‘This is dangerous. Words do matter’
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‘This is dangerous. Words do matter’

Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, the ADL’s retired leader, on the challenges posed by Donald Trump’s disloyalty charge

Abraham Foxman retired as head of the Anti-Defamation League in 2014. (David Karp)
Abraham Foxman retired as head of the Anti-Defamation League in 2014. (David Karp)

About a week ago, President Donald J. Trump shook the American Jewish world by saying “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”

This is not the first time that the president has made statements that made those Jews who dislike or distrust him — more than three quarters of American Jews voted against him in 2015 and voted for Democrats in 2018, often apparently in reaction to him — to dislike and distrust him even more.

Those Jews cited a number of his earlier comments, most notably his assertion that although alt-right supporters marched in Charlottesville in 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us,” there were “very fine people on both sides” of that weekend of demonstrations, which ended in the death of a counter demonstrator. (Heather Heyer’s murderer was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.)

It also impelled Mr. Trump’s Jewish supporters, most notably members of the Republican Jewish Committee, to back him.

“President Trump is right, it shows a great deal of disloyalty to oneself to defend a party that protects/emboldens people that hate you for your religion,” the RJC tweeted in response. “The @GOP, when rarely confronted w/anti-Semitism of elected members always acts swiftly and decisively to punish and remove.”

So what now?

Abraham Foxman of Bergen County has had a lifetime’s intimate knowledge of anti-Semitism. As a Polish-born Jewish child, he survived the war because his nanny brought him up as her child. After the war — he was one of the extraordinarily lucky children who was reunited with both his parents, who brought him to America — he flourished as an American. He worked for the Anti-Defamation League for 50 years, many of them as its executive director. He’s seen anti-Semitism as both a subtle curl of the lip and a blatant fist in the face and bullet to the heart.

And now?

“My first reaction is outrage,” he said. “We think that we have seen everything, experienced everything — and then we wake up to find out no, really we have not.

“And then my second reaction is that it is dangerous.

“It is dangerous because all of a sudden the number one American, the American who has the most significant bully pulpit in the world, confirms one of the most damning, vicious, hideous anti-Semitic canards to have plagued the Jewish people from the beginning of time.

“From here on, every anti-Semite who will say ‘You can’t trust the Jews. The Jews are disloyal’ now has a point of reference that is not Goebbels but is the president of the United States.

“That is dangerous.

“I wrote a book called ‘The Deadliest Lies’ several years ago,” Mr. Foxman continued. “It dealt with these issues — that Jews can’t be trusted, that Jews are on a quest for power, that they want control. We saw that with Mearsheimer and Walt.” Mr. Foxman was talking about John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, whose controversial 2007 book, “The Israel Lobby,” tried to show the evils of that lobby. Most of the organized Jewish world loathed the book, seeing it as biased and basically a hit job. Mr. Foxman was prominent among the book’s critics.

“We have seen this kind of hate before, and all of a sudden, it was out there, out front, and it looked and sounded legitimate,” Mr. Foxman said. What was true of the book is true of Mr. Trump’s words too, he said.

“The question is whether he knows what he’s doing,” he continued. “There are two schools of thought. Some say yes he .oes. Some say no he doesn’t. And I don’t know which is worse. He professes love and support of Israel and the Jewish people. There is no reason for me to doubt that. And you can say a whole bunch of things to support it — he has Jewish children and grandchildren, and he has done things, like move the embassy to Jerusalem.

“But in that case, why is he engaging in the most basic anti-Semitic canards? If he loves us, why is he doing this?

“I have come to the realization that he is not doing it” — the actions that many supporters of Israel find valuable — “for us. He is doing it for himself, and for what he conceives to be his constituency. We are not really his constituency.

“Say whatever you want about him, he is not stupid. He is smart. He knows, like we know, that 80 percent of Jews haven’t and won’t support him. Is he getting even with us? No.

“So why is he doing it? I believe he’s doing it for his major constituency, the evangelicals, who need Israel’s strength for the second coming.

“That is the platform and the arena he’s playing on. He’s playing us, but it is not about us.

“I don’t understand why his Jewish friends don’t say anything to him — but I am not sure that it would make an impact.” Mr. Foxman worries about where all this is going.

Mr. Trump “doesn’t apologize, and he doesn’t change,” he lamented. “So I don’t know where this ends.

“I don’t know where this ends,” he said again.

He feels some sympathy for Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who appears to have a good relationship with Mr. Trump. Just a few days before Mr. Trump’s statement about Jews and disloyalty, Mr. Netanyahu barred two members of Congress — both Muslim women — from visiting Israel. His move came shortly after Mr. Trump tweeted his wish that Mr. Netanyahu make that move, and it was roundly criticized by many Jews, even as others defended it.

“I’m glad that I’m not the prime minister of Israel,” Mr. Foxman said. “What does he do? He has a president of the United States who has done things for Israel that haven’t been done in a long time. Maybe never.

“Maybe he will bring peace. Who knows? And I don’t discount the peace process. At the end of the day, peace will come when both sides say, ‘The devil made me do it.’ Maybe it takes a Donald Trump type to make that happen. If it happens, that would be for the good.”

Not that he’s holding his breath. Still, Mr. Foxman said, “I have been in the business of believing that people can change their minds and hearts. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t have worked for the ADL for 50 years.

“I still believe that people are capable of epiphany. It is getting harder and harder, but I do not give up believing that people can change their minds.”

And anyway, Mr. Foxman added, Mr. Trump “changes his mind three times a day anyway. Consistency is not a hobgoblin of his. So I am not giving up.

“Still, I am a lot more concerned.”

Does Mr. Foxman have any advice? “If he doesn’t change, we need to change him,” he said. “Vote him out. We can’t afford — Americans can’t afford, Jews can’t afford — not to. This is dangerous. Words do matter.”

Still, Mr. Foxman also is Mr. On-this-hand-on-the-other-hand. “Life has never been simple for us,” he said. “It has never been black or white. Trump is good on some things and bad on a lot of things.

“We have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have to be able to say ‘Thank you, Mr. President’ and ‘No thank you, Mr. President.’ And I am not sure that we do that.

“I think that a lot of the Jews who say ‘Thank you’ about Israel and about Jerusalem have not been able to say ‘No thank you’ about immigration, on separating children from their parents, on what he said about Charlottesville, about his calling us disloyal.”

What else? Nothing right now, Mr. Foxman said, but just hold on. “Who knows what will happen next?” he said.

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