InterviewIt's scary when rabbis have to weigh whether to decry Hamas

At a moment of crisis for Israel in US, ex-ADL head warns: Israel has no vision

‘Israel, moving right, is interacting with an America which is at best being more progressive,’ says Abraham Foxman. The Hamas war exposed the fault lines, and time is running out

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian marchers in New York, Thursday, on May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian marchers in New York, Thursday, on May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

After a bitter, 11-day round of conflict with Hamas, which has imposed a terror state in Gaza and publicly declares we have no right to exist, Israel is being battered in much of the world for an ostensibly brutal response to incessant barrages of indiscriminate rocket fire. Amid this criticism, much of the Diaspora is facing a spike in antisemitic attacks.

The conflict — in which Israel proved incapable of halting the rockets, grappled with vicious internal Arab-Jewish conflict, saw an escalation of tensions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and feared that Hezbollah might also get involved — ended in an informal ceasefire that, so far, leaves Hamas capable of rearming, strengthening further, and launching the next mini-war at a time of its choosing.

I wrote on Sunday about the dangerous consequences of Israel no longer presenting itself as backing Palestinian statehood even in principle, with all the caveats we would need to highlight. Rather, the country is seen as gradually instituting policies that reduce the prospect of viable separation from the Palestinians. This has made it all too easy for critics to brand Israel as an obstacle to peace, and harder for some of Israel’s supporters to defend us — even in a war against such a manifestly evil force as Hamas.

Pro-Palestinian activists and supporters burn an Israeli flag as they demonstrate in support of the Palestinian cause outside the Israeli Embassy in central London on May 22, 2021. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

But to try and get a clearer sense of the shifting attitudes to Israel, especially among Jews and non-Jews in the United States, our essential ally, I spoke Tuesday night to Abraham Foxman, who headed the Anti-Defamation League for decades and has spent his life tackling racism and antisemitism.

Foxman always describes himself as an optimist, saying that as a child survivor of the Holocaust, he can’t allow himself to be anything else. But our conversation was not a cheery one. What follows is an edited transcript.

The Times of Israel: Clearly, our latest conflict is not being universally perceived as sovereign Israel defending itself against an Islamist terror group firing endless barrages of rockets at us from territory where Israel has no claim. How do we look from there?

Abraham Foxman: We don’t look good. The world has changed since 2014, since the last time we struggled with Hamas and the attacks on Israel. The world has changed politically, but what I think is more significant for us is we’ve lost truth. We’ve lost the respect for facts. In 2014, it was so clear to everybody that regardless of what happened the day before, the month before, mistakes people had made, none of it justified bombardments of rockets at civilians — not targeting army bases, but targeting civilians, indiscriminately. And the world did come to Israel’s defense because they understood.

Former Anti-Defamation League Executive Director Abraham Foxman (courtesy: ADL)

What I find now is that facts and truth don’t matter. It’s all bias. It’s being fueled to a large extent by social media. But it’s more than that.

There is another long-term problem. Israel is moving to the right, for understandable reasons. America, its most important, significant ally, is moving leftward. We’re in the aftermath of a rift in the relationship, in the culture between our two countries, which is very problematic. [Former US President Donald] Trump’s embrace of Israel, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s bear hug of Trump, and a policy that moved in the direction of what [Israeli] Ambassador [Ron] Dermer spelled out recently, this crude embrace of evangelicals…

We can all understand: If Trump supports Israel, great. But you don’t have to put pictures of him on buildings. Absolutely don’t reject it. But the bear hug of Trump hurt us and it’s hurting now…

All of this is now cumulative.

So the situation is very, very serious, because Israel’s allies are first and foremost Diaspora Jews, and second, if not first and foremost, the United States of America.

I’ve always said that whenever there’s a crisis, Jews will come together. Well, it’s as if the Jews don’t perceive this as a crisis. What for you and me is so evidently clear, that Israel was under attack, its life was under attack, was all of a sudden not clear [to others].

Meanwhile, I see [US President Joe] Biden being attacked by Jews who claim to love and support Israel. Biden is not Trump, but he’s also not [former US president Barack] Obama. At this moment, we’re lucky to have him. And whether you agree with all the nuances, he stood by Israel and he’s standing by Israel. And yet some Jews are playing politics here.

In 2014 and again now, though, it’s as though not enough Israelis are being killed. We were and are almost being blamed that we have Iron Dome. But you say the world has changed. Is there now just no preparedness, no readiness, to tolerate civilian casualties on the other side? Because Israel is perceived as so strong, because not enough Israelis died, quote-unquote, are any and all deaths in Gaza deemed unconscionable?

[Prime minister] Golda Meir said a long time ago that if I had my choice of a good editorial in The New York Times and a dead Israeli, or a bad editorial and a living Israeli, I’ll take the bad editorial. That’s our fate. Surrounded by a million Arabs. Most of them don’t like Israel. That’s a price we’ve been ready to pay.

