It’s not about us. But on the other hand…

It’s not about us. But on the other hand…

Abe Foxman talks about the election, anti-Semitism, fear, and optimism

Abraham Foxman
Abraham Foxman

Really, it’s not about us.

Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, the recently retired longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, has been in the news recently, as has the ADL.

The ADL has come out strongly against the alt-right, the internet-based white nationalist worldview that is steeped in anti-Semitism and vitriol. It’s also urged President-elect Donald. J. Trump to be cautious with the power he gives to Stephen Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart, a right-wing website that has given much space and apparent approval to the alt-right.

Mr. Foxman has been caught up in the battle. In a case of convoluted internal Jewish-world politics gone national, the Zionist Organization of America invited Mr. Bannon to its dinner, Mr. Bannon accepted the invitation although he did not show up, and the ZOA’s executive director, Morton Klein, directed some personal insults at Mr. Foxman, who first was going to the dinner and then did not.

Because Mr. Foxman’s name has been bandied about recently, and because his long experience seeing hatred and fighting bigotry, first as a World War II hidden child, then as a Jewish child adjusting to the New World and a new life, and then as the ADL’s executive director, we thought it might be interesting to check in with him and get his take on the presidential election and its aftermath.

The most salient thing about the election — “the good news and the bad news,” as Mr. Foxman put it — is that the election was not about us. It was not about Jews, and it was not about Israel.

And the second most salient thing about the election is that everything he can say about it is so very on-the-one-hand-but-then-on-the-other-hand that soon a listener will run out of even metaphoric hands.

Back to the election and the Jews. “Whatever else the election is, it is a revolution of sorts — social, economic, political, whatever else,” Mr. Foxman said. “It is a revolution, and we Jews don’t do well with revolutions. But this revolution happened.

“And it was not about us. Israel and the Iran deal were tangential issues, and some of us, on all sides, tried to make it about us, but they didn’t succeed.

“The bad news is that it is a social revolution. The campaign became so angry, and it released all kinds of negative, even evil attitudes. Trump is not a racist. He is not a bit anti-Semitic. I know him, I know people who know him, and his family swears it. There is nothing in his record that shows him to be anti-Semitic. Even if you look back to the housing and civil rights case — half of America was doing that. (In the early 1970s, the Justice Department sued Donald Trump and his father, Fred, for housing discrimination, charging that they would not rent to African-Americans. Eventually, the Trumps settled.)

Donald Trump conducted his presidential campaign under a new set of political standards.  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Donald Trump conducted his presidential campaign under a new set of political standards. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“Trump did not create the bigotry” that exploded during his campaign, Mr. Foxman said. “It was always there. But he was not above using the bigotry and anger that was out there. And that’s where Bannon came in.

“The bigotry was always there, but it was in the sewers, and the sewer covers were on. What this campaign did, with Bannon’s aid, was to break all the taboos.

“And Trump gave it a hechsher.”

We shouldn’t take our safety here for granted, Mr. Foxman said. “America has been different from every other country when it comes to the security of Jews because throughout the years we have developed a social contract that says that you can be a bigot in your heart and in your home, but if you act on that bigotry outside your heart and home, there will be consequences. That is what protects us.

“Remember that political correctness is not a crime or a sin. It creates a sense of civility. What this campaign did was remove all the taboos. Trump said things that until now people couldn’t say, and that will affect us. That is a Jewish concern.”

But, he continued, “I don’t think that we should have made Bannon a Jewish concern. This is an American concern. And if Bannon’s influence is bad, it is not only about Jews, but about all minorities. I find it a little bizarre that we became spear-carriers in the attacks against him. We need to be careful.”

Then there is the question of Israel. Both Bannon and Breitbart have been strongly pro-Israel, even when indulging in the crudest anti-Semitism. Still, “the fact that Bannon is pro-Israel does not cure all evils,” Mr. Foxman said. That does not mean that we should waver in our support for Israel, he hastened to add, just that we should think through what support for Israel means, and what it does not mean.

