Steve Irwin has been elected to a three-year term as the chair of the Anti-Defamation League’s Cleveland region, which serves Kentucky, Ohio, western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Irwin is a lawyer and community leader. He ran in the 2022 Democratic primary seeking to represent Pennsylvania’s 12th district in Congress but was defeated by Summer Lee, who then won the general election. Irwin was appointed by Gov. Josh Shapiro to the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline in February.
The Squirrel Hill resident began his ADL term in April and said that he is helping select a new regional director and put a new leadership team in place.
“I just came back from the National Leadership Summit in Washington D.C., as a result of being elected the chair for what’s now called the ‘Cleveland Region’ — which I’m hoping we can change the name of, because we do represent four states,” he said.
Irwin is the first person outside of Cleveland to serve in this role. He said that in addition to finding a new regional director, he is interested in finding someone to maintain an ADL presence in Pittsburgh.
“We’re looking to put boots on the ground, but we’re not going to do it until we find the right boots,” he said. “In my mind, that requires us to first get an executive director for the region.”
The ADL, he said, is one of the premier civil rights organizations in the United States and has extraordinary capacity, capabilities, competency, history and credibility not only in the fight against antisemitism but also against hate toward other marginalized communities.
One of Irwin’s goals over the next three years, he said, is to increase community engagement and ensure that people who want to participate in the ADL’s work have the opportunity.
That means extending the circle of people involved with the ADL and its work to all four states he represents and to the cities in each state with large Jewish populations, such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Erie, Lexington, Louisville and Morgantown.
The organization is present in more than 60 western Pennsylvanian schools, he said, through its No Place for Hate program.
“I want to emphasize,” Irwin said, “that our lay leadership can help us get into schools where there are folks who are fighting this kind of training in schools — of teachers and school boards — because they believe that systematic and structural racism is a thing of fiction. You end up having books about Anne Frank and Rosa Parks banned, which is ridiculous.”
In addition, Irwin said he’s excited that a recent program called Kulanu: Synagogues in Action Against Antisemitism, dedicated to empowering congregations to address antisemitism and hate in their communities through education, community engagement and advocacy, will be free, allowing for larger participation.
Just as important, he said, is focusing on what’s happening at universities.
“Colleges have experienced an incredible rise in antisemitism,” he said. “In the last year alone, there has been a 41% increase in antisemitic acts and acts of violence on college campuses. We definitely need our children to have safe places to go for higher education.”
Workplace training is another opportunity for outreach, he said, noting that many companies are embracing Diversity Equity and Inclusion as part of their culture.
One way that people in the region can affect positive change, Irwin said, is through civil rights litigation, adding that the ADL is actively involved with litigation against hate groups.
“Once you get judgments against them and can go after their financial resource,” he said, “you really take their legs out from under them.”
Opportunities exist both for lawyers and non-lawyers to assist in filing amicus, or “friend of the court,” briefs, he said.
Although there are no immediate plans to do so, Irwin said he would love to see an ADL employee in Pittsburgh with an office at the new Tree of Life building when it is completed.
“I couldn’t imagine a better place to bring home the tangible nature and consequences of this kind of thinking,” he said. “There are places you can go to and do this type of work and have these discussions that are inspirational. The Tree of Life will be one of those places. It’s holy ground.”
Looking through a larger lens, Irwin said that he and the ADL are comfortable with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, and that it has been instructive. The IHRA definition includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
“Ultimately,” Irwin said, “the ADL is a Zionist organization and embraces Zionism and Israel’s right to exist.”
That doesn’t mean Israel can’t be criticized, he said, but that criticism becomes antisemitic when it’s used as an excuse to delegitimize the country or apply a double standard that doesn’t exist for other countries.
The ADL supports a two-state solution in Israel, Irwin said, and supports the United States providing funding for Israel’s defense.
“The ADL is not lobbying on Capitol Hill for the funding of certain missiles or military funding, though,” he said. “That’s not our focus.”
ADL National Director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt has long said that antisemitism exists on both the right and left of the political divide. Irwin said education can help combat hate no matter where it exists.
Relationships, he said, can also help fight prejudices.
The ADL’s Center for Technology and Society is working to combat bias, hate and antisemitic tropes online and in social media, Irwin said.
“When you remove somebody’s platform you remove their ability to promote that kind of hate speech,” he said. “The ADL is doing some things to get advertisers to step back from those platforms that are not doing a good job of even enforcing their own rules on keeping bad actors off their pages.”
Asked about his former opponent Rep. Summer Lee and her recent “no” vote on a resolution heralding the relationship between Israel and the United States, Irwin said his position on the Court of Judicial Discipline and his current role with the ADL prevented him from responding.
Irwin, who is a partner at Leech Tishman Fuscaldo and Lampl, chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Pennsylvania Advisory Committee and co-chairs the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative, said that he is looking forward to getting to work in his new role with the ADL.
“It’s going to be a great run,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.