Even after the Boston Marathon bombings, there is much more anti-Jewish than anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, according to Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
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Foxman, 73, spoke to Haaretz on the eve of the ADL’s Centennial Summit, opening Sunday in Washington, D.C., to mark the centennial of the organization established "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all." According to Foxman, who has headed the ADL for the past 26 years, the 100-year-old organization still has its work cut out for it.
“There are ten times as many acts directed against Jews as there are against Muslims," Foxman says. "That doesn’t mean that there isn’t animosity toward Muslims, but even after Boston, you’re not seeing attacks against mosques, you’re not seeing people demonstrating in the streets. That’s something very unique in this country. It’s almost a miracle. It would never happen in Europe.”
He continues, “When people applauded in Boston that the terrorists were captured, there was no negative [repercussion]. The same thing happened after 9/11 – we were so concerned at the time that we took out an ad in the New York Times: ‘You don’t fight hate with hate.’ But it didn’t happen. And it’s not happening now. And that drives the Islamophobes crazy. It drives them nuts.”
Q. You don’t think that “Muslim-baiting” is much more acceptable in the mainstream media than, say, “Jew-baiting”? There is a Congressman now who is calling for the authorities to keep track of the entire Muslim community.
Foxman: I don’t think that’s Muslim-baiting. It’s a natural response. It may be wise or unwise. But I think America’s got an issue now, and not only America. You look at France, you look at London, you look at Amsterdam – most of these incidents have come from Muslim communities that have been brought in and are not assimilating. Just like after 9/11, America is now questioning where the balance is between security and freedom of expression: Should we follow the ethnic communities? Should we be monitoring mosques? This isn’t Muslim-baiting – it’s driven by fear, by a desire for safety and security.
“There is much more anti-Jewish than anti-Muslim sentiment, because anti-Semitism is so deeply rooted in history, in religion, in tradition, in church, in parents, among friends," Foxman explains. "According to our most recent survey [from 2011], 15 percent of Americans are infected anti-Semites. That’s down from 30-35 percent in the 1960s, but it’s still 40 million people. And I think we’ve bottomed out – that’s where we are and that’s where we will be.”
Despite the decline in overall rates, however, two elements of the ADL’s index of anti-Semitic sentiments have remained constant: One-third of Americans consistently blame the Jews for killing Jesus, and a third consider American Jews to be more loyal to Israel than to the United States.
“Yes, Jews can live anywhere, can travel anywhere, can study anywhere, can marry whoever they want, can practice any profession they want," Foxman says. "Socially, we’ve made it – but you guys still killed Jesus and we can’t really trust you.”
He points to two demographic groups in which anti-Semitism continues to run high. African-Americans and the Hispanic-Latino community. The ADL categorizes 30-40 percent of African-Americans as being anti-Semites for more than 40 years, a phenomenon that Foxman ascribes to their “lack of leadership."
“The last time an African-American leader stood up to anti-Semitism was Martin Luther King Jr., who said it’s a sin. The only leadership that now exists in that community is Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan can assemble 20,000 people several times a year, and he flaunts his anti-Semitism. What’s worse, they deny it exists, so there’s no one to talk to.”
As for the Hispanic-Latino community, Foxman says it “is becoming more and more important." But the bad news, he says, is that nearly one in two Hispanic and Latino immigrants from abroad are “seriously infected," as he puts it, “because of the Church – the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate [absolving the Jews of collective guilt for Christ’s death] hasn’t reached Mexico City – and because of ignorance and stereotypes.”
“But the good news is that among American-born Hispanics, the index is at about 20 percent – and that they don’t deny it exists," he says. "So we have a leadership that we can work with, and we publish more material in Spanish than you can imagine. We stand in coalition with them on the issues of prejudice of discrimination – and they are definitely suffering prejudice and discrimination – and we take them to Israel and do other things to educate them about the Jewish people."
On the bright side, Foxman adds, “one of the reasons that the situation in America is better than in Europe is that while the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to be a bigot, if someone is a bigot, he’s going to pay a price. There will be consequences. In Europe, there are no consequences for being a bigot. And because of the consequences, people are careful.”
