After 50 years at the Anti-Defamation League, the last 28 as its national director, Abe Foxman is stepping down this month. He’s making headlines to the end, including by castigating ex-Israeli ambassador Michael Oren for “veering into the realm of conspiracy theories” with his critiques of US President Barack Obama. But that’s always been Foxman’s way — calling it like he sees it, letting the chips fall where they may.
It’s an approach that has made the ADL and its leader a central, frequently controversial, and always compelling element of the American Jewish leadership. And the outspokenness in the cause of justice is undoubtedly rooted in Foxman’s own early biography: He survived the Holocaust as a baby in Poland because his Catholic nanny raised him as one of her own; he only found out he was Jewish after the war when his parents returned to reclaim him. “I’m a product of the worst in humankind and the best in humankind,” he said recently.
In Jerusalem a few days ago, The Times of Israel sat down with Foxman, 75, to talk through the Jewish condition in 2015, and found a worried optimist who is hopeful, because that’s his nature, and because the Jews have always somehow managed to adapt and thus survive, but troubled by threats without and within: dismayed that the future of the Jews of Europe is in doubt for the second time in his life; concerned that Jewish kids feel intimidated in America; anguished by this Israeli leadership’s seeming insensitivity to key concerns of Diaspora Jews; very unhappy about the “pushback” against pluralism and about signs of rising intolerance in the Jewish state; troubled that the West refuses to call Islamic extremism by its name. And we barely touched upon Iran.
The Times of Israel: In the historical perspective of anti-Semitism, where are we in the world of 2015?
I did not believe that in my career or lifetime, I would have to help answer the question, Do Jews have a future in Europe?
Abraham Foxman: We’re in a stage where anti-Semitism is for a significant number of Jews again a clear and present danger. It’s not like it was, but it’s the worst it’s been since World War II.
I did not believe that in my career or lifetime, I would have to help answer the question, Do Jews have a future in Europe? And that’s a real question, it’s not a theoretical question.
So, does European Jewry have a future?
I would like to think “yes,” because if they don’t Hitler will have had a posthumous victory in Europe. The issue is more a challenge to Europe than to Jews, because the Jews today have Israel and Canada and America. When (French Prime Minister Manuel) Valls said, France without Jews is not France, if they truly believe it and they act on it, then Jews have a future. But that’s going to need a 9/11 trauma for the Europeans.
We changed our way of life, we compromised, because we understood that our freedom, our institutions, are in danger.
“We” being the United States?
The United States. They (in Europe) need to understand that it’s not just “the other” — that the (extremists are not just) going after the Jews and the other; (the extremists) are going after them. If they take it seriously, the Jews will have a future.
And you’re saying, however awful this sounds, that there hasn’t been something bad enough yet, to shake the Europeans out of their complacency?
I worry, after the Charlie Hebdo “Je suis Charlie” (assertion of opposition to extremism), that most (Europeans) think standing in the street (in a display of solidarity in Paris), that did it. That’s enough. It’s not enough. I think they’re waking up to realize it’s not enough. But it’s not about the Jews, it’s about them.
No Holocaust survivor who is honest will say to you that ‘Never Again’ is a certainty
If they come to grips with protecting their freedoms, their democracies, the Jews will have a future.
I always say to American Jews, appreciate that you’re in one of the few places on earth where the Jews can live proud, Jewish lives. Is that true for the long term?
No, no. Nothing. First of all, no Holocaust survivor who is honest will say to you that ‘Never Again’ is a certainty. You’re talking to a survivor who’s fought anti-Semitism, who can recite for you all the progress that we have made. No, it’s not over. We don’t have a vaccine.
So, what worries you in the States? What are the things to watch out for and be concerned about?
The US is unlike any other Jewish community in Jewish history. But we’re not immune. It’s still there. So, now (anti-Semitic attitudes are at) 10-12 percent? I think it’s a lot deeper. And all the elements that trigger it, that (cause that) flashpoint, apply to the US as well. What we’re finding today is something which is very, very disappointing. I don’t think that anti-Semitism is rampant on the campus. I think that’s hype. I don’t think BDS is rampant on the campus. I think that’s hype. But something is happening to Jewish kids.
