Abraham H. Foxman, 69, director of the Anti-Defamation League since 1987, was a hidden child.
An only son, he was born in Poland. When his parents were ordered to enter a ghetto, they left him with his Polish Catholic nursemaid, Bronislawa Kurpi, in 1940. Foxman was baptized as a Roman Catholic under the name of Henryk Stanislas Kurpi and raised as a Catholic. While his parents did survive the Holocaust, he lost 14 family members. In 1946, at age 6, after several legal custody battles, he was returned to his parents.
The family immigrated to the United States in 1950. He graduated from Yeshiva of Flatbush and earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the City College of New York, with honors in history. He also has a degree from New York University School of Law. He did graduate work in Jewish studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and in international economics at the New School.
The Anti-Defamation League was begun in 1913, and Foxman joined its law department in 1965. In 1987, he was the consensus choice of the ADL’s board to become its new national director, replacing Nathan Perlmutter.
In his 23 years as national director of the ADL, Foxman has proved to be consistently wise and resourceful in defending the Jewish people.
Jewish Standard: Is anti-Semitism increasing, and if so why?
Foxman: Anti-Semitism is increasing, and 2009 had probably the greatest incidence since World War II and since we began monitoring the inventory. It was global. There was no country, no continent, that did not experience it.
Why? You know, anti-Semitism ebbs and flows. Probably the most significant catalyst this time was the Gaza war. Now, every time there is violence in the Middle East, we see a fallout of anti-Semitism – but nothing like this time. The demonstrations and the attacks against Jewish institutions and Jewish individuals resulting from the Gaza campaign were unlike any that we’ve ever seen before.
If you pressed me and said, “Okay, why now?” I would say that a major ingredient is the Internet. The Internet today enables individuals to spread messages of hate, and they use it to reach, recruit, incite, and inflame. And partly as a result of the Internet and the sharing of information globally, we saw more demonstrations with the same themes – Jews were equated with Nazis, Gaza was compared to the Warsaw Ghetto, and so on. We saw it from Kuala Lumpur to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The same themes, the same messages, and the same recruitment through the Internet.
J.S. There are now anti-Semitism study departments at Yale and at Indiana University. Can they do any good?
Foxman: Today there are more centers for the study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust than there have ever been. They certainly can and do have a positive impact. Their existence legitimizes the study of this ancient hatred and its modern permutations – which is not an exact science. To put an academic dimension to it gives the issue a greater seriousness and a greater weight. The fact that serious academic institutions are devoting time and money and energy and personnel to the study of anti-Semitism gives it greater significance.
You might also ask a question about the United States government mandating all our ambassadors around the world to monitor and respond to and combat anti-Semitism. There are a couple of countries in the world that are looking to follow this lead and are assigning ambassadors to the Jewish community, which in effect means dealing with issues of anti-Semitism. In Europe, some of them are also teaching and dealing with issues of restitution. You have it in Poland, you have it in France and in Spain. So this is a new phenomenon that takes the issue of anti-Semitism more seriously.
You also have more conferences on anti-Semitism today than we’ve ever had in the past, with meetings in Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw, Brussels, and Jerusalem bringing together foreign ministers, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, and others to work toward a common goal of countering anti-Semitism. What does that do? For one, it has helped to mitigate the denial. For many years, some leaders of European nations denied that anti-Semitism existed among their own people. France was among those at the top of that list. Indeed, many European countries denied that anti-Semitism existed, and wouldn’t do anything about it. The moment that these conferences happened, it was the end of denial and the beginning of addressing the issue forthrightly.
In the same way, when academic institutions begin to focus on anti-Semitism, it sends a message to the rest of academia that this is a serious issue and it needs attention, focus, and close scrutiny.
Will all of this new activity and interest eradicate anti-Semitism? Not by itself. But students at Yale and Indiana University will not be denying that anti-Semitism exists.
J.S. Are there any mysteries, any questions, that these study centers can help solve?
Foxman: The mystery is the same old mystery, which is: Why, why, why? Probably the most creative answer was given by Mark Twain in his 1898 essay “Concerning the Jews,” when he traveled the world and wherever he was he found anti-Semitism, but he found different reasons. Some anti-Semites were ignorant, some intelligent, some religious, some atheistic, some old, some young. His conclusion was that anti-Semitism was the result of jealousy – jealousy of Jews’ achievements, their success.
The mystery continues to be: Why?
What we’ve found is that Jews have been a very convenient scapegoat throughout history – used by religious leaders and by nonreligious despots. We are on the top of the conspiracy food chain.
We see it now in the wake of the global financial crisis. Our polling has shown that nearly one out of five Americans blames the Jewish community for the recent economic crisis. In Europe, it’s one out of three.
