We are awed by Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, who retired in 2015, at 75, after 50 years at the Anti-Defamation League, most of the at its helm, but has kept fighting antisemitism, hatred, racism, and related evils.
He’s a child Holocaust survivor, saved by his parents and his nanny; his early experiences were traumatic and his reunion with his parents, which ended up loving, was complicated. Going from the sublime to the (at least to shallow people, like me) borderline ridiculous, he went from a DP camp to a south Jersey egg farm.
And throughout his long, eventful, complicated, important life, he has remained honestly and awesomely (in the old sense) sanguine. Cheerful. Optimistic. Ever ready to push ahead.
Now, Mr. Foxman has been honored again; he’s been appointed to a fourth term on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
Appointments to the council come from the president; Mr. Foxman’s first came from President Jimmy Carter. That was before the museum was built. “President Carter set up a committee to study the possibility of building a Holocaust museum,” Mr. Foxman said. “It was headed by Elie Wiesel, and I was a young whippersnapper. I was the youngest member of the group, which was made up mostly of Holocaust survivors, with a small smattering of philanthropists and a few members of Congress.”
Some members of the committee worried about whether it was wise to build the museum. “They said, ‘What if we build a museum about the Holocaust, and after all the Jews come, no one else comes?’” That didn’t happen.
Mr. Foxman was appointed to the council, once the museum opened, by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.
“Fast forward 25 years, and now I’m back on the council,” Mr. Foxman said. “I’m the only survivor, and the next to oldest there.”
Counting his appointment by President Joe Biden, he will have been honored with a seat on the council twice by Republican presidents and twice by Democratic ones.
Mr. Foxman has some stories. His appointment during the Reagan years came from the friendship between the then-head of the ADL, Nathan Perlmutter, and Pat Buchanan. “I have in my possession a postcard, written by Pat Buchanan, saying ‘Dear Abe,’” and telling him that he would get the appointment.
“The irony is that when Pat Buchanan ran for president, I called him an anti-Semite, and I was right,” Mr. Foxman said. “He didn’t change — but we didn’t know about him then.”
When President Clinton was about to appoint him, Mr. Foxman saw the press release that would announce it. “It said that Abe Foxman was a Democrat from New Jersey, and I said ‘I can’t accept the appointment. I’m neither a Democrat or a Republican. I’m apolitical.’” The release was changed to make him simply Abraham Foxman of New Jersey.
Now, his goal is “to make sure that the museum continues as a voice on the issues affecting Holocaust survivors and expands its activities not only to remember the Holocaust but to learn its lessons,” Mr. Foxman said. “The lessons are not only about Jews but also about bigotry and racism. It’s both an honor and a responsibility for me.
“And if I am now the only voice representing the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust, than it is even more significant for me than it was in the past.
“This is a different time now than it was the last time I was on the council,” he continued. “The message of the Holocaust is a lot more needed and a lot more significant today than ever, because it teaches us what hate can do. Sadly, our environment is full of hate and disrespect and lies. So many lies!
“So the museum’s message today is even more poignant and necessary than it was in the past,” he said.
Mr. Foxman is also on the New Jersey Holocaust Commission; Governor Phil Murphy appointed him three months ago. It’s his second stint there; the first came courtesy of Governor Thomas Kean. Again, one Democrat, one Republican. “The New Jersey commission was the state commission in the country that developed a curriculum on the Holocaust for public schools,” he said proudly. “It was piloted in Teaneck and Vineland.”
Mr. Foxman returned to his having been apolitical. That’s deeply important to him. “I tried to be apolitical all my life,” he said. That’s why he could have been appointed by equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. But something has changed, he said. Former President Donald Trump has forced him to change his mind. Although “I never took a political position, now I have to say that Trump is not good for democracy, and therefore he is not good for the Jewish people.”
Yasher koach to our good friend Abe Foxman, who is been able to stay optimistic despite what he’s seen, and whose love of the Jewish people — and the American people — has steered him through his long, amazingly productive life. Stay strong, Abe!