July 18, 2019

Foxman one on one: anti-Semitism, BDS and Mel Gibson

Over the past 20 years, I’ve accused Anti-Defamation League (ADL) chief Abraham H. Foxman of being an alarmist, an opportunist, even a hypocrite. 

I mocked his outspoken campaign against Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” saying it just helped boost the snuff film’s box office. I challenged his way of measuring anti-Semitism, saying it artificially inflated the numbers of haters by posing questions that even Jew-lovers would agree with. And I castigated him for opposing the building of an Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan, N.Y., saying he would never say a peep if a synagogue wanted to do the same.

But if I acted as a thorn in Foxman’s side, a contrarian, a loudmouth who calls the powerful to account, it was only because I was emulating someone I admire: Abe Foxman.

Now Foxman is stepping down after serving the ADL for 50 years, 27 of them as its national director. If the position has allowed Foxman to become one of the most high-profile and influential American Jews, that’s because of the sheer force of his personality, vision and accomplishments — and his biography.

Foxman was born in Baranovichi, Poland, in 1940. Foxman’s parents hid him from the Nazis by giving him over to his Catholic nanny, who risked her life to hide him. Abe Foxman became Henryk Kurpi, and he was baptized and raised as Catholic until, after a long custody battle, he was reunited with his parents after the war. 

After immigrating to the United States with his parents in 1950, he graduated from Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y., earned a law degree at New York University and joined the ADL in 1965.

Foxman launched effective tolerance education programs in schools and for law enforcement, perhaps his greatest and least-known legacy. He led the Jewish community’s rapprochement with the Catholic Church, and has nurtured bonds with black, gay and Latino communities. He has served as a fierce and outspoken watchdog against extremism in the U.S., abroad and online. While he is comfortable operating in the diplomatic shadows, he has been just as willing to step into the fray or, when the need arises, to create the fray — and take the occasional blowback for doing so.

Foxman will be in Los Angeles Nov. 6-8 for the ADL’s annual national meeting, his last major L.A. appearance before officially stepping down next July. I spoke with him by phone prior to his trip out here and found him, as always, insightful, combative — and forgiving.

Rob Eshman: Why do you think that anti-Semitism persists?

Abe Foxman: Well, it’s because it isn’t one single solitary reason. In every country, in every history, in every society, the reasons are different. In some, it’s because they believe we killed Christ. Or it’s because we’re communists, or we are fascists, or we’re militarists, or we’re too liberal, or we’re too rich or we’re too poor. So it’s like a Whack-a-Mole, you know. Ironically, for all these years in Europe, they told the Jews to go to Palestine. Now the anti-Semites are telling the Jews to get out of Palestine.

RE: We Jews tend to focus on the negative, but at the same time, European governments have responded to thwart anti-Semitism.

AF: That’s the good news. If you would ask me now what’s a model country, I would say to you, “France.” France’s response, from the prime minister, from the president and the foreign minister to the police chief, has been superb. But it doesn’t filter down, and the manifestations on the streets are so blatant.

RE: What would you advise the governments to do? 

AF: The only answer that we know of is education. You know, people learn to hate much quicker than they unlearn it. That’s the only antidote: It’s to educate. Educate about the Holocaust, educate about prejudice, to make sure that the institutions are viewed with respect.

Look what happened in the last election to the EU [European Union]. The populist movements are growing. Xenophobia is growing. Europeans have never accepted foreigners. They’ve never assimilated foreigners. 

RE: And you have the radicalized Muslims.

AF: In the recent survey that we did on anti-Semitism, we found that the highest level of anti-Semitism in the world is in the Middle East and North Africa, that today, globally, one out of two Muslims is anti-Semitic. So now you have that added overlay in Europe, so it’s a human conveyor belt of anti-Semitism coming into Amsterdam and Brussels and Paris and Rome and Berlin.

RE: Would an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians decrease that kind of anti-Semitism?

AF: My hand on my heart, I don’t think it will change. They’ll find another reason. That’s an excuse. What happened in Gaza was an excuse for the anti-Semitism. But I would love to see peace for peace’s sake. Maybe it will take away a platform, a reason, a rationale, but they’ll find something else.

Look, the No. 1 issue that we found in our poll, 41 percent globally believed the Jews can’t be trusted or [are] not loyal, OK?

This is almost one out of two adults in the world [who] believe that Jews can’t be trusted.

So if there’s peace tomorrow — will the anti-Semites find another platform? Yes.

RE: That poll that you’re talking about, I’ve been critical of it in the past, as have others. Some of those questions you asked, if you polled Jews, you would find that they agree with some of those answers.

AF: Yeah, but that’s entertainment, Rob. Jews don’t kill Jews, OK? 

RE: But that’s what I’m asking. How do you parse what’s truly malignant, and what is just a bad attitude?

AF: So it’s not an exact science. But let me tell you something. If you believe that Jews disproportionately control media, finance and governments, you’re an anti-Semite. Now, that does not mean you’re going to get up in the morning and kill Jews. No! But there is a potential there that if you have a crisis, a family crisis, an emotional crisis, etc., what history has taught is that … people do act out.

