YOU’VE got to give Abraham Foxman credit — he is an eminently adaptable creature.
Leave alone that his knowledge base and skill set as the Anti-Defamation League’s national director since 1987 are nothing less than amazing when it comes to anti-Semitism and discrimination, the ADL’s traditional areas of focus.
It’s his ability to change with the times and circumstances that makes Foxman so formidable a foe of anti-Semites, racists and bigots of all varieties.
Anti-Semitism and racism are constantly changing phenomena. They respond to any number of economic, political, social and religious forces, sometimes coming out in the open, other times slipping into the shadows, sometimes manifesting in violent ways, other times surfacing in peaceful, even democratic, avenues.
Foxman is neither daunted nor confused by any of this. Like any capable fighter, he adapts to his opponent’s moves and tactics. He has an encyclopedic memory and an experienced eye, and is very seldom misled or misdirected.
While he would be the first to acknowledge that during his 47-year career with ADL he and the organization have made a handful of mistakes, he is obviously unafraid of standing on his record.
In Denver last week to be the keynote speaker at the ADL Mountain States Society of Fellows luncheon, Foxman sat down for an interview with the Intermountain Jewish News.
During that conversation he put that encyclopedic knowledge and raptor-like determination on display, together with a New York-tinged sense of ironic humor and an informed, even reverent, attitude toward Judaism that seemed somewhat surprising for the head of an ostensibly secular organization.
Following are excerpts from that interview.
In the last year or two, both in America and Europe, anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise. Is it reality or perception?
“It’s a combination of both, but it is primarily a reality. It almost operates in cycles, and at the same time you can’t predict those cycles. The last time, primarily in Europe, we saw this upsurge was in the year 2000 — 2001, 2002 — and it sort of calmed down, I would say, because of the response that the shock caused.
“For a long time, anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, was met with denial, and as long as you deny it you don’t deal with it. The exposure in 2000-2002 was such that they couldn’t deny it. What you then saw was measures taken by Western European governments, France probably the best, in terms of response.
“The French set up an inter-ministerial [task force] to deal with anti-Semitism. They said very clearly they would protect Jewish institutions. Every anti-Semitic act then saw a response, a high level government response, of condemnation.
“Then the international European community started to come together. We had conferences in Paris, in Berlin, in Warsaw.
“So there was a response mechanism. It’s waning. They said they were going to take inventory. Most of them are not taking inventory. A lot of laws have been passed, not very many result in indictments. It’s not being implemented, so therefore it’s surging up again.
“The other element is the Internet. The Internet is growing and is the underbelly of this. Hate and anti-Semitism are way upfront today. That enhances it, pushes it, advocates it and makes it more public.
“We’re more aware of the hate that’s out there because of this new communication revolution. What used to be whispered, what used to be in bars, today is global.”
Is the European anti-Semitism coming mostly from Muslims or is it the traditional Christian Europeans?
“The answer is yes. It’s both. There’s still the old anti-Semitism, the classic anti-Semitism. It’s primarily the rightwing and the extreme leftwing and now you have the added dimension of Muslim extremism.
“Most of it comes from the Middle East itself. It’s Al Jazeera. You have a human conveyor belt in Europe. It’s a combination of both and it heightens the level.”
Are the battles in Europe over circumcision and Jewish ritual slaughter motivated more by anti-Semitism or by political correctness run amok, in your opinion?
“It’s a convenient platform for anti-Semites. Not all people who are opposed to circumcision or shechitah are anti-Semites, but a lot of anti-Semites are opposed to circumcision and shechitah. So, yeah, there is an element that truly believes in what they believe, but very frequently it depends on strength and impetus and support.
“It’s ironic. One of the greatest threats to Jewish safety and security is fundamentalist Islam and yet on the issues of circumcision and shechitah, the Jewish community and the Muslim community stand as one.
“The attack on it, in Europe, is motivated by anti-Islamic thinking. I think the impetus of the last couple of years is motivated by Islamophobia.
“It’s a serious worry if you’re a rabbi or a mohel or a shochet and if you depend on kosher meat. It’s not academic.”
Is it a bellwether of more serious levels of anti-Semitism?
“One needs to be vigilant. I don’t think it’s run amok but it’s gained legitimacy and we have to watch it. Listen, it took awhile for us to get the response. It took the American Jewish community, it took the Board of European Rabbis.
“You would have thought that when this thing surfaced it would have been an automatic response saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ No. We had to advocate. We had to remind and petition them.
“That’s one of the sad parts of it, that the lessons haven’t been learned. It’s not something that you can assume wouldn’t become serious. It did become serious.
“There’s racism. We haven’t eliminated racism or anti-Semitism, and we’re seeing more and more of it.
“Look at Greece. Greece is the birthplace of democracy? Take a look at what’s going on. Black shirts are going into the marketplace and destroying the food stalls. Why? Because you can’t prove that you’re a legitimate Greek. That’s Nazi storm trooper tactics.
“Today I don’t think there is a European country where you don’t have a legitimate or semi-legitimate rightwing political party. Some less, some more, but it’s there.”
