Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, who retired almost exactly two years ago after exactly 50 years, to the day, at the Anti-Defamation League, most of them at its helm, has had a set of life experiences that the overwhelming majority of us have had the luck to avoid.
And he was lucky, almost freakily lucky, too, once you take into consideration the massive ill fortune of having been born a Jew in Poland in 1940.
Mr. Foxman was brought up by his family’s Catholic nanny; his parents were separated by the war but both survived it. After the war, his parents found each other and eventually reclaimed him; he was weaned gently away from the Catholicism in which he had been brought up while never dishonoring or forgetting the love of the woman who shared her faith, her home, and her life with him.
It is his unlikely life story, he says, that makes him an optimist. “I have been an optimist all my life,” he said; had he not been, most likely he would not have survived.
This is relevant now, 77 years after Mr. Foxman’s birth, because it makes him somewhat sanguine about the possibility that Donald J. Trump’s presidency might prove not to have been so bad, once it is all over.
“It’s a mixed record,” he said.
Mixed certainly means not at all good, he said, and he acknowledged some of the very serious problems surrounding the 45th president. They are as troubling to him as to anyone else, he said. “Certainly, as Jews and as Americans, we are very troubled and upset by the spectacle around Charlottesville. We are troubled by Trump’s on-and-off-again moral equivalence, by his inability to say clearly that there are no good Nazis.
“We went to war against the Nazis, and we lost tens of thousands of our best to them. And they murdered one third of our people, and many others.
“So for the president to equivocate about Nazis — certainly that is distressing. It is shameful.”
But, Mr. Foxman said, there also have been times when Mr. Trump did as he was expected to do, and as all other modern presidents have done. “If you take an honest look, you will see that he went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and gave a very good speech,” he said. “He gave the right speech.” That was on April 25. “It was important that he went and spoke.” He also went to Yad Vashem during his trip to Israel in May; Mr. Foxman was heartened by that, dismissing the controversy over the breezy informality of Mr. Trump’s handwritten comments in the guestbook (the president wrote: “It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends. So amazing + will Never Forget!”) as irrelevant.
Don’t go too far back into Mr. Trump’s presidency, though, Mr. Foxman suggested. Mr. Trump’s February 27 statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which did not mention Jews in its very general denunciation of “Nazi terror,” is too stale a data point to be pursued. “All that statement proves is that there are people in the White House who advised him to do that,” Mr. Foxman said. “And those people who advised him probably are out.”
So when Mr. Foxman thinks about the situation that we all have confronted since November 8, when Donald Trump, who looked just about as shocked as no doubt the rest of us did, won the presidency, he feels some guarded optimism, despite last week’s confrontations over race and ethnicity.
But there still is much work for Mr. Trump to do to regain the country’s trust, Mr. Foxman said. “He still needs to say, ‘I made a mistake.’ He has to get up in some public forum and say, ‘There are no good Nazis, not in Europe, not in the United States.’ He has to say to the Nazis, ‘I don’t want your vote.’ He needs to say, ‘No, Mr. David Duke, I don’t want you as my friend or as my supporter.’”
What about Donald Trump? Is he really a racist, a neo-Nazi, or a white supremacist? Mr. Foxman doesn’t know.
“Nobody really knows what is in Trump’s heart,” he said. “A lot of people who know him up close say that he is not a bigot, not a racist, not an anti-Semite. I would subscribe to that.”
What about those shocking images, those blond glowering men marching with their guns and shields and swastikas, shouting “Blood and soil” and “Jew. Shall not. Replace us.”?
“I think Trump is all about Trump,” Mr. Foxman said. “It’s all about making America great again; it’s all about opportunism. It’s a mixed bag,” he repeated.
Mr. Foxman does think that the election campaign, and Mr. Trump’s behavior at the time, encouraged racists and neo-Nazis to become more overt. “They always have been here,” he said. “I am not old enough to remember it, but I have seen the film clips of Madison Square Garden, full of Nazis. And that was in New York, not in Virginia. And the Ku Klux Klan had rallies in the thousands in New York State and in New Jersey.” But in the postwar period, thanks in large part to such organizations as the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the civil rights movement, and many other Jewish and general organizations, “for many years they were hiding. They had paramilitary training in forests, so we passed anti-paramilitary training legislation. We passed anti-hate legislation. So for a long time, they didn’t show their faces or their identities.
“And then they had a sort of comeback on the internet. But now, as a result of the last election, that has changed. Mr. Trump has a responsibility, because while he did not support bigotry or racism or anti-Semitism, in his effort to get elected he broke every taboo in our social contract.
“And when they saw what this man could get away with, they were emboldened, and now they are in-your-face arrogant, with chutzpah.
“For them to give the kind of interviews they gave, to show their faces as they did, is because they believe that America is different than it used to be. And that’s because of the rhetoric. So President Trump has a responsibility to use his bully pulpit, to say to them, ‘No, I don’t want your support.’ To say that there are no good Nazis.
“But because I am an optimist, because I have spent a lifetime talking and engaging and interacting not just with our friends but also with our enemies, because I do believe and I continue to believe that one can change people’s hearts and minds, I continue to believe in epiphany,” Mr. Foxman said.
“I will continue to believe that this man who is now president of the United States is capable of understanding the bully pulpit that he has, and that he will yet unite us.”
But as events continue to unfold, Mr. Foxman finds that even his industrial-grade optimism is fading. He was shaken by the president’s campaign-style rally in Arizona on Tuesday night.
“How terribly sad,” he texted as he watched the president roar words of divisiveness and the crowd roar back. “A president unwilling or unable to face up to the truth. He may never be able to set it straight as long as he denies the truth.
“I am not giving up hope yet as to an epiphany — but I am getting close!”
So how can you still hold onto any hope, given what you’ve seen, Mr. Foxman? Where do you see hope? His answer is a bit of verbal jujitsu. We might be united not as much because of the president, but almost — almost! — despite him, Mr. Foxman said.
“It’s because of the American people,” he elaborated. “The response has been very encouraging, from all leaders of philanthropic organizations who say that they will not stand near him at Mar-A-Lago, to all the corporate leaders who have said thank you but no thank you. And this issue has brought thousands and thousands of young people into the streets.
“Because he is a populist, he will continue to raise his finger to test the air.” And once President Trump sees which way the wind blows, Mr. Foxman said, “I do believe that he is going to get the message.
“I don’t believe that people are incapable of changing, and I want to believe that this person who probably doesn’t like to apologize very much, who probably has apologized very few times in his life — I want to believe that he’s capable of an apology.
“I think that his daughter and son-in-law should walk in and show him that Vice video and say that they are going to talk about us.” (The video is a short documentary that Vice News released the day after the rally. It’s a close-up look at neo-Nazis, narrated by a reporter, Elle Reeve, who exhibited extraordinary courage in her reporting. It’s easy to find it online by googling Vice video Charlotttesville.)
“I think we have a responsibility to raise our voices, to criticize him, to challenge him, to tell him what we think,” Mr. Foxman said. “We have to be able to stand up, to say what hurts us, to say that this is wrong.”
The protests in Boston, massive and peaceful, against bigotry and hatred and racism and anti-Semitism, cheered Mr. Foxman. He thinks that such well-run displays of civic virtue might help persuade the infinitely persuadable Donald J. Trump to move toward it, away from the dark side.
Mr. Trump “engaged in moral equivalence, and that is wrong,” Mr. Foxman concluded. “I will urge and I will noodge and I will advocate that he will have to fix what he did.”