We saw it in the manifestation of UCLA and it was one kid. But it was worse in Stanford. When the Jewish girl in Stanford, who wants to be a rabbi, cleansed her Facebook and removed her (expressions of) support of Israel, in the United States, that’s scary to me. That’s like Jews taking off their kippa in the streets of Paris, and here it’s in the US. I have a feeling that Jewish kids, and I’m (also) looking at it in high school, feel intimidated. I don’t have statistics…
On their Jewishness or on Israel…?
On their Jewishness. But it comes out of Israel. (The intimidation) starts with the BDS issue. It’s not anti-Semitic per se, but it morphs. It metastasizes. So, when they started asking, You’re Jewish, therefore… It started with Israel and it metastasized into, you’re Jewish.
What you’re having is Jewish kids hiding their mezuzahs more than they ever did before. Five years ago if you traveled around campuses, you would see a sizable number of “Shtu (Drink) Coca Cola” t-shirts or IDF t-shirts. You’re not going to see it now.
It’s a sort of an intimidation, maybe self-imposed, and that’s because the kids feel something. We just did this focus group on high schools. There are more incidents of throwing pennies at Jews than I thought. You know, it’s there!
There’s something still out there, and the further we go away from the Shoah, (the worse it gets). There’s more anti-Semitism than our 12% (finding in a major recent survey).
(America is) still different. It’s still unique. In the US, you’re allowed to be a bigot by law. The Constitution guarantees you the right to be a bigot. But we have a civil society that says there’s a consequence. You can be a bigot, but if you run for office and you’re a bigot, you’re not going to go far. You want to sell soda and be a bigot, you’re not going to go far. You want to sell a movie and be a bigot…
So that’s our fail-safe. Europe doesn’t have it. Europe’s only response is the government. So far the governments have been pretty good, but what happens when they stop with the soldiers (guarding) synagogues? At what point are the people going to say, How much money are we going to spend protecting the Jews? It’s better today. You’re not old enough to remember. There was an attack on a synagogue in Belgium 25 or so years ago, and the minister of interior got up and apologized. He said: They wanted to kill Jews but they killed innocent Belgians. They’re not saying that now. So there is a change.
And in the US, if anything happens, from the police chief to the mayor to the governor to the White House, it’s condemned. That’s very important.
We just did a survey and it shows anti-Semitism went down in France, Germany and Belgium, and we attribute it to the strong condemnation by the governments, where they sent a message: not in our town.
What about the Arab world. Again, you did this huge survey. It’s axiomatic: the Arab world is terribly anti-Semitic. Anti-Israel. Is that really the case, and are there any bright spots?
In the Arab world, there’s always someone selling them: You know why you can’t get a good school? You know why we can’t? It’s the Jews
I guess the bright spot is in the survey that we did (among immigrants) in Europe. The bad news is that (anti-Semitism among them) is worse than (among) local, native Europeans. The good news is, it’s less than in the Arab world and in North Africa. There, the anti-Semitic element is 80-90%. They come to Europe and it’s 50-60%, which means the baggage is still there but it’s less virulent. That’s good news.
And in the Arab world itself, are there any bright spots?
We’re seeing little bubbles coming out in the Gulf. It’s their fear of intimidation. We know that the overwhelming majority want to live life, want to send their kids to school, want to be successful. They don’t care about Jews. But there’s always someone selling them: You know why you can’t get a good school? You know why we can’t? It’s the Jews.
I’ve met enough Arab Muslims, who privately are fine, but when you ask them to speak out, they’re not ready. And until that happens, we’re not going to fix it, we’re not going to resolve it, we’re not going to remove it.
I don’t believe every Arab, every Muslim out there, gets up in the morning saying, How am I going to hit or hurt or beat the Jews? But they’re carried that way, although we’re seeing more voices in Europe of Muslims saying, it doesn’t serve us well, it’s not good for us, it’s not going to get us anywhere.
But not enough.
How could the world that does not want to kill and be killed be more effective in fighting Islamic extremism?
Well, first it needs to recognize what it’s fighting. We’re still not there. France is pretty good, but when (French President Francois) Hollande got up there and said that Charlie Hebdo has nothing to do with Islam…
When David Cameron says last week that Islam is a religion of peace, is that okay?
