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‘Tolerance for Bigots Is What’s Scary,’ Says Ex-ADL Chief Foxman of Rising Global Antisemitism

avatar by Ben Cohen


A ‘Bagelstein’ cafe in Paris targeted with antisemitic graffiti. Photo: Twitter.

2019 may only be two months old, but it’s already become painfully clear that antisemitism around the world will be the issue that dominates the Jewish media throughout this year. From Crown Heights to Buenos Aires, from Paris to Melbourne, antisemitic outrages of some sort are being reported on a near-daily basis.

The statistics tell an equally sobering story. In Germany, violent attacks on Jews rose by 60 percent in 2018. In France, there was an overall rise of 74 percent in the number of antisemitic actions. In the UK, the number of antisemitic incidents climbed to 1,652, the highest number recorded in more than three decades. In the US, murders committed by far-right extremists increased by 37 percent in 2018, incorporating in their number the eleven Jewish worshippers murdered by a neo-Nazi gunman at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27.

But as one of the more seasoned observers of antisemitism explained to The Algemeiner on Tuesday, this constant stream of disturbing images and rising numbers didn’t come out of nowhere. Rather, he said, the degree of intensity is reflective of society’s ability to control the latent antisemitism that always lies beneath its surface.

“To believe that we can eradicate antisemitism is a pipe dream,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League and the head of an antisemitism study program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City.  “If we didn’t find a vaccine after Auschwitz, we’re not gonna find one now.”

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The persistence of antisemitism in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust led Jewish organizations to develop containment strategies, Foxman said. “Whether Jews are seen as a religion, or a race, or a nation, we’ve always been the target, regardless of the regime that’s in charge, regardless of the success of Jewish communities,” he argued. “But this is a virus that still remains latent for millions of people. What we have done in the last 50 years is build a firewall around this latency that more or less worked.”

The firewall, however, is no longer as secure. “Many of the elements of containment are disappearing,” Foxman said, citing as an example the role played by historical memory as an “antidote” to antisemitic beliefs. In addition, whereas previously there was a recognition that “there was a price to be paid for hatred and antisemitism,” in that antisemitic individuals or institutions could face a range of sanctions from profound social embarrassment to courtroom litigation, “the taboos now are coming down,” Foxman said.

The cause of this atmospheric change is complex, Foxman stressed.

“It’s chic to put the blame on [US President Donald] Trump,” Foxman said. “But Trump isn’t responsible for what’s going on in Europe.”

Moreover, nearly every country in Europe has a long-established tradition of antisemitism. “France was the place where the Dreyfus affair happened,” Foxman pointed out, referring to the 1894 conviction of the French Jewish army officer Capt. Alfred Dreyfus on false charges of treason, following an infamous trial that came to symbolize the antisemitic obsession with the supposed duplicity and disloyalty of “the Jews.”

“There was a national hysteria of antisemitism that took over France 125 years ago,” Foxman said, and the same basic elements remain in place. “In France now, you have political and economic instability, and that foments antisemitism,” he noted. “Look at the protests by the ‘yellow vest’ movement: what does the price of gas have to do with Jews? There’s no reason or rationale.”

Even if a clear majority of people remain unsympathetic to antisemitism and its claims, that does not necessarily translate into a decisive show of public support for Jewish communities. In Paris last week, 20,000 people out of a city of 2.2 million rallied in the Place de la Republique, in response to a call endorsed by 14 political parties for national rallies against antisemitism issued five days earlier. For Foxman, that was reminiscent of the French public mood in Jan. 2015, during a week of Islamist terror that began with a massacre at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and ended with the murders of four Jewish hostages at a kosher market in eastern Paris. “One million people came out for Charlie Hebdo, 5,000 people came out for those Jewish victims,” Foxman said. “There is apathy and there is indifference.”

Still, Foxman does not deviate from the conviction he upheld at ADL that sustained education is the only serious response to antisemitism. In that regard, he pointed out that the shifting public perception of media reliability was a growing challenge. “The media was an important part of the firewall,” he said. “We used the media to expose antisemitism, to educate against it, to shame the antisemites themselves. Today, when the media has lost its credibility, we have lost one of those platforms.”

Other safeguards are more securely in place, Foxman said. “Today, unlike in previous periods, there is a strong awareness in the Jewish community and a willingness to stand up,” he remarked. “The Christian world has moved from antagonist to an ally. Israel, the Jewish state, stands up for Jews and is a place of refuge.”

There was another important and relatively recent change, he added. “Governments are against antisemitism,” Foxman said. “In the past, law enforcement and governments were not our ally. They would instigate, they would use antisemitism for political advantage, or they would remain silent.”

Even here, though, there are no guarantees. Asked about the prospect of a government in Great Britain led by Jeremy Corbyn — the leader of the opposition Labour Party who is seen by a clear majority of British Jews as a threat to their community — Foxman expressed disappointment that the widespread perception of Corbyn as an antisemite had not ended his leadership.

“The fact that he’s an antisemite does not negate him as the leader of his party —  that’s what is scary here,” Foxman said. “Tolerance for bigots is what’s scary.” In the US, Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam had been similarly indulged, often by those whom Foxman called “good people,” and his bigotry became even more entrenched as a result.

Foxman has little time for those in Europe who argue that America’s free speech tradition is helping to spread antisemitism in Europe, on the grounds that internet companies can run their operations in this country while hiding behind the First Amendment. “That’s a cop-out,” Foxman asserted. US technology companies were “finally starting to take some responsibility” for content posted online, while more broadly, “we’ve done pretty well with our First Amendment” in the fight against hatred, he said.

“Let the Europeans deal with this problem using their own laws,” Foxman said. “They’ve got them.”

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