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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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I’d say the proof is in the pudding. Michael Bloomberg is an administrative genius who understands and builds systems at a very high level.

But here’s another man who’s buying something. He bought, and he’s going to continue buying, and yet, he’s a hero. Why, because you agree with what he represents?

No, because he has a rare administrative and systems-building skill, which resulted in him making a fortune.

OK, so if you’re 70 and you don’t have a rare administrative skill, but you have a desire to serve the people, and you’re not a great chacham then you’re ashamed?

Look, we’re a community that’s always run on the principle there are the gadolim, right? It’s not a democracy.

Right.

So, if the gadolim—if the gadol ha’dor—is a dope, then the whole community is in trouble.

But who decides? Who decides whether one rises to the top, how they rise, and then who decides how smart they are?

Right now in American Jewish institutional life, the answer is that donors decide.

Listen, there’s a lot of organized Jewish life, and these are the people that pay the bills. There were more back then, OK. But it was always the people with the money.

Fine, but when the community starts to cry and says, “Boo-hoo-hoo, according to the Pew poll, 50 percent of American Jews don’t want to affiliate themselves with Jewish institutions,” don’t you think it behooves the community to maybe look in the mirror?

It’s not Michael Steinhardt’s fault and it’s not Sheldon Adelson’s fault, because that’s too simple—it’s nonsensical. If not for Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhardt and the Bronfmans, you would have not had three or four hundred thousand young people experience Israel. Now, you may not like them, you may not like their politics, you may not like their style, you may not like that they are so rich so that they can make a difference, but you know what? If it hadn’t been for the three of them, you wouldn’t have a new generation of American Jews, whose Judaism was truncated at the age of 12 and 13. Unlike you and me. We had yeshivas where, at least until the age of 17-and-a-half or 18, we were fed Judaism when we were growing up and beginning to think, and then we could decide one way or another. We have a community that truncated Jewish education at the time that the kids start thinking.

Right.

How many generations did we lose to ignorance?

I agree.

So, now come the moguls. Come these people who are so unsympatico to the young generation, and they do what? They invest in the future of Jewish life, invest in Jewish institutions. And that makes you mad at them.

Sheldon Adelson invested more money in Newt Gingrich’s failed presidential campaign than he’s invested in Jewish education in his entire life.

No, he didn’t, no he didn’t. You’re absolutely wrong. Do your research.

He built that one beautiful Jewish school in Las Vegas, with a big swimming pool.

He built one school? You’re wrong! Do your research, you’ll be proven wrong. The money that he’s given to Birthright, tens of millions of dollars, he’s given money to Yad Vashem, tens of millions of dollars. That’s all for continuing education.

Define it how you want. He gave money to Birthright. But he didn’t build schools—plural. Look, I went to a great Jewish day school, Ramaz. A terrific place, right? There’s Ramaz and Heschel, then there’s the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn, and Maimonides in Boston, and maybe a dozen other such places across the country.

The issue is not availability. The issue is parents being willing to send their kids to separate educational institutions, Jewish schools. Money, it’s a very serious decision.

I have two small children. It will cost me and my parents $60,000 in after-tax income to pay their tuition. Whatever you imagine writers earn these days, that’s a bad number, right? As a share of household income, it’s ridiculous, unless you are earning half a million dollars a year or more.

This community has never viewed Jewish education as a value, OK? Never. So, blame the community and its leaders. This community wanted to be not-Jewish for 50 years, 60 years. Now, it’s woken up to say, “Hey, look what we’ve lost.” And so now Jewish education is an elitist perk, except in Orthodox yeshivas where it doesn’t matter: You don’t want to go, you’re still going. So, who are you going to blame? I don’t blame the leadership. That’s who we were. We elected these leaders in synagogues, we elected them in the JNF, we elected them in the ADL.

Listen, for many people, for the people who come to the ADL, we are their synagogue. We are their Jewishness. We are it. This is their identity with Jewish life. Which is why many years ago, I hired Rabbi David Hartman, alav haShalom, to be our scholar-in-residence. I said, I gotta give them something.

When I started at the ADL, I had to negotiate to take off Friday early. I had to negotiate to take off the second day of yontif. And this was an organization fighting for Jews! I had to negotiate leaving early for Shabbat! So, that’s changed. Now we argue whether you have glatt kosher or kosher for non-Jews who come to our dinners.

Does it bother me that we’re not perfect? Yes. Does it bother me that we’re not an or laGoyim now? Yes. But it also bothers me about tikkun olam. I think it’s a cop-out. I want tikkun atsmi. I think we have to fix ourselves before we can become a model. Because I believe what I was taught, that we are going to be a model only if we set ourselves the task of being that model. And I think we’re skipping that step, and now we want to fix everybody else without fixing ourselves.

And I think what makes you ashamed, what makes those of us ashamed who had the privilege of being exposed and taught, is that we’re not doing it. But the tragedy is that the majority of Jews who now do care, they—as my mother would say, they don’t know with what to eat it. They don’t know what to do with it. But still on the whole, you know, the fact that we are thriving, for 94 percent of Jews to feel a pride in being Jews? That’s good.

I don’t think a lack of pride or self-esteem is the problem with the American Jewish community these days.

No, but I’ll tell you. It can be. I went a couple of years ago to a retreat, a Wye Plantation retreat, where the subject was, will Jewish civilization survive the year 2025? And there were 10 Israelis, 10 Americans, and a whole group of scholars. And the scholars had distilled the essence of survival, they studied Gibbon and Spengler, et cetera. And they analyzed why was it that the Roman, the Greek, and the Incan civilizations all passed on and the Jewish civilization survived? And out of their distillation came the idea that the difference between all these great civilizations was that after a great trauma or defeat, the Romans got up and said, “I don’t want to be a Roman.” The Greeks got up and said, “Hell, I don’t want to be a Greek.” The Incas ran all over the place. But the Jews, after every tragedy, brushed themselves off and said, “I want to be Jewish!”

So, call it pride, call it self-pride, I don’t know. There are two modern-day miracles—one is Soviet Jewry, michias hamatim. The even greater miracle was after the Holocaust, that the Jews still wanted to want to raise their kids Jewish.

So, the question now is, with the freedom and the assimilation of America, will Jews still get up in the morning and affirm that they want to continue to be Jews? It’s an open question.

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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