RE: What does it say to you that though we just went through one of the worst financial crises in American history, and there were high-profile Jews involved in this crisis, we really didn’t see any acting out?

AF: The U.S. is still a historical anomaly — thank God! But for a lot of reasons: for the values, for assimilation, for integration, all of these things.

RE: What’s fascinating is that in those countries with high rates of anti-Semitism, like Hungary, Spain, Greece and in the Middle East — outside of Israel — there are barely any Jews.

AF: We have learned you don’t need Jews for anti-Semitism. It doesn’t matter whether there are Jews or there aren’t Jews, you can have anti-Semitism. Although Laos is the lowest in the world.

RE: Laos?

AF: Yeah. Asia was low, but Laos is the lowest. 

RE: So is that where you’re going to retire?

AF: No fun. I mean, there’s nothing for me to do there.

RE: After the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the ADL was instrumental in creating and winning passage of anti-mask laws, which prevented them from wearing hoods as they committed their acts of hate. Now you have the Internet, which is kind of the ultimate mask.

AF: The Internet is a new mask. Because of the anonymity, everybody has a megaphone. I think it’s a major challenge: How do we balance freedom of speech, First Amendment [rights], with civility. How do we protect civility?

A big part of it is not necessarily legislation, it’s societal. In this country, if you’re an anti-Semite, you’re going to pay a price. If you’re in commerce, you’re going to pay a price. If you’re in politics, you’re going to pay a price. My worry [is], if we ever lose that price, what are the consequences?

RE: Like Mel Gibson.

AF: I know we had a lot of controversy about Mel Gibson. But Mel Gibson to me is a very important example because he paid the price. He wasn’t punished by laws for being an anti-Semite bigot. He was punished by society. He went from No. 1 to No. 247. Politicians in this country who try to play with prejudice can make it once; they won’t make it a second or third time.

So that’s the beauty of this country, and that’s why we have to make sure that there is always, always a price to be paid for prejudice. 

RE: Where do you draw the line between the anti-Zionism we see on many college campuses and anti-Semitism?

AF: To me, it’s very simple: Anti-Zionism 99 percent of the time is a euphemism for anti-Semitism. 

RE: Let me just stop there. There’s so much criticism of Israel within Israel; you know that.

AF: I don’t have a problem with that. Criticism of Israel, per se, is not anti-Semitism. It could be, but it’s not. I would say if you were anti-Zionist and you are not anti-Palestinian nationalism, anti-French nationalism, anti-Chinese nationalism, anti-American nationalism, then you’re an anti-Semite. If the only nationalism that you find racist or unacceptable is Jewish nationalism, then you’re an anti-Semite.

Now, I will tell you something else about the campus. I was on the campus in the ’60s. In the ’60s, it was not fun being Jewish on the campus. You had anti-Vietnam, you had Black Panthers, you had Arab students galore, etc., etc.

Things have changed. Out of 3,500 campuses in America, somewhere between 25 and 50 are politically active. It’s the same campuses that in the ’60s were active in anti-Israel that are today. The difference today is, again, the Internet. Something happens in Paducah, and it’s global.

I would say to you that on a college campus today, we have more Jewish resources, we have more Jewish students because of Birthright Israel, who can stand up and can challenge. There’s a coalition of organizations supporting Jewish campus activities. So I don’t see it as this great calamity or this great crisis. It’s always there. The campus goes through phases of political activism. Today, one student with a megaphone, which is a website, can do all kinds of things that they couldn’t do 20 years ago.

So, OK, you know, we provide services, we’re out there when they need support. The kids today are more educated on the subject than they’ve ever been. So I don’t see it as a crisis. I think we should be there [to] make sure that they have [our] support when they reach out.

RE: And the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement doesn’t concern you?

AF: No. I don’t think that BDS will take hold in this country. We are not a country of boycotters. A lot of these votes are by 20 to 30 people. 

I think we’ve made it more an issue than it is, where we seriously should be able to differentiate between where it’s serious and where it’s not. When we think it’s serious, we can rally the forces, as you’ve seen that’s been done from time to time.

RE: I’ve always been fascinated by your biography. I wondered what it meant to you that at the same time that your family was persecuted by Christian anti-Semites, a Catholic nanny risked her life to save you. What does that teach you about human nature?

AF: I have been very, very lucky, because two very strong elements of human behavior shaped me. I survived the worst of human behavior, which is hate and anti-Semitism. And I survived because of the best of human behavior, which is the courage and sacrifice to stand up for another individual.

Now, say, there’s the irony that through these two anti-forces, I wind up in a job where that’s what I did every day: fought the hate and tried to instill understanding. So I’ve been very, very happy; very lucky. Did I succeed in everything? No. Did we make progress? Yeah. Is there a lot to be done? Yeah. Others will do it? Absolutely.