Mention the Anti-Defamation League, and the name Abraham Foxman —the group’s longtime professional leader — leaps out. For Glen Lewy, the group’s national chairman and top lay leader, that’s not exactly a liability.
“We’re blessed by having a dominant chief executive whose words carry weight, whose reputation has strength,” he said in an interview on the eve of the group’s national meetings here.
That, he says, gives the group a visibility in the media and clout in the political world that bolster its primary function: fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance. Foxman’s outspokenness also sometimes explodes into controversy — but Lewy said that controversy is an inevitable by-product of the group’s determination to be out front in the fight against anti-Semitism.
/>“We have to call them as we see them,” he said. “And we call them often.”
Lewy, a New York investment banker and managing director of Hudson Ventures, said he has been involved with ADL since the late 1970s because “I’ve always found the substance interesting, along with the Jewish elements.”
While the leaders of other major Jewish groups tend to have multiple affiliations and often move from group to group, many ADL leaders — like Lewy — have stayed mostly within the ADL fold. The ADL “asks a lot of its lay leaders,” he said. “It’s an engaging agenda, and there may not be time to play a leadership role in ADL and other organizations.”
The ADL agenda has expanded over the years. Some critics have charged that the group has shifted resources away from the core issue of fighting anti-Semitism to a pro-Israel effort already crowded with big, well-financed Jewish organizations.
Lewy describes a different kind of evolution.
“The real change has been the emphasis on the education agenda,” he said. “Our ‘World of Difference’ program and various diversity training programs are expanding much more rapidly than the international agenda.”
That shift appeals to donors, he said — and has opened the door to more corporate and foundation funding; 25 major “corporate partners” are supporting various ADL programs around the country.
Changes in Europe may produce another shift in ADL focus, he said.
“Polls in 10 European countries in the past year have shown that levels of classical anti-Semitism are very, very high,” he said. “Are we doing to devote more resources to Europe? I don’t know, but that’s a real possibility.”
ADL’s leadership represents a delicate dance between a big corps of lay leaders — many wealthy and successful, used to being in command, not playing second fiddle — and a professional leadership core that revolves around the often-emotional Foxman.
That volatility has sometimes produced conflict with ADL professionals, the latest being the blowup with the group’s regional director in Boston over the explosive issue of the Armenian Genocide.
But that dynamic has rarely produced conflict in the top tier of ADL lay leadership, mostly because leaders like Lewy believe it is Foxman’s passionate, risk-taking personality that has given the group its character and visibility.
“Taking controversial positions is what we do,” he said. “If you’re going to fight anti-Semitism and bigotry, you’re going to have to take aggressive decisions.”
He pointed to the controversy surrounding ADL’s vocal response to the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. “I don’t think there’s anyone who says we were not substantively right about Gibson,” he said. “Were there some who said maybe more people went to see it because of our response? That’s a fair question, but you have to call them as you see them.”
He referred to another, more recent controversy: Foxman’s intervention after a Minnesota college canceled a scheduled speech by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Foxman urged the school to allow Tutu, a harsh critic of Israel, to speak. The school agreed, prompting a furious barrage from the Jewish right aimed at the ADL leader.
“There are so many times we have to make calls on a very quick basis,” Lewy said. “Bishop Tutu is invited to speak and then uninvited; we have to make a decision. If we deliberate about it for three days, it won’t be relevant. I don’t regret our involvement in controversy; it’s part of what makes us effective.”
What about ADL’s future when the 67-year-old Foxman retires?
Lewy said he isn’t worried. “We existed for 90 years before Abe, with some very effective and powerful directors. I hope it will be a long time for he retires, but we will continue to be very effective after he does.