Former ADL Director Abe Foxman Discusses the State of Anti-Semitism in America Today
Abe Foxman never imagined that anti-Semitism, a subject he dedicated his life to fighting, would attract the attention that it has been getting in recent years. After more than 50 years with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — nearly 30 years as its director — he has seen much of the ebb and flow of threats and hatred directed toward the Jewish People. Having lived through the Holocaust as a child adds a personal dimension to Mr. Foxman’s expertise.
His tenure saw many and varied successes. But after a career of issuing often unheeded — and occasionally derided — warnings that anti-Semitism was running wide and deep in America, some grew accustomed to dismissing Mr. Foxman’s statements.
Much to his regret, after a year that saw an unprecedented degree of anti-Semitic rhetoric, vandalism, attacks and even murders, many of these very same people have been forced to reconsider their positions.
However, Mr. Foxman says, it is not only that the rising and multifaceted threats have become more generally acknowledged, it is also that they generate far greater interest.
“In my days, ADL used to issue reports on anti-Semitism. We did an annual survey of incidents and an opinion survey of attitudes towards Jews. Nobody covered it. Nobody cared. It was like we were talking to ourselves. People would say, ‘You’re looking for swastikas under the bed.’ It’s not like there was nothing going on. In 2000 there was an explosion of anti-Semitism globally. In 1975 also, but, I guess only we cared,” Foxman said. “Now that’s changed. The FBI now says there were 1,800 incidents last year, and it was reported all over, which changes the perception of how much anti-Semitism is out there.
“But 10 years ago, there were 1,500 incidents. That’s three incidents a day directed against Jews. Jews were always the number-one target of religious prejudice in this country. It hasn’t really changed — but the coverage of it has changed.”
A gut reaction might attribute this shift to the violent and even deadly turn that anti-Semitism took in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Monsey, and in the streets of Brooklyn. But heightened public attention significantly predates any of the above.
One obvious difference between the current landscape and what existed during most of Mr. Foxman’s tenure at ADL is the global and instant nature of internet-based news reporting, where, with little time and even less resources, relatively small stories spread worldwide.
“A swastika in New Orleans is global news today. A swastika in New Orleans 25 years ago was maybe news in New Orleans,” he said.
The Politicization of Anti-Semitism
Still, 21st-century communication does not tell the whole story. In 2017, a wave of bomb threats made to JCCs (which were ultimately traced to a mentally unstable Jewish teen in Israel) and the vandalism of two Jewish cemeteries became national news, fed largely by the narrative that the election of President Donald Trump had emboldened neo-Nazis and their fellow-travelers.
On the flip side, anti-Semitic comments made by a small but outspoken cadre of freshman congressional Democrats quickly grabbed headlines and galvanized a wave of condemnation from both the White House and Republican leaders.
Mr. Foxman said that while politicization of anti-Semitism is not a new phenomenon, the level to which each side has weaponized it is having a deleterious effect on efforts to fight it.
“It’s always been the case that the left used it against the right and vice versa, but not to the extent that it is today. Today, everything in life is politicized to the extreme, and certainly the issue of anti-Semitism,” he said. “It’s become a football match, which clouds the lines of what is and what isn’t anti-Semitism and what is or isn’t a real problem. Once people begin to use the issue for their own interests rather than focus on addressing it, you lose perspective and you’re not as effective in countering it.”
Increasingly, not only politicians but also organizations geared toward combating anti-Semitism have become increasingly political. One of the most prominent examples is the ADL itself. Under the direction of Jonathan Greenblatt, a former Obama-administration official, many feel that ADL has put lopsided amounts of effort into linking rising threats to Jews with the rise of President Trump. No shortage of smaller, right-leaning organizations seemed exclusively homed in on the anti-Semitism that was arising from the BDS movement and those affiliated with it.
The shift has drawn criticism from some in the Jewish community, who say the phenomenon has selectively deafened major organizations to threats that fall outside of their adopted agendas. As attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn became an ever more common phenomenon, both sides engaged in finger-pointing for failing to raise a sufficient hue and cry; some felt the issue was left largely unaddressed since it failed to result in political capital for either side.
