From the Archive: Ike and JFK at the ADL


Last week, the Anti-Defamation League continued its commemorations of the 100th anniversary of its founding with a centennial conference in New York. Among the speakers were the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; and Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta. This wasn’t this year’s only ADL centenary celebration. In April, the ADL held a centennial summit and gala in Washington that drew Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder. President Obama also recorded a video message for the ADL’s anniversary year.

For decades, ADL anniversary celebrations have been a big deal. Some sitting U.S. presidents have even shown up to help mark the occasions.

In November 1953, at the ADL’s 40th-anniversary dinner in Washington,  President Dwight Eisenhower showed up to accept the America’s Democratic Legacy Award. In his speech — delivered at the height of the McCarthy era — Eisenhower discussed American values, civil liberties and religious freedom:

…if someone dislikes you or accuses you, he must come up in front. He cannot hide behind the shadows, he cannot assassinate you or your character from behind without suffering the penalties an outraged citizenry will inflict.

Eisenhower also said:

If we are going to continue to be proud that we are Americans there must be no weakening of the codes by which we have lived; by the right to meet your accuser face to face, if you have one; by your right to go to the church or the synagogue or even the mosque of your own choosing; by your right to speak your mind and be protected in it.

Ten years later, in Jan. 1953, the ADL had another presidential guest at its 50th-anniversary annual meeting. It again presented the America’s Democratic Legacy Award to an occupant of the Oval Office, this time to President John F. Kennedy. Later that year, at another 50th-anniversary dinner, the ADL’s Human Rights Award was presented to Vice President Lyndon Johnson for his “vigorous and affirmative activities” as chairman of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. (By the end of the year, of course, Johnson would take office as president following Kennedy’s assassination.)

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan spoke to the ADL’s 70th-anniversary national commission meeting via phone from Camp David. Reagan stressed his support for Israel’s security and Soviet Jewry.

JTA’s coverage of the 40th and 50th anniversary events largely focused on their discussion of domestic issues such as civil rights, civil liberties, anti-Semitism and religious pluralism. By contrast, much (though not all) of the media coverage of this past week’s meeting focused on foreign policy issues.

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, garnered some attention with his remarks at last week’s conference. He warned that the United States was perceived as “weak and retreating” on the world stage.

Ten years ago, at the ADL’s 90th-anniversary meeting, Foxman also issued some grim warnings, back then about global anti-Semitism.

Recommended from JTA