The child of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust when taken in by his Catholic nanny, Abraham Foxman has spent his American life fighting anti-Semitism, chiefly as the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, from 1987 to 2015.
I’ve known him for many years. Speaking to him on Tuesday, with the Shabbat massacre in Pittsburgh raw and horrifying, hours ahead of the first funerals, I’ve never seen him so distraught. “Shocked but not surprised,” as he put it.
We talked over the breakfast table at the King David Hotel, in the safe haven that is Jerusalem — about the hatred that never died, the disintegration of the “containment” barriers against anti-Semitism that he spent his life working to build, and the role of the American president in the emboldening of haters and anti-Semites.
Foxman, 78, stresses that anti-Semitism has “always been there” in America. He stresses, too, that Donald Trump is not an anti-Semite. But, says Foxman, carefully and fiercely, “he is part of the problem.”
“Pittsburgh is not Trump. It’s also Trump,” he says. By this, he explains, he means that a consequence of Trump’s ideology, unforeseen by the president, is the triggering of bigotry and the emboldening of extremists like Pittsburgh killer Robert Bowers. “I don’t think he sees it. I don’t think he understands it,” says Foxman of Trump.
“And so now, when it happens” in Pittsburgh, and people point a finger of blame at Trump, “he’s screaming bloody murder. Me? I have a Jewish daughter. I have Jewish grandchildren. Look what I did for Israel.”
Foxman says he’s still an optimist. He says that he has no right not to be when he survived the war, and a million and a half children didn’t. But that it’s getting tougher. The “firewall” painstakingly constructed over decades against hate-fueled violence, and worse, is disintegrating, he says. “Never again” was never a promise, he muses dismally now. It was a hope.
Far from opposing Trump going to Pittsburgh, Foxman is adamant that of course the president must go. “I want him to come to Pittsburgh. I want him to go to the funerals. I want him to see the pain of what he didn’t do but his words helped create,” said Foxman.
And he wants Trump, in Pittsburgh, to say what? Foxman pauses, then replies: “That the language of divide and conquer will undermine who we are — our safety, our democracy, our freedom. That words are serious. That I understand that words unintended can have very dangerous consequences — as happened in Pittsburgh… That people use these words and abuse them, and I will now respect those words because I know they have consequences. He’s capable of that.”
But for all his determined optimism, Foxman plainly doubts it. “He’s a demagogue,” he repeats several times of the president.
A threat to American democracy? I ask him. “Yes. And anything that threatens American democracy sure as hell threatens Jews.”
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a bleak conversation with a man all too expert in what happens when hatreds are unleashed.
The Times of Israel: You’ve been fighting anti-Semitism all your life in America. And now there’s been the worst act of anti-Semitism in American history.
Abraham Foxman: I’m shocked, but not surprised.
I am shocked because of the number. The carnage. The tragedy. But not surprised. Because for all my years, I’ve been saying to the Jewish community and beyond, anti-Semitism is real in this country. We have millions of anti-Semites. Their anti-Semitism is latent. They don’t get up in the morning and say, How can I get the Jews? How can I hurt the Jews? But the potential is always there.
It’s not an exact science. But from everything that we know, acts directed at Jews in the US have ranged from 1,200 to 1,800 a year, depending on who measures, who reports. Anti-Semitism is still the number one hate target in America, not Muslims. God forbid, I don’t want Muslims to be targeted. To this day, [there are] more attacks, more assaults, against Jews than any other faith.
The ADL’s own polling shows what in terms of anti-Semitism among Americans?
When I started it was about 33 percent of Americans who held serious anti-Semitic views. [As of 2016, ADL polling puts that figure at 14%; 34 million American adults — DH.] But even as of last year, 31 percent believe American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States. They don’t trust Jews. They [think Jews are] not loyal. 31 percent! It’s millions.
When it comes to killing Christ, despite the Vatican, despite all the dialogue and interfaith [efforts], 30 percent still believe we killed Christ.
