During an emotional speech at the Anti-Defamation League New York headquarters on Wednesday, National Director Emeritus Abraham Foxman condemned comparisons between U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler as partisan and belittling of the Holocaust.
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“I don’t care how you feel politically: To compare a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, because you don’t like him, to Hitler is Holocaust trivialization,” he said at the 25th anniversary lunch honoring the Hidden Child Foundation – an organization devoted to recognizing and validating survivors who were either in hiding physically or under an assumed, non-Jewish name during the Shoah.
Tearful at times as he recalled how his Catholic nanny had him baptized and risked her life to save his, Foxman urged his fellow hidden children to be “super careful because people want to use us. ... We are the guardians of what is right and wrong,” he said, adding, “We do have the credibility, and people will turn to you and will ask you. So don’t fall prey to this ignorance or insensitivity.”
The off-script remarks caught some by surprise. After all, only a week ago Foxman’s successor, ADL National Director Jonathan Greenblatt, compared the postelection surge of anti-Semitism in America to prewar Germany.
“Anti-Semitism has wound its way into mainstream conversations in a manner that many Jews who lived through Nazi Germany find terrifying,” Greenblatt said, at a Knesset meeting about the plight of American Jewry under the incoming Trump administration.
Though the ADL maintains that its policy regarding Holocaust trivialization hasn’t changed since the days Foxman took shots at “Seinfeld” for referring to an overzealous soup purveyor as a “soup Nazi,” and still feels comparisons to Hitler are wrong, it doesn’t agree with all of what Foxman said. In fact, some of his remarks signaled a shift from the civil rights group he helped shape for 50 years and even from some of his prior positions.
Foxman now heads the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. And he was an early critic of what many perceive as Trump’s use of Nazi-era imagery during his presidential campaign. Last March, when Trump led thousands to raise their right arm and “solemnly swear” to vote for him at a rally in Orlando, Florida, Foxman was quick to voice outrage.
“As a Jew who survived the Holocaust, to see an audience of thousands of people raising their hands in what looks like the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute is about as offensive, obnoxious and disgusting as anything I thought I would ever witness in the United States of America,” he said at the time. “We’ve seen this sort of thing at rallies of neo-Nazis. We’ve seen it at rallies of white supremacists. But to see it at a rally for a legitimate candidate for the presidency of the United States is outrageous.”
When asked to clarify what some may view as a change of heart regarding Trump, Foxman told Haaretz: “Trump is not Hitler and you have to be careful because if you equate the two, then you undermine the lesson you want to give. What is sweeping the world – we call it populism, nationalism – it’s anger, it’s hatred.
“What happened in our country, Trump did not create it. Trump released it – it has always there,” he continued. “What we have achieved in the past few years is to keep it in the sewer with the cover on. This election was so nuts, so out there, that he broke taboos. He made it OK to take the sewer cover off. But he didn’t create [hate]. He’s an opportunist.”
Though Trump drew harsh criticism for recycling images and messages gleaned from white nationalist social media accounts, Foxman spoke out against being too heavy-handed with accusations of anti-Semitism.
“I didn’t overreact with the Hillary/Star of David tweet,” said Foxman, referring to Trump’s tweet last July of a Jewish star, piles of cash and an image of Hillary Clinton with the words “Most corrupt candidate ever.”
“We’re all so sensitive. We’re supersensitive. We saw an ad with three Jewish names, but 99 percent of America didn’t understand they were Jewish,” said Foxman, referencing Trump’s final campaign commercial, which equated Washington corruption and greed with three prominent Jews – philanthropist George Soros, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. They were referred to as “these people that don’t have your good in mind.”
The ADL condemned it outright. “[W]hether intentional or not, the images and rhetoric in this ad touch on subjects that anti-Semites have used for ages,” Greenblatt tweeted the morning after it first aired.
As for Trump’s now infamous Hillary/Star of David tweet, Greenblatt did call it anti-Semitic and said it had been lifted from a neo-Nazi message board. In addition, he blasted the then-presidential candidate over his campaign slogan “America First,” which he said harked back to the Nazi slogan “Germany First.”
But Foxman believes that such comparisons are overplayed, diminish the gravity of the Holocaust and don’t help solve real challenges.
“There is a problem. The problem is America: there is bigotry, there is racism, there is anti-Semitism. There is fear. We have to deal with it. But we also can’t put it all together,” Foxman told Haaretz.
In response to Foxman’s comments, an ADL spokesman said: “Abe has his own personal views on these subjects. Since he is now retired, they are not ADL’s views.”
When asked if the president-elect has attempted to disavow the hate sufficiently, Foxman said Trump has started to, and that he feels hopeful he will do more.
“You have to put it in perspective,” said Foxman, noting three things Trump has done to speak out against hate speech and crimes since his victory in November. “On ‘60 Minutes,’ when he was challenged [about hate crimes], he [told people to] stop it. In The New York Times meeting [when he tried to mend fences with the publication], he specifically said, ‘I denounce it, I reject it.’ And in his first victory speech in Cincinnati, he said, ‘We have to combat bigotry against all in this country.’
“He’s the one who can put the covers back on the sewers,” said Foxman, adding, “I hope in the first 100 days that he’ll do a bully pulpit. He’ll have a responsibility. I’m an optimist; I’ve always been an optimist.”
An ADL spokesperson said the group agrees that Trump has disavowed hate speech and crimes recently, and remains hopeful that the Trump administration will deal with these issues going forward.
Meanwhile, Greenblatt has called on the president-elect to more vocally reject white supremacists like Richard Spencer, the head of the National Policy Institute, which advocates for “gentle ethnic cleansing” and who convened in the nation’s capital in November, leading his minions in “Hail Trump” chants.
“There is value for the president-elect stating clearly that these are not American values, that their ideology is in conflict with American ideals,” Greenblatt told The New York Times in November.
While Greenblatt declared that he would join his Muslim brothers and sisters and register as a “proud Jew” if Trump were to install a Muslim registry, Foxman cautions against sounding the alarms, adding that Trump has softened his immigration stance.
“He’s changed it,” he said, referring to Trump’s threat of a ban on Muslims entering the United States. “And the issue regarding refugees is – it exists. It exists here in America and in Europe. It’s about fear and prejudice. He touched the buttons. Now we have a job to do. Absolutely, we have a job to do.”