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Abraham Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a position he has held since 1987.  He has worked for the organization since 1965. In 2006, he was awarded[…]

A conversation with the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Question: How has the nature of anti-Semitism during your tenure at the ADL?

Abraham Foxman: It’s not an exact science, but when we take attitudes of polling and we check attitudes from when I started which was 45 years ago, about one out of three Americans was infected, seriously infected, with anti-Semitism.  Today, 45 years later, not all to my doing or even the ADL, but changing society and environment, some litigation, legislation, education, it’s gone down to about 12, 14 percent of the American public.  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, and so from that perspective I think fewer people engage in it. 

The greatest challenge, the new challenge we face is what we’re engaged in now, and that’s the Internet, the web, the World Wide Web.  On one hand – on one hand it’s a magnificent boom to education, to interaction, to communication in all kinds of ways, but it also has provided a dark underbelly of a superhighway for bigotry.  These are the unintended consequences of this magnificent creation, invention, and expansion of dialogue and information.  But, you could today, anonymously communicate bigotry in nanoseconds across the globe. 

In the 50s the Anti-Defamation League helped model and advocate a law called the Anti-Masking Law which we helped it act in the state of Georgia of all people.  And what that law said is if you want to be a bigot, if you want to demonstrate and protest as a bigot that’s your right under the Constitution, but you can’t have your head covered.  You can’t hide your identity.  You can’t wear a white mask, or a black mask, or a purple mask; you have to take responsibility for your bigotry.  And in fact, that was the law that had the greatest impact to break the back of the Ku Klux Klan because all these bigots who were all ready to do their bigotry hiding their identity, who happen to be lawyers, and store keepers, and judges, and whatever, all of a sudden lost their courage.  Fast forward 50 years later, and that mask has been put back through the internet.  And so today you can be a bigot.  You could be a bigot anonymously, you could enter somebody’s home, invade their privacy, and we see it... we see it so dramatic in cyber-bullying.

Why is anti-Semitism such a virulent form of bigotry?

About 100 years ago Mark Twain went on a trip through Europe.  He had a debt to pay off and so he went on lecture tour, and wherever he went he found anti-Semitism.  The result was he wrote an essay when he came back in 1896 called "Concerning Anti-Semitism"—actually "Concerning The Jews."  And in a way he asked your question, you know, why is it so persistent?  What is it that makes it... everywhere?  Because he found that he would come to some people and they would be anti-Semitic because of religion.  All right. Then he’d come to some place and he found someone who’s an atheist who’s an anti-Semite.  Then he finds someone who's ignorant, okay so ignorance breeds that.  And then he’d find somebody... like Voltaire was an anti-Semite.  So, and then he’d find somebody who was rich and they would say, well you know the Jews are trying to be rich.  Then he’d find somebody poor... we found that communists call Jews capitalists, capitalist call Jews communist. Whether it was communism, or it was fascism, or Nazism, used the Jew as a scapegoat. 

And Mark Twain came to a conclusion.  I’m not sure it’s the proper conclusion, but I haven’t found a better one, and he says basically that anti-Semitism is a result of jealousy; that there’s a jealousy of Jewish success.  I remember about 20 years ago the Anti-Defamation League held a conference.  We brought together sociologists, educators, and public people to discuss why—because there was a... 20 years ago there was an upswing.  And I remember somebody around the table saying, well you know what it’s because Jews excel.  So, I’ll never forget there was a man there that said, "You know what Audrey I’ll make a deal with you:  I’ll go home and tell my kids to be number two and number three, if you’ll tell me that you’ll take care of the anti-Semitism."  A year later or so I told the story to a gentlemen that owned some banks in Brazil called... his name was Safra, Edmund Safra, and he said well to me it’s not a story.  He said, Abe, when we opened Banco Safra in Brazil we were very successful, and I called in my managers and I said "You want to be successful?  Make sure you’re number two and number three and not number one."  In the last... I went to Russia right after Glasnost and Perestroika, and was invited to address the city council of Moscow on anti-Semitism.  So I gave my presentation, and at the end a gentleman got up and said, "Well Mr. Foxman, you haven’t really told us why there’s anti-Semitism."  I said "Well, anti-Semitism is a disease really of the Christian world.  Why don’t you tell me?"  He said "I’ll tell you," and then he got up and said well when I was a kid in my small town, the best students were Jews.  And then I became a member of the communist youth party, the Komsomol, the best Komsomoliks were Jews.  And then in University the best students were Jews, and then the communist party the best communists were Jews.  So he says, but you know why there’s anti-Semitism?  Because they only excel for themselves; they’re only best for themselves.