In terms of anti-Semitism, how would you rate the home front?
“America is better than any place in Jewish history but we’re not immune to racism or anti-Semitism. It’s there. I think we have probably reached the lowest point.
“When I came into this work almost 50 years ago, the level of anti-Semitism in this country was about a third. One out of three Americans was seriously infected.
“Now, 40 or 50 years, later, there’s been a lot of legislation, civil rights legislation, a lot of education, and we’re down to about 15%. The lowest we saw in the last couple of years was about 12%.
“That’s pretty good, especially compared to Europe and the rest of the world, but what does 15% mean? Forty million Americans that are seriously infected?
“I’m not talking about the person who thinks about Jews and money, or who is angry because of Israel. We’re talking about serious anti-Semitic bigots. There are forty, forty-five million of them. And there are substrata in terms of issues — Americans who think that Jews are not loyal to this country. Thirty percent. One out of three.
“With all our interfaith work, 30% still believe we killed Jesus.
“Then you have the African American community — a hardcore 30-40% anti-Semitic throughout the years. The only voice you hear is still Farrakhan, who can gather 15,000 or 20,000 people in an auditorium and spout ugly, classical anti-Semitism.
“The Hispanic community: Very, very important in terms of the future of this country. The Hispanic community shows good news and bad news. The bad news is that among foreign born Hispanics, almost one out of two, 42%, are anti-Semitic. The good news is that with American born Hispanics, it’s 20%.
“So in this country, education has an impact.
“The other good news is that the Hispanic community doesn’t deny it. It acknowledges it so therefore there’s a dialogue. We publish a lot of stuff in Spanish about respect and sensitivity. In the last 15 months, the ADL has taken four Hispanic missions to Israel.
“It’s important because before you know it, the largest caucus in Congress will be the Hispanic caucus. Then the question will be: Where does our foreign aid go — Costa Rica or Israel?
“On issues of church-state, they come in with different baggage, with a different history. They come out of countries where religion is part of the state. In this country, we have a lot of unresolved church-state issues.
“From my perspective, the campus environment is probably the best. We’ve seen that BDS didn’t go anywhere. When we measure classic anti-Semitism on campus it’s very low. It’s 3-5%. We know that the higher the level of education the lower the level of intolerance and anti-Semitism.
“On the campus you don’t have classic anti-Semitism; you have political anti-Semitism. You have issues with Israel which cross with anti-Semitism — intimidation of Jews because of Israel, selecting Jews because they’re pro-Israel.
“Now we have more resources directed at Jewish kids on college campuses in the last five to 10 years than we’ve had in the last 50. There are so many organizations focused on Jewish life and Jewish security and Jewish knowledge and Jewish whatever, that there’s a coalition of organizations to put all of them together.
“With faculty, you have a certain tone and a certain expertise in a pro-Arab position. For every American ambassador and State Department official who served in Israel, you have 22 who served in the Arab-Muslim world.
“The happy hunting grounds of former diplomats is the college campus, so all of a sudden there grew on the campus a huge pro-Arab faculty bias.
“We still have a situation on campus that while the higher the level of education, the lower the anti-Semitism, the higher your degree in academia, the higher is your level of anti-Israel attitude. You can plot that as well.
“Despite that, BDS has not gone anywhere. Again, it was because there was a response. We took it seriously — some people maybe too seriously — and reacted. The lesson is, don’t take anything for granted. Our history does repeat itself and you can’t ignore it.”
There’s an old episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucille Ball is working in a pie factory and the conveyor belt keeps speeding up. Before long, the whole room is covered in pie. Sometimes, your job seems like that. How are you able to keep up with all the ways that anti-Semitism and racism keep changing?
“I don’t think it’s that bad. I think it’s the Internet that makes it so much bigger. Things that get on the Internet never die, they never disappear. It used to be, a story appeared, you dealt with it, you moved on. Now it doesn’t die and that’s what makes it so much bigger and so much more confrontational, so much like, as you say, the pie episode.
“There is this underbelly of hate which we never saw before. We knew it was there. It was in the corners, it was in the bars sometimes, it was in closed rooms. Today we see it. It’s out there. And that’s what’s really overwhelming. My next book is Viral Hate.”
The place where everyone has a platform.
“Everybody has a megaphone. Look what happened with this pseudo-video, a video that was never really a video, a movie that was never a movie. All you need is somebody to post a story that there is a movie. Look how long it took for someone to say that an American Israeli businessman raised $5 million for this movie. There’s this rush to get the story out — your profession. AP never checked.
“You know what? Ten years from now, somebody doing research will find this story and use it. He’ll write that an American Jew started it.
“That’s today Lucy.
“It’s global and it’s anonymous. The tube gives it credibility. It’s no longer in a brown paper wrapper. It’s the Urim Thummim — the breastplate that the High Priest [in ancient Israel] used to wear. If there was a question to determine truth or falsity, you would go and ask the Urim Thummim. Today the Internet is the breastplate of truth for everything. There’s no way to check it. It’s too fast.”
Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News