So, the mystery is: If an anti-Semite is not born with hatred and bigotry, if it’s acquired, then why is this hatred so pervasive? It’s been acquired for 2,000 years – regardless of whether the country is Christian or Islamic, whether it’s a poor country or rich, whether there are Jews there or not. It continues to remain a mystery.
J.S. What can be done to lessen anti-Semitism?
Foxman: There’s only one answer. Until we find an antidote, a vaccine, or something in the DNA that causes people to hate, the answer is education, education, education.
Now, look, today the greatest threat to our safety and security, the greatest catalyst for Jew-hatred, is radical Islam. If radical Islam is the legitimizer, the transmitter, the manufacturer of anti-Semitism, what is the antidote?
The antidote is to return Islam to legitimate moderate leadership – take it away from the fundamentalist extremists.
But who’s going to do this?
Another answer is to defeat Islamic extremism. The United States is fighting two wars against extremist Islam, in Iraq and Afghanistan; Israel is fighting Hamas and Hezbollah. So, part of the answer is to stand up and fight.
Still, the best answer is education, education, education. If the Arab-Muslim world would permit open education, for tolerance, for respect toward other faiths and other traditions, of democracy, we would have a lessening of anti-Semitism.
J.S. Are most people who are fervently anti-Israel really anti-Semites? Or are some of them dupes?
Foxman: Yes, there are all types. You can disagree with Israel. But you have to ask yourself, is this person who’s anti-Israel, is he anti any other country?
I’m not talking about people who criticize Israel’s policies. There’s more criticism of Israel per square kilometer in Israel than anywhere else in the world. Israel is a democracy and you can criticize it. But once somebody is anti-Israel, chances are that he’s motivated not by politics but by something else, which is usually anti-Semitism.
Can you be critical of Israel and not be an anti-Semite? Absolutely. But can you be anti-Zionist and not be an anti-Semite? My answer there is, probably not – unless you are opposed to nationalism. You can be opposed to Zionism if you’re also opposed to Palestinian nationalism, French nationalism, American nationalism. But if the only nationalism that you find offensive or racist is Jewish nationalism, that’s anti-Semitism.
All nationalisms are exclusive. They reserve citizenship only for themselves, and they make the regulations, borders, songs, or whatever. If you find an individual who detests nationalisms, he’s entitled to be anti-Zionist. But most of them only don’t like Zionism, and that’s a cover for anti-Semitism.
In Europe, there are students, churches, and others who want to project their advocacy of human rights. And one of the ways they express their views is through boycotts. “We’ll boycott companies that violate human rights,” they say. Fine, okay. They’re entitled.
But if you want to do that, I’ll give you a list of 20 countries that violate human rights. You can start with China, go to Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Sudan – a whole list of countries. If you include Israel in that list, I will argue that Israel, as a democracy, is respectful of other views. If you want to include Israel on a list of countries that you believe violate human rights, fine. But if the only country that you single out to boycott is the state of Israel, that’s anti-Semitism. Where is Iran on your list, where is Saudi Arabia? Most of the time, being anti-Israel is a disguise for anti-Semitism.
Natan Sharansky established a short formula. If you criticize Israel, victimize Israel, delegitimize Israel, demean Israel, and you use a double standard, chances are that you’re an anti-Semite.
As for journalists who criticize Israel, if in 10 or 20 years there was nothing positive that they found in the Israeli experience, not one thing that they found to commend ““ and all you find is criticism, criticism, criticism ““ that, too, leads me to say, that is not legitimate, that is anti-Semitism.
J.S. Are there studies indicating what anti-Semites have in common – personality, demographics, geography?
Foxman: The lower the level of education, the higher the level of bigotry or anti-Semitism. Younger people are more susceptible – it’s a question of ignorance and lack of education. The higher the level of education, the lower the level of anti-Semitism.
But we also find in certain instances that the higher the level of academic degree, the greater the anti-Israel bias. That’s because most of the institutional centers on Middle East studies were and are Arab-funded, and most of the scholars are former ambassadors to the 22 Arab nations. That has an impact.
Also we’re finding something strange: The older and the younger are more anti-Semitic. The reason that older people tend to be more anti-Semitic is that at a certain age you don’t care – you’re not involved in political correctness. When you mature and go into business or whatever, you know there are certain things you don’t say and you don’t express. But at a certain age you don’t care anymore.
As for geography, it depends on the country and the continent. There are very few variances of anti-Semitism in the United States, for example. In other parts of the world there are greater regional disparities. The most anti-Semitic country by virtue of various measures is Spain – then Poland, then the United Kingdom.
I don’t think it has anything to do with the weather, with culture, or the food. But in the United States, we also have economic strata – and the lower in the economic strata, the more bigotry, but that’s also a function of education. One follows the other.
