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May 20, 2019 6:32 am

Abraham Foxman Talks Antisemitism, BDS, and Mel Gibson

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

Actor Mel Gibson at the 89th Academy Awards in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Mike Blake.

Abraham Foxman is the National Director Emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor. He is the author of several books, including Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype. He recently spoke with me about a number of topics related to antisemitism.

Alan Zeitlin (AZ): What is the greatest threat to Jews in America?

Abraham Foxman (AF): The greatest threat to Jews in America continues to be assimilation, but right next … is antisemitism. Antisemitism has always been a serious element is the American fabric. Until we find a vaccine or an antidote against antisemitism, it will continue to be a serious element of our environment. When I started, the virus infected 33 percent. Now we are talking about 12 to 15 percent. We have managed to build a firewall to keep it in the sewers with the covers on. [But] the firewall [is] … falling apart.

AZ: What do you make of those who say they are anti-Zionist and not antisemitic? Do you believe them?

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AF: There are a few people in the world who are anti-nationalist, who don’t accept any nationalism — Jewish, Palestinian, or French. [But] overwhelmingly today, to be anti-Zionist — which means to be anti-Jewish sovereignty — is antisemitism. Even the Pope wrote that to challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state is antisemitism.

AZ: Were you surprised by the recent New York Times cartoon?

AF: Nothing surprises me anymore. If you have a newspaper that historically neglected to talk about the Holocaust … unwilling to support the establishment of the Jewish state … that’s not surprising. Some of the people working there feel that this is okay. At the same time, I’m glad they finally [are coming] to grips with the issue, and we’ll see what happens down the road.

AZ: Some in the media said President Trump should be blamed for the two synagogue shootings? Do you agree?

AF: To blame the president for it is wrong. He needs to be held accountable but it’s not his fault. The antisemites in Charlottesville or Pittsburgh or Poway were not created by Donald Trump or by his rhetoric. They were there as part of America’s milieu. What Trump did was legitimize some of the rhetoric. Once it goes public, you remove the sewer covers. He’s not responsible, but he should be held accountable for a rhetoric that some read and understand as [approval] for acting out.

AZ: Some call him a white supremacist.

AF: He’s not an antisemite. He’s not a white supremacist. He called himself a nationalist so where do you go from there?

AZ: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)’s Twitter comments that Israel has hypnotized the world and another saying Jews buy political support were seen by some as antisemitic. Yet the House passed a measure condemning all hate. Was that enough?

AF: We live in an age when you should call it what it is. It was antisemitism. There’s no reason to camouflage or euphemize it. Unfortunately, everything is politicized and taken to the extreme. Sometimes by playing that game, it doesn’t serve the Jewish people in the fight against antisemitism.

AZ: Should high school curricula be changed to include more about the Holocaust?

AF: Yes. Six states mandate it. The problem is much deeper. In American schools, we don’t teach history or geography. Many students are ignorant of World War II, and why we fought the war. They don’t know we lost hundreds of thousands of young men and women who went to fight Nazism, [so] how would you expect them to know about the Holocaust? We spend a lot of time on the Middle Ages, but when it comes to modern times, we gloss it over. … We need to teach more because “Never Again” is part of Jewish history, but it’s not limited to Jews. It’s a universal lesson never to be silent when anyone is singled out for who they are, what they are, the color of their skin, their ethnicity, or their gender. It’s teaching about hate.

AZ: Is the media’s handling of the rise in antisemitism acceptable?

AF: Through the years that I was head of the ADL, we issued reports on acts of antisemitism. We did polling. We did surveys. Nobody covered it. The Jewish media sort of covered it, but more as an afterthought. Now, all of a sudden, it is covered. I’m not sure how good or bad it is. On the one hand, people now know how serious it is, and we tried to tell them for many years. On the other hand, there’s an element of copycats. People see you can get away with [committing antisemitic acts]. … If I had my choice, I would want it to be public.

AZ: Do you think Mel Gibson should be forgiven, and is it problematic that it was reported he will be playing a rich Jew named Rothschild?

AF: Forgiven? I don’t think he’s asked forgiveness. I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with Mel Gibson. I don’t think he’s ever really asked forgiveness, although he tried to do enough so that he could go into the [acting] profession again. I’m not sure about this film. I remember a couple of years ago they said he was going to play Judah Maccabee. This could be PR for his image. … I’ m more skeptical.

AZ: Some are greatly concerned by the BDS movement, and others say it’s not a big deal because nothing is binding. Is it a concern of yours?

AF: I grew up in the ’60s, with anti-Vietnam protests. It was no picnic to stand up for Israel and Zionism in the ’60s. There were the same 25 to 35 universities that had an anti-Israel bias. To some extent, it’s a continuation. I don’t think any of these movements are hurting Israel. What I’m worried about are future generations. Most college students [don’t know the truth about Israel and only] experience snippets. I worry 20 years from now that some of these students will grow up and remember a poster that Israel is apartheid state. … It’s more propaganda than anything else. But it has made Jewish students feel uncomfortable and threatened. … Today, Jewish students might not wear a Chai or a Magen David like they used to. So it has a psychological impact on their identity and their pride.

AZ: What should be done to fight antisemitism?

AF: We need to rebuild the firewall. We need to again — through legislation, through litigation, through education, through building coalitions — we need to reset the taboos. We need to deliver a message that there are consequences to hateful behavior. The United States Constitution guarantees someone’s right to be an antisemite or a bigot, but our society can set a price on it. Mel Gibson paid a price. Not by legislation or litigation, but our society said you cannot be a bigot and be a big shot in Hollywood. I think we need to bring that back.

The last political campaign destroyed taboos. It destroyed this sense of right and wrong, [and] of what you can say and what you can’t say. We need to rebuild that and say that certain language and behavior is immoral and unacceptable in America.

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