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
Number two is, I would say, “Jews are news.” So, we stand out. We’re under a microscope. And in fact, because of this perception that we are better or we are chosen, and we are smarter and we work harder, when this ugliness appears on us, it’s bigger—it’s magnified. I remember I wrote a letter to the New York Times when the Madoff case happened, you know, they wrote about his Jewishness in the first story, even though his Jewishness had no relevance to that case at all.
I didn’t bring up Bernie Madoff, not only because it didn’t happen this year, but because it’s irrelevant to the sickness I’m talking about.
Well, but Bernie Madoff abused Jewish institutional life. And he hurt institutions.
He hurt Jewish individuals and Jewish institutions. But that’s different from the leaders of those institutions putting their own hands into the till and taking money from people who are poor and needy.
You want to know something? I would say, le’hephech, that in the Metropolitan Poverty case, this is an individual who was susceptible to corruption, et cetera. But with Madoff, it worked across institutions, with people who had a fiduciary responsibility to be more careful—there’s a certain standard if you’re dealing with somebody else’s money.
This is an individual. We will have individuals! And when it troubles you that we didn’t scream out, you know what? Organized society did scream out and indicted, charged, and punished. If that didn’t happen, come to us and say, “Where was the outrage?”
I grew up in communities that were heavily populated by survivors, and my grandfather’s whole family died at the hands of the Nazis except for him. I know the politics and the back and forth of the reparations and the restitution games very well. So, let’s be clear: There are tens of thousands of people who survived the ghettos, and survived camps like Majdanek and Bergen-Belsen, who are still alive. And many of them are poor, and living in and around New York, and have pressing needs for health care and even shelter that are not being met by a very wealthy community. Instead, in some cases, Jewish institutions are actually stealing their money, while raising more money in the name of their sufferings.
I feel a sense of real shame, because people played games with money for so long in the name of these people who suffered terribly. We owe them.
I feel a different shame. I feel shame that the Jewish people who are involved in tikkun olam, who are ready to change the world and fly all over the world, aren’t taking care of their own. That’s my shame, OK? Not that there were a couple of corrupt people who operated, maybe, with a lack of transparency. I’ve stopped reading this stuff. Should somebody have done something, should they not have done something. In truth, we’re talking about a few corrupt individuals, which is a situation from which we are not immune. We have them, too.
If you’re talking about shame about the survivors, I do think there is a shame. The state of Israel should be ashamed. I think that for the organized American Jewish community, which raises lots of money, to have 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 survivors living in poverty, is shameful. That is our communal shame—not that these particular individuals stole money, or whatever.
Isn’t it fair at this point to say that there is actually no amount of money that can compensate or make restitution for the systematic mass murder of the Jews of Europe?
Listen, I was opposed to it. My father was a Revisionist, and he and Begin were opposed to it, in principle. Because no amount of money could buy forgiveness. And if you look, I was one of the few who wrote and said so. Because I was concerned that if a man came down from the moon and asked, “What is the Holocaust about?” they would say it’s about Jews and money—that we skewed the last chapter of the Holocaust for money.
So, I was opposed to it, but I was a lone voice. I said we were selling it, and you can’t bring justice. And even if you can bring a measure of justice, how are you going to measure that? But people did it, and at the end of the day, it did help people.
But certainly now, after billions of dollars have been paid out to Jewish institutions, the shame of Holocaust survivors who don’t have heat or proper medical care is ours, right? We own that.
I’ve never sat on those committees, and there are still questions. There is still money out there.
The other thing that I’ve been thinking is that certainly, from a political science standpoint, if you have all these institutions with gaudy names, like the World Jewish Congress, or the American Jewish Congress, that consist, in reality, of one mouthpiece, one billionaire, and 15 employees, and no actual membership base in the Jewish community, then you are asking for trouble. It’s become a characteristic of Jewish institutional life that a “young Jewish leader” is now someone in his or her 50s. The same people sit in the same chairs for decades.
Wait, go back to World Jewish Congress. The World Jewish Congress was never more than one person. Whether it was Nahum Goldmann …
He deserved to be a congress.
OK, and therefore it was an illusion. It was the non-Jews’ worst dream, that there was a World Jewish Congress. So, they believed it. But it did serve phenomenal purposes. It achieved a lot. We, today, you could say, do we need it? Is it redundant? Who is it? Again, it’s a judgment. But whom does it hurt? It offends your sensibilities because the guy leading it is not 40 years old? You know, so what? It doesn’t offend my sensibility.
It’s not that it offends my sensibilities because of the name of the particular person who leads an organization, or who pays for it. It’s because I feel like we have an institutional structure that is led by people who are all above a certain age and have been sitting in their seats for decades and is paid for by a small group of people with lots and lots of money, whose reality is therefore radically different from that of normal people. And together, they clog the airwaves.
But look at Bloomberg. OK, here’s a guy who’s spending his money; he’s going to spend more of his money. Why is he somebody who I’m ashamed of, or you’re ashamed of?
Even in the Jewish state, ultra-Orthodox Jews look first to their own, and not to secular authorities, for security