Abe Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, is probably very sorry by now that he waded in to the quagmire of controversy over the construction of the Cordoba House mosque near Ground Zero in New York.
This isn't the first time that the League, one of the most powerful Jewish organizations in the world, has been tainted by scandal under Foxman's 23-year stewardship, but it doesn't seem that any of the previous uproars have so fundamentally brought into question the role of the ADL, which was founded in 1913 "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all," and today bills itself as the United State's "premier civil rights/human relations agency."
It's not that the opposition to building the new mosque near the site of the biggest mass-murder carried out by Islamist terrorists is totally without merit - far from it. As Foxman pointed out, the families of the 9/11 victims who feel deeply offended and hurt by what they see as an insensitive project certainly deserve a hearing.
And not enough has been done to question the murky motives of the mosque's imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who believes that the American administration shares part of the blame for the attack on the World Trade Center and sympathizes with some of the worst Islamic elements, including Hamas and the Iranian regime.
But the debate around the mosque in the U.S. has become an ugly mud-fight in which bigotry and political opportunism are the main motives.
When Foxman was forced to respond the angry critics of the ADL's opposition to the mosque, he said that he condemned those who were against it for the "wrong" reasons and tried to highlight all the ADL's projects designed to improve relations with Muslim communities in the U.S. But these were weasel words; the ADL had no business getting into this from the beginning if it didn't feel capable of supporting Cordoba's basic civil right to build a mosque wherever it liked.
Just at Foxman was mistaken in calling upon Richard Goldstone to repudiate his report on the Gaza operation. Just as he was mistaken dragging the ADL into the argument over Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's book, The Israel Lobby, two years ago, when he accused them of "using anti-Semitic tropes."
And just as he was mistaken when he almost tore the organization apart three years ago by opposing a Congressional resolution that would have officially labeled the murder of 1.5 million Armenians at the hand of the Turkish government during the First World War a "genocide."
The Goldstone report was so ridiculously one-sided that even left-wing Israeli human rights groups such as B'Tselem criticized it, but where exactly does biased criticism of Israeli military tactics fit into ADL's charter?
And while the Walt and Mearsheimer's book was certainly malicious, if Foxman thought it was anti-Semitic then he should have just said so outright. Instead he simply gave ammunition to those who accuse Jewish lobbyists for using the anti-Semitism card at every criticism of Israel.
In his Armenian intervention, he actively enlisted the ADL in a campaign that subscribed to the anti-Semitic notion that the Jewish money rules Washington.
The 'Elders of Zion' fantasy
As one Israeli diplomat told me at the time, "The Turkish government sees the ADL as an agency of Jewish power, so Foxman thought that if he would allow members of the League to support the resolution, it would harm Israel's strategic relationship with Turkey. He thought he was helping Israel but he simply reinforced the Turks' 'Elders of Zion' fantasy."
I wonder if Foxman still feels proud of himself for working as Ankara's lobbyist.
But the loss of direction at the ADL is not simply a result of Foxman's hubristic posturing and it goes even deeper than just a failure to reconcile its disparate roles as a civil rights movement, crusader against anti-Semitism and Israel advocacy group.
When the League was founded nearly a century ago, discrimination against Jews was still institutional in many respectable quarters and the Klu Klux Klan was a mainstream movement.
Many leading figures in politics and business were openly and proudly anti-Semitic and there was a real need for an influential, well-funded organization to battle them on a national level.
In recent decades, the ADL has made credible efforts to evolve and become a major force in fighting other forms of bigotry and working to improve ties between different minorities and religious groups.
In some cases, the ADL has even gone so far as to criticize Israeli rabbis and politicians for their more overtly racist anti-Arab statements, but their knee-jerk responses to every real and imagined manifestation of Judeophobia is still at the basis of their public image and often takes them to the borders of absurdity. As when it condemned a book of humoristic knitting patterns for finger puppets including a "knitler" with a tiny mustache.
Not every flippant use of Nazi imagery is Holocaust denial, nor is every disproportionate criticism of Israel, or even musings on the legitimacy of the Jewish state, necessarily motivated by Jew-hatred. But the ADL and the rest of the anti-anti-Semitism industry carry on crying wolf because it obviously helps with fundraising.
Anti-Semitism is still here, even if its overt versions are no longer fashionable in western society. But the ADL's methods of fighting it are not only outdated, but often counterproductive and have certainly devalued the currency of their accusations. Is there a better way than Foxman's sledgehammer tactics? Maybe we don't need another way.
President Shimon Peres has a standard answer whenever Jewish leaders from around the world tell him of anti-Semitism in their countries: "It's not your problem," he says. "Anti-Semitism is a sign of backward underdeveloped societies, that's the Goyim's problem. Jews have more important things to be worried about."
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