For American Jews today, it is hard to imagine that Jews in the U.S. in the early twentieth century faced a deeply anti-Semitic culture. Many public and private facilities posted blatant restrictions to Jewish access, while established educational institutions had quotas for Jewish students. The media of the day was rife with anti-Semitic stereotypes and inferences.

In 1913, a Chicago attorney, Sigmund Livingston, created an organization whose mission was “to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people. Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike…” He named his organization the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

While it started out as a two desk affair in Chicago, the ADL came under the auspices of B’nai Brith and grew into a larger, New York based, organization. Significantly, its founding coincided with the terrible ordeal of Leo Frank, whose false conviction of murder, and his eventual lynching in 1915, led to a noticeable rise in anti-Semitism.

The ADL began its work with “appeals to reason and conscience.” It actively used the media to counter negative stereotypes of Jews and to expose America’s unacknowledged intolerance. The organization also acted against hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and was critical in ending the publication of Henry Ford’s hate-filled newspaper, The Dearborn Independent.

Over the first ten decades of its existence, the Anti-Defamation League grew from an organization that appealed to the logic of the American people and developed into a major moral force advocating for civil rights, sounding a strong voice in the discussion of the separation of church and state, and promoting Holocaust remembrance. While there have also been several controversies regarding the organization, such as their hesitation to recognize the Armenian Genocide, the ADL’s reputation is that of a major voice of empowerment for all Americans.

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