In 2014, we had those issues. But the opposition to Israel was not as ugly.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF chief Aviv Kohavi at an Israel Air Force command center as the IAF bombs Hamas’s Gaza tunnel network overnight Thursday-Friday May 13-14, 2021 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

There is something else, and I apologize, but Israel has no vision. Israel needs a vision to share with the world. Survival is important. It’s first, second and third. But after that? Israel has lost its vision, its mission. Startup is wonderful and startup is exciting. But if all [Israel is saying is that] you’re going to attack to save your life, then what? Israel has no answer to “then what.” There has to be more. I don’t care if it’s a two-state solution, a three-state solution, confederation, whatever it is. But there’s nothing except “understand that we have to defend ourselves.”

My concern has been that we’ve allowed ourselves to be perceived as rejectionists. It’s very clear to me that relinquishing adjacent territory is a dangerous thing to do, now and for the foreseeable future. Hamas proves that. Hezbollah proves it. But our official position is no longer even in principle supportive of a two-state solution, problematic though that solution is. And we’ve taken some steps that make that solution harder. I don’t think you can explain everything through that, but I think that has alienated some supporters.

Yes, it feeds those who say that Israel doesn’t care about peace… It gives greater credibility to those who have never been our friends. You’re not going to convince the right, you’re not going to convince the left, because it’s not about facts. It’s not about truth. It’s about their bias.

I’m now seeing [some in] the American Jewish community are going after celebrities and politicians who are anti-Israel. I think that’s counterproductive. We’re only making them bigger. We’re only giving them more credibility. I would ignore them. I would embrace those who support us, those who are our friends.

Not long ago, we were talking about antisemitism on the right in America. And you were talking about Trump as the inadvertent emboldener of right-wing extremist antisemitism. Are we now facing a huge wave of left-wing antisemitism?

It’s always been there. It’s always been latent on both sides. Trump destroyed civility, and civility operates on left and right. Trump destroyed taboos — and on left and right, they looked out to see what’s respected and no longer respected.

I’ve heard comparisons to Kristallnacht. It’s not Kristallnacht, but it is pogroms. Pogroms in the streets of LA, New York, Tucson — it’s unbelievable.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators assault Jews at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles on May 19, 2021. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Things have changed in America. Since the death of Leo Frank in 1913, no Jew had died in America because he was a Jew, with the possible exception of Meir Kahane, though that was impacted by the Middle East, etc. But in the last two years, what we have seen is Jews being killed because they are Jews.

First by the right — in Poway, in Pittsburgh, in Jersey City. And now we’re seeing pogroms, basically pogroms in the streets.

We’ve never eliminated [antisemitism]. We built a containment. We built a firewall. We’ve had all kinds of things working to make sure that it’s in the sewers, with a cover. We had coalitions, we had the media, we had truth. That all fell apart. That impacts equally on the [extremists of both sides]. So now the [extreme] left feels it is emboldened.

Things like petitions against board members of the MOMA who are supporters of pro-Israel organizations, have we had that before?

We’ve had boycotts of Jews. Not to this extent. Which is why I think it is counterproductive for Jews to call for boycotts. I just saw calls to boycott other people that some of these celebrities are working for. We can get hurt by this.

There was a letter sent to the president this week by 500 former Biden campaign workers. Read what they’re demanding. There’s a certain chutzpah, if you will, that we can be so bludgeoned and victimized.

It’s very scary when rabbis have to decide whether or not to condemn Hamas

We need to energize the American Jewish community. We need to tell American Jews to publicly declare their support and solidarity for Israel. I don’t see it. I think they didn’t perceive that Israel is in danger, that Israel is seriously in danger, which normally they see and they stand up. That to me is very scary. It’s very scary when rabbis have to decide whether or not to condemn Hamas. We’re hearing and reading about it.

I don’t think we’ve taken it seriously here; within days, we’re back to political bickering and ostensible business as usual. But we were fighting on, however you want to calculate it, four, five fronts or more [Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, major domestic violence, protests in Jordan and at the Lebanon border, a handful of rockets from Syria and Lebanon, an Iranian drone… ]. When we thought Hezbollah was firing rockets at us last Wednesday afternoon, they were pretty worried in the security establishment. We were not far from this being a very, very, very, serious crisis. I don’t think that came across at all — not here, and certainly not abroad. I think we were perceived as impervious as we battered the other side.

Israel needs to understand that the world is looking at it with different eyes.

Within the Jewish community, you’ve got a very robust element that is staunchly pro-Israel and very critical of those who are not. But you see a growing alienation — that people who are in the center are now more negative about Israel and people who were negative are now even more negative? That’s the shift?

Most of the people on the left now speaking out against Israel were always not comfortable with Israel. They now have a platform. They feel they have a legitimacy.

There’s this atmosphere of, it’s enough. Somebody just asked me about Israel: Is Israel genocidal?

America and the world have been going through COVID. We don’t know yet the impact of it. We talk about social issues, families, etc. And also, in the United States, the deaths of African Americans by police all of a sudden refocused attention on victims. Part of that is seeing the Palestinians as victims. It’s part of legitimizing their quest, which is a legitimate quest for independence, sovereignty, whatever it is. There’s this atmosphere of, it’s enough. Somebody just asked me about Israel: Is Israel genocidal?

