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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 don’t think it’s an open question in America. I think the answer is clearly yes. It’s a high-status thing now.

I tend to agree with you, because I read in Pew that the answer is yes. They don’t know what it is, they don’t know how to eat it, they don’t know how to transmit it. But they want to be Jewish.

And one more thing, David. Jewish life was never a mass movement. We always survived on a maaser, a tenth. It was always a tenth of our people who kept the flag. Now, maybe we’re in a generation of Jewish moguls. Maybe they’re the tenth. And it makes some of us uncomfortable. But we’ve never been a mass movement.

And so, again, who is that ma’aser leading us? Are they the intellectuals? No, they were. Are they our spiritual leaders? Not really. So, they are today the moguls. But you know, that’s the period we’re going through. If they can finance 500,000 young Jews to hold on to their Jewishness? OK. We’ve never been led by the thousands.

Let’s switch gears. What does it mean to you that Jonathan Pollard is still in prison? Because I’ll tell you what it means to me. It means that the U.S. government, at high levels of policymaking and establishment consensus, has succeeded in maintaining a black mark that sets Jews apart from all other ethnic and religious groups in the United States—that Jews can and should be treated differently.

We’ve been taking the pulse of anti-Semitism, especially in this country, for the last 40, 50 years. And certain things have changed and certain things have not changed. Today Jews can live where they want, travel where they want, study where they want, marry who they want, all these wonderful things.

But two things have basically not changed in 40 years. One is the belief that the Jews killed Christ—with the Second Vatican Council, it’s moved down to 26 percent, but still, more than a quarter of the American people continue to believe that. And the second is the loyalty issue. Thirty percent of the American people believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States.

That’s a very serious, haunting, political anti-Semitism. It’s not social anti-Semitism—“I don’t want you to live next to me, to marry me.” It just means, “I don’t trust you.” And I believe the Pollard thing is part of that trust question. I have always stood up for the point that there was no anti-Semitism in the Pollard case. But if this continues, you know what? I have no other explanation. It is beyond vengeance at this point. He’s paid the price. He said he was sorry. It is unlike anything else.

28 years.

29. And you have a long list of people from all walks of life, Republican administrations, Democratic administrations, who have stood up and said, “Enough.”

It seems to make no difference at all. Because somewhere behind where the pushing goes on, there’s a solid consensus that we would like to keep this black mark in place, because it is symbolic of something that we believe.

For a long long time, it was the intelligence community who kept that door closed. But even now the intelligence community is saying, “Enough.” And you know, I’m on the verge of saying, “Well, what is it? Is it anti-Semitism?”

Why won’t you say it, then?

Well, I’m ready to say that the only explanation I have at this point in time for him not to be given clemency—nobody asked anyone to forgive him—is that maybe it is motivated, somewhere deep down, by anti-Semitism.

Do you expect this administration to issue an edict in 2014 that will impose America’s framework for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement?

I think they are tempted to. I think this administration would like to do that. I think there are people on all sides who would urge them to do it, both Israelis and Americans. But you know, one of the negotiators said a long time ago, both parties need sweat-equity in any deal. You can’t do it for them. I think there’s too much history, there’s too much animosity, there’s too much instability, there’s too much going on around, that I don’t think it’s as simple as imposing a deal.

Another perception I had about the Jewish community this year was the feeling that the vaunted Israel lobby or whatever names people give to it, was exposed, despite all the propaganda about its omniscience, to be operating to a significant extent on smoke and mirrors. I think the propaganda about this lobby being all-powerful served in fact to expose its real weakness and further constrain its ability to act. It was a very smart strategy: You make a big noise that the “Israel Lobby” is this all-powerful force that controls Washington, and in doing so you make any of their political actions seem illegitimate—which then inhibits them from doing the normal things that any lobby should be doing.

The image that the lobby is all-powerful comes from both sides.

Walt and Mearsheimer took AIPAC’s fundraising letters literally.

And who was more influential in developing that image? Who knows? Because it is a myth, it’s an enigma. And the perception of power …

Is power.

I’m going to go back for one second to the proposed solution. I’ve always felt and believed that since America is the only friend and ally that Israel has, at the end of days, it’s the only country that will be able to bring about some settlement of the conflict. I have always wished and believed that Israel could come to the United States and say to it, “Here is what we can live with here is what we can’t, here are our green lines, here are our red lines. And you understand that, but commit to us that that’s what you will do, and then go and deliver it.” But the tragedy is that there has never been that trust on either side. The Israelis never believed in that, because America’s national interest will trump anything. And the Pollard case is a sign and a symptom of that distrust on the American side.

I think what we’re seeing now is that, for the first time, America’s interest and Israel’s interest are diverging. So, it’s not a question of the lobby—of how strong, how not-strong. The strongest lobbyist in the world is the president of the United States. And he, you know, I remember, I’m old enough to remember it with the AWACS, and he just did it last week, he called senators one on one. Nobody can resist that. And so they’re playing this game—that the Israel lobby has now failed—but it’s nonsense. If the president of the United States wants something on foreign policy, he will get it.

The issue now is that national security interests are perceived differently. There are still a lot of common goals: We want Iran to not have nuclear weapons. But how you get there is very, very serious and significant, and that’s where the differences are. And so,what worries me about 2014? It’s the differences that exist. They are not cosmetic—they are serious.

America is moving to disengage. America is moving in an isolationist direction. That’s not in the best interest of the Jewish people nor Israel. When America was engaged, we got Soviet Jewry out. When America was engaged, we got Syrian Jews out. When America was engaged, we got Ethiopian Jews out. And if America becomes disengaged and we have to God forbid get Jews out—and you can name the five countries that you and I understand—who’s going to be there? You know, that gives me sleepless nights. So, the dependency of the Jewish people and Israel on this one wonderful country is both the good news and the bad news.


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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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