In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sent the first U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, Levi Eshkol was elected prime minister of Israel, and Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax chose not to pitch in the opening game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. It was also that year that Abraham Foxman, a 25-year-old immigrant fresh out of law school, took a job as assistant director of the legal department of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
Much has changed in the last 50 years, including the famed Jewish defense agency’s name, now simply ADL. But Foxman has been there through it all, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, speaking out for civil rights and human rights, and seeking to educate a generation born after the Holocaust he survived as a child and which shaped his worldview.
He, more than any other Jewish leader, has become synonymous with the organization he has led for the last 27 years as national director. It raises tens of millions of dollars annually, has more than two dozen regional offices, offers educational programs around the world, and has had dozens of lay national chairs during his tenure.
But mention ADL and people think simply, “Abe.”
Praised by presidents, a hero to countless Jews and a lightning rod for critics, Abe Foxman has forged his reputation as one of the most influential Jews in the world. He is often the first call for journalists looking for a Jewish response to the crisis of the moment because he is frank, outspoken, accessible, and speaks from his kishkes. Contrary to the corporate model of some Jewish organizations, he is passionate, emotional and he wears his deep commitment to Judaism on his sleeve, often sprinkling his remarks with Yiddishisms.
On Wednesday evening, Foxman, the son of Polish Jews who in desperation left their infant in the care of his Catholic nanny for four years during World War II, will be feted in grand style. A tribute dinner in the Waldorf Astoria is set to mark his “50 years of dedicated service to the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish people.”
Foxman will step down from his post a month later and be succeeded by Jonathan Greenblatt, 43, a social entrepreneur and special assistant to President Obama.
Among those paying tribute to Foxman at the dinner, reflecting his wide range of friends and associates, are Fox News CEO and chairman Roger Ailes, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, NYPD chief William Bratton, businessman S.A. Ibrahim, who is the first Muslim on the ADL board of directors, and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who as a teen had Foxman as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp.
Troubled By Obama
During an interview at Foxman’s spacious midtown office a few days ago, the outgoing leader sat down to share his thoughts on his career’s successes and challenges. He kept coming back to his worries about anti-Semitism, which he described as “the worst since World War II,” and his concern about Israel’s dependence on America, particularly at a time when President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu are openly at odds.
He was characteristically blunt about his problems with Obama’s treatment of Israel.
He noted that Obama has taken his criticism of Netanyahu’s perceived delays on peace talks with the Palestinians directly to the Israeli public. In a recent Israeli television interview, the president said his views are consistent with those of Jewish liberals in the U.S.
“I’m very concerned about that,” Foxman said. “I don’t want to see the president align himself with Jewish liberals or conservatives; I want him to support what is best for the U.S. and for Israel.”
He went on to say that Obama consistently calls out Israel for the lack of progress on peace talks while giving the Palestinian leadership a pass.
Particularly “troubling” and “mischievous,” said Foxman, are the president’s assurances that the proposed Iran nuclear deal will make for a more secure Jewish state. “He thinks he knows what’s best for Israel,” he said, noting that the government in Jerusalem should be making that life-and-death decision for itself.
“The president is doing what he thinks is in the best interest of the U.S.,” Foxman added. “He’s not doing this to hurt Israel. But I think he’s wrong to trust Iran. The deal will bring more nuclear arms to the region. I told the president in our last meeting [a few weeks ago], ‘We don’t question your motives; we question your judgment.’”
He went on to say that Iran will remain the most important issue for Israel and the Mideast for a long time, and that “for America, it’s about safety, but for Israel it’s about survival.”
Obama, said Foxman, was a source of anxiety “from Day One” of his administration, and he recalled the question he posed to the president in a meeting with Jewish leaders early in his first administration. When would the Palestinians be pressured, as Israel had been, to be forthcoming in peace talks, he asked. And what would the consequences be if they were not? The answers were not forthcoming.
Foxman noted that ADL was the first major Jewish organization to speak out against White House pressure on Israel to freeze settlement building. A full-page ad in The New York Times in the summer of 2009, which also appeared in other U.S. newspapers, was headlined: “Mr. President – The problem isn’t settlements, it’s Arab rejection.”
The specifics have changed, Foxman said, but the sense that Obama holds Israel to an unrealistically high bar while largely ignoring Palestinian intransigence, and worse, prevails.
An ‘Old Man’ At 10
The issue of anti-Semitism is particularly poignant for Foxman because it speaks to both his personal history and his life’s work. Baptized as an infant and reclaimed by his parents after they survived World War II, as a small child he was the center of a custody battle between the nanny who saved his life and the parents he did not remember.
“As a hidden child,” he says, “I didn’t know who or what I was.”
Ever since arriving in the U.S. with his parents in 1950, he has felt a responsibility to “work on behalf of the Jewish people and fight the anti-Semitism that almost destroyed me,” he said, recalling that his father referred to him, when he was 10, as “the old man.”
Having survived the Holocaust, “how dare I be a pessimist?” he asks. But for a self-declared optimist, he worries a great deal about the future. Like many others, he had thought that anti-Semitism would not be a major problem in the 21st century, with the world having witnessed the tragic results of Hitler’s murderous racism and hatred.
One might argue that the ADL, after more than a century offering up large sums of money and countless educational programs to fight anti-Semitism, has failed in its mission, since hatred of Jews is back with a vengeance. But Foxman maintains that if not for the organization, and its worldwide efforts, the problem would be far worse.
It’s hard to prove, but while he acknowledges that “we haven’t found a vaccine” for anti-Semitism, he points out that “we have made anti-Semitism anti-Christian” and an act widely condemned by societal standards.
In other parts of the world, notably Europe, anti-Semitism has become “a clear and present danger,” says Foxman, who tries to find the balance between legitimate concern and unbridled fear. The key difference between now and the 1930s is that European governments are speaking out against anti-Semitism, he says, and Israel offers a haven for those who feel unsafe elsewhere.
“We’re not immune to it here” in the U.S., he says, and constant vigilance is required. But he adds that the U.S. “is still unique in world history” as a country of minority freedoms, and even anti-Israel activities on campus are mostly limited to a few dozen universities out of thousands across the U.S.
“I still want to make a difference,” Foxman said in looking to his own future. “I plan to rewire, not retire, and I don’t intend to be silent. The question is where and how.”
He will become national director emeritus at ADL, and has been approached about joining a think tank. He also wants to take time to catch up on his reading and go back to the Talmud study of his youth. “I miss that,” he says.
Softly, he acknowledges that “I can’t promise my grandchildren that they won’t need the ADL. Prejudice and bigotry remain with us.”
As for what keeps him up at night, Foxman says it’s the same thing that gives him comfort: the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“Israel is very fortunate it has the U.S. as its primary ally, and we have developed strong bipartisan support in Washington. That relationship is unique, even when we disagree.
“But what’s scary is that sense of dependence. There’s no one else to defend Israel politically, diplomatically and militarily. Israel has nowhere else to go, and we have to be super smart going forward.”
The ADL’s next director no doubt will have new ideas about the agency’s direction, style and tone. But whatever Abe Foxman’s formal title or role will be in the future, we are sure to hear from him when he feels the need to speak out.
“I do have credibility out there,” he says as the interview winds down.