Foxman cites one famous example – Mel Gibson, whose anti-Semitic rants seriously damaged his career. “Here was the most popular Hollywood persona at that time, the number one actor, director and producer – until he did this. He went from high to low. The American people said, This won’t sell. This is the beauty of America.
“At the end of the day if you’re a bigot, you’re not going to make it. Which is why these guys apologize at the end of the day. Whether they mean it or not is another matter.”
Obama, Hagel and dual loyalties
Foxman rejects the notion that calls to vote for or against President Obama or to support or oppose Chuck Hagel solely on their Israel records promotes the view that some Jews have dual loyalties. “In America there is nothing wrong with saying that one should vote for someone because of their position on this or that single issue. But it isn’t the smartest thing to do. And in the end, a large majority of the Jews rejected it.”
He agrees that the attention devoted to Israel in Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearings may have been disproportional - but “that was political," he says.
“If you want to say that the attacks on Hagel were over the top, I can agree with you," he says. "But it’s not only on Israel – look at gun control. Gun control is also bizarre. Ninety percent of the people want something, and nothing happens. And this is a democracy. So that’s bizarre as well.”
“I was part of that opposition to Hagel,” he recounts. “I said that his statement on ‘the Jewish lobby’ borders on anti-Semitism. When I met him, I told him – you’ve been in the Senate for 20 years, and you’ve been bombarded by every lobby under the sun. And the only lobby that made you uncomfortable, the only lobby that was aggressive, the only lobby that you felt was not acting in the best interests of the United States was the Jewish/Israel lobby?”
“He gave me a lame answer,” Foxman says. “’That was the question I was asked. That’s what I was answering.’”
'Super-Jews' and Foxman's epitaph
While Foxman was attacked by the left for his comments against Hagel before his nomination became official, he was savaged by the right once Obama had made the formal announcement. “I said that he wasn’t my choice, but he’s the president’s choice, and we should respect it. So I got attacked by the right for ‘giving up the fight.’”
So you’re getting it from both sides, I suggest. “If I am left to the right and right to the left – then I must be doing the right thing. I try to judge things on their merits. You can be critical of somebody, but you also have to be rational. It’s very hard today to be a moderate. There is no nuance. There is no subtlety. People want you to agree with them, all the way. In politics today, you’re not allowed to change your mind – it’s a sin.
“But I wake up in the morning, and I think that the fact that I am in nobody’s corner, and nobody owns me and no one can predict me – I think that serves the community better. A colleague from the Jewish community once told me – You’re unpredictable, and I said, that’s what I want it to say on my tombstone – 'He was unpredictable.'
Foxman admits that the “ugly and distasteful” criticism from the right gets under his skin more than the criticism leveled at him by the left. “The left disagrees with you politically and ideologically, but they don’t question who you are. But these ‘super Jews’ and ‘super patriots’ on the right –they don’t question your integrity or your judgment – they attack the essence of your Jewishness, they say you’re not a good Jew.”
“When I praised Obama’s speech at the UN General Assembly, I got one letter that asked, 'Why did God save you from the Shoah – to become a Quisling to the Jewish people?’ And another said, ‘If your mother would know you would be such a traitor to the Jewish people – she wouldn’t have saved you.’”
I ask Foxman about claims that there are actually two ADLs – one that combats discrimination and bigotry, and another that fights Israel’s critics. Standing up for Israel, he replies, comes under the ADL’s charter to “fight the defamation of the Jewish people,” as anti-Semitism was defined 100 years ago.
“It started after the Six-Day War,” Foxman notes, “which many Jews here saw as an effort to destroy the Jewish state. And our rationale was that the destruction of the Jewish state would be the ultimate in anti-Semitism. And it would have a dire effect on American Jews.
“But it’s more than that: Israel, to some extent, has become the Jew in the community of nations. They can’t do this and they can’t do that. They can’t defend themselves, and they can’t determine their own capital. Israel is being treated differently than other nations, and therefore it is part of our mission to support and defend it.
