The Anti-Defamation League bills itself, and is typically seen by many in the mainstream Jewish community and beyond, as the "nation's premier civil rights/human relations agency.” In fact, the ADL’s conduct over the years is at odds with this one-dimensional view of the group as a long-time champion of civil liberties.
The ADL mission statement, for instance, describes it as a group that “fights all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all." Yet, a record going back decades shows something very different, including a shift “from civil rights monitoring to espionage and intelligence gathering.” Mistrust of the ADL among those concerned about civil and human rights has deep roots.
In the 1970s, the ADL, which had been tracking neo-Nazis and other right-wing U.S. groups, began to also focus on critics of Israeli policies. Since the 1970s, the ADL and its chapters have issued numerous publications to expose alleged “Arab propaganda” on university campuses and to silence and intimidate Arab Americans and others who did not share their perspective on Israel.
Branding any criticism of Israel as “anti-Semitism,” ADL publications like Pro-Arab Propaganda in America: Vehicles and Voices, a Handbook (1983) effectively developed a “ blacklist” of faculty, staff, and campus groups. The Middle East Studies Association singled out “the New England Regional Office of the ADL for circulating a document on college campuses ‘listing factually inaccurate and unsubstantiated assertions that defame specific students, teachers, and researchers as 'pro Arab propagandists.’"