Then you have the political issues, of stereotypes such as Jews control the media. A figure in the 20 percents say that Jews control media: The media is [seen as] the enemy of the people. And they believe the Jews control media, The New York Times and everything else. That’s a powder keg waiting to blow. And 22 percent believe Jews control finance. If NAFTA sucks, who put NAFTA in? Those Jews. It’s all there.
And yet we’ve been lucky. We’ve had attacks, but we’ve been lucky… There were victims. The attacks and the attempts were there. But how many were prevented? How many were stopped by intelligence?
Why did the ADL train police officers? We’ve been training police officers for 30 years. There have been training seminars for Jewish institutions to protect themselves.
That’s the reality.
And therefore, comes Trump, I think we have to be careful how we articulate. Pittsburgh is not Trump. It’s also Trump. Pittsburgh is anti-Semitism, which has always been there. He is part of the problem, because of his rhetoric, his focusing on issues — it’s the unforeseen consequences of his ideology, of his political philosophy, perverse or whatever, which triggers…
Unforeseen by him?
Unforeseen by him. I don’t think he’s an anti-Semite. I don’t think he sees it. I don’t think he understands it. And so, now, when it happens, when [some] say, it’s your fault, he’s screaming bloody murder: Me? I have a Jewish daughter. I have Jewish grandchildren. Look what I did for Israel.
We need to understand that.
Part of the reality is that we need to make him understand that his base and beyond is a bigoted base, who hates all kinds of people. I don’t think he gets it.
How has this played out? Because he’s focused on immigration, for example, it emboldens…?
It triggers. It emboldens. The Charlottesville 200 were there. He didn’t create them. They were there before Trump. But what was the Trump difference? Those two hundred anti-Semites, racists, didn’t have the chutzpah [before] to stand up and march in brown shirts with a flare and say the things they said. Why? Because we created a blanket: There are consequences.
You can be an anti-Semite. In our country, with the First Amendment, you can say whatever you want. But you pay a price for it. You may not get a job. All of a sudden, these two hundred woke up to feel, now is the time. White America is back. They’ve got a leader, they’ve got a fighter. And they marched.
He didn’t create them. He didn’t write their script. He didn’t give them the brown shirts. But he emboldened them. He gave them the chutzpah, that it’s OK.
And when he had an opportunity to put it down, he didn’t. I consider that a greater sin.
I’m still an optimist, although every day it’s becoming tougher. I spent my life believing you could change people’s minds and hearts. Otherwise why would you go to work. The biggest [hater], either you provide consequences or you change his mind. There are some where I changed their hearts and minds.
I’m still an optimist, but it’s becoming very difficult. A lot depends on how he acts in Pittsburgh today, and the next day after Pittsburgh.
So Robert Bowers was there beforehand…
Remember, he also doesn’t like Trump, because Trump is [seen by him as] a captive of the Jews, of the kikes. Anti-Semites are bigots. They have issues. They don’t like immigrants, they don’t like people of color. They have their classic racist, anti-Semitic tropes.
Where do they go with them? They look for a moment where these issues rise to a platform — a political platform, a legitimacy. David Duke has been there all the time. Now all of a sudden David Duke found his tongue, found his language.
So, immigration becomes a public issue. You can talk about immigration as it relates to jobs, at one level, or on the racist level.
Why didn’t the anti-Semitism explode [before]? We’ve said, there are millions of anti-Semites. They need a flashpoint, something that takes that black powder and explodes it.
For Bowers, who all his life fantasized about getting the Jews because the Jews were everywhere, immigration was it. But it wasn’t just immigration. It was the caravan. Here they come, the invaders, and somebody threw in [George] Soros. So it’s the Jews. And then he found HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, that aids refugees). HIAS, which brought us to America. He found HIAS. And somewhere on the Internet he found this organization, that they had a Refugee Shabbat. By the way, he missed the week. The Refugee Shabbat by HIAS and the American Jewish Committee was a week before.
So here [for Bowers] were the Jews, celebrating bringing in these invaders. It was that moment, that flashpoint.
What did we worry about throughout my years, knowing that there are X amount of anti-Semites? Unemployment. If unemployment rises above 12 percent, 14 percent, is this the flashpoint where the anti-Semites will have a legitimacy?
