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Q&A With Abe Foxman, Head of the Anti-Defamation League

The crusader against anti-Semitism on why 2013 was bad for the Jews—and why fixing the world starts with fixing ourselves

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ADL National Director Abraham Foxman attends the Anti-Defamation League’s Centennial Entertainment Industry Award Dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on May 8, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
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Abe Foxman’s rise to the position of unofficial spokesperson for American Jewry can be charted in his slow but steady migration from the letters page of the New York Times, where his name and title began regularly appearing after he was appointed national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, in 1987, to inside actual articles, where he began to be regularly quoted a decade or so ago on subjects like FBI hate-crime reports, Mel Gibson’s movies, and gay rights—a cause for which he was an early and outspoken advocate.

His decision to oppose the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan in 2010 finally launched him above the fold on page A1 and led some commentators to accuse America’s leading opponent of anti-Jewish bigotry of being a bigot. But today, at 73, Foxman has emerged as the paper’s go-to Jewish quote on significant matters of policy, like diplomatic negotiations with Iran over the country’s nuclear program.

There is no shortage of people in and out of Jewish life who, in private, deplore Foxman’s ubiquity. These critics see Foxman as a Jewish Jesse Jackson—a race hustler running a shake-down game on big corporations in the name of fighting prejudice, handing out the ADL stamp of approval to those who pay up, in the coin of political influence and friendship or donations. In this view, Foxman is a man who whines constantly about perceived insults and slights, while painting a black picture of Europe as a cesspool of hatred that will inevitably swallow up the Jewish people, if given a second opportunity. He seems to believe that a second Holocaust might also happen closer to home, in places like Florida, because a few crazies decide to get SS tattoos. He uses the ADL as his personal soap-box, in part because of an inexhaustible and addictive hunger for the limelight that would make Lady Gaga blush.

All these criticisms of Foxman are to some extent true. What they leave out is that he is also a compulsively honest person, who comes by his concerns and obsessions honestly. Born in 1940, in a Polish town that had just been incorporated into the Soviet Union after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Foxman was raised by his nanny, who baptized him into the Catholic Church when his parents left him in her care after they were ordered into a ghetto by the Nazis. His parents miraculously survived the war and then had to fight to get him back. As an immigrant in Brooklyn, Foxman went to the Yeshivah of Flatbush and then worked his way through an undergraduate degree at City College and law school at New York University without ever pretending to be anyone other than who he is—a man who felt the full force of hatred as a child and whose survival and subsequent success in America taught him to be an optimist, a pessimist, a universalist, and a tribalist all at the same time.

Foxman’s gut-level hatred of bigots and his fear of their power, his belief that Jews, as an eternal people, wear an eternal target on their backs, his belief in the righteousness of America but also of the dangers that lurk here, are often too crude for Ivy League tastes. But then again, what do they know? His street-level insights into global politics are backed by his personal experience and by decades in the corridors of power, even if he has never really been an insider. He is a rare bird in contemporary Jewish life. I can’t say that I have ever particularly liked any self-proclaimed American Jewish leader I have ever met, besides him.

I met with Foxman in his office on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, after first passing through multiple layers of security, which are undoubtedly an excellent fundraising tool—but unfortunately are also necessary.

Let’s start with the obligatory year-end question: 2013, good for the Jews?

Could have been better, could have been better.

What makes you say that?

First, Europe is in economic trouble and going through political changes. And what’s now taking shape is the coming-together of nationalist forces, anti-government forces, racist forces, anti-immigration forces—all of which seem to have a significant or a serious dimension of anti-Semitism, in Hungary, Greece, Italy, Bulgaria. The coming-together of these political forces with the glue being anti-Semitism is very troubling.

Second is the Iran cloud. The Iran cloud is darker, especially now that we have passed that threshold where more than 50 percent of the Jewish people in the world reside in the state of Israel. When an existential threat continues to exist, and when the one and only ally to the state of Israel is in disagreement as to how to deal with that threat, I would say that those two things by themselves are enough to make 2013 a bad year.

When you look at the American Jewish community, whether you’re looking at the Pew study or the community’s failure to significantly affect the Obama Administration’s policy vis-à-vis Iran, do you have similar worries, or do you think that things are brighter here?

The worries here are of a different nature: How do we balance the drive for assimilation with the interests of our community? That’s the Catch-22 of the ADL. We make America as user-friendly to Jews as possible. So, who’s worried about Jews wanting to be Jews? But that’s been the struggle in American Jewish life for as long as I can remember.

I came to the ADL almost 50 years ago. And before I took the job, I read all the sociologists’ prognoses. In 1965, they said there would be no American Jewish community here in the year 2000. If I’d really listened to them, I’d have chosen another career path. But here we are, in 2013 moving on to 2014, we’re vibrant, we’re dynamic, we’re engaged, we’re creative, we’re questioning, and in the last 30 to 40 years we’ve been strengthened by the addition of Soviet Jews, and the addition of Israeli Jews. And you have all kinds of creative branchings-out of Judaism struggling with that, so I think it’s exciting. I read Pew and I said, “Hey, that’s not a problem.”

My own feeling about the American Jewish community, which I wanted to discuss with you today, is that there is nothing wrong with the community. It’s Jewish institutions that are sick.

I wanted to start with two cases, even though they don’t really have any connection to each other except for the fact that both are centered in Jewish institutions based in New York City. The first is the case of William Rapfogel, who has been charged with stealing millions of dollars that were intended for the Jewish poor, in the name of helping the Jewish poor, in his role as head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. The second is yet another instance of widespread fraud and corruption at the Claims Conference, whose stated purpose is to give material aid to Holocaust survivors.

The idea that we have institutions and institutional leaders who are preying on the two most vulnerable groups in our community—namely the very poor, and elderly people who have survived the Holocaust—is shameful. And when I think back on this year, I’m still looking for any kind of honest larger-scale institutional accounting, or even outrage and disgust, on the part of the Jewish leadership. The absence of that kind of response has convinced me that these cases are only symptoms of a deeper rot.

OK, well, David. Number one is that we’re not immune. We’re not better than anyone else, we’re not worse than anyone else. We’re not immune. I think that struck me when Rabin was assassinated: Words don’t only impact elsewhere. They impact on us too. We’re not immune from corruption, or from murder. So, number one, it shouldn’t shock us. It should shock those who think that we’re better, but we’re not.

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Q&A With Abe Foxman, Head of the Anti-Defamation League

The crusader against anti-Semitism on why 2013 was bad for the Jews—and why fixing the world starts with fixing ourselves