The Anti-Defamation League is celebrating its 90th anniversary this week, marking its beginnings in Chicago when Sigmund Livingston, a young Jewish lawyer, watched a vaudeville show portraying Jews as greedy, dishonest characters with hooked noses and thick accents.
Knowing that such stereotypes were pervasive, Livingston and other members of his local B'nai B'rith chapter formed a committee to protest ethnically offensive Vaudeville acts. They were surprised when the Vaudville mangers agreed to remove the material from their shows -- they simply had not realized that such humor was offensive.
In 1913 Livingston moved to formalize his group with a $200 budget and two desks in his law office as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
Soon afterward, in an atmosphere of rampant anti-Semitism, Leo Frank, an Atlanta pencil factory manager, was found guilty of a crime he didn't commit, and in 1915, he was lynched by a vigilante mob. The ADL was in business.
In the nine decades since, the ADL has expanded beyond anything Livingston could have imagined. However, it has never lost sight of the aims in its original charter: "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all."
In the 1920s, the unemployment and economic distress after World War I led to the scapegoating of Jews and discrimination in education, employment and housing. During that period, the Ku Klux Klan was revitalized and the ADL's model legislation to unmask the KKK became the basis for state laws.
The time of fighting against quotas and job discrimination was overshadowed by a new sense of urgency in the 1930s, as fascism and Nazism gained ground in Europe. Jews were blamed for the nation's economic woes and for bringing the country to the brink of war. The ADL monitored and exposed the growing fascist movement in America, through expanded fact-finding work and sharing of data with law enforcement, the press and the public.
With the establishment of the State of Israel it became a new priority for the ADL to make the case for United States' only democratic ally in the Mideast.
At home, the ADL helped to abolish discrimination in college admissions, liberalize immigration laws and end Jim Crow segregation and the no-Jews-allowed policies of numerous resorts and hotels. Joining with the African American community, the ADL was on the front lines in the South, fighting for passage of landmark Civil Rights legislation.
Following the Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973 and frequent anti-Israel resolutions passed by the United Nations, the ADL continued to make the case for the Jewish state to the United States and the world.
During the 1980s, the ADL continued to expose hatemongers such as Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam and former KKK leaders David Duke and Tom Metzger. The ADL's annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents became an important measure of anti-Semitism and a model adopted by other minority groups.
The 1990s brought the new technology of the Internet, which quickly became an important tool for anti-Semites, racists and extremists. During the '90s, the ADL wrote model hate crimes legislation that is now on the books in 46 states.
The new century brought a new intifada, coupled with suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism in Israel and abroad. Following Sept. 11, the "big lie," the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory blaming Jews for Sept. 11, spread through most of the world.
This past year has seen a continued rise in global anti-Semitism and anti-Israel incitement in Arab and Muslim media. In Europe, classic anti-Semitism has been compounded by anti-Israel sentiment, with violent and lethal results.
Recently, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told a gathering of 57 Islamic nations that Jews are the enemy of Islam -- that we control the world and must be defeated. Not a single leader in attendance stood up to challenge his remarks.
How do we continue the good fight in the face of such enormous challenges and adversity? We just do. Every day, evidence comes across my desk of what can happen when we allow prejudice to invade our culture and we fail to fight bigotry with every fiber of our being.
The Matthew Shepards of this world end up tied to fences in Laramie, Wyo., and the James Byrds of this world are dragged behind a truck in Jasper, Texas.
In Los Angeles, we have witnessed the North Valley Jewish Community Center shootings and the murder of a Filipino postal worker, the serial beating of gays in West Hollywood, fatalities in the terrorist shootings at Los Angeles International Airport, the beating of a developmentally disabled African American minor by police officers in Inglewood, the attack on Jewish youths by a group of Muslim youths and an Immigration and Naturalization Service sting operation to round up men and boys from Middle Eastern countries.
We have challenged each of these wrongs publicly, while assisting victims and prosecutors privately. We continue to counteract anti-Semitic stereotypes and to fight all forms of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination as we have since 1913. After 90 years, we have learned a lot and gained worldwide recognition.
We want nothing so much as to put ourselves out of business. Sadly, we are still very much in demand.
On Sunday, Dec. 7, the ADL will honor the lifetime achievements of Billy and Tootsie Veprin. The evening will also feature entertainment by Lou Rawls and a presentation by activist and author Irshad Manji. For information, call, (310) 446-8000, ext. 260.
Amanda Susskind is director of the Pacific Southwest region of the Anti-Defamation League.