Foxman reflects on 28 years of fighting anti-Semitism


NEW YORK — Is Abraham Foxman’s retirement good or bad for the Jews?

Foxman would chuckle at the grandiose presumption in that cliche of a question, but as the national director and the voice of the Anti-Defamation League for almost three decades, he has been one of the nation’s most prominent Jewish spokesmen.

Out of a Holocaust-era childhood in which he was raised and baptized as a Catholic by a Polish nanny before reuniting with his parents, he has become a Jeremiah excoriating anti-Semitic bigots and has won access to presidents, popes and prime ministers.

In the process, he has elevated the group he leads into a major civil rights organization with influence beyond the Jewish community.

He has been accused of crying wolf too often, of raising the specter of anti-Semitism even as Jews have become one of the most successful, prosperous and admired ethnic groups in the United States and seemingly secure in most of the world. A 2007 profile in The New York Times Magazine described him as “an anachronism.”

But in a two-hour interview this week in his midtown Manhattan office, surrounded by boxes of books and photographs he is packing up before his Monday exit, Foxman said that “unfortunately time has proven me correct.”

Worldwide, he said, anti-Semitism is as rife today as at any time since World War II. An Anti-Defamation League survey last year of attitudes in 102 countries found that 1 in 4 people held classic stereotypes, believing that Jews control finance and media and were more loyal to Israel than to their home countries.

In many Middle Eastern and North African nations, the proportion of such attitudes was more than 80 percent. Half of the 53,100 adults surveyed had never heard of the Holocaust.

And since 2000, he said, there had been an increase in violence against Jews, noting that in recent weeks a Jewish teenager with a skullcap was beaten in France.

“I did not think in my lifetime, the Jewish communities of Europe would struggle with the question of whether they have a future there,” said Foxman, who is 75. “People said to me anti-Semitism is finished. But it’s no longer history. It’s current.”

While U.S. attitudes have shifted significantly — only 1 in 10 hold anti-Semitic views compared to 1 in 3 when Foxman joined the league in the mid-1960s — on some college campuses, students feel intimidated if they disagree with a popular view that Israel is the villain in the Palestinian conflict, he said.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, and Stanford, Jewish students applying for judicial and student government positions were asked whether their Judaism would allow them to objectively weigh pro-Palestinian activists or the movement to boycott Israeli products.

Still, he said, “I don’t think it’s an epidemic.”

The Anti-Defamation League has been Foxman’s career. He joined it in 1965 as a fresh law school graduate and became national director in 1987. Then, it was one of several organizations whose views might be sought on controversies involving Jews or Israel. Today, it is often the first.

“He led from his kishkes,” said Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week newspaper, using the Yiddish word for guts. “He is very smart, deeply identified as a Jew. He’s emotional and has authenticity.”

Rosenblatt said that Foxman’s assessment of public comments about Jews and Israel “became the standard of what’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.”

Even Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a 7-year-old liberal Israel advocacy group that often differs with Foxman on Israel, said that “to his credit, he has been a very, very strong defender of dissenting voices within the Jewish community.”

However, he said, Foxman, like other older organizational leaders, does not reflect the changes in thinking among younger Jews. He cited the Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to opening a mosque in Lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center site, a plan Ben-Ami said younger Jews were more sympathetic toward.

The league has a $60 million budget, a staff of 300, and 27 offices across the United States as well as one in Jerusalem. It monitors extremist websites, provides anti-bias training and publishes Holocaust curriculums.

It goes beyond Jewish concerns, protesting discrimination against African Americans, gays and refugees. It denounced Donald Trump’s recent disparagement of Mexican immigrants.

Foxman has won grudging respect from critics because he is willing to speak out against Jewish figures. He recently assailed Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, for writing that President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy is dictated by an early upbringing in the Muslim faith. He called the statement “an insensitive and unjustified attack” and derided Oren as an “amateur psychoanalyst.”

“I’m not predictable,” Foxman said. “I’ve ticked off the right and the left.”

But he is a fierce defender of Israel. The day after the nuclear pact with Iran was announced, he expressed displeasure with the inspection provisions and the ability to restore sanctions against Iran should it renege. “I think the president of the United States believes that the deal he is negotiating is in the best interests of Israel and of the United States, but the risk factor for the United States is a lot smaller,” he said.

Foxman was not yet ready to discuss his legacy. His plans are vague, although he intends to remain as a consultant.

His successor is Jonathan Greenblatt, 44, director of the White House office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation and a founder of the Ethos bottled water company. Greenblatt is seen as a more moderate personality.

While people like Ben-Ami expect the league to keep thriving, they know it will not be the same without Foxman’s outsize presence. “He will be missed.”