Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, who retired five years ago as the head of the Anti-Defamation League, always is good to talk to when the world seems to be falling apart.
His own story could have made him cynical, angry, or just plain constantly terrified. He was born into prewar Poland, hidden by his nanny and brought up Catholic, recovered by his Holocaust-survivor parents after the war, which meant necessarily — and necessarily traumatically — being taken from the person and the surroundings that meant home to him; brought to a DP camp and then to the United States; grew up on a chicken farm in Toms River (although “we couldn’t make a living on the chicken farm, where we’d moved because we needed the fresh air, so my father had to commute to the city,” he said); and then, through his 50-year stint at the ADL, where he saw everything, the good and the bad.
Throughout all that, he retained his optimism. And during the last five years, throughout Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency, he has tried to see the good, although it’s become harder and harder. He was grateful to the president for some of his actions on Israel; he was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. “I have been in the business of believing that people can change their minds and hearts,” he told me in 2019. “If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t have worked for the ADL for 50 years.”
But he wasn’t blind to the dangers. Talking about the anti-Semites who crawled out of the sewers in Charlottesville, in Pittsburgh, in other places around the country, “it’s dangerous,” he said then. Words matter; lies are deadly, and “I don’t know where this ends,” he mourned.
That was then.
Now, he’s worried.
What does he think of the rioters who invaded the Capitol last week? “I don’t think it’s over,” Mr. Foxman said.
That’s because “you can remove the liar, but you can’t remove the lie,” he continued, quoting someone whose name he could not remember but whose words were seared into his brain.
“We should have been shocked at what happened, but we should not have been surprised,” Mr. Foxman said. “It was always there. They were always there. The paramilitary white supremacists, the super-nationalist extremists, they were always there. They have been there since the Civil War, and from time to time they have erupted into violence. But I always believed that we had them under control, that their hatreds and their passions were latent rather than active.
“And for the most part that was right — but that’s because we didn’t have two elements that came together in the last few years.
“The first is their means of communication. Without social media, they didn’t have the ability to interact or organize or reinforce, or to raise money. That came in the last 10 years.
“And they didn’t have a leader. They had little leaders — neo-Nazis, neo-fascists — but they got their leader about five years ago. Before Charlottesville, there were neo-Nazis, but before Trump, they did not act out the way they did there, with arrogance, with chutzpah, with violence.
“The difference is now they have a leader. In the last several years, extremist thought and rhetoric was normalized in our society. It no longer is so extreme.
“It came to the fore now, with the election, and the lie that Trump had won. They thought they had legitimacy, and they still feel they have it. That is the scary part.
“Removing Trump from social media will help, but the problem is deeper than that. You are not going to change hearts and minds by removing the vehicle by which they communicate.”
Trump’s tweets “gave them more meaning, more power, more aggression,” Mr. Foxman said. “It emboldened them. Certainly their leader being removed will dampen it, but we still have a problem.
“There are people who do not believe that they lost the Civil War.
“And what also is happening is that they are seeing, in front of their eyes, the emergence of a changing society. We are a multiracial society, and that is their great fear. This is the culmination of everything they hate, despise, and want to destroy.
“And ironically, look at what happened in the election in Georgia. An African American senator and a Jewish senator. It don’t think that alone had a great impact, but it’s all cumulative. They see that they’re losing their America.
“This will be a continuing problem, and we have to be alert.”
To be sure, not all the threats are coming from the right, he said — but most of them are. “When I was at the ADL, we published a book called ‘Danger on the Right,’” Mr. Foxman said. That was in 1964. “That hasn’t changed. The danger is still violence coming from the right. There are issues on the left as well” —readers should note that Mr. Foxman is almost no one’s idea of a leftist — “and we need to deal with them, but if you look historically at the evidence about where violence comes from, where death threats come from, you see it’s from the right. We have to be concerned about danger on all sides, but particularly on the right.
“A year ago, Homeland Security issued a reports saying that the domestic terrorist threat from the right is much greater than the danger from jihadists. And this was Trump’s own Homeland Security department!”
As Jews, we must be particularly vigilant, Mr. Foxman said.
“Anti-Semitism always has been part of the conspiracists’ stereotypes,” he said. “We always are the mother of all hatreds. Ironically, anti-Semitism also plays a role on the left. We always have been number one on the hit parade of the believers in conspiracy theories.
“Why is that? If we knew why, we’d be out of business,” and that would be a very good thing, Mr. Foxman said. But “we fit many agendas. We are the international scapegoat.
“When people are angry, frustrated, unhappy, they seek a scapegoat.” That’s us. “That is the reality. We have lived with it throughout time. We try to fool ourselves that is has changed, but it hasn’t. We can contain it, but we haven’t eliminated it. What we need to do is be aware that it is there.
“When democracy is threatened, Jews are threatened.”
America is a haven for Jews, but no place can be paradise. “Sure, things are better here than they ever have been anywhere in the world,” Mr. Foxman said. “But even here we are not immune from hatred or anti-Semitism.”
We can be used to fill many seemingly contradictory roles. “You had people at the Capitol who hate Jews and love Israel. You had people at the Capitol who hate Israel and love Jews. And let’s not forget that we had Jews there. Some Jews always have tried to placate the devil.”
Mr. Foxman usually ends an interview with some glimmer of hope; he tried to do that this time as well. In the end, he managed.
“We need to continue to worry about your security,” he said. “And we need to continue being Jews, without fear. We have to do what we do. This is still America. What happened here came close to what happens in other countries, but it didn’t happen.
And what is true and important for us as Jews also is true and important for us as Americans, he added.
“We need to remember that it wasn’t just a Trump rally. It was a coming together of all the extremist forces on the right, whether it is white supremacist or neo-Nazi or Confederate or whatever. Those forces needed a leader, but they will survive beyond their leader.
“The lie outlives the liar.”
On the ever-extended other hand, however, “We need to restore truth and civility,” he concluded. “That is how we can reverse the arsenal of hate and anger.”