Watching the map of efforts to fight anti-Semitism shift after more than a half-century as one of the leaders of these efforts, Mr. Foxman said the situation is regrettable, but he feels the hyperpoliticization of America has left organizations with few choices.
“All my life, I’ve tried to go the middle road. I used to be called right-winger by the left, and left-winger by the right, which was fine with me; you just had to know how to play the cards to our advantage,” he said. “Today, there’s no center. There’s nowhere to go, so you almost have to identify with a side in order to defend Jewish rights and be effective. You have to find allies that have another motivation in helping you besides the safety and wellbeing of the Jewish people. You also have to worry about what they might expect in return for coming to defend you. In the past, there was no price. The price was a better America, democracy, justice, decency — but now there’s a quid pro quo attached to it, which makes it very hard to be independent.”
Even though Mr. Foxman felt that politicization hurts this mission as a whole, he sees that some organizations have been able to capitalize on that by finding a niche that aids with both media coverage and with fundraising.
“There were some organizations that weren’t serious or significant before, but now that they can latch on as a political entity, they’ve taken on a new life that they didn’t have before,” he said.
While alarmed by the abundance and violence of recent anti-Semitic attacks, Mr. Foxman said that it is an error to think that widespread negative feeling toward Jews in America is a new phenomenon.
“I’ve been in this business all my adult life. And I think those of us who literally dealt daily with anti-Semitism came to the realization a long time ago that anti-Semitism is, was, and will always be. The professionals dealing with this issue knew that it’s there. It’s serious. It’s in the millions. All the polling that we did, all the measures we took, said to us that it’s deep,” he said.
Mr. Foxman pointed to consistent polling that showed some 30% of Americans believe that Jews are not loyal to the United States.
“That’s a major, major, major anti-Semitic canard, that Jews are only loyal to themselves. Whether ‘themselves’ is Israel or anything else, doesn’t matter. That Jews lust for power. Either they want money to get power, or they want power to get money. But this is a deep, deep-set prejudice in American culture,” he said.
Despite strong words and feelings to rid the post-Holocaust world of its hatred of Jews, amid cries of “Never Again,” Mr. Foxman said it did not take long to see that such a goal was little more than a naïve fantasy. This sad realization pushed him and others in his field to look for pragmatic tools rather than grand cures.
“There is no antidote. There is no vaccine. There’s education. Education is important, but it’s a slow process — it can take generations — so we decided to develop a different strategy,” said Mr. Foxman. “What we did, I think in a masterful way — I’m talking primarily America — was to build a firewall, a containment, with an understanding that [anti-Semitism is] going to be there, but make sure it’s in its latency stage and not in its virulent stage.”
The “firewall” was constructed of many types of “bricks,” including legislation, litigation, coalitions and, perhaps most importantly, the threat of being publicly shamed in the media for one’s anti-Semitic views. This social contract brought down, or at least placed under a dark cloud, several prominent public figures, and many others realized that the price for openly expressing anti-Semitic views was simply not worth it.
“We developed a consensus in this country that anti-Semitism is un-American, immoral, un-Christian and unacceptable. Not because you go to jail if you do it — but there’s this consensus of consequence … All these things worked until the last five or 10 years.”
Theories have abounded as to what has driven the sharp national uptick in anti-Semitic incidents, made increasingly complicated by the plethora of camps from which it has arisen, seemingly in isolation from one another. While some researchers have attempted to demonstrate the intersectional nature of the modern anti-Semitism, developing a theory that links white supremacists, pro-Palestinian activists, anti-religious progressives, inner-city delinquents and those fighting suburban turf battles is no small task.
Much of the media and the left side of the political spectrum have pointed a finger of blame toward the present White House. President Trump never engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric, is strongly supportive of Israeli security and of religious liberty, has a Jewish daughter and son-in-law, and has made robust statements and policy moves to condemn and combat anti-Semitism. Still, many feel his election is viewed as a victory by white supremacists and those of their ilk. His hesitancy to condemn neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville drew broad criticism, as it seemed a conscious effort not to isolate a valuable constituency.
Mr. Foxman said that many of the efforts to pin blame on the president have gone too far, but he does not exonerate him.
