean, this is the Germans. You know, our men were in POW camps. We were hungry, just barely alive. I mean, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is actually the sort of thing that you would hear for about forty years among most West German citizens.

It look a long time of public education, of grassroots organizing, through churches, through intellectual groups, artists, students. But it really made—even though it’s deeply imperfect, and I’m actually involved politically in some pushback on some features of the German way of dealing with Jews in particular, it’s the kind of work that has led to something that I’ve just witnessed in the past few days and witnessed six years ago. I know you’re all further away from the war than we are. The war feels very close here. And there have been thousands of people coming to the train stations with little cardboard signs saying: I speak German and English, or hopefully Russian and Ukrainian. I have a place for two people to sleep. Come to my place. You have thousands of people standing on the train station.

And German did this in 2015 for victims of the Syrian War. I’m rather angry at the Poles—not all of them, of course. Poland refused to take a single refugee from Syria or Afghanistan. White supremacist is still a real problem in Poland, and I would argue largely because they have not dealt with their history. But in Germany, literally people are opening their homes to refugees, as they did six years ago. I called, actually, and said my kids are grown, I have an extra room. (Laughs.) And I haven’t yet been—there’s so many volunteers that they’re being turned away. So that’s the kind of vision that I would like to see in the United States. And I think it can only happen through an examination of what we’ve done wrong historically.

PANDITH: That’s really insightful, Susan. I really appreciate that.

I am going to just give a heads-up to our members who are on the call that in a couple of minutes we’re going to open up for questions. As you prepare for your question I’ll give you some instructions. But before we get there, I do want to just ask a broader—a broader connect because, Susan, you were talking about what was happening in Germany and Poland, how people have thought about things. And this directly connects to the Council on Foreign Relations. Why is this topic, the rise of White supremacy, important in foreign affairs? Why does it matter to all of us? And this is a growth industry. Hate isn’t going away. It’s getting worse. So I’d like to ask all the panelists to just reflect on that for a moment and just give me your comments with the—with the understanding that we need to move to members shortly.

Perhaps we can start with Cornell, if you would go first, and then Jonathan, and then Susan.

BROOKS: Sure. So this is—this subject is critically important to the Council on Foreign Relations. If we take a page from history, the fact that the Nazis studied America’s Jim Crow laws, the fact that the Nazis looked at America’s one-drop rule—that is to say, having one drop of Black blood made one Black—and they deemed it to be too stringent. That they looked at our system for putting Native Americans on reservations, and this inspired their thinking with respect to the mistreatment of Jewish people, the Roma, and so many others. The fact that hate crosses borders, that lawyers assist, aid, and abet hate crossing borders is a sober reminder that in this moment we cannot have a false dichotomy between domestic threats in terms of terrorism, international threats in terms of terrorism, but understand that we have to approach these challenges with both a political, legal—political and legal sophistication, and also a moral sophistication. So this is critically important for the Council.

PANDITH: Thank you so much. Susan.

NEIMAN: So I would just point out something that not everybody knows about. The international right—I mean, White supremacists—are very well-connected. They all get along with each other and they all give each other advice. And it’s extraordinarily sad that, you know, the left always loses itself in, you know, small battles and disagreements and are unable to come together in the way that the White nationalist right has done. Steve Bannon gives advice to the German right-wing party, the Alternative for Deutschland.

In fact, one of the pieces of advice—I don’t know this 100 percent. I mean, I—but let’s say an idea that I believe came through Steve Bannon and translated to the German right is: You can be as racist as you like in any other way, as long as you say we hate the Holocaust, and we love the state of Israel. You can get away with anything else. And that has become a real problem. That is an international problem in Poland and Hungary, in the United States, in Germany. And it’s become a real problem here.

So, you know, looking at those connections—but even more important, simply knowing about those connections and realizing that those of us who want to stand up for White supremacy are not going to win unless we can at least be as well-connected and have as much solidarity as they do. That seems really important.

PANDITH: Excellent. Thank you so much. And Jonathan.

GREENBLATT: There’s so much to respond to what’s been said. Number one, I guess I would agree with how you laid it out and a bit of building upon what Susan was just saying. I mean, White supremacy is a global terror threat. White supremacy—European White supremacists marched in Charlottesville. American White supremacists took inspiration from Anders Breivik. They’re constantly—he’s the man who—I don’t want to get into it—but a notorious and nasty Scandinavian White supremacist who murdered a lot of people. I mean, look, I think the reality is social media and online environments have enabled a kind of cross-pollination that never happened before. Globalization, that kind of travel, has enabled a kind of cross-pollination that never happened before.

