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March 20, 2018 2:34 pm

Ex-ADL Chief at Jerusalem Antisemitism Conference: Technology Has Created a Tsunami of Hate Speech

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

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Interview

Abraham Foxman. Photo: ADL.

Abraham Foxman, the former longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, seemed decidedly unretired at the 6th Global Forum on Antisemitism in Jerusalem on Sunday. Holding court at a small table, he fended off well-wishers and glad-handlers alike as he generously lent his time to two young journalists, including an Algemeiner correspondent.

At 77, Foxman is still spry, articulate, and passionate about his life’s work of fighting antisemitism. In today’s new era of technological change, however, Foxman’s concerns have shifted. Occasionally pointing to a smartphone, he warned that the Jews were now facing a “tsunami” of hatred emanating from cyberspace.

“Technology has changed antisemitism,” he said. The internet has “destroyed civility. And to a large extent civility is a protective blanket for minorities. But if you remove civility you take away a level of protection. So the internet is a major challenge. I remember ten years ago I went to Palo Alto and said to the geniuses, ‘Thanks, look what you’ve created. I’m not blaming you. But the unintended consequences of your genius have created a superhighway for bigotry and antisemitism.’ And their answer was simply, ‘algorithms, algorithms.’ And ten years later, I think they’re beginning to understand their responsibility. They’re starting to take responsibility. Because this is still the newest, latest threat to civility. Communicating in nanoseconds and it’s like a tsunami.”

Foxman continued: “How do you deal with hate? How do you answer hate speech? When you’re dealing with a tsunami of hate speech, how do you respond to it? And for that we need technology.”

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He tapped a smartphone with an outstretched finger and pronounced, “because this is also anonymous! The cover of anonymity on the web allowing people to say what they think but previously would never admit to.”

Foxman sees the rise of antisemitism in recent years as directly connected to the viral nature of cyberspace. “Part of the rise is that more attention is being focused on it than ever before,” he said. “So a swastika … becomes global.”

Despite decades of struggle, however, Foxman said he always knew the war on antisemitism was one of containment. “I was never naïve that we were going to eliminate it,” he asserts. “I always understood that the best we can do is contain it. Make it unacceptable. So from that perspective, I’m not surprised that it’s still there.”

While he added, “I don’t think we’re in a crisis in the US, I don’t think we’re under siege,” there are nonetheless ominous signs of a resurgence of the old hatred in the new world in a new form.

“In one respect it hasn’t changed,” Foxman said. “It still focuses on all the scapegoat, classic reasons. Jews can’t be trusted. Jews have money. It’s still here. The major change is the technology.”

However, there is also “a political change,” he noted. “We’re in a cycle now of neo-nationalism, of jingoism. All of this gives it a platform.”

Foxman cited the alt-right march in Charlottesville last year, which resulted in the death of a counter-protester, and connected it to the unprecedentedly brutal rhetoric of the last presidential election.

“The 200 guys in Charlottesville were not created by [President Donald] Trump,” he says. “They were always there. But we have created a condition where they knew that if they surface, they pay a price: jobs, social, family, etc. When you remove all the taboos, which this election and Trump has done — he’s removed all taboos that were built up — it energizes and it legitimizes. That’s new. Because these people now feel they can appear before cameras, wear brown shirts. They were not created. They were there. So there’s a new chutzpah.”

Moreover, he asserted, antisemitism has begun to infect mainstream politics in the US. “And that’s dangerous,” he stated. “What we need to be careful of is not to permit it to be politicized. And it’s being politicized. It becomes part of Trump/anti-Trump, it becomes part of the Democrat/Republican issue, and we’re willy-nilly sucked in. We have to be very, very careful not to become caught in between.”

Foxman highlighted the decline of bipartisanship and collaboration between Republicans and Democrats, pointing out that American delegations once flew to Israel together, but now travel separately.

“There’s more extremism,” he says. “Therefore, ‘if you’re not with me you’re against me.’ There’s a lot more of that. There’s less of bipartisanship. There’s less crossing the line then there was five years ago. And we’re in the middle.”

To deal with this, he urged the Jewish establishment in the US to “be on the alert.”

“It’s got to be smart, and not permit itself to be dragged in on either side,” Foxman said. “And in today’s political world, it’s very difficult to navigate the center. It’s treacherous out there.”

Regarding the resurfacing of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who recently made antisemitic statements that some leaders of the Women’s March and other political figures refused to condemn, Foxman said, “He to me is a very disturbing enigma. Not that he’s there. And not that his message is the same. But that in all these years he remains legitimate in serious segments of the African-American community. That they make excuses for him. They have a blind spot.”

“He’s as clear an antisemite as you can possibly have,” Foxman went on about his old nemesis. “It’s classic antisemitism that he broadcasts. And yet, there are serious players in the political arena and certainly in the civil rights arena who either have a blind eye or a deaf ear or do acrobatics.”

“These people are not willing to stand up and say it’s not acceptable,” Foxman said. “We continue to have a problem. He should have been a pariah. And he resurfaces every Savior’s Day and every time he has more people who say they didn’t know. What is it they didn’t know? He’s been consistent. He has never backed off. That to me is very disturbing. Because these are good people for whom we are allies. And when it comes to our pain they find all kinds of excuses.”

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