ADL’s Robert Trestan Reflects on Time in New England –

Posted By on August 1, 2022

For nearly a decade, Robert Trestan has headed the Anti-Defamation League New England. In that span, hes confronted antisemitism while seeking partnerships with the larger community. Now, he takes on a new responsibility on the other side of the country (although hes continuing to work from the Boston area), overseeing one of four divisions of the ADL as the organizations interim vice president of the western division. He spoke with JewishBoston about the past, present and future of fighting antisemitism.

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What have been the challenges of your time heading the ADL in New England?

Its been almost 10 years, and antisemitism continues to adapt. Its constantly evolving, which requires an evolving response. One of the challenges is making it a priority for people outside of the Jewish community. For the Jewish community, we know fighting antisemitism is a top priority. We make sure it remains a high priority for elected officials, leaders, educatorspeople who are across the spectrum.

What would you say have been your biggest achievements in New England?

I think weve made a lot of progress in keeping antisemitism at the top of the agenda, at all levels. Theres been a high focus on dealing with antisemitism in schools. We made Holocaust education a top prioritythe governor just signed the law. And working in partnership with other communitiesfighting antisemitism is connected to fighting racism, to fighting homophobia and other forms of hate. I prioritized engaging others in the fight against antisemitism so were not just doing it alone.

What have been some of the biggest challenges youve faced here?

The persistence of a lack of understanding of what antisemitism is and its impact. AndI dont know if I would characterize this as a challenge or disappointmentIm constantly amazed at how the hatred for Jews exists. [For example], the restaurant in Tiverton, Rhode Island [that posted an Anne Frank meme for which it later apologized]its pretty outrageous that in 2022, we still have to combat and respond to a meme like that. The antisemitism is still there; it just keeps adjusting to technology, to the political flavor of the moment.

Its been almost five years since the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Where are we now, nationally, regarding antisemitism?

Nationally, we are at historic levels. All data shows it, not just the ADL: the FBI shows it, the ADL shows it, other organizations show it. Just look at everything that happened in the last month in Massachusetts. People need to understand that the groups that hate Jews also hate people of color, also hate immigrants, also hate people in the LGBTQ+ populationand they dont distinguish among the political ideologies of individual Jews. They see us as Jews, and they hate us. They dont care who we vote for or what type of synagogue we go to.

What are the best practices for combating antisemitism?

Its calling it out, education and partnerships and relationships. Those are all critical components to combating antisemitism. We cant ignore it. We need to hold people accountable, we need to have education at every levelpolice, schools, parents, elected officialsand we need to be persistent and consistent.

You mentioned antisemitism has adapted, but how has it stayed the same during your time here?

The stereotypes and conspiracies around Jews have remained constant. They havent changed at allthe scapegoating and the use of Holocaust analogies for political purposes. Self-serving arguments have not abated. If anything, theyve increased.

How does the issue of Israel come into play, including misperceptions about Israel?

Weve certainly seen a trend where people are substituting the word Zionist for the word Jew, and thats a trend we need to pay close attention to and really fight, because we cant make it acceptable. We cant make it politically correct to target Zionists, and we cant allow semantics to suddenly make antisemitism politically acceptable. Targeting Zionism is a form of antisemitism. Its not accepted. Theres definitely a trend thats happened in the last 10 years. Some people are seeing it as acceptable to target Zionists. Its not.

You have a background as a public defender in Florida. What originally drew you to work with the ADL?

Ive been with the ADL for 17 years. I was a lawyer for the ADL for seven to eight years before becoming the [New England] director. My entry point was being a civil rights counselor. Ive never worked in the for-profit world. Ive only worked in government and nonprofits. Im at home in this space.

What have you liked most about your job in New England?

Its both stimulating and inspiring, and it provides a solid opportunity for change and impact.

Every time I go into Boston, theres the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge. Whats Lenny Zakims legacy at the ADL?

Lenny serves as the inspiration, the foundation, for much of my work. In my office, at my desk, theres Lennys constitutional law book from when he went to law school. I keep a couple of Lennys books. His name is handwritten on the inside of his books. I keep those books above my desk, always, as a reminder of the work he did. Its always helped me stay grounded. Lennys legacy serves as the backdrop for all of the work that weve done.

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ADL's Robert Trestan Reflects on Time in New England -

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