And, you know, what Dr. Neiman was just saying is true. I mean, Steve Bannon has brought his unique brand of misanthropism and racism to Europe, to significant effect. And I think we can’t ignore how consequential this is. I think something else that Cornell was saying before deserves to be reupped, which is, you know, we know groups like the Three Percenters, like the Oath Keepers in particular, and the Proud Boys have actively recruited military and law enforcement, both former and current membership. They recruit them because many of these people are accelerationists who believe that civil war is coming and want to hasten its arrival. They recruit them because they want the training and the respectability that ostensibly they can provide. And they want them because, as we’ve seen play out, like, at Capitol Hill or in other moments, these folks can have very—they can act as force multipliers for the larger group.

So Cornell mentioned that, but it really deserves some attention because the Germans have struggled with this issue too. Even Scandinavian countries have struggled with this issue too. They’ve struggled in France too, where White supremacists—or, I’d like—I prefer to call them White nationalists. Because White supremacy is a condition. The White nationalists are the ones who militate, who seek to create a White—like, a White nation, if you will. They want to push out minorities, Jews, Blacks, and other—Muslims, and otherwise.

And then the last thing I’ll just say is—again, building on something else that Cornell said that’s so important, Farah. And I think this is—you know, again, Dr. Neiman as just talking about this. But I do think that the left—using that construct, I think, is actually not that helpful. There is a left and right and center here of people who may have different political ideas but can come together to push back on hatred of all types. And again, regardless of how they vote at the polls, look, if you don’t believe the election happened, you think President Obama was born in Kenya, you’re kind of beyond the pale. And many people affiliated with the GOP may be, indeed, beyond the pale.

But I think we’ve got to move past the kind of conventional political demarcations to try to build a collation of the willing. Because, as Cornell was saying, Blacks and Jews do have so much in common. And we have a shared understanding of suffering. And I do think there is an opportunity to build a kind of coalition here which isn’t necessarily—I mean, this is a moment, Farah. We’re at, like, that part of the road. And we need people from all sides. I don’t agree with Liz Cheney on a lot of things. I don’t agree with Representative Kinzinger on a lot of things. But if we can find ways to come together, irrespective of this left-right, you know, connotation, and come together as a moral coalition, I think that’s essential if you want to move past this moment to a better future for our children or our grandchildren.

PANDITH: Said beautifully, Jonathan. I do want to say two things before we open it up to questions. The first is, you know, the money that is shared, the raising of money, allows groups and movements to happen. And that is not singularly an American problem. It is connected around the world. Secondly, I want to echo what Reverend Brooks said. It is clear that the us-versus-them ideology has no borders. And if you think that the tactics that a group like ISIS used is not being duplicated by White supremacists of all kinds in our country—no matter what group it is. That they have learned from the best and they are mimicking—and every group does this. This is an international plague.

So as we think about the rise of hate, as we think about what’s happening in our country, I hope that members that are listening today understand two things. One is obviously something that’s connected globally. But, secondly, to echo what all three of our amazing speakers have said, it takes all of us. Every single one of us, it takes all of us to work together to stop the rise of hate. Toward that end, I’m going to open it up for questions from our members and invite them to take part. I’m going to ask the CFR operator to give us instructions, and we’ll go from there.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We will take our first question from Tyler Godoff.

PANDITH: Tyler, please identify yourself.

Q: Sure. Thank you so much. Very important conversation here. Tyler Godoff, general partner, Emerging Founder.

Susan, I’d be interested to know your stance on why you don’t believe in American exceptionalism. And, Jonathan, I really appreciate your mentioning that the left has a problem as well. Can you talk about how that manifests itself and how it’s different from what occurs on the right? Thank you.

PANDITH: Susan, you need to unmute. Yeah.

NEIMAN: You know, again, I’m going to try to make this really short, about why I don’t—why I’m—I don’t believe in American exceptionalism. I could talk for a long time about that. One of the things—unfortunately, my internet went out when I believe Jonathan was telling me “the left” is not a helpful term to use, if I—at least, it sounded like that’s what you started to say. I think many people who live in America do not realize how far American assumptions are to the right of most of the rest of the world. Bernie Sanders would be to the right of Angela Merkel, if you looked at their policy programs. And she’s a center-right—she was a center-right chancellor.

Our assumptions are really very different from, you know, what the rest of the world takes for granted. I’ll just give you one small example, and I could give hundreds. When the pandemic began, and I mentioned to Europeans that many people had to work while they were sick, or even couldn’t get—later on, couldn’t get vaccinated because they couldn’t take the time off work because there’s no such thing as sick leave, it isn’t as if they looked at me and said, oh, gee, that’s too bad, or something. They looked at me as if I had told them, yeah, we chop up little babies and eat them for breakfast. They thought it was utterly barbaric and find it extremely hard to get into their heads.

