ADL Embroiled in Alabama Controversy

ADL Embroiled in Alabama Controversy

After months of dispute, the Anti-Defamation League finds itself on the outs with the school district in a wealthy Birmingham suburb.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Drive west on Interstate 20 from Atlanta for about two hours, take exit 132 and follow Montevallo Road southwest, and you come to Mountain Brook, Ala.

Danny Cohn, CEO of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the roughly 5,000 Jews who live in the metro area reside in Mountain Brook and nearby Homewood.

Allison Padilla-Goodman is vice president of the ADL’s Southern region.

Southern Jewish Life magazine recently recounted that “… when families started moving ‘over the mountain’ into the suburbs in the 1950s, there was an ‘unwritten understanding’ that Jews moved to Mountain Brook but ‘did not’ move to neighboring Vestavia. Even in Mountain Brook, at first there were some neighborhood developments to where Jews were urged not to move, and Jews were not members of the Birmingham or Mountain Brook Country Clubs until recently.”

Mountain Brook, known locally as “The Tiny Kingdom,” is 97 percent white, has a median household income of $130,000, and is home to a school system that sends more than 90 percent of its graduates to college.

This is where the Anti-Defamation League found itself embroiled in controversy.

A video posted online in May 2020 showed young men laughing as a black marker was used to draw two swastikas and write the word ‘Heil’ on the back of a shirtless Mountain Brook student. Local news media reported that some of those involved in the incident — which took place away from school grounds — were from Mountain Brook.

The Mountain Brook district sent parents a letter saying that, “The conduct exhibited in the video is in direct conflict with the values of the school system.”

After the video appeared, “many Jewish students and alumni recalled swastikas and slurs at school that were brushed under the rug, and overt Christian missionizing in the schools and by fellow students, going back over the decades,” SJL reported.

Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the ADL’s Southern region, told the AJT that, “Well before the swastika incident we had been hearing concerns from Jewish families in Mountain Brook about anti-Semitism.”

Rabbi Adam Wright of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham.

Rabbi Adam Wright of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, told the AJT that while Jewish families in Mountain Brook have faced “intolerance at a religiosity level” in the predominantly Christian region, there have been small, but noticeable, changes in recent years. “It’s a lot of nuance,” he said.

When the video surfaced, Cohn told the Birmingham News, “I think this is going to be a valuable lesson not only for the children involved, but the Mountain Brook community in general to take a hard look at the community internally and say how did we get to where these children — and they are children — would have even thought that putting a swastika on their back with the word ‘heil’ was appropriate?”

Cohn was a member of a diversity committee formed in June 2020 in response to not only the anti-Semitic incident but also tensions stemming from the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Committee members who are not Jewish recommended involving the ADL, he said.

Padilla-Goodman said that the ADL previously had sought to introduce its “No Place for Hate” program, an educational framework to combat bias and bullying, in Mountain Brook. The program has been instituted in some 1,600 schools nationwide.

A long-simmering pot boiled over this summer when a group of Mountain Brook parents linked the ADL to one of this summer’s hot-button issues.

Depending on your view, Critical Race Theory is either the idea that the teaching of American history should acknowledge the role of racism in the legal and political systems or it is a leftist plot to denigrate white Americans and divide people by race. CRT is not taught in Alabama schools, and a bill before the state legislature would make doing so a fireable offense.

Danny Cohn is CEO of the Birmingham Jewish Federation.

Disgruntled parents published a 12-page pamphlet in June 2021 that said the ADL had become “a highly partisan group that promotes views like Critical Race Theory, unfettered late-term abortion rights, and expansive immigration policies,” as well as the rights of transgender students.

The ADL’s definition of racism — “The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people” — also proved problematic. The pamphlet’s authors translated it to read: “only white people can be racists.” They worried that children would be reported to the ADL for using such phrases as “all lives matter” or “build the wall,” and that the school system “must fully comply with the ADL’s rules and/or demands.”

Padilla-Goodman told the AJT: “I think these parents are struggling to understand the future of the nation and their own futures and are taking it out on their own children and their future.” She called the pamphlet “a bright piece of propaganda that twists and turns our every word.”

After a standing-room only school board meeting, some 625 parents signed a letter opposing the “politically controversial” ADL. An email from the school district on June 18 informed parents that Mountain Brook “will be disassociating from the Anti-Defamation League.” That included halting the ADL’s “World of Difference” anti-bias training sessions that the district had contracted at a cost of $3,750. The workshops began in February, but after at least 500 educators had attended, the remainder were canceled.

“I think the way the school district handled severing its ties with the ADL was unjust and perhaps a knee-jerk reaction,” Cohn told the AJT.

A rebuttal letter signed by 2,000 Mountain Brook alumni accused the district of backing away from the ADL to “appease an extremely vocal minority of community members.” The alumni said that their education had not been “neutral” on the subject of race and that “the curriculum and culture of MBS, intentionally or not, obscured historical facts about race and racism and avoided addressing racial discrimination as an ongoing reality.”

In a June 29 open letter, Padilla-Goodman wrote: “In these challenging times, ignoring our differences and avoiding hard conversations about them is antithetical to preparing Mountain Brook students to live in an ever-changing and more diverse society. Mountain Brook Schools’ failure to consider implementing anti-bias education in schools could serve to allow antisemitism and other forms of hatred to fester in the school community.”

The district responded to questions from the AJT with an email that cited a strategic goal to “Develop or enhance structures and practices to ensure that the school district honors individual differences, diversity, and the dignity of all, and that all members of the school community are treated with respect.”

That email said: “Mountain Brook Schools intends to complete anti-bias training for any remaining untrained employees by choosing another provider that we believe meets the needs of our schools and community.”

Acknowledging the anti-Semitism experienced by some Mountain Brook students, Cohn placed it in a broader context. “I don’t know that I can say that just because you’re Jewish, you’re going to have a problem. It’s a factor. When you’re looking to bully anyone, you find what the easiest thing is to push at,” he said.

As the new school year began, Padilla-Goodman told the AJT: “I’m very concerned for the Jewish kids in Mountain Brook. I’m concerned that they are going to be in situations where they don’t feel comfortable, where they don’t feel supported, and where they don’t have anywhere to turn if an anti-Semitic incident were to happen.”

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