“And our options are either to support – or to do nothing. We do not publicly criticize, other than on domestic issues such as racism in Israeli society, etc.
Q. What about the occupation?
A. If there is a clear violation of human rights, we will speak out.
Q. What about the fact that a million and a half people have been disenfranchised for 47 years?
A. That’s not our decision to make. It’s a function of your government’s decision or ability whether or not to make peace. This is a consequence of that decision.
Q. But you will criticize the people who attack Israel because of the occupation.
A. I do not criticize people who attack Israel because of the occupation. I criticize people who delegitimize Israel, who deny its right to exist, who boycott it. If someone says Israel is an apartheid state, that’s bullshit.
Q. What about boycotting settlements?
A. Boycotting Israel is anti-Semitic, boycotting settlements isn’t. I think it’s wrong, I think it’s counterproductive, but I don’t define it as anti-Semitism.
The 'Good Housekeeping Seal' of anti-Semitism
I ask Foxman why he finds it necessary to pass judgment on each and every manifestation of what may or may not be anti-Semitism, particularly when it comes to celebrities. “That’s the world we live in,” he replies. “It’s a luxury to ignore things and say nothing. If we get three or four media queries about something, we will respond. If you say nothing, they’re not going to come back to you. So we have become the “'Good Housekeeping Seal' on anti-Semitism,” and I don’t apologize for that. It matters in a society what you call somebody. Somebody has to do it. We’ve developed a brand, a cachet. When someone in 'House of Cards' said, “Call the ADL," even though it was oversimplified, it proved that we are a brand.”
“But let me tell you something,” he adds, “I get more criticism from Jews when I ‘absolve’ someone of anti-Semitism than when I criticize them. When I said Barack Obama was not an anti-Semite, did I get it. When I said [George] Bush Senior was not an anti-Semite, boy, did I get it. And now I’m saying to leave [fashion designer] John Galliano alone – it’s nuts. The poor guy. Leave him alone.”
I ask Foxman whether his past as a Holocaust survivor – who was saved by his Polish Catholic nanny - may be disproportionately influencing his outlook. “Disproportionately, I don’t know,” he says. “But should it be part of our consciousness? Definitely. I think every Jew who knows Jewish history should be impacted by this experience, which almost destroyed us, period.
“On the other hand, I can show you how many times a year we say – this is not Nazism. Medicare is not Nazism. Everything needs to be in proportion. When my father came to get me after the war, my nanny, who saved me, tried to get rid of him by telling the KGB that he was a collaborator. I asked him – if she loved me so much, why was their so much hate? He said everything in extreme is no good: too rich, too smart, too beautiful, too stupid, too fat – too much love turns into hate.
“It’s true, even in memory – if too much memory takes over your whole being, it’s no good, because it will corrupt, it will undermine, it will destroy.
“I think it’s important for Jews to know both Auschwitz and Jerusalem. In what proportion – that’s the measure of the individual. If I were prime minister of Israel, would I make the references that he makes to the Shoah? I don’t know, but I understand why he makes them.”
Finally, I ask Foxman about his own plans. He has been at the ADL's helm for 26 years, to the point where his name and that of the organization have become synonymous. It is no longer possible to conjure the term “American Jewish leaders” without thinking of Foxman, as well as that of Malcolm Hoenlein at the Presidents’ Conference and David Harris at the American Jewish Committee. Perhaps it’s time for a generational change, I suggest.
Foxman says he has no immediate plans to retire. “The time will come when the time will come,” he tells me. “For all of us. For you too.”
He reflects on the ADL’s first 100 years and seems to be promising at least 100 more: “The good news is we’ve made a great deal of change in attitudes, behavior, laws, and respect," he says. "The bad news is that my grandchildren are going to need an ADL in their lifetime. But we’re still optimists. Our slogan is 'Imagine a world without hate.' You’ve got to be optimistic to believe it, but we believe it.”
The ADL Centennial Summit and Gala will be held at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., April 28–30.