Former ADL Chief Abraham Foxman Warns Against ‘Politicization’ of Antisemitism; Calls Sarsour a ‘Bigot’ Who Should Not Have Received CUNY Invite
For the community of scholars, activists and advocates involved in combating antisemitism, there is always an occupational hazard of concentrating on one particular event or issue at the expense of the others.
But that is not the case with Abraham Foxman. During his nearly three-decade stint as national director of the Anti-Defamation League — which came to an end in 2015, when he was succeeded by Jonathan Greenblatt — Foxman gained renown for highlighting and pushing back against antisemitism irrespective of whether it came from the Left or Right, from inside a mosque or a church, from an A-list celebrity or a fringe fanatic, from the halls of the UN or the deep Midwest, or even from other Jews.
Foxman, now the ADL’s national director emeritus, still tracks the troughs and peaks of antisemitism, wherever it may be found, as the head of an antisemitism study program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York.
During an interview with The Algemeiner on Friday, the conversation inevitably turned to the subject of Linda Sarsour, the vocal BDS advocate who, this past week alone, earned the praise of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in the pages of Time magazine and was invited to speak at the commencement ceremony at CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health.
“She’s a champion of equal rights, except when it comes to Jewish rights,” Foxman said of Sarsour. “She plays that game, ‘I love Jews, I don’t like Zionists.’ Well, I’ve got news for her. Every Jew who’s a Jew prays to Jerusalem, says ‘Im eshkachech Yerushalayim,’ (If I forget you, Jerusalem.) So this is a throwback to 1948.”
Yet Foxman is careful not to charge every Palestinian solidarity activist with antisemitism. “You can be an advocate of the Palestinian liberation movement without being an enemy of Jewish liberation,” Foxman stressed. But that, he continued, is not the case with Sarsour. “She is an enemy of Jewish sovereignty and Jewish liberation,” he stated. “She’s a bigot, and she shouldn’t have been invited [to CUNY].”
But now that the invitation had been extended, Foxman said, CUNY would be better off learning about her views and distancing itself appropriately, rather than turning Sarsour into a “free speech martyr.”
2017 is a year that has already seen its fair share of headlines about antisemitism, mainly focused on the political Right, and often attempting to blame President Donald Trump and some members of his administration for its spread. Foxman has little time for any of this; weeks before Trump’s inauguration, he made it clear that antisemitism was not created by the election — “it just enabled what was always there.”
A major concern for Foxman is what he calls the “politicization” of antisemitism, a phenomenon that increased its visibility during the election and which persists beyond it. “Stop blaming Trump for the increase (in antisemitism),” he said. “The increase is out there because of instability, hypernationalism, anxiety, because of the internet, for a lot of reasons. To put it all on him, as some did, was I believe politicizing it for the wrong reasons.”
Regarding the controversy surrounding Sebastian Gorka, the Trump adviser who has been dogged by accusations of connections to far-right groups in Hungary, Foxman said: “I find it hard to know where the truth lies — again, I see this as politicized. What does that mean? The Forward newspaper has taken a major position against, while the Jerusalem Post has invited him to its forthcoming symposium. So I haven’t done the research, I don’t know the full facts, but I see that this is being politicized.”
Better known than Gorka in terms of antisemitism accusations is Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, who has sparked alarm because of his connections with the so-called “alt-right” movement. “I thought it was a mistake to make Bannon a Jewish issue,” Foxman said. “And we made Bannon a Jewish issue, to the point where some Jews said, ‘He’s an antisemite,’ then the Israeli ambassador came to embrace him.”
“I thought Bannon was an American issue,” Foxman continued. “There was nothing specifically Jewish, no record of antisemitism, there was a record of pro-Israel stuff. Many people don’t like his worldview — okay, you’re entitled — but I wasn’t comfortable when we made that a Jewish issue.”
“Antisemitism is serious enough that one shouldn’t exaggerate it or politicize it,” he said. “People viewed every expression on the subject in the last few months in political terms. And when it became clear that the the threats against Jewish community institutions came from an Israeli, American, Jewish kid, and we all sighed with relief, I said, ‘What lessons can we learn here?'”
Those lessons, Foxman said, were, first, not to make every problem an “existential crisis;” second, “don’t jump to conclusions;” and third, awareness that the end result of exaggerating threats “is that Jews will be too afraid to go to Jewish institutions, Jewish events.”
As for Trump himself, Foxman rejects the theory that the perceived recent rise in antisemitism is the fault of the president. “We have had in the last several years in the vicinity of 1,500 attacks on Jews because they were Jews — those are FBI figures,” he said. “The difference with now is that the news didn’t focus on it. All of a sudden, every day we were reading about swastikas and other incidents, and I said, ‘Hey, in all the years that I’ve been part of the ADL and we have been taking inventory, it’s averaged 3 to 5 incidents a day.'”
Foxman observed that the removal of political taboos during the election campaign handed Americans with strongly antisemitic views — somewhere between 10 and 14 percent of the population, according to Foxman — a rare opportunity to reach out to a much larger audience. But, he continued, “Trump isn’t an antisemite and he didn’t create [antisemitism]. Look, this election wasn’t about us. We have to be careful not to project all our anxieties and all our insecurities on every issue.”
If the election campaign removed the “covers of the sewers,” Foxman said, it was clear to him that Trump was now “in the process of putting them back on.”
“He sent his vice president, Mike Pence, to Dachau,” as well as to the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis that was desecrated in February, Foxman said. “These are public manifestations of understanding and embrace,” he noted. “It took a while, but look, in Trump’s first 100 days, this wasn’t item number one or number two or number three, even if it was understandably that way for us.”
Speaking about Trump’s warmth toward the Jewish state and his on-again, off-again plan to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Foxman said there was no doubt about the president’s personal sincerity on the matter. “But it’s like [late former Israeli Prime Minister] Arik Sharon said, the issues look very different from the inside of the prime minister’s office than from the outside,” he noted.
“Trump as president sees things very differently from Trump as a candidate,” Foxman went on to say. “He’s not embarrassed to be a friend, he wants to be a friend.”
Earlier worries that Trump would adopt a neutral stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were lessening, Foxman said.
“He’s embraced Israel, while he’s embracing peace. We’re nervous, time will tell, but the tone — the tone is much better in terms of US-Israel relations,” Foxman concluded.