“Nixon was pro-Israel, and he was an anti-Semite,” Mr. Foxman said. “Truman was pro-Israel, and he was an anti-Semite. I am not saying that Bannon is an anti-Semite. The ADL, in fact, says that he is not. But now there is a certain legitimacy given to anti-Semitism.

“I am an optimist, and I speak from my own personal vantage point,” he continued. “I think that we are now seeing a different Donald Trump from the one we saw during the campaign. He is walking back a lot of stuff.” There is a Yiddish proverb about respecting and suspecting, he said, and “I think that at this stage of the game, we should respect him and suspect him, rather than suspecting and respecting. I think that there is a tendency among many in our community, because they were disappointed in the election results, to suspect first.”

Stephen Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart, a right-wing website, failed to show up for a Zionist Organization of America dinner.
Stephen Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart, a right-wing website, failed to show up for a Zionist Organization of America dinner.

There are Jewish issues involved in this election, Mr. Foxman said. “They are civility, respect, and the fact that we do not tolerate racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism. That is why we need to impress on Trump that he has a responsibility to fix it.

“His campaign took the sewer cover off, and it has to be put back on.

“He already has done some things” toward that end. “On ‘60 Minutes,’ he said, ‘stop it.’ In the meeting with the New York Times, he said, ‘I condemn it. I reject it.’ But he has to stand up and say, ‘This is not what I am about. This is not the America I value.’ I think it is necessary.”

Another strong Jewish value is the electoral system itself. “The Jewish community has always been in support of the electoral system because it protects the minority against the tyranny of the majority,” he said. “And sometimes the results don’t make us happy.

“We have short memories. I remember when Nixon was elected. The fear. The outcry. The shock. The surprise. I remember when Bush 2 was elected. And some of us remember Carter’s election.

“The question is how secure American democracy is. We now have new ingredients — the internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and social media. They have destroyed privacy and are in the process of destroying civility. But I am old enough to remember the Nixon-Kennedy debates.” They were televised, and many observers think that Kennedy’s good looks and Nixon’s five o’clock shadow and gimlet-eyed pallor threw the election. “People then said that elections would never be the same.

“These are new phenomena, and we have to understand them and deal with them, but I don’t think this election is a calamity. But it is a revolution.”

Now, Mr. Foxman said, Donald Trump is going to have to produce. “We live in a bubble,” he said. “In our bubble, things like conflict of interest and nepotism are very important, and his use of language was so offensive and outrageous to us. But we woke up to realize that in America at large, people had other issues and anxieties. They don’t care about conflicts of interest. What’s at stake are their jobs, their homes, their futures. But Trump is going to have to produce. There are many angry people. He made promises, and he will have to fulfill some of them.”

Another issue that is troubling Mr. Foxman is the venom of the personal attacks. “It spilled over into the Jewish community and it became harsh and ugly,” he said. “I think that now is the time for the politics or personal attacks to be over. What has happened is that now, if I disagree with you, I need to destroy you.

“My successor at the ADL,” Jonathan Greenblatt, “whether you agree or disagree with his position, is being attacked personally,” Mr. Foxman said. “I think that there will be a time when the unity of the Jewish community will be necessary. If we continue to engage in this destruction, when the time comes that we need to stand together — as Jewish history shows is likely to happen — we will have a calamity.

“These personal attacks are dangerous and counterproductive. We need to stop it now. We need to respect different views, and leave the politics of destruction.”

“If Trump is successful, it will be good,” Mr. Foxman, the optimist, continued, and then, he said, pessimistically, “If he is not successful, who will be blamed? We will be blamed.

“I am an optimist because I don’t have the luxury of being pessimistic. So he got elected. We will expect the best and fight the worse. Even in good times there are moments of bad times. We have to be strong. We have to not be at each other’s throats. We have to be united.”

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