War. Vietnam. We always worried, if there is a high death rate, that the anti-Semites would begin to have a platform to say the Jews took us into war. The Iran issue — remember: Jews pushing us into war. It’s a very deep anti-Semitic canard, that Jews get everybody to fight their wars.
So we worried about all these things. Today the issues are globalization, immigration. These are legitimate issues. It depends how you articulate them. It depends how you sell it. He is selling it in the crudest possible manner.
Not an anti-Semite?
No. As I say, it’s unintended consequences. I don’t even know whether we can explain it to him. If you call him an anti-Semite, forget it. He won’t listen to you.
You ask me why now. Now, is the political atmosphere. The fact that he broke down all the taboos
I’m still an optimist. I still have this fantasy that Trump is going to wake up one morning and say, I had a dream about World War II. Do you know what? There are no good Nazis.
But people say to me he’s incapable… He can’t take criticism, and he won’t apologize. If we can’t turn him around, it’s very serious.
You ask me why now. Now, is the political atmosphere. The fact that he broke down all the taboos. Everything is okay, from women’s genital parts, to their ethnicity, to peoples’ looks. All the taboos.
In all these years since the Holocaust, what were we doing? We were building a containment wall, always understanding that we’re not going to eradicate anti-Semitism. Maybe for the first 20 years after the Holocaust, we thought, oh, the world is going to see the handiwork of Auschwitz, and there’ll be the UN, and maybe they’ll… No. Nothing. No vaccine. No antidote. Education is tedious.
So we came up with a strategy to build barriers. What I would call containment elements, and we were quite successful.
That firewall is disintegrating as we sit. The Holocaust — for a while, there was a little bit of blame, guilt, shame. And it did work a little bit to tamp down anti-Semitism.
But “Never again” was never really a promise. It was a hope. And as the years go on, “Never again”… I wrote a book in 2001: Never again, question mark. I did an op-ed this year on Holocaust Day: Never again, probably. So [the Holocaust] no longer is a great element of our kind of containment.
Number two: civility [acted as a containment element]. But political correctness, under Trump, that’s a sin and a crime.
It’s not a crime. It’s not the ultimate answer, but it is a social contract. Certain behavior, certain things, you can believe, but you don’t act. And if you do, you pay a price, you pay a consequence. To me, Mel Gibson is the greatest example of how it works. We expect civility. Here is this great master producer, director, actor, number one, and all of a sudden he acts out his anti-Semitism, and he plummets. Not because there’s legislation, even though we did legislation. We did litigation. We did exposure. It was all part of building that civility consequence: You act in a racist manner, at the end of the day you won’t be successful.
That’s disintegrating, again thanks to the political [climate].
Now you have a new platform, which is anti-Israel and anti-Semitism. It’s another platform that adds legitimacy to the old anti-Semitism. [Where] Bowers was looking for immigration as a legitimacy, other anti-Semites — mostly globally, not so much in the United States — put themselves on the anti-Israel, anti-Zionism platform. [They say:] It’s legitimate. I’m not a bigot. I’m just questioning policies of apartheid.
Now look at media. The attack on the media at the end of the day is critical. The media was another element of support for the Jewish community. We had the media for education, for exposure, for challenging the mythology of the conspiracy theories. Media is losing its credibility. It is fake news. It isn’t fake news.
It no longer is that platform, that element that we used for protecting… In the past, you could say, This isn’t true, and challenge. Hey, that’s gone, because everybody’s attacking.
Then there’s the Internet, in terms of the elements that undermine [the effort to contain hatred]. We thought in the beginning this was going to be a boom for education, interaction, openness, dialogue. Yes. But at the same time, there is that underbelly, a superhighway for bigotry, for hate, for misinformation.
You and I grew up in a time where, how do you deal with anti-Semitism, with bad speech? You deal with bad speech with good speech. That was the way you did it. But now bad speech is coming in a tsunami. Anonymous. How do you answer that? So that, too, undermines, spreads, legitimizes [hatred].