So there’s a whole set of assumptions like that that American is simply behind where many other countries are. I love American people, at least, you know, vast numbers of them. There are lots of things in American culture that I love and admire and miss when I’m not there. But I think that many of the, you know, claims that we’re the greatest nation on Earth, and freest, and the most democratic are often made by people who really don’t know enough about what it’s like to live elsewhere, what it’s like to work elsewhere, what kinds of labor laws there are elsewhere. You know, so that’s one thing.

However, though, the question of problems on the left, I actually just wrote a paper about, you know, why I don’t think people who are often called “left” or “far left” or “woke left” are actually adhering to what I consider important principles of the left, like international solidarity rather than tribalism. And there are a lot of—a lot of problems in a whole range of opinions, not just in the U.S. but also now in Europe, that are being called “left” that—I mean, Jonathan referred earlier to the illiberal left. I would agree with that, but I would go one step further and say I—there is a left-wing tradition, which I admire and belong to, that has been abandoned by many people who call themselves left today.

PANDITH: Thank you so much, Susan.

Jonathan, do you want to respond before we go to the next question?

GREENBLATT: Very quickly. So, to respond to Tyler, like, just to clarify, so when I talk about threats from the right and the left, it’s very clear to me—the way I would characterize it is threats from the extreme right are like—are like a seismic event, Tyler. Like a bomb cyclone that will hit your house, and knock it down, and kill everyone inside in an instant. And White—the violence of right-wing extremists, as I said before, is indisputable. What we’ve seen in the last twenty-five years—assaults, violence, murder. It’s real.

And yet, I would say that illiberalism of the far-left is a bit more like climate change. Whereas the extreme right hits you in the face, the illiberal left slowly, slowly the temperature rises. Some deny it, some ignore it, some try to adjust to it. But suddenly, suddenly the temperature gets to high that the habitat or the place where you live is no longer a habitat in which you can be comfortable. The space that you occupy is no longer a place where you can be. And so it’s more of a war of ideas than a war of violence, but it can be equally uncomfortable, for particularly minorities who don’t fit into a construct.

All that being said, and there are lots of examples of self-censorship. There’s an op-ed in The New York Times which is worth reading today by a young graduating senior at UVA who talks about this. But all that being said, when I was responding to Dr. Neiman, I think, like, left, right, your point, Dr. Neiman, about Bernie and Angela Merkel, like these are labels we throw around. If we’re going to beat back bigotry, if we’re going to fight hate, I don’t want us to get locked into labels. I want us to create a coalition of moral power, a coalition of kind of imagination that is bigger than the political conventional wisdom of the time.

Because I think there are people on the so-called right who could be a part of this, but who might feel alienated if we, again, attach labels to it. And I say this as someone who worked for President Clinton and President Obama. Like, you can see where I have been, and yet to fight the fight today I think we’ve got to get past the partisan politics and align around something even greater, more powerful, more inspiring.

NEIMAN: Look, where democracy is completely under threat, I’ll take Liz Cheney any day, no question about that.

PANDITH: I want to make sure that we give Reverend Brooks a chance to respond as well.

BROOKS: I just wanted to note something parenthetically. You can challenge the empirical basis of American exceptionalism. But I challenge everyone to think about the aspirational efficacy of challenging people to believe that America can be the best in the world in terms of vanquishing hate, challenging people to believe that we can be the best in the world in terms of rooting out anti-Semitism and racism and Islamophobia. So there’s a certain power in that, even if you dispute the empirical basis for it.

PANDITH: Excellent. I want to make sure we get to more members. So if I our operator can choose another raised hand, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Mora McLean.

Q: Thank you. Mora McLean with the Africa-America Institute.

I very much appreciate the fact of this conversation, and also that the Council is actually doing this. We talked—the question was raised as to what the relevance of it is to the Council. The very discipline of international affairs is rooted in a history of White supremacy and concerns about race war. If anybody delves into that history, how the discipline came into being, Woodrow Wilson and all those people, it was precisely a history of global White supremacy as a given—taken as a given.

So my question goes to the point that Dr. Neiman made about Americans and their ignorance of what other people take for granted around the world, such as health care, and to Dr. Brooks’ point about the assault on critical thinking that is the lumping of anything that has anything to do with race under this crude category of critical—it’s been made crude and meaningless—critical race theory, in order to prevent us from becoming more educated and enlightened. And the fact that this is impacting higher ed, there are threats to people who attempt to teach it in college classrooms all the way down to elementary. So I’m curious about your thoughts on what an organization like the Council might do to both examine the discipline from which it emerges as well as assaults on critical thinking about these issues within academic institutions and beyond.

