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July 7, 2015 2:19 pm

A Look Back With Departing ADL Chief Abraham Foxman (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Edwin Black

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Israeli President Shimon Peres (left) and Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. Photo: Office of the President.

Shimon Peres (left) and Abraham H. Foxman. Photo: Office of the President.

Looking back after 50 years of service at the Anti-Defamation League, retiring national director Abraham Foxman expressed passionate worry about the safety and security of Jews overseas, and about Israel’s position in the world. Excerpts from his exit interview follow, edited and condensed for continuity, clarity, and length.

Edwin Black: Looking back over a half century, how does it strike you?

Abraham Foxman: Boy, how wrong they were! When I came on this job, I read a lot of stuff about the future of the Jewish community. I wanted to know what I would be facing. One thing that the sociologists and prognosticators said 50 years ago was, “Anti-Semitism – it’s a historical fact of the past. You don’t have to worry about it – we’re just going to point to it when we fight other prejudices.” Boy, how wrong they were! The other thing they said was, “In 50 years, Israel will be a normal nation among all the nations.” Boy, how wrong they were! Israel has become “the Jew amongst the nations.”

Black: What do you mean the “Jew amongst the nations?”

Foxman: What everybody else can do, Israel can’t do. Tell me a country in the world that can’t decide its capital? Can’t decide its capital! And where its greatest and best ally for 67 years, the United States of America, won’t recognize the sovereign choice of a sovereign, independent Jewish State that its capital is Jerusalem? Tell me a country in the world that has to defend its right to defend itself? And tell me a country in the world that has to deal with double and triple standards in terms of being told what it should do, how it should do it, who it can do business with, who it should play soccer with, what person can come and sing.

Black: How do you see the situation in Western Europe?

Foxman: Today, it is a clear and present danger. You have Jewish communities discussing whether they plan to live in Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc. We’re getting close to a situation where Hitler will have a posthumous victory for a Judenrein [Jew-free] Europe, where Jews, for the first time, are thinking about exit strategies. How do we provide safety and security for Jewish institutions? Jews are removing their kippas. Kids are taking off their Stars of David. Look at the polls of European Jewish communities. Half of the Jews have either experienced anti-Semitism recently or expect to experience it in the next year. More than half are thinking about leaving. This is not something we believed 50 years ago we would still be experiencing in Europe.

Black: And the governments?

Foxman: The [European] governments are standing up – maybe less, maybe more. When the chancellor of Germany calls a rally against anti-Semitism, 5,000 people show up. When [President François] Hollande, speaks against anti-Semitism, and when the prime minister of France stands up and says a “France without Jews will not be France” – wow!  We didn’t have that 50 years ago. Can you imagine? Remember Vichy France [Nazi-dominated zone during WWII]. At that time, France sent out its Jews. Indeed, all of Europe was getting rid of its Jews. Having said that, it is still today a very serious issue.

Black: What about Eastern Europe?

Foxman: There aren’t that many Jews [left]; but still anti-Semitism is a growing phenomenon. There the governments are still trying to keep anti-Semitism alive. In Russia, I believe there is anti-Semitism. But Putin has decided it’s in his best interest to act and speak out against it.

Black: Contrast the Jewish condition overseas with that in America.

Foxman: The U.S. Jewish experience is different. Again, we’re not immune here and things can change. America – not perfect. You may like the president [Barack Obama]; you may not like him. You may like the administration or not. Hey, this is the only country in the world that mandates its ambassadors to report on anti-Semitism. This is still the only country in the world that stands up for Israel and says, “Hey, you’ve got a right to defend yourself.” Not only do they say Israel has a right to defend yourself, they will send Israel the arms to defend itself while Europe won’t even let the planes refuel when America sends its arms to help Israel fight and defend itself. This is a country that [in 1939] wouldn’t let the [German ship] St. Louis dock with its cargo of [Jewish] refugees here. This was a country that let some 1,300 Jews go to Oswego, New York [Jewish refugee camp], while the boats were empty coming with German prisoners. So that’s changed and it’s a major change – even if we disagree with the policy of this administration.

Black: The difference is?

Foxman: The American Jewish community then, in 1945, was gornicht [in Yiddish, “nothing”]. It didn’t have a voice. Today, we are a community that understands that we have power and influence. Not power as much as influence. And this is a community that has learned to understand, since WWII, that they can make a difference. And so, freedom for Soviet Jewry – wow, the movement was here. To have the Jackson-Vanik law [instrumental in securing the release of Russian Jewry] when this was a country at war with the Soviet Union – cold war and hot war. And our policy was “determine how they treat the Jews.” And it was the American Jewish community’s “let my people go” voice that forced the American government to act in a way that I don’t think anybody believed it would act.