“For all those people who’d like to blame Trump or Trumpism — Trump did not create the 200 neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. They were there. But he did do something. Trumpism, this whole political atmosphere, has given it a hechsher. It’s legitimized it. It’s given them the chutzpah,” he said. “I don’t believe [Trump’s] an anti-Semite, but he has no respect for civility, no respect for other people, and that helped to destroy this firewall.”
Much has been made of the effect that the President’s positions on immigration and his nativist leanings have had on empowering extremist elements in the country. However, Mr. Foxman said the tone of his rhetoric has had a far greater impact on the rising level of threats facing Jews than any policy positions. The more general nature of how Mr. Foxman sees the President’s role in lowering standards of expression across the board form a theory that cuts across ideological boundaries.
“He has helped destroy the taboos of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s acceptable and what’s not,” he said. “When those taboos are broken, you have to take responsibility for the results. If the president can get away with saying things that are horrific, then why shouldn’t you?”
Mr. Foxman added that the lack of value that truth has in the current political climate and the media coverage that surrounds it are other elements that damage a valuable tool that was long used to combat anti-Semitism.
“Truth is a very important weapon for us. If somebody says, ‘You’re a dirty Jew,’ you say, ‘Look at me. I’m not dirty.’ If somebody says, ‘All Jews are rich,’ you show them statistics that disprove it. At the end of the day, we use truth as a weapon against the lies, and bigotry is ultimately a lie. All that has changed. When there is always a suspicion of ‘fake news,’ that makes it very difficult to explain, educate and counter what is out there,” he said. “Maybe we need to find new ways in this new world of communications to rebuild the containment wall. Maybe the way to confront prejudice is to make fun of it, because the arguments don’t mean anything.”
The internet, and especially social media, has been widely recognized as a major catalyst for the rise, increased virulence and heightened threat level of anti-Semitism, as well as of many other biases and dangerous ideologies.
Mr. Foxman drew on a parable from past efforts to fight bigotry to illustrate his view of how technology has played an especially dangerous role in undoing decades of effective work. One of the most successful means, he said, of fighting the once-powerful Ku Klux Klan was a series of “anti-mask laws,” which banned the wearing of masks in public. Mr. Foxman said that the laws, which were enacted in many states, were one of the most “significant” achievements in the fight against the group known for its white hoods and robes, and that the success of these measures effectively undercut the Klan.
“What was happening was, the big-shots of society, primarily in the South — but also beyond — during the day they were lawyers, doctors, politicians, and at night they put on their hood and acted out their bigotry. We said, ‘America gives you the right to be a bigot, but you have to take responsibility for it,’” he said. “That was the one, single most important act to destroy the Klan, because overnight, these ‘heroes’ were no longer ‘heroes.’ Then, 50 years later comes the internet, and puts the mask back on that bigot.”
Mr. Foxman also pointed to a commonly-discussed danger raised by the internet and social media — namely its ability to provide a support network for disaffected, angry individuals.
“It says you’re not alone,” Foxman said. “Even though we’re talking about lone wolves, and many of these people don’t even belong to organizations. It gives them a sense that they’re part of a movement, they’re part of something bigger. And that gives them the chutzpah that gives them the strength to act it out.”
Harking back to a topic discussed earlier, Mr. Foxman said that while increased media coverage of anti-Semitic incidents — even relatively minor ones like graffiti — had increased awareness, it probably also encourages others to copy anti-Semitic behavior. After a career of fighting to get anti-Semitism in the public eye, he still embraced higher visibility, but with an added dose of caution.
“If you ask me with my old hat on, I would say it’s good news. We felt you need to educate, you need to shock, you need to embarrass, you need to expose. But there is an element of copyism and a risk to giving it notoriety,” said Mr. Foxman. “Still, if I have to choose, I’d rather we cover it, even if it may encourage others to do it. It’s better than what we used to do, which was to say, ‘If you ignore it, it’ll go away.’ It didn’t go away, and it’s not going away. At least we know it’s there.”
One Size Fits All
Having professionally monitored anti-Semitism since 1965, Mr. Foxman has seen no shortage of its ugly expressions. But the murderous turn it has taken over the past two years was something almost entirely unheard of in America. Some of the impetus behind this phenomenon, he feels, was rooted in elements not directly related to Jews, such as higher levels of violence in society in general, and more guns in the hands of dangerous people.
