NEW YORK – In 1920, President William Howard Taft said, “Anti-Semitism is a noxious weed that should be cut out. It has no place in America.”
Nearly a century later this noxious weed not only remains, it’s on the upswing worldwide, from the Middle East to Europe to US college campuses. This compelled Abraham Foxman, National Director Emeritus for the Anti-Defamation League, to come out of his recent retirement and helm a new Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism.
“Here was an opportunity to be involved in what was missing. There are about 40 to 50 Holocaust memorials and centers across the United States that portray what happened, but the why [it happened] is mostly limited to the issue of Nazism,” Foxman said in a telephone interview with The Times of Israel. “That’s important for future generations to understand what hate can do. But the disease of anti-Semitism goes back two thousand years.”
The center’s starting point will be the lingering controversy surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus, and then take visitors forward through time. It will rely on a combination of exhibits, scholarly works, and archival material to show how for more than two millennia religious anti-Semitism led to, among other things, the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsions of Jews from England, and the Holocaust, Foxman said.
As the center’s director, Foxman is working to fundraise and help find artifacts for the center’s collection, including materials related to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Leo Frank lynching, and the Alfred Dreyfus trial.
The planned center will be located on the third floor of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City, which currently focuses on Israel and post-Holocaust life. And while the exhibits aren’t slated to open for two years, the center will soon begin programming related to anti-Semitism, including individual lectures and symposiums.
Bruce Ratner, the museum’s chairman, said the center would further the institution’s mission.
“It’s critically important. As Jews we’re all very concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism and we felt it was important to begin to speak out on this subject,” said Ratner who lost some 100 members of his family in the Holocaust. “Sometimes we need to remember that anti-Semitism is not something the Nazis invented. This is something with a long history. Whether it was France in the 1870s and 1880s, or Russia, anti-Semitism has run rampant.”
‘Sometimes we need to remember that anti-Semitism is not something the Nazis invented’
Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, described his new role as both a fitting next chapter and a challenge. Fitting because it represents the culmination of his life’s work thus far. Challenging because anti-Semitism continues to manifest itself in different ways.
To be sure, said Foxman, the Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which has the support of white supremacist groups including the neo-Nazi David Duke, lends timeliness to the center, because anytime there is growing intolerance Jews are threatened.
In Europe, in spite of governments speaking out against it, Jewish populations in countries such as Belgium, France, and Sweden are experiencing an anti-Semitism not seen since World War II.
“Anti-Semitism is not history, it’s a current event. Whether it’s what happens at CUNY or the New England campuses, this is a disease. It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Foxman said.
Jack Kliger, a member of the museum’s Board of Trustees who was born in a Displaced Persons camp to Holocaust survivors, agreed.
“I’ve had conversations with people who say ‘History is history and let’s move on.’ So the push for this center is important. No existing institute discusses anti-Semitism this way,” Kliger said. “It’s very wound up in the way we study hate and discrimination, terrorism and even the way politics plays on hate, anger and fear.”
For the center to succeed it must have universal appeal, Foxman said, adding that he likens it to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
When it opened, people worried the Holocaust museum would stand largely empty after the initial influx of visitors, which were expected to be mostly Jews, Foxman said. Today it’s the second most frequented museum after the Smithsonian; between 80 to 90 percent of the visitors are non-Jews.
But perhaps more importantly, said those involved with the Jewish museum, the center will provide a forum for continued discussion.
“It is not pleasant to talk about, it is not easy to talk about, but we have to talk about it,” Ratner said. “We have to recognize the problem and see that we can do something about it.”
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