No, it’s hypocrisy.
Is Islam not a religion of peace, Abe?
Not every Muslim is a terrorist, but every terrorist is a Muslim. That’s a reality. Therefore, you have no choice but to focus there. If you say everybody is a potential terrorist, well, you go nowhere
He can say it’s a religion of peace which has been hijacked. But saying it in the abstract is absolute hypocrisy. When the president of the United States is not willing to say Muslims are killing Christians, or Muslims are killing Jews, or we have a conference on radical extremism and you can’t even call it jihadism — no. A first step is recognizing your enemy, understanding what motivates them, and then dealing with it.
You can say, fine, Islam is not a religion of violence, but today it has been hijacked. It is a fact: Not every Muslim is a terrorist, but every terrorist is a Muslim. That’s a reality. So therefore, you have no choice but to focus there. If you say everybody is a potential terrorist, well, you go nowhere.
And President Obama, with his talk of “a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris,” does he not internalize it? Is he failing to honestly acknowledge what we’re up against?
I think he is struggling with this American ethos of not blaming ethnicity, race, religion. I don’t go as far as Michael (Oren) does. I don’t think it’s because he’s a Muslim.
He’s killed more Muslims as president of the United States than any president in the history of the United States. He doesn’t single them out, but that’s where our drones are going. That’s where our soldiers went.
Between Afghanistan and Iraq and…
He’s killed more Muslims as president of the United States than any president in the history of the United States. He doesn’t single them out, but that’s where our drones are going. That’s where our soldiers went
So, it’s absurd to say he… You know, he’s sensitive, super sensitive. And I think one needs to be realistic. Absolutely. Do not slander or do not paint with a brush all of the religion. But at least recognize that there are significant elements that are at war with our civilization and values.
What could Israel do that would be smarter. I mean, there are those who would say that we’re the root of all evil, right?
I think the world has learned that we’re not — in the last two or three years…
Yeah, I do. But we’re convenient. The killing in Syria, the slaughters of Sunni, Shi’a, Shi’a, Sunni, what does it have to do with Israel? Nothing, except that it’s in the neighborhood. It can be utilized, it can be harnessed, it can be hijacked. The Arab Spring, what the heck did it have to do with us? I think good people understand, but it’s still convenient (to blame Israel).
Are there things that Israel could do though that could perhaps start to change the tones…?
The answer is “yes”. I think the leadership in Israel thinks no. They’re convinced that it really doesn’t matter what we do, because at this moment… Take a look: The flotilla (that headed to Gaza last week). What the prime minister said (of the activists on the boats that sought to breach Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-run Gaza), he’s right, he’s a thousand percent right: Did you lose your compass?
The ex-president of Tunisia is on the boat to empower Hamas while an Islamic extremist is gunning down his people on the beach back home, for goodness’ sake.
And so when you look at that, I understand when the prime minister of Israel says, What is it that you want me to do? What is it that’s going to make a difference?
I am one of those who believes that Israel does not have a partner in Abu Mazen. And therefore I would do everything in my power to expose it, and even take risks to expose it
There’s CNN, there’s Fox, there’s Sky News (reporting on the Islamic extremist killings): You can’t say I don’t know, I don’t see, I haven’t heard.
I can understand where he’s saying, Hey, it doesn’t really matter, because truth doesn’t matter. But I still would hope, I still would hope, that knowing all that, there would be some initiative. I don’t know what it is. I don’t think not doing anything is (the right course).
You don’t want to specify? Freeze settlements beyond the blocs, say nicer things about the Arab Peace Initiative?
I am one of those who believes that Israel does not have a partner in Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). And therefore I would do everything in my power to expose it, and even take risks to expose it. They’ve done it privately, secretly. I would want the world to see: here, black and white, look. Israel has offered once, twice, three times…
You mean, make plain that we want an agreement, that we are prepared for territorial compromise?
Right. Because the world has a short attention span. It is cynical. Part of it is against us.
Again, I understand the prime minister saying, Are you for real? But I still think there are enough good people, who are still our friends, who don’t have patience for this to continue and I think we need to encourage them, we need to empower them. Every couple of years we need to remind them who we are, and who (the Palestinians) are.