What else in the containment package? The only thing that hasn’t changed, and has gotten better, is the law enforcement element. Law enforcement is still with us.
In Białystok and in Minsk, we didn’t have law enforcement. Thank God, at least in the United States, and in most places, law enforcement is with us. In Europe, you’ve got to prod them. But in the US, they are.
Of the elements of containment, the firewall is disappearing. And therefore there’s a greater upswing and upsurge. That’s why Trump becomes more of a problem. So I’m worried.
You say a lot will depend on what he says today and tomorrow. What would you hope that he will say? What should he say?
He has to say all the things that they write for him that are right. He’s got the biggest pulpit in the world. Certainly in America, he’s got the most important pulpit, like him, or not.
First, I want him to say that there are no good Nazis. It’s a very important message.
And then he needs to say this [hatred] is unacceptable. He has to change his tone. I don’t think he’s capable of changing his tone.
He’s reading this interview. He’s in Pittsburgh. What exactly should he say?
That the language of divide and conquer will undermine who we are — our safety, our democracy, our freedom. That words are serious. That I understand that words unintended can have very dangerous consequences — as happened in Pittsburgh, or as happened with the bombs that were placed. That people use these words and abuse them, and I will now respect those words because I know they have consequences.
He needs to understand that the answer is not a gun
He’s capable of that. He was a Democratic liberal for 30 years. He took his daughter to a chuppa. He sandaked [served as the Jewish godfather to] his grandchildren. It’s not like he hasn’t done it. It’s not that he can’t have a change of heart. I’m still an optimist. But every day shows me that maybe not.
But maybe this trauma, maybe the 11 victims of Pittsburgh, maybe that’s a wake-up call. It’s a wake-up call to us, to say, Hey, it’s there, take security seriously.
Maybe the fact that if his grandchildren were in that shul in Pittsburgh, they could have been, God forbid, victims, maybe that’s the trauma [that will impact him]. I don’t know
He needs to understand that the answer is not a gun. That’s his answer. That’s just fueling another one of his political issues. He needs to understand that that’s not the answer.
I’ve been a lifelong optimist. Golda Meir used to say that Jews don’t have the luxury to be pessimists. I survived the Holocaust as a child, when a million and a half children perished. How dare I be a pessimist? How dare I? I think anybody is capable of a change of heart.
It’s becoming more difficult to believe that it can happen with this man. But then I fall back. Look where he was. He changed 180 degrees. Well, maybe the fact that if his grandchildren were in that shul in Pittsburgh, they could have been, God forbid, victims, maybe that’s the trauma [that will impact him]. I don’t know.
But I certainly don’t think that calling him an anti-Semite and saying that he caused the deaths in Pittsburgh, and this effort now, 60,000 signed that he shouldn’t come to Pittsburgh — the opposite. I want him to come to Pittsburgh. I want him to go to the funerals. I want him to see the pain of what he didn’t do but his words helped create.
It’s a very difficult period. It is political. Everything is seen through political ways, and we’re in the midst of an election.
Tell me about Israel in this Pittsburgh picture. Israel’s role.
Israel should be playing the role it plays most of the time, which is supportive, [showing] solidarity. It should not play the aliya card.
And have we lost the capacity to show full solidarity because we alienate non- Orthodox Jews?
We’re losing it. Yeah. [Jewish Agency chair Isaac] Herzog was right.: The existential threat is the pluralism fight. Part of our containment is Israel. Here’s a country that stands up for us, that’s our home.
America now has a 30,000 quota for the next year of legal immigrants. The Venezuelan Jewish community can fill it in three months
By the way, when you look at the loss of containment, America’s strength, America’s respect in the world, together with Israel, gave us Soviet Jewry, Ethiopian Jewry, Syrian Jewry. America’s respect in the world has gone. That’s another element of our containment that’s dissipated.
Immigration for Jews. What was the safety valve? We have two safety valves — a strong, vibrant Israel, that’s where you go. Or the United States.
