ADL Chief Foxman: 30% of Americans Think U.S. Jews More Loyal to Israel

Foxman tells Haaretz in wide-ranging interview that many Americans hold anti-Jewish sentiments, and that Israelis' approval of Obama is on the rise.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

A new opinion poll suggests that Israelis’ approval of President Barak Obama is on the rise, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said on Tuesday.

In a wide-ranging interview ahead of this week’s President’s Conference in Jerusalem, Foxman told Haaretz that in the years since the publication of his controversial “The Israel Lobby,” co-author John J. Mearsheimer has proven himself to be a true anti-Semite.

According to Foxman, although anti-Semitism is less of a problem in the United States than elsewhere, 30 percent of the American people believe that U.S. Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States, and 30 percent of Americans believe that Jews killed Jesus.

Foxman noted that one element fostering the ancient anti-Semitic charge against the Jews, was the fact that while Mel Gibson’s exposure as an anti-Semite has effectively discredited the actor, his film “The Passion of the Christ” continues to be used as a teaching aid in hundreds of Christian schools in America.

Foxman cited FBI figures showing that anti-Semitic acts in America outnumber attacks on Muslims by a factor of ten to one.

Foxman’s remarks about Israelis and Obama referred to an opinion poll co-sponsored by the ADL and released at the weekend. Asked their attitude toward President Obama, 38 percent of the Israelis surveyed said that their views were “negative,” another 38 percent described them as “neutral” and 23 percent responded “positive.”

“I was surprised by the results,” Foxman said. “I remember when Obama got only 4 percent approval by the Israeli public. I found the results encouraging.”

A Jerusalem Post poll in August, 2009, showed that just 4 percent of Israelis believed that Obama’s policies were pro-Israel.

“I also found the fact that 90 percent of Israelis believed that in an existential moment, the United States will be with Israel – and we’re talking about the president being either Obama, or someone else – evidence that attitudes have changed for the better.”

Foxman said that “In a very strange way, because the [U.S.-Israel] relationship is so consequential to them, I think that Israelis are more willing to be objective, than some in our [U.S.] community, who have a political agenda, who are more ‘either/or.’”

“Obama is a mixed bag when it comes to Israel, and I think that Israelis are willing to recognize him and give him credit, more than some American Jews.”

In Foxman’s view, for the first two years of his term, Obama’s performance on the diplomatic front “was a negative.”

“But in the last year or two, [his actions] on the strategic-military-intelligence front, have been very positive, very significant. The inability by some of us in the United States and the American Jewish community, to be critical on one hand and give him credit on the other, I find troubling.

In Israel, by contrast, “I find a greater objectivity, a greater ability to say, ’He was wrong here, but we recognize the changes.”

Foxman said that back in the States, he is a target for activists of both major parties. “When President Obama gave his AIPAC speech, on Sunday [March 4], we at the ADL praised him on Monday. When on Tuesday, he gave a press conference and walked back some of the things he’d said on Sunday, on Wednesday we criticized him.

“On Monday, I received flak from Republican Jews, saying ‘Did you have to go out there and be supportive?”’ and on Thursday I got flak from Democrats, saying ‘Why’d you have to be critical?”

When Mearsheimer’s and Stephen M. Walt’s initial “Israel Lobby” article appeared in 2006, Foxman was vocal in attack. The article maintained that the Israel lobby had disproportionate influence over American decision-making and that many the policies the lobby promoted were contrary to the U.S. national interest.

In a book published the next year, Foxman called the Mearsheimer and Walt article "a sloppy diatribe" which "repeats and supports myths and beliefs that anti-Semites have peddled for centuries, thereby giving aid and comfort to some of the most despicable people in our society." But he stopped short of calling the writing, and the authors, anti-Semitic.

In the Tuesday interview, Foxman said that had he written the book today, he would be “more direct in saying that this is anti-Semitism. At that time, I and many of us were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as scholars, that even if the work were biased, it was not motivated by anti-Semitism.”

Since then, however, “Mr. Mearsheimer has proven himself to be an anti-Semite. He is on every platform today, of propagandists, anti-Semites, he doesn’t differentiate anymore. If you take a look at where he’s been, what he has written in the last several years, I would flavor him today as a full-time propagandist who’s crossed the line into anti-Semitism.

