The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been criticized for hosting an event in collaboration with the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Washington. The controversial event, which took place on May 14, entitled “Celebrating Tolerance and Fighting Bigotry: Perspectives on Interfaith Progress.” 

In a letter on May 10, several organizations and individuals urged the ADL to cancel the event, describing it as “astonishing.” The letter was signed by Sunjeev Bery, Director of Freedom Forward; Salih Booker, President & CEO of the Center for International Policy; Hassan El-Tayyab, Co-Director of Just Foreign Policy; Jehan Hakim, Chair of Yemeni Alliance Committee; and Isaac Evans-Frantz, Board Member and Yemen Campaign Leader for Action Corps. NYC

The ADL states on its website that its mission is: “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” The mission statement goes on to say that the ADL “wants an ever-more just society.” The signatories of the letter believe that organizing an event with representatives of the Emirati government flatly contradicts these ideals.

The signatories accused the ADL of conferring human rights “legitimacy” onto the UAE, a country which the letter describes as “a brutal monarchy with a bloody record of human rights violations, repression at home, and support for anti-democratic forces abroad.”

The signatories accused the ADL of conferring human rights “legitimacy” onto the UAE, a country which the letter describes as “a brutal monarchy with a bloody record of human rights violations, repression at home, and support for anti-democratic forces abroad.” The signatories to the letter called on the ADL to cancel the event until the gulf state ceases to be involved in human rights violations. They also demanded that the ADL clearly state its position on Emirati crimes. Perhaps most pointedly, the letter voiced a request that the ADL declare whether or not it receives any funding from Abu Dhabi. 

Many will argue that the indignant tone of the letter is appropriate, given the extensive accusations against the UAE of violating international law, international norms more generally, and the civil liberties of both nationals and foreigners. The emirates have a history of backing anti-democratic regimes and, perhaps most notably, being heavily involved in the Saudi-led coalition currently waging war in Yemen. 

As the letter points out: “The UAE and Saudi Arabia have led a brutal campaign of airstrikes, militia wars, and blockades in Yemen. These actions have killed thousands and fueled famine conditions for millions. A UN-commissioned report predicts 233,000 Yemeni deaths by the end of 2019 in the war between the UAE / Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels.” 

The UAE has been excoriated for its dismal domestic human rights record. Several foreign citizens are currently detained on questionable charges, and human rights defenders such as Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith and Ahmed Mansoor are currently serving lengthy prison sentences for their advocacy. Furthermore, as the letter points out, the UAE has a shocking record on workers’ rights. While the vast majority of workers in the county are migrants, “the UAE bans trade unions, denies migrant workers collective bargaining rights, and penalizes striking workers with deportation.” Those who signed the letter expressed that they could not in good conscience lend tacit support to a government involved in this level of exploitation and abuse. 

The signatories also expressed concern at the positive treatment of the UAE by the mainstream US media.

The signatories also expressed concern at the positive treatment of the UAE by the mainstream US media. On Twitter, the New York Times recently quoted Bill Bragin of the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre: “One of its competitive advantages,” said Bragin, “is that it has embraced this globalized vision of the world as opposed to resisting it.” 

Sunjeev Bery, signatory to the letter, expressed his distaste. “I’m deeply disappointed to see paid propaganda for UAE’s brutal monarchy in the @NYTimes,” wrote Bery. “UAE bombs Yemenis, bans unions, imprisons critics and backs military thugs in Sudan/Libya. So why is Bill Bragin @ActiveCultures of @NYUAbuDhabi praising the monarchy?” 

Another issue raised in the letter is Emirati support for anti-democratic forces around the world. Abu Dhabi’s has links to rebel leaders in Libya, such as Khalifa Haftar supports the military leadership in Sudan. The signatories also accuse the UAE of carrying out political assassinations in Yemen and elsewhere. They claim that Abu Dhabi is able to carry out these deeds due to US support, which the ADL has a duty to condemn. 

Human Rights OrgsADL

“The Anti-Defamation League, to live up to its mission ‘to secure justice and fair treatment to all,’ should publicly criticize the UAE and Saudi Arabia for their war crimes in Yemen,” signatory Isaac Evens-Frantz told Inside Arabia. “We invite the ADL to join us in publicly calling for a ban on all arms sales to these countries.” 

The UAE has provided millions of dollars in funding for US think tanks, which, according to the group, gives cover to its criminal actions in the Middle East.

The UAE has provided millions of dollars in funding for US think tanks, which, according to the group, gives cover to its criminal actions in the Middle East. “Between 2014-2018, the UAE funded six of the top 50 U.S. think tanks (Aspen Institute, Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for American Progress, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies) to a minimum combined amount of over $8.6 million,” according to the letter. However, “these only represent those think tanks that have disclosed funding, which many organizations have declined to do at all, and even then only provide donation thresholds, not specific amounts, meaning these figures could be higher.” 

Despite these damning charges, the event went forward and did presage a step forward for equality in the UAE when NYU Chaplain Yehuda Sarna was named as the nation’s first Chief Rabbi, a significant development for the Jewish minority in the country. Signatories of the letter urged Rabbi Sarna to use his new role to oppose Emirati crimes in Yemen and elsewhere. 

Isaac Evans-Frantz told Inside Arabia that the Rabbi’s “historic role should not be twisted for the purposes of tyranny and war crimes” being perpetrated by the country.  “In Yemen,” he said, “the UAE and Saudi Arabia are getting away with the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth, bombing and starving their neighbors’ civilians.” 

If the role of organizations such as the ADL is really to oppose abuses of human rights, the organization’s apparent support for the government of the UAE is troubling. According to those who signed the letter of May 10, the right course of action is not only to cancel events such as that of May 14, but also to make a strong statement to the leaders in Abu Dhabi by opening up a wider conversation to assert liberal values and international law.