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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

David Samuels
December 20, 2013
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)
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)

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.

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?

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.


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.


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.

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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David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.