It’s a risk. But, you know what? I once asked (prime minister) Arik Sharon, with whom I had a very close relationship, Arik, you’re going to do disengagement (from Gaza), and what if it fails? And he said he believed that it would fail, and it would show the world that it’s not land for peace (that’s at issue). I said, but Arik, what if it succeeds? He said, You mean that I’m wrong and it will bring peace? It’s a win-win.
How bad are the ties between Jerusalem and Washington and how do they get fixed?
They’re pretty bad. Thank God that there are still interests because at the end, yeah, there’s a lack of trust, maybe lack of respect. But there are still interests — interests that continue actually to grow, because the enemies Israel faces are the same enemies the US faces, on a different scale.
Reality will bring the US and Israel closer together
There’s disagreement. For the first time since I’ve been around, there is a different perception of how you deal with that same interest. Israel and the US have the same interest vis-a-vis Iran, which is to stop it from being nuclear. But there’s a very serious difference on how you get there.
At the end of the day — besides all the values, which are important — real interests will bring us much closer together. Because the enemy of civilization — this (here in the holy land) is where civilization started — the enemies of civilization are against the United States and us. The (relationship) is going to heal. Both sides need to climb down. Both sides need to say, We need to re-establish trust. What troubles me is that so much of the relationship is through headlines and not face-to-face.
But the comfort is ironically, bitterly, because you think there are so many evil forces that it becomes impossible to ignore and therefore you’re going to have to work together? That the notion in the United States that maybe somehow Iran can be accommodated is going to be unproven because of their evil?
Unfortunately, that’s what I believe. The reality will bring us closer together.
I understand the president’s vision is what he believes are in the best interests of the United States and Israel, which is to make Iran a non-nuclear country and to find a way to do it diplomatically. Everybody thinks that’s a great idea. The question is, will it happen, can it happen and to what extent do you trust them? How will it impact on everything else?
That should not make us — Israel and the United States — so much at loggerheads. I’m just sorry for a lot of the public disagreement. This is a very serious disagreement. It should be among friends, with trust, and that’s gone. So we have to rebuild the trust.
Let me ask you about the fast developing world, the new powers, the Chinas and the Indias. What’s your sense of where their interests may coincide with those of Israel, and their attitudes to Jews generally?
Their interests are changing. I remember going to India to try to convince them that (establishing more of a presence in Israel) besides a consulate with a 150-mile radius was in their best interest. I couldn’t convince them. Reality convinced them: Israel’s growth, development, promise, success. The Orient values success. It values smarts and success, and Israel has been smart and successful, certainly in the areas of science and technology. So that’s brought them.
There’s wasn’t a Chinese 25 years ago to be seen (in Israel). Maybe Taiwanese, but even they didn’t come. They now perceive a value in the relationship. That’s the best, because if it comes from their self-interest. That’s what’s real. That’s what’s going to keep it strong.
And in China your survey did not find an anti-Semitic…
We found some stuff in South Korea, but they explained: A representative of the South Korean government came to see us and they said, Look, we want all Koreans to love Korea wherever they are and be loyal to us. So when we talk about loyalty, we want them to be as loyal to Korea as we think the Jews are loyal to Israel. We want them to have influence on media. It’s all these stereotypes…
In other words the things that were seen to be negative by you…
They see as positive. They don’t have the classic element of anti-Semitism.
I want to add one more thing you’ve not asked me yet, and that is regarding the US Jews-Israel relationship. That relationship is the cement, the glue. It’s the basic ingredient.
We fight all over the world for pluralism. We fight for respect for religion, our religion. And here (in Israel), it’s like they don’t care. They’ve got to care
At the end of the day the United States will act on what it believes are its interests. But with what intensity, to what degree, how quickly? Even if you sell arms or deliver arms there’s always this: you can do it quickly, you can take time, there are all kinds of ways. This is where the American-Jewish community is a significant factor in making this relationship more special.
I worry about the future (of the relationship between US Jews and Israel), because I think there are issues here (in Israel) — motivated by security, whatever — which put on a very, very low level the issue of pluralism and even democracy.
Just the debate in this country about whether we are a Jewish state or a democratic state, that is so distressing to that cement and glue. Just the debate.