We haven’t found the antidote to the oldest hatred. That’s the sad reality
America now has a 30,000 quota for the next year of legal immigrants. The Venezuelan Jewish community can fill it in three months. So even that’s gone. Jews in the UK, not all of them will come to Israel. What’s the alternative? That alternative is closing.
You’re sounding a little apocalyptic for the Jewish people, looking around the world…
Jews today are thinking more, where’s the other place that I can go?
And where can they go now?
To Israel. Israel. Israel. And hopefully still the US.
But not very many.
Look, we’ve got a lot there [in the US]. We’ve got millions there, but they need to feel secure.
There’s 300,000 Jews in England. They might have an anti-Semite as prime minister very soon. And there’s only 30,000 total immigrants allowed into the United States.
But there’s still an open Israel. Thank God. That’s what Zionism is all about.
Yes, but we shouldn’t have to use it as a place of refuge for the West, 70 years after the Holocaust, for goodness sake.
David, we haven’t found the antidote to the oldest hatred. That’s the sad reality. I guess that’s why Pittsburgh was such a surprise [to some]. Because many in the Jewish world believed that we have overcome. When I came to the ADL over 50 years ago, I read all their pundits. They said anti-Semitism was gone, that it’s no longer a Jewish agenda item. That Israel is a normal member of the family of nations. They were wrong on both counts.
When you attack Hispanics and Muslims and gays, you’re attacking us. We’re a minority. And how are we protected? When they’re protected
But we’ve done pretty well in the last 70 years in America. with all the tzures, with the McCarthys, and the Father Coughlins. We forget: Ku Klux Klan filled Madison Square Garden in the 20s. They filled Madison Square Garden. They marched down the streets of New York. We’re not talking about Georgia and Alabama; we’re talking about New York.
Madison Square Garden in the late thirties was full of Nazis. Not neo-Nazis, old Nazis. We’ve come a long, long way, but we haven’t eliminated it.
And it’s rolling back.
America is rolling back some of the basic civil rights, some of the things that we thought we had achieved. That’s under attack. Part of our security blanket. When you attack minorities, you’re attacking us. When you attack Hispanics and Muslims and gays, you’re attacking us. We’re a minority. And how are we protected? When they’re protected.
The other thing in this containment package: We built coalitions. They’re not what they used to be… [Louis] Farrakhan says the vilest things and [is not condemned].
And there’s no leadership, which is a global problem.
I do worry more about my children and grandchildren. I do that more than I ever did before. Ten years ago I didn’t worry because I saw progress. I saw openness. The gay community, the Hispanic community. I saw progress.
Now I’m seeing some of the things we achieved are being taken back. And I don’t see the leadership to challenge this demagogue. [Trump] is a demagogue.
He’s a demagogue?
He’s a demagogue. He’s a demagogue. And he understands communication. Yes, he’s a demagogue.
He’s a threat to American democracy?
Yes. And anything that threatens American democracy sure as hell threatens Jews.
You feel that the walls are closing in for American Jewry?
Democracy is under challenge, if not attack. Democracy is fragile. If American democracy is diminished, then the rights of Jews, their opportunities, their future, is diminished.
We have to deal with this [Israel-Diaspora] rift, because we need each other now more than we ever needed each other
We used to say, you want to find out the level of democracy in a country? Ask the Jews. The Jews are the canary in the coal mine of democracy. But the reverse is also true. If you want to know how Jews are faring, take a look at the level of democracy.
In a very sad, tragic way, Pittsburgh is important as a wake-up call to understand that all our rights aren’t guaranteed. Again I say, thank God for Israel. We have to deal with this [Israel-Diaspora] rift, because we need each other now more than we ever needed each other. Maybe now the Diaspora needs Israel more than Israel needs the Diaspora. We have to be very careful on that issue.
Israel needs to make clear that it is indeed the haven for all Jews?
Yes for all Jews, regardless. Reform, Conservative or gay.
Anyone who Hitler would have gone for? Who Robert Bowers would have gone for?
They couldn’t care less. I don’t want to compare [Pittsburgh] to the Nazis. The Nazis didn’t care whether you were Sabbath observant or not. An anti-Semite doesn’t care. A Jew is a Jew.