Moreover, Foxman said, the intervening years have shown that “The Israel Lobby” has legitimized and lent apparent credibility to anti-Semitic contentions.

“To talk about how the Jews control foreign policy, that was once outside the bounds for serious, credible, respected people, and today it’s more in the mainstream. Nobody’s shocked anymore when someone says the Jews control American foreign policy, or that Israel and the Jews are pushing America into a war with Iran.”

Rather than being seen and dismissed as anti-Semitic, this point of view is now seen as “a legitimate subject of conversation and discussion. It’s now ‘Do the Jews actually control American foreign policy?’”

Foxman is adamant that legitimate criticism of Israel is positive and important. Asked how he differentiates between legitimate criticism and what he has called the “demonization, de-legitimization, and double standard employed against Israel, that is either inherently anti-Semitic, or generates an atmosphere of anti-Semitism,” he responds:

“I’ve established a set of criteria for myself. Look at the record. In all the years that this person has been a journalist or in public life, has he or she ever found anything in the Israel experience that has been worthy of praise. If I can’t find that, I conclude that this criticism was not sincere, not honest, maybe anti-Semitic, but certainly biased.”

An additional criterion, Foxman said, is the question of whether standards applied to Israel are applied to other nations as well. He cited efforts in Great Britain to promote a comprehensive academic boycott against Israeli universities. The ADL branded the move as anti-Semitism.

“People said ‘How can you say that?’” We answered, ‘If people want to use the weapon of boycott to enhance human rights and human decency, respect for law – God bless you. Set up this campaign, and I will give you 20 countries. I will argue that Israel does not belong on the list of China, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, but okay, if you insist that Israel is one of those countries, even though I differ with you, fine. That’s more or less legitimate.

“But if the only country in the world that you single out for a social action boycott because of their violations of human rights is Israel – that, to me, is anti-Semitism.”

A person can be an anti-Zionist and not an anti-Semite “if you are that unique bird that is opposed to nationalism. And there are a few in the world who find nationalism abhorrent, exclusive, racist, whatever. So if you think Zionism is racism, fine – but I better hear you say the same things about Palestinian nationalism and French nationalism and American nationalism.”

There are some genuine internationalists in this world, he said. “I haven’t found them yet, but they’re there.”

At the same time, Foxman warned that misusing or overusing the charge of anti-Semitism acted to drain the term of meaning – as in the case of Jewish critics of Barack Obama who have labeled the president an anti-Semite.

Foxman has had his differences with Obama over Israel policy and other issues, he said. “But to call him an anti-Semite is not only to cheapen the term, but also to undermine the power of what I think we have successfully achieved in the last 30-40 years.”

“In America, our constitution guarantees you the right to be a bigot. You have the right to be an anti-Semite. The beauty of America is that there are consequences to your being an anti-Semite. You pay a price in society.”

“To me, Mel Gibson is an appropriate example of this. Here is a guy who was at the height of his career, the people’s choice, he was the best director, actor, producer – he was number one, until he exposed himself as an anti-Semite. That destroyed his career.

“So in an open society, that term [anti-Semite] is almost sacrosanct for us, and we can’t permit it to be abused, to be cheapened. Here in this country, when we see comparisons to the Shoa, it not only cheapens the Shoa, it cheapens an understanding of what hate can do.”

Trivialization of the Holocaust is also a large part of his work, said Foxman, himself a Holocaust survivor. “To compare health care to Nazism, to compare regulation in a park to the Gestapo – these things are out there. This shows that there’s an ignorance and a lack of understanding, and I think that as long as survivors are alive, we owe it to stand up against the trivialization.”

Two years ago, during the controversy over building a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero in New York, the ADL was criticized for suggesting that an alternative site be chosen. Criticism was also leveled at Foxman, for comments he made to The New York Times.

“Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” Foxman told the Times. Referring to bereaved loved ones of the 9/11 attacks, he said further that “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

Looking back, “It was an inarticulate quote,” he said. “The way it came out exposed me to legitimate criticism. I tried to express something which as a Holocaust survivor I truly feel and believe.” He cited the instance of survivors and other Jews opposing the Sisters of Zion order’s plans to build a chapel outside of Auschwitz, in order to pray for Jews souls.

“In a normal world, how could these people be opposed to good people – nuns – praying for the salvation of their souls. The survivors said no, not in our cemetery. It is irrational, because they want to help, they want to heal.

“What we were saying is, ‘If you want to reconcile with your victims, do you want to do it in their face?’”

Foxman said that the Jewish community “came down on us disproportionately on this issue,” and a Pew opinion poll explained why. “God bless the Jewish community – Jews see more discrimination against American Muslims than Muslims do. And by the way, if you look at the FBI figures , you see that there are ten times as many anti-Semitics acts as there are attacks agaist Muslims.

On the other hand, he continued, the Ground Zero mosque showed that there was, in fact, obstacles and prejudice directed against Muslims who want to build mosques. As a consequence, the ADL put together a coalition of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders who have since pursued several legal cases to defend the building of mosques, he said.

Asked if his recommendation for the Ground Zero mosque – that “the city would be better served if an alternative location were found” – could also be applied to the dispute over the planned Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, to be built on the site of an medieval Islamic cemetery, Foxman replied, “It would be a stretch. If we are talking about Auschwitz or Ground Zero, we are speaking of victims of hate and sites of atrocity. The debate over the cemetery is not comparable.”

Nonetheless, he added, “If I had been there in the beginning, and I had been aware of it, I would have done everything I could to say ‘You know what? Find another place.’”

Asked what sorts of things keep him awake at night, Foxman replied that when he came to the ADL out of law school, 45 years ago, “I was convinced that anti-Semitism was a historical fact of the past, something that I would have an opportunity be able to use as a learning tool, as a point of reference, to fight against other prejudices, because after Auschwitz, after what the world had seen – sure, there would be sick people - there would not be a serious challenge to the well-being of the Jewish people.

“I’ve been proven wrong.”

He said that he and others in the field woke up in 2000 amid a global explosion of anti-Semitism, to realize how nave and overly optimistic they had been.”

Foxman believes that the stimulus for the new outbreaks of anti-Semitism was the internet, which “has provided a highway for bigots to operate in ways that Goebbels could never have every imagined. You can do it anonymously. Every bigot has a megaphone. It doesn’t disappear, it’s always there, it gives them a certain sense of credibility.”

“Now I’ve met with the realization that anti-Semitism continues to be a virus that may threaten the Jewish community.”

No place in the world is immune, he said. “America is better than any other country when it comes to the history of how Jews are received, treated, etc. It’s unique. But it’s not immune. The virus is there. And who knows what crisis will legitimize it.”

It has taken hard work for Jews to reach this level of acceptance, with the vice-president having two Jewish sons in law, he laughed. “But at the same time, we’ve been taking the pulse of prejudice. Two things haven’t changed in 40 years. One is that with all the interfaith dialogue, the Vatican declarations – 30 percent of the American people still believe that the Jews killed Christ. And that’s the mother of anti-Semitism in Western civilization.”

“And the other element is that 30 percent of the American people believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than the United States.”

Are they the same 30 percent? “I don’t know, but I’m sure some of it crosses over.”

He added that “one of the concerns with Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was the film’s afterlife. And it has had one – it is the vehicle taught in hundreds if not thousands of Christian schools, about the Passion.”

“The other part of what keeps me up at night is the [nightmare scenario] that Israel is under existential threat, and the only ones standing with Israel are Jews around the world,” with America having withdrawn its support.

Asked his response to reading Philip Roth's novel "The Plot Against America," in which, as the Holocaust begins in Europe, the United States turns against its Jews, Foxman said:

“It brought me back to a sense of reality of what could happen. I'm not one of those who says it can't happen here, it won't happen here, that [meaning of] ‘Never Again.’

“With my background, I'm thinking that it can happen anytime, anywhere. And if Israel is isolated, it can happen here.”

ADL national chairman Abraham Foxman.Credit: Dan Keinan

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