Still, Mr. Foxman says that the level of threat was an aberration from what has been seen in the past.
“This is not something we experienced here in America,” he said. “The potential was always there, but without the firewall we worked so hard to surround the Jewish community with, and in an environment that’s ripe for these things, feelings of hatred towards Jews can translate into killing much more easily.”
The multifaceted nature of threats of anti-Semitism has long been a challenge to those attempting to fight it, a phenomenon that has only multiplied in recent years. Mr. Foxman, however, is of the opinion that details of the specific nature of a given group’s animosity toward Jews are less important than many think, and that a very similar prejudice underlies the expressions of white supremacists, the virulently anti-Israel camp, those with neighborhood gripes against Orthodox Jews, and so on.
“If you look at what happened in Monsey or Jersey City, there is a certain economic conflict and jealousy that underlies what happened. But there are these types of tensions between a lot of ethnic communities in the U.S. Why is this different? Because it’s fueled by a history of anti-Semitism and an attitude that Jews are only interested in themselves and can’t be trusted that goes all the way back to Christian claims of deicide — maybe even further back. The turf battles can be a flashpoint, but what leads to a real serious threat is people thinking, ‘I should be living here and not Jews, and you know what, Jews are very bad wherever they are,’” he said.
Pointing to street attacks in Brooklyn, this element of shifting frustrations to the “other” is something that he said makes Orthodox Jews a much more obvious target. He also felt that a great deal of the animosity driving African-Americans to commit these acts is driven by long-harbored jealousy — making Mr. Foxman one of very few in public life to offer an explanation for the phenomenon.
“I think part of African-American anger is this feeling that we took away the right of the firstborn, like Esav and Yaakov. There’s a feeling that we are the favored minority, which we’re not.”
While Mr. Foxman is taken aback by the current prevalence of anti-Semitism, he feels that methods to address it are relatively uniform.
“I am shocked to the extent that it pops up everywhere. There is no element of our society that’s immune. Young and old, educated and stupid, rich and poor, universities, kids … It’s as if we haven’t learned very much. And that’s what’s scary. In one place, it’s because of religion. In one place, it’s because we’re rich. In one place, it’s because we’re poor. It will look different in the Bronx than it will in Williamsburg than it will in Teaneck or in Lakewood, but it’s always a bigotry based on the ‘other,’ so what definition you give it doesn’t make that much of a difference.”
A Museum of Anti-Semitism
Since his retirement from the ADL in 2016, Mr. Foxman has shifted gears to serving as head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. The center is still a work in progress, but its goal is to assemble collections that document the history of anti-Semitism through the ages.
“We’re a strange people in many ways, and you’d be surprised how many Jews have impressive collections of anti-Semitica,” he said. “Down the line, I hope, we will build a permanent exhibit on the history which I hope will then be replicated in smaller fashion in other places. Again, you cannot understand what happens unless you understand its antecedents.”
As demands for more aggressive responses to anti-Semitic attacks in New York City have grown louder, the city initiated several programs to focus on educating public school students, especially those living near large Jewish populations, on the subject. The heightened demand has drawn on Mr. Foxman’s services, and he has spent a great deal of time in recent months meeting with such groups in the museum.
Some have been critical of the city’s high emphasis on education, claiming that programs are being used as a tool to free officials of responsibility to dealing with threats in a more direct way. Mr. Foxman said that he felt that, while education is a long-term investment, there are fewer options than some might think.
“The problem is we don’t have anything else; the only thing we have is education. We know it works, but it’s not a quick fix,” he said. “Today I met with 200 kids from middle school and high school of every color and ethnicity you could imagine. We talked to the teachers, too. For some of them it was emotional, and I’m sure some thought it was a waste of time. We need to monitor what works and what can be done better. One thing we all see is that the experience of meeting Holocaust survivors and hearing their stories makes anti-Semitism into something personal, something tangible, and makes an impression on most people. Artifacts, too, make an impression — showing people a room full of shoes or hair. It’s up to us to figure out what will have the most effect in the shortest amount of time. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is an ‘in’ subject. Hopefully, by the time we finish the whole thing, it’ll be passé.”