From Mel Brooks to Woody Allen to Jackie Mason to Sarah Silverman to Sacha Baron Cohen, Jewish comedians have a long and celebrated history of telling jokes about their own people. But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says that words are too powerful to take lightly in this way, because jokes about specified religious or racial or ethnic groups are where the most virulent forms of discrimination begin: "If you can use words in a way to demean and undermine their humanity, then it eventually doesn’t matter what you do because they’re not human.  And it starts with jokes, it starts with separating as a group, the other. ... It all starts with a joke and it builds."

In his Big Think interview, Foxman talks at length about how anti-Semitism has evolved during the 45 years he has worked at the ADL. When he started, he says, "one out of three Americans was infected, seriously infected, with anti-Semitism." Today, that number has gone down to about 12 to 14 percent of the country.  "Twelve, fourteen percent is still 40 million Americans, which is still quite serious, and we’re talking about somebody that’s seriously infected.  And I’m sure there’s another 40 million who may believe Jews are too powerful in finance, or they control the government, or Hollywood, or killed Christ, or aren’t loyal, and these are all stereotypes of anti-Semitism that still exist.  But on the whole, it has changed because at least it’s unacceptable; it’s not PC to be anti-Semitic." Even so, he notes, 20 percent of Americans—and over 30 percent of the people in Europe—believe that Jews are to blame for the financial crisis of the past few years.

He also talks about how the Obama administration's policies are affecting the country's relationship with Israel. He says that Obama has sent a message that we are reaching out to the Arab Muslim world at the expense of our relationship with Israel—and that the play likely won't do anything to help solve the intractable Mideast peace process: "If Israel does not feel that its only ally continues to be its friend, then it will not risk, it will not compromise to the extent that it has," he says. He also says that while not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, any criticism that questions the country's legitimacy is.

Finally, Foxman talks about the irony and tragedy that religion is not always a force for good in the world—even though that's what it is supposed to be. "The judgment is still out whether the promise of the faith, and love, and understanding and sensitivity that religion promises is maybe more counter-productive because some religions teach exclusiveness," he says.