What are the five most common bigoted misperceptions of Jews?

Abraham Foxman:  Well, I guess the first probably in Western society is that Jews are responsible for killing Christ, and that’s the mother of all.  And then I think the greed issue continues.  Then you follow control; Jews want to control the world for their interests, it could be money or whatever.  That’s the conspiratorial.  Jews are on the top of the hit parade of conspiracy, so for example we’re in an economic crisis.  In Europe, over 30 percent believe that Jews are responsible.  In the United States, one out of five Americans believe that Jews are responsible for the economic crisis because they see Jews in Wall Street, they see Jews everywhere.  Then you have different issues of control of Hollywood is big, and I guess it’s the whole conspiracy that... you’ll find conspiracies anywhere.  So if you don’t like something that’s happening, maybe you screwed up, you did something wrong, it’s because the Jews are behind it.  There are a lot of people who think that the Secretary of Treasury is Jewish; he’s not, that Volcker is Jewish, he’s not, but it doesn’t matter.  It’s the Jews who are controlling finances; it’s Jews who are controlling foreign policy.  There’s also a canard that’s out there, very big, about loyalty.  The Jews are not loyal.  Not loyal to their community, but not loyal to their country.  Thirty percent of the American people to this day believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than the United States.  In Europe, it’s 60, 70 percent.  In Poland 60 percent believe there’s what, 10,000 Jews that are not loyal to Poland.  In Norway, there are 5,000 and it’s 70 percent.  So that’s a canard which goes to the essence that you can’t trust Jews, you can’t rely on them.  With all the education, with all the exposure, and then you come down to some of my best friends are Jewish.  The guys that I know, they’re fine, but over there, out there; that’s another canard. 

Is it okay for a Jews to tell a Jewish joke?

Abraham Foxman: In Jewish tradition words are very important.  We even Jews will pray three times a day, ask the Almighty... ask for his help or her help to keep, "God please help keep my mouth from speaking evil."  It’s in our tradition the power of life and death is in the tongue.  And the gas chambers in Auschwitz, the crematorium in Auschwitz didn’t begin with bricks they began with words; ugly words, hateful words.  These words were met with absence.  Nobody challenged them, nobody questioned them, and then became bricks.  9-11 didn’t start with box cutters or flying planes as missiles, it started with words denigrating Americans, demeaning Americans, our values, and everything else.  The reason slavery persisted so long, the reason that there were lynching’s, was that words; words demeaned African Americans as not persons, not human.  So if you can use words in a way to demean and under mind 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.  We see it with bullying and cyber bullying.  It all starts with a joke and it builds.  So, yeah, look I’ve had my differences with Borat, with Sacha Cohen, I’m old enough to have my differences with All in the Family.  You’re too young to remember, but this was an approach which said let’s make fun of bigotry; let’s laugh at bigotry.  And I argued with Leonard Goldenson and this was the first show on television which poked fun at bigotry and you’d say can we laugh and make jokes?  And the producer’s claim was if you laugh at it you get it out of your system.  And the truth is that Archie Bunker became a hero.  People were laughing with him, not at him.  All the other characters were made simple and idiotic, and when Sacha Cohen did Borat he defended it as this is the way to expose bigotry, is to laugh at it.  But I don’t think that the people, when he did his skit about throwing the Jews down the well, and the people were applauding, I didn’t think it was funny.  I think they were reinforcing it.  My little test that I still offer that to Sacha Cohen, and he said to me, you got to learn to take a joke.  I said you know what, I will.  Why don’t you do a public service announcement for the Anti-Defamation League which says prejudice is not funny, and then you can make your movies prejudice.

Are all criticisms of Israel anti-Semitic?

Abraham Foxman: Israel probably has more criticism per square foot, square person than any country in the world.  It’s a Democracy, they can be criticized, nobody is immune from criticism and no you don’t become an anti-Semite just because you criticize the Jewish state.  But, there was Natan Sharansky, one of the prisoners of conscience from the Soviet Union who set a certain standard, which I think sort of applies.  He said, well if your criticism denigrates or demeans Israel or it challenges its right to exist, that’s not criticism because people don’t go around asking whether Poland should exist, or China should exist, so if the question is the criticism goes to the point of Israel’s legitimacy, that’s not criticism, that’s at this point anti-Semitism.  If it goes to – if it sets a double standard, and basically there’s this issue now of boycotts and I’ve seen boycotts, student boycotts, church boycotts of Israel, and the reason is