PANDITH: Thank you very much, Mora. I really appreciate it. I’m going to also ask you—I will ask all three of you to comment on this because there’s a component to the solution side that all of you have talked about. So this is a concrete way, what do we do about all of this? So I’m going to go in the reverse order on my screen. Reverend Brooks and then Jonathan and then Susan, please.

BROOKS: Sure. So if we look at the work of our leading organizations in terms of combatting hate, everyone has as a part of their program a central pillar of public education. Public education presupposed truth, presupposes a truthfulness and a veracity of claims. So to the extent that there’s a movement being led against critical race theory, to the extent that it represents a kind of intellectual caricature, the Council on Foreign Relations as a space for providing thoughtful voices, clear voices, accurate voices, could do a whole lot in the public policy space to make it clear how dangerous this is, right? So in other words, when we conflate critical race theory with Black history, when we conflate critical race theory with Holocaust studies, when we conflate critical race theory with all manner of things that children should be learning, it is not just inaccurate, it’s dangerous. And we have this opportunity to literally create the space for public policy leaders to call this out. That is critically important.

The second point here is making it clear that this is not a matter of the province of state legislatures and public schools, but this is really a frontline, if you will, against hate. We cannot minimize that point because, let me put it this way, where you have teachers literally saying, well, can we teach the Diary of Anne Frank? Can we talk about Maus? Can we mention Elie Wiesel or Toni Morrison? This is a very serious moment intellectually. It’s a serious moment as a matter of policy. And it’s a serious matter of morality. And the Council on Foreign Relations, as a—as a space that has intellectual gravitas, this is precisely the place to call that kind of stuff out.

PANDITH: Thank you very much. Jonathan.

GREENBLATT: Look, I think Cornell, just as he always does, put it so well and so eloquently. I mean, I think we do need, as I said before, to build coalitions to fight back. I think it is—I mean, the ADL was founded on the premise that, again, the Jewish people could not be safe unless all people were safe. And it’s really why I wrote this book, I mean, to share tactics and strategies about ways that we can mobilize, whether you’re an HR manager, or a teacher—like, a middle school teacher or a college professor, both of which are, I think, implicit in how Cornell was just framing that, or a member of the clergy, or a political scientist, or a public servant.

I think all of us have a role to play. And we need to think about how we can invoke our own particular better angels to do that. You know, people have different tools at their disposal. But speaking out when you hear hate happen, even when it comes from your own team, from your own tribe. And wherever it happens—on your Facebook wall, or in your Twitter feed, or in the locker room, or at the water cooler, or the dinner table.

Secondly, like, sharing facts. You know, really, like, dialing down the drama and not, you know, forwarding some crazy email or just flaming someone on social media, but trying to be sober and treat people—do unto others, right, the golden rule. Treat people as you would want to be treated. And then, thirdly, you know, showing strength. Which means I think you got to be in it to win it. Like, you got to be involved. Show up. Like, vote, volunteer, get engaged. The way that we win, the way that we beat this back, whatever your political persuasion, whatever your nationality might be, is by all of us leaning in and together finding common cause to create, again, as Cornell talked about earlier, that, you know, beloved community that Dr. King aspired to and envisioned.

PANDITH: Thank you so much, Jonathan. That is really important. I was going to ask you for some concrete examples that you outline in your book about what an average person can do. Can I just ask you? I mean, you gave broad categories. Give me an example of a thing, somebody you met that sort of deployed one of your tactics.

GREENBLATT: Well, look, I mean, one of the most powerful stories in the book is about Damien Patton, who was a young man who grew up in Southern California, alienated. He was actually of Jewish descent, though not practicing. Got involved in gangs, eventually White supremacist groups. He was involved in committing a really ugly potentially lethal act of vandalism at a synagogue in Tennessee. Was arrested, let off because he was a minor, went on to have a career as a successful entrepreneur. And eventually somebody found out that this was the Damien Patton who committed this crime. Outed him. He lost his job at the company he’d founded. He was the CEO moving toward a public offering. He lost everything he had.

And I have gotten to know him over the last few years and watched him rebuild. And he’s an inspiration. He’s an inspiration in how he has acknowledged his past, not only come clean but made amends by volunteering, by donating, by engaging. And I really admire Damien. And his story in the book I think is one of the most powerful examples, I mean, of this Jewish value of tschuva. I mean, Jews believe in this idea that we can—this is why I don’t believe in cancel culture. I believe in what’s known as, what I call, counsel culture. I don’t get credit for that term. It was Nick Cannon who coined it. This notion that we all can acknowledge that we make mistakes, we’re all created in the image of God, and we all need to realize the limits of our limits. So we can err, we can acknowledge that, and we can seek to do better. I think we all need—a bit more counsel culture versus cancel culture versus cancel culture would go a long way in this country, I think.