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi (C) visit a building that was hit by Hamas rocket fire from Gaza, on May 20, 2021, in Petah Tikva. (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP)

Take a look. Who are the countries that stood by us this last week? Austria, Germany, Hungary. I’d say thank God, but, good lord. Wow. The world is changing much quicker than we’re adjusting to it.

And that’s why I go back to: We need a vision. We need a vision for peace. Israel and Jewish people need to embrace what we want to see in the Middle East. It’s not there and it hasn’t been there for 10 years.

I was at Bar-Ilan [University in 2009] when Netanyahu gave his two-state speech. We knew how difficult it would be [to achieve]. We knew the issues against. But it was still a vision. It was still a positive vision. It said, this is what we hope for, this is what we’re striving for. Maybe we’ll get it in our lifetime. Maybe not. But it was something. [Today] there is nothing

In other words, you’re saying, what’s lacking is: “This is a very difficult situation. It’s a very hostile region. But of course, our hand is stretched out for peace, credibly so.” It’s not just words, though, is it?

I was at Bar-Ilan [University in 2009] when Prime Minister Netanyahu gave his two-state speech. We knew how difficult it would be [to achieve]. We knew the issues against. But it was still a vision. It was still a positive vision. It said, this is what we hope for, this is what we’re striving for. Maybe we’ll get it in our lifetime. Maybe not. But it was something.

[Today] there is nothing. There is nothing. Plus, there is this alienation of the people who we want to be our allies — those who love human rights, civil rights. All of a sudden they’re turning their back on us. We need to be smarter.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in midtown Manhattan on May 18, 2021. (Angela Weiss / AFP)

Something else we’re facing, which is the opposite side of Trumpism: Why are the Republicans — what we thought were the decent, good Republicans — quiet? They’re afraid that Donald Trump is going to put up candidates against them. You know what? It’s working on the other side: A lot of supporters of Israel are afraid that if they stand up loudly and clearly, the progressive left is going to put up candidates against them. So we’re in the middle. Support from the right doesn’t help us because it alienates the left. Support from the left doesn’t help us because it alienates the right.

I would say it’s nothing new to us. But we were very creative in developing bipartisanship. And we’ve lost that touch. We’ve lost the smarts. We need to be smart.

Take [antisemitism and the need for security] seriously. But don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory

One of the scariest things is when I now hear that people are going to take off their kippah or not wear the Star of David. Whoa. This is where we’ve got to? Proud of Israel, the Jewish state, and now all of a sudden we’re going to remove kippot?

You’ve never heard that before in America?

I heard it after Poway and Pittsburgh. I hadn’t heard it before. I heard it in Europe and I understood it in Europe. They put up walls around synagogues. That sadly was European history, but not in this country.

It started two years ago, after Pittsburgh, where we started thinking the way Europeans think — don’t identify as a Jew, you’ll be safer.

Supporters of Israel face off with pro-Palestinian protesters and police in Times Square on May 20, 2021 in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images via AFP)

We need to take security seriously, but wear your kippah proudly, wear your Star of David proudly. People used to wear “shtu [drink] Coca-Cola” T-shirts. I don’t see them anymore. Tzahal [IDF] shirts, I don’t see them.

Evidently, people are worried about their security as overtly public Jews in America, in the way that they were and are in parts of Paris, parts of London. This has now reached America. People feel they have a cause for concern.

I worry that this is the last Democratic administration that will be pro-Israel. And who says that the next Republican administration will necessarily be pro-Israel?

The answer to me is not to be less Jewish. The answer to me is to invest in security. I’ve been with an organization, the ADL, for 50 years where we preach security. We always said: Antisemitism is here. We don’t have a vaccine or an antidote. Education is there, but it’s slow. We always said we don’t know what the trigger is, but we haven’t eliminated it. It wasn’t taken seriously. Take it seriously. But don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory.

Is this a real turning point in the American relationship with Israel, and the American Jewish relationship with Israel, and in the question of Jewish well-being in the United States, or will it, too, pass?

I worry that this may be the last Democratic administration supportive of Israel. And that’s why I’m harping on about this [need for a] vision, this mission, for the future of Israel. The vision of Israel was part of our values — American values, Jewish values, Israeli values. Yeah, I worry that this is the last Democratic administration that will be pro-Israel. And who says that the next Republican administration will necessarily be pro-Israel? You and I are old enough to remember that the Republicans were not friends of Israel. It all depends on the moment. It all depends on the interest. So these next two or three years are very, very important.

Who am I to say to Israel what it should be? But its image as a right-wing country interacting with an America which is, at best, being more progressive… one needs to sit down, with wisdom, and map a strategy. I am still an optimist. There’s still time.

US President Joe Biden speaks about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in the Cross Hall of the White House, May 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Biden today is a miracle, because Biden is a centrist. We lucked out, because whatever his disagreements with Bibi or whoever, he loves Israel. He feels Israel. He understands Israel. This is the last act, in order for [Israel] to come together again — first with American Jews and then with the government.

** This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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