What do you mean, you can’t be Jewish and democratic? That’s been our downfall throughout the world: when countries were not democratic.
(Then there’s) the issue of respect for pluralism: We fight all over the world for pluralism. We fight for respect for religion, our religion. And here (in Israel), it’s like they don’t care. They’ve got to care. Because the future generations (of non-Orthodox American Jews) need to feel respect and acceptance. And they don’t feel it. And the answer of, “Well, you know we’re fighting a war,” that doesn’t go all the way. Yeah, you’re fighting a war. Fine. But.
You’re talking about several things. First, the casual de-legitimization of Diaspora non-Orthodox Judaism by Israel?
But you’re also talking about growing signs of intolerance in Israel for other religions?
And I’m also talking about a cavalier attitude toward democracy, the media, culture. These debates are doing a lot of damage because American Jews assume a strong, vibrant democracy, debate, discussion (in Israel). And all of a sudden this (less tolerant attitude) is becoming a daily political issue? It will leave scars.
And therefore if you were an adviser to the prime minister…
I would take it very seriously.
What two or three things would you do right now? You would go to that church on the Kinneret where arsonists struck, where you were the other day?
Yeah, I would go to that church on the Kinneret.
Look, the perception is that all the progress that was done on the issue of religious pluralism (in Israel) has been pushed back in this election. And he’s got to, the leadership has got to show to what extent it hasn’t. And if it has (been pushed back), to begin to fix it, or at least to listen to American Jews who feel that all the progress that had been made — and the progress was made because of the sensitivity and understanding — all of a sudden (is being reversed). A pushback. Again, this debate on democracy, can we be Jewish and democratic…?
Really it’s a superfluous debate. It’s a ridiculous debate. We have to be both.
I’ve been trying to explain to the American Jewish community this whole political game of putting (legislation on the question of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state) into the hopper — the first reading, the second reading. But do you know how much damage is done in the first reading and the second reading? Even though you and I know it will never get to the third reading?
It’s a lose-lose. It’s an absolute useless, damaging…
That’s why we need leadership, that’s saying this is not in our best interest, this is not who we are.
Now, finally, I would say you need to fix the political system. Everybody says yes, yes, yes. I don’t know. IDI (the Israel Democracy Institute) has been trying for 30 years.
Well, what is your patent, Mr. Foxman? What would you do? Have you got a solution? It’s a lousy system, but I’m not sure how to fix it. I know the Hebrew University people and their 50 percent constituency system…
There is no accountability. Not in legislation. You’ve got to start with accountability. And maybe election of members to the Knesset who are accountable to some constituency, as a first step.
Last thing. Bottom line. The future of the Jews, Abe. You kind of answered it, that no Holocaust survivor is going to assume ‘Never Again,’ but where do you think the Jewish people are going to be a couple of generations from now?
I’ll give you a semi-historical, philosophical answer. The answer is we really don’t know, but it depends whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. I’m an optimist. I started 50 years ago. I did research. And the sociologists, the prognosticators, in 1965, said three things which are relevant to my youth, my life, my career.
One is they said there’d be no vibrant Jewish community in the United States. You had Look Magazine writing about The Vanishing American Jew, and Newsweek with a similar headline. Not only are we here 50 years later, but we’re vibrant and we’re creative and we’re vital and we’re pugnacious and we care. Okay.
The second prediction was that anti-Semitism would be gone (chuckles sadly): no more anti-Semitism; it’s a fact of history; we’ll worry about others. Whoa.
And the third was that in 50 years Israel is going to be a natural fact of the world community. How wrong.
Is that what was thought 50 years ago?
Hello! We’ll be accepted like every nation.
There was a time when people thought that?
You see, that’s before my time. I did not know that. Wow.
And so, again, look at this country, with all its pimples, with all its warts. Wow. You remember you couldn’t get a phone? You had to wait three years for a phone. Movies, wine, theater, TV, gourmet food. It’s wow. It’s grown. It’s a model for so many things.
With all the faults, I am very optimistic. I think the Jewish people adapt, have adapted. Sometimes I wish we were smarter. Sometimes I wish we were more accepting. Okay.
But do I worry more about (threats to) the future of my grandchildren as Jews from the inside or the outside? I still worry more from the outside than I do from the inside.