Ethnicity does have an impact – among the African-American population, for instance, over the last 40 years we have seen a level of anti-Semitism of 30 percent to 40 percent. The reason is that there has been no real leadership on this issue. Martin Luther King Jr. was the last national African-American leader to stand up and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism. Today you have a leadership that is focused on other issues, and some African-Americans even deny there’s a problem. Then there are the likes of Louis Farrakhan, who uses his pulpit to spew anti-Semitism and racism and still enjoys a surprisingly strong following.
The Hispanic-Latino community also has a high level of anti-Semitism. Here, there’s good news and bad. The bad news is that foreign-born Hispanics are much more prone to being anti-Semitic – more than 40 percent among those surveyed in our polls. That’s again the result of lack of education, and perhaps a reflection of what is still being taught in the church. The Vatican teachings on tolerance have not filtered down into the pews in many Hispanic countries.
The good news is that only 20 percent of American-born Hispanics, or nearly half of the country’s Hispanic population, hold strongly anti-Semitic beliefs. The other good news is that the Hispanic leadership doesn’t deny that it exists – and is working with us to inoculate Hispanics against anti-Semitism.
J.S. Why are certain Jews against the State of Israel? Are they desperately trying to call attention to themselves?
Foxman: I’m not a psychoanalyst. I don’t pretend to know why some Jews have the need to be critical of their own people. The fact that there are Jews opposed to Israel hurts and troubles us. I don’t know what their reasons are. But often their actions are even more distressing than their reasoning.
Take, for example, Neturei Karta – we know their followers don’t recognize Israel. But their marching with Palestinian terrorists, or consorting with Holocaust deniers, or meeting with an Iranian leadership that has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” is unconscionable and deeply distressing. Once they see that they are being used by enemies of the Jewish people, I don’t know why they do not at that point desist.
J.S. Have you yourself ever been a victim of anti-Semitism?
Foxman: Yes. Certainly in the e-mails I receive, which are very, very creative anti-Semitism.
Listen, I grew up during the Holocaust. I know what anti-Semitism is. I came in crying to my Polish-Catholic nanny at the age of 5 that “They called me a dirty name, tell me I’m not a Jew.” Even growing up in Brooklyn and yeshiva, it was latent. Most anti-Semitism is latent.
Our surveys show that 12 percent of the American people are infected with strongly held anti-Semitic beliefs. Yet they don’t get up in the morning and say, “How am I going to hurt the Jews?” What is troubling is that we don’t know what the flashpoint is. Is it when they lose their jobs and have to blame somebody – like Jewish bankers? Or is it because something bad happened in their lives, and very frequently they decide that we are to blame?
So, we need to understand that it’s out there, it’s latent, and we don’t know what the flashpoint, that moment of personal crisis, will be. Sometimes it’s the economy, sometimes it’s illness, sometimes it’s a disappointment. The Arab man who attacked the Jewish Federation in Seattle, something set him off – maybe the 2006 Lebanon War. His views were latent, and he went out to get Jews. The shooter who went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to kill Jews, however, his views were more than latent, since he was a known white supremacist who maintained a Website filled with anti-Semitic invective.
So, we need to understand that most anti-Semitism is latent, and we don’t know exactly what triggers it.
The United States is different from the rest of the world. We’re not immune from bigotry or anti-Semitism, but in this country, unlike others, bigotry has consequences. Our Constitution guarantees someone the right to be a bigot – including an anti-Semite – but here there are consequences. If you’re in politics, you most likely won’t get re-elected. Our system rejects public bigoted behavior. If you’re in commerce, chances are you will not succeed. Mel Gibson – before he made his film “The Passion of the Christ,” before he was exposed as an anti-Semite – he was a hero in Hollywood. He was the most popular actor and the People’s Choice until he revealed himself as an anti-Semite. And then the American people basically rejected him. And that’s part of the consequences. In this country, it’s not politically expedient to be an anti-Semite. In many places in Europe, it is; in Latin America it is; and certainly it’s true in the Middle East. That’s a major, major difference between these countries and the United States. Not that we’re immune. But our whole dynamic system is against it.
My third book is called “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype.” The reasons for anti-Semitism, I’ve always felt, consist of three interrelated pillars.
The first pillar is deicide; the Jews were accused of killing Jesus – the mother of all anti-Semitism. The second pillar, a corollary, is that the Jews are greedy. It comes from the deicide – Judas sold out Jesus not for theology but for money, for 30 pieces of silver. The link between Jews and money has almost become part of the subculture of Western civilization. It’s all over the place. Kids throw pennies in the schoolyard, to see who’s Jewish.
The third pillar is that they don’t trust us. They think we’re not loyal citizens. Even in this country, 30 percent of Americans believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States. That’s part of the old stereotype that you can’t trust Jews, they only care for themselves.
But you asked, What we can do to combat anti-Semitism? The answer is that our leaders should speak out, and make it un-American, un-Christian, and immoral – and condemn it and punish it – as with hate-crime legislation.
J.S. Thank you for an excellent interview.