Black: So just how bad is it?

Foxman: While it’s the worst that it’s been since the 30’s and 40’s, it’s not like it was in the 30’s and 40’s. Why? Because, one, we have a Jewish state. Yes, under siege. Yes, maybe under an existential threat. But today, there is this Jewish sovereignty that stands up every which way for Jews. Today, a Jew in Istanbul or in Buenos Aires or in Timbuktu who feels threatened because they are Jews and can pick themselves up and go to Israel. They don’t need a cousin or an uncle [to sponsor them]. They don’t need a bureaucrat. They don’t need special permission and protectzia (in Hebrew, “well-placed connections”) in order to get in. All they have to do is say, “I’m Jewish, and I want in.” And Israel opens the door, puts their arms around them, and later checks their tzitzits [sacred knotted threads fringes on a prayer shawl]. Later, they check just how Jewish are you?

Black: And to those who say “never again”?

Foxman: Even though, as a survivor, I believe in “never again,” I think survivors say “never again” – but they’re not really sure that it’s “never again.”

Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of the IBM and the Holocaust, and eleven other bestsellers. Black has covered the Anti-Defamation League and Abraham Foxman for 30 years.

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  • dante

    I can be assumed that Foxman did some work good while at the ADL but he was too eccentric to hold an important position of leadership.

    over the course of some years, we remember a number of occasions on which Foxman advocated a number of bizarre positions. the one that comes immediately to mind is his opposition to the movement to restore property stolen by the germans and their collaborators to Jewish claimants or their heirs. if it were left up to Foxman, no one would pursue restitution. granted that the efforts are late, incomplete, and inadequate. still, if the choice is to seek recovery or leave the property in the hands of the thieves and murderers and their successors, only a fool could argue that nothing be done.

  • Robert.Weintraub

    While I agree with much of Mr. Foxman says I think he’s wrong on certain events both past and present.

    As far as Jews having little or no voice during the Holocaust Jews had more voice then but the leadership and the Jewish elite didn’t choose to use it.

    Jews made up 15% of New York State’s population in 1940
    in a state with 47 electoral votes. Today Jews are less than 10% of a New York population with 29 electoral votes. New York was deemed a statenecessary for any successful presidential candidate. Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan were also states with large and active Jewish populations. Less so today.

    Elite Jews owned or ran almost all of the Hollywood studios, two of the radio networks and two of the elite newspapers. Little effort was made by Jewish owned media to report on the plight of Europe’s Jews. Jews were active in many sectors of the American economy and derived much wealth from the American economy.In fact Jews had more financial resources than ant other ethnic group. It was the Jewish leadership, organizational and elite, that decided that the plight of Europe’s Jews was not a top priority.

    As far as anti-Semitism in western Europe today attacks on Jews are coming almost entirely from the Moslem sector
    of the population. Jews in France need to support Marine LePen whose party is the only major party that supports restrictions on Moslem immigration.

    AS for the US, Islam is the fastest growing religion in our country. At the moment it is almost entirely anti-Israel. We can expect attacks on American Jews and institutions from the Moslem sector whenever Israel clashes with the Palestinians.

    Unlike the Moslem population the Jewish American population is stagnant with only the Orthodox showing any growth. To protect ourselveswe need an aggressive outreach program directed toward the non-Jewish population. Especially important are non Jewish spouses of intermarried couples and their parents. So far, there is little sign that much of this is taking place.

  • “Fighting other prejudices” is what the ADL is all about. What’s merely Jewish is unsexy, politically incorrect and of no interest to this liberalism-first group.
    Here in Orange County CA the ADL was uninterested in getting the Anaheim Angels to create a Jewish Heritage Day. The Angels are one of extremely few teams without one. They just had their Greek Day.
    Before the recession hit, 2 kosher businesses wanted to open in Irvine. The Irvine Co., sole commercial landlord here, has in its leases that businesses must be open Saturday. So no kosher businesses- & no ADL involvement !
    Recently ADL sent out an email asking people to send condolences to the SC town where the black church massacre occurred. I responded that I would send condolences to NYC, where the Long Island RR Massacre occurred in the ’90s. One black racist shot down 26 whites & Asians who were forbidden any means of self defense in ultraliberal NY. To this day, ADL has never said a single damn word about this massacre !
    ADL is a leftist fraud that battens on the Jewish community for money & then follows its own agenda. I despise the group, and Foxman. If you’re a gay black Palestinian environmentalist Muslim, he’s your friend.