PANDITH: Thank you very much, Jonathan. Susan. And I want to remind the audience that, in fact, we do have to close directly at 2:00. So some of the members will not have a chance to ask their questions. My apologies. Susan, please.

NEIMAN: Yeah, let me be—I’ll try to be very brief. Since I’m not a member of the Council on Foreign Relations I can’t speak directly to what the Council can do. But I can speak to what all of us could do and, you know, any responsible organization can contribute. And this goes back to the question of American exceptionalism. One reason why I’m not in America—I mean, yeah, I like Cornell’s remark about American exceptionalism being aspirational. Insofar as it works, I’m for it. But I also think it’s incredibly important that we realize the ways in which we’re not exceptional, and we’re connected with other people. Americans—

PANDITH: Oh, Susan, you’re frozen. OK, while we get Susan back we have four minutes. So I’m going to ask for a quick question. Operator, could you kindly unmute—yes, thank you.

OPERATOR: Yep. We will take our last question from Anthea Butler.

Q: Hi. Anthea Butler here.

NEIMAN: —have to see their own story—

PANDITH: I’m sorry. One second. Susan, can you hear us? OK. Go ahead. Sorry for interrupting you. Please go head.

Q: My ears perked up on this conversation because I heard Anders Breivik mentioned. And you made the comment, Jonathan, that we did not need to really talk about that. But I want to respectfully disagree. This is one of the places where religion plays a big role in this role of White nationalism. And this is not the conversation that I really heard today. And I want to encourage you all to think about that, because this is part operational. And I think I’d like to hear from the Reverend what you might have to say about that, because we all know that for some of these people this is not just about belief in White nationalism, it’s a belief about how they see their Christianity and how they think the world should go.

BROOKS: That’s right. You know, as someone who studied systematic theology and social ethics, it pains me to say that there is—you know, White supremacy represents not merely a political philosophy, but a theology. And so it is incumbent upon the religions community in particular to call this out. In other words, there’s kind of White supremacist soft theology as well as hard theology. In other words, the soft, subtle ways in which we discount, devalue people based on race, ethnicity, identity in our churches, mosques, synagogues, and other holy places. And so we have to do that, obviously, form the pulpit, from the bema. We certainly need to do it in writing. But we also need to do it in terms of how we manage our organizations.

And a lot of that has to do with asserting that when somebody else’s house is hit, it’s your house that’s hit, right? So in other words, when Poway and Tree of Life were hit, it’s like Mother Emmanuel being hit. Or when I was at the NAACP, I discovered people put echo signs around Jewish names. I saw people at CNN, they had lists of Jewish journalists. So, as the CEO of an organization founded by Blacks and Jews, I put echo signs around the NAACP and my own name. Here’s my point, sometimes a theological statement is made physically, bodily, right? In other words, we have to embody our opposition to hate, and it has everything to do with literally understanding that this is not merely political philosophy. And I’m glad you raised some of these ugly examples of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and the ways in which, you know, frankly, some of our religious institutions have been brave, others have been timid. More need to be brave.

PANDITH: Really, like, the perfect—oh, Jonathan, please.

GREENBLATT: I just wanted to say, I didn’t want to mention Breivik because I didn’t want to dignify him. Identitarianism and this—the fusing of pseudo-religion, if you will, with hatred—Anthea’s absolutely right. It’s fundamental to this worldview. And so I didn’t mean to discount that, I just, again, didn’t want to dignify him. But you’re right to raise it.

PANDITH: Thank you. I want to thank all three of you for an extraordinary conversation. Jonathan Greenblatt, Reverend Cornell William Brooks, Susan Neiman. Thank you very, very much for your comments. I want to thank also the Council on Foreign Relations for making this topic a priority. It’s very important and it’s so needed. I also want to thank the members who took part today, and to remind you that this is a session that has been on the record. So if you’d like to see it on the CFR website, you may do so and there will be a transcript available as well.

Thank you all for coming and have a really safe and good day.


This is an uncorrected transcript.


Top Stories on CFR


U.S. Presidents Trump and Biden have both turned to tariffs to support local industries amid economic confrontation with China. Here’s how these taxes work and how they’ve been used historically.



The new defense treaty demonstrates a growing closeness between the two pariah states that is likely to make the rest of the world uneasy.