Abraham Foxman of Bergen County has good reason to know a great deal about anti-Semitism, fascism, and the irrationality of mobs.
He also has good reason to know about human goodness and the importance of optimism. His life has taught him that lesson. He was born in Poland in 1940. Although the odds were good that the Nazis would have slaughtered him in his infancy, he’s made it to his late 70s. In some senses, every year since then has been a gift.
Mr. Foxman spent 50 years working for the Anti-Defamation League; by the time he retired, in 2015, he was its longtime executive director.
All together, his life experiences — raised as a Catholic by his nanny, his parents separated as they each saved themselves, surviving a range of unimaginable nightmare, found by his parents, brought back gently and lovingly to Judaism — has taught Mr. Foxman never to give up on anyone without trying very hard not to. It also has taught him about the existence of real evil, and about the intricacy of the worldview that acknowledges both those extremes.
All this is a lengthy prelude to an explanation of Mr. Foxman’s reaction to the murders in Pittsburgh, and President Donald J. Trump’s reaction to it.
Before he discussed Mr. Trump, Mr. Foxman sketched in the reasons why anti-Semitism, which, he said, always has been part of American culture, is surfacing now. Remember, he said, that the Bund met enthusiastically in Madison Square Garden before World War II; it was a looming presence, among other places, in Bergen County then. In the 1960s and 70s, when polling on anti-Semitic attitudes began, about 30 percent of the population was infected with it; later, those numbers dropped, but “that still means that we are talking about millions of Americans who held seriously anti-Semitic stereotypes,” he said. But those were latent views — “people believed them, maybe fantasized about them, but they didn’t act them out.
“But we always worried about what the flashpoint would be,” he said. What spark would catch, what fire would smoke that hatred out into full public view.
Who was the “we” who worried? In general, the American Jewish community; in specific, the agencies, not only his ADL but also the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress and all the other organizations “that were concerned with the safety and well-being of the American Jewish community,” he said. It is notable that the worry was real enough that all those agencies not only existed, but also taught and trained and prepared against anti-Semitism. “We knew it was a problem, but we also felt comfortable that we had contained it in a variety of ways,” Mr. Foxman said. “Primarily, we did it by making it unacceptable in America. We didn’t come up with a vaccine or antidote to eliminate it, but we created an atmosphere where it was socially unacceptable to express it.
“You could be an anti-Semite in your heart and your mind, but if you acted it out, there would be consequences, in your workplace, in your social environment. This is the security blanket of a social contract that some call political correctness and others call our value system.”
Anti-Semitism also was checked by the Holocaust, which until fairly recently was within living memory. “Sadly, it was a container for anti-Semitism,” Mr. Foxman said. “People felt guilty about not having acted. They were ashamed.”
Also, the media “served as a platform to expose, to embarrass, and to educate,” he said. That was back way before the internet, before social media, when gatekeepers controlled the media, keeping most of it bland, inoffensive, dispassionate and safe — and also authoritative. When network news anchors told you something, you believed it, generally with good reason.
“This was the American way, and it worked for many years,” Mr. Foxman said.
The state of Israel — its creation, the challenges it faced and surmounted, the wars it won, the straight-backed clear-eyed no-nonsense virility and charm of its image — also helped American Jews counter the old stereotypes with far more attractive new ones.
But life is never static. Things changed.
“Memory of the Holocaust is gone,” Mr. Foxman said. “It was 75 years ago, and it no longer has the force of containment it used to have.
The social strictures against overt anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of hate speech and general coarseness, “have been shattered in the last two years by the rhetoric of the political campaign, and by the fact that the president of the United States broke all the taboos.
“It because okay to insult minorities, to be negative about minorities, and we are a minority.
“We saw the results of that in Pittsburgh.”
As for the media, “it is under attack, and it has lost its credibility. The public no longer feels confident about what they read and hear and see being accurate. That credibility has been shattered.
“When you talk about fake news and the media as being the enemy of the people, you undermine it.
“That is something for which the president is responsible. It is not the president alone, but the president has undermined the media.”
And then there is the entirely mixed blessing of the internet. “We thought it would be an instrument for education and information and intervention,” he said. “We thought it would be an instrument for good. But we woke up to the realization that while it does bring good bit may well bring more bad. It brings the falsehoods and lies and the tsunami of hate that’s on social media. It has undermined a lot of the protections that had been established.”
Even Israel no longer provides the image-enhancement it once did. “We now have Israel being attacked as a Jewish state, and we have Zionism attacked as a Jewish aspiration,” Mr. Foxman said. “That has provided an additional platform for the bigots. So not only did Israel not solve the problem of anti-Semitism, it has provided a pseudo-legitimate platform to attack Jews, under the guide of an attack on a political state of ideology.
“Israel of course still provides us with a haven in case — God forbid — we need it, but in the political sense it facilitates anti-Semitism.”
So that’s why the walls that kept anti-Semitism at bay have collapsed, or at least are crumbling. “Now here comes the other element,” Mr. Foxman said. “The political environment.
“I have said time and time again that anti-Semitism existed before Trump,” he continued. “The 200 neo-Nazis in Charlottesville existed before Trump. Trump did not create the anti-Semite who killed 11 innocent Jews in the synagogue.
“I don’t think that we can blame Trump for it, but we certainly can hold him accountable.
“At best, we can say that what he said before Pittsburgh might be seen as unintended consequences.
“Here is a guy who lived in New York all his life, was a Democratic liberal, was so comfortable with Jews that his daughter married a Jew and converts.
“So one could say that he did not understand or comprehend the depth and gravity of anti-Semitism in this country until Pittsburgh.
“That has changed now, after Pittsburgh.
“He is on notice now.
“Before this, he gave anti-Semitism a hecksher.” He gave it his seal of approval. “He didn’t create Charlottesville, but he emboldened the neo-Nazis who marched there with his language, with his behavior, with his tearing down of taboos.
“That told them, indirectly, that ‘Now it is okay. Now we can march in brown shirts and torches. Now we can say Jews will not replace us.’
“He didn’t write the script. He didn’t provide them with the brown shirts or the tiki torches. But he did provide the atmosphere that they thought made it legitimate.
“Instead of putting the cover on the sewers, he opened the sewer even more broadly. He needs to be accountable because his language, his rhetoric legitimizes what they did, and that changes the situation.
“So if before Pittsburgh we lived with the knowledge that there were millions and millions of Americans who unfortunately were infected with the disease of anti-Semitism, we could take comfort in knowing that those ideas were latent and unlikely to be acted out. We had firewalls to protect us.
“But these guys have harbored this anger, this frustration, these stereotypes all their lives, but they needed a flashpoint.”
Now they have it.
In directing his vitriol against immigrants, Mr. Foxman suggested, Mr. Trump has ignited a loathing that many Americans harbored. “Americans never really liked immigrants,” he said. “We call ourselves a nation of immigrants, but we never really liked it. We didn’t like any immigrants — not the English, not the Germans, not the Irish, not the Italians, not the Jews, not the Chinese, not the Vietnamese.
“So there has been this simmering racist feeling, but there was no flashpoint until Trump,” who threw verbal kerosene on the red-hot hidden embers. “He projects immigrants as a danger, as a threat to the nation.”
Jews are not immigrants now, but “we always have been in the forefront,” helping immigrants, identifying with them, remembering what it was like to be strangers in a strange land, as we are commanded to do. “We didn’t fund the caravans” — those long trains of refugees, leaving danger, heading into more danger, hoping for salvation, unlikely to find it, are said by the president to be funded by George Soros, the Hungarian-American Jew who made a fortune in this country and has spent much of it on liberal causes. (In fact, Soros did not fund those caravans.) “But we are the people of immigration. We have gone from one place to another. We struggled to open the doors to us and to others in need.
“We always worry,” he continued. “We are an insecure people. We have lived through a history of insecurity. We always have had to live out of suitcases.”
Because of that insecurity, he said, during his time at the ADL people would speculate about what it would take to spark latent anti-Semitism into flames. There have been periods of American history that it seemed likely. “I have heard stories of Jews hiding in basements the night that the Rosenbergs were executed,” he said. (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and executed in 1953.) “They were afraid of a pogrom, like the ones in eastern Europe, but that never happened.
“And then with Joe McCarthy, when so many of the names were Jewish” — Joseph McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, hunted communists and ruined lives in the early 1950s — “there was anxiety.” Again, nothing happened. They worried when Jonathan Pollard was arrested and then pled guilty to spying for Israel in 1986, and they worried when the profoundly dishonest financier Bernie Madoff was arrested in 2008 for the Ponzi scheme that enriched him and impoverished his marks. None of these things led to overt anti-Semitism. “We also worried about what level of unemployment or economic instability would trigger anger that would turn on the classic scapegoat” — Jews.
There also is a classic anti-Semitic trope that accused Jews of starting wars — World War I, World War II, Viet Nam. That one also remained latent.
But now, Mr. Foxman said, there are “two new, even more toxic canards. One is globalism.
“Jews are globalists,” he continued. “We always have been. We have suffered in nationalist, dictatorial regimes.” But anti-Semites have given the word “globalist” a sinister meaning, and both it and the word “nationalist” are dog whistles. “And then one morning the president wakes up and says ‘I am a nationalist,’” Mr. Foxman said. (Actually, he said it at a rally in Houston on October 23. “A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that,” Trump said. “You know, they have a word — it’s sort of became old-fashioned — it’s called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.”)
“Had he used the word patriot, that would have been fine,” Mr. Foxman continued. “But he is using a word that connotes such pain and anger in history for Jews.
“We think that super-nationalism is hurtful, and we always have paid a heavy price for it,” he said. “And who is accused of being globalist today? Michael Bloomberg. George Soros. Henry Kissinger.” Those three men have little in common except that all three are Jewish.
The other canard that is particularly toxic right now is the idea that Jews control the media, he said. “If the media is the enemy of the American people, as Trump says, and you are an anti-Semite who always has believed that the Jews control the media…” Connect those dots.
President Trump, Mr. Foxman said, is “building up the powder keg, and giving it life and legitimacy.”
So now we are living in a post-Pittsburgh world. This is a world where Jews not only were slaughtered, but in a synagogue, on Shabbat. Mr. Foxman compared that to the extra level of horror Israel’s enemies created when it attacked the fairly new state on Yom Kippur. Each of the wars the country fought were terrible, he said, but the extra desecration made the evil even worse — and that was not accidental.
We do not want the Jewish community in the United States to resemble its counterpart in Berlin or Paris, where “if you want to find a synagogue, look for police cars and walls. If you want your kids to go to a Jewish school, they have to be escorted by an armed guard. We don’t want to live like that.
“America is different — but we are not immune.”
We will have to figure out some middle ground between living in a bunker — which is both emotionally debilitating and prohibitively expensive — and doing nothing. “There is a big range between being cavalier about the threat and having police or soldiers or armed guards in every Jewish institution,” he said. “We have to find that middle ground.
“My father, of blessed memory, told me to go to ROTC in college, so I went to City College ROTC,” he said. “Because we survived the Holocaust. While he didn’t think that we could win in an armed battle, he thought we should know how to defend ourselves.” It’s a delicate balance, he added.
Much as anti-Semitism has resurfaced, there is one place where it has not, and that heartens him greatly, Mr. Foxman said. “That’s with law enforcement in America. There is a greater sensitivity on the federal, state, municipal, you name it level. Law enforcement is more conversant with the Jewish community, with its sensibilities and its requirements. It is important to realize that there are some institutions in the country that still understand our fragility.
“That’s true even when we worry that in Washington, they no longer understand the fragility of minority groups.”
And this brings us back to President Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Foxman knows that many members of the Jewish community value Mr. Trump’s relationship to Israel, and he counts himself as part of that group. “President Trump has acted and done things related to Israel that strengthen Israel’s position and vitality and even have changed some of its standing in the international community,” he said. “I think that we should say thank you for that.
“But that should not inhibit us from saying ‘Thank you very much, Mr. President, but if you care about our people and our future and your children and your grandchildren, then you also have to change your rhetoric.’
“I don’t think that one of those things obviates the other,” Mr. Foxman continued. “I thank him and will continue to thank him for what should have been the most natural thing in the world — to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. That is wonderful. And I would thank him for the sense of reality and balance in dealing with Palestinian refugees. That situation has been so perverted against Israel.
“But having said that, being appreciative does not mean that I should keep my mouth shut.
“When he acts to separate parents from children, or uses his pulpit against immigrants — which is not a Jewish issue per se but is also a Jewish issue — the Jewish community should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
“We should be able to say thank you and we should be able to criticize. We do have values and a history and a memory.
“I think the way to do it is to sensitize him,” Mr. Foxman said. But how do you sensitize Mr. Trump, a man to whom the word “sensitive” rarely is applied? Can you sensitize him? “You are talking to someone who has spent a lifetime believing that you can change minds and hearts,” Mr. Foxman said. “I am not ready to give up on that now.
“But having said that, he really is on notice. Ignorance and lack of understanding really isn’t a defense.”
Bottom line? Tap dancing aside? “He is a demagogue who threatens democracy, and democracy is essential as air for Jews,” Mr. Foxman said.
“I am publicly saying that this man is a demagogue, and that this man is threatening the fibers of democracy. But he still is president, and he can do a lot of harm or he can do a lot of good.”
Mr. Foxman thought that when Mr. Trump went to Pittsburgh after the shooting, he was correct. “His presence was important,” Mr. Foxman said. “He was with his family. That was fine. He said all the right things, which were written for him. We are looking for the words that come from his kishkes to be the right words, but he said the right words, and we can’t discount that.
“His is the most important bully pulpit in the world. The American people elected him, and you can’t throw him out. The process isn’t perfect, but it works both ways.”
So, Mr. Foxman, what thought should you end on? “I will praise him when he deserves it and criticize him when he doesn’t. So much depends on the bully pulpit, not just for Jews but for democracy. For all good people.
“The world needs a strong America, an America they can respect, and it all goes through his pulpit,” Mr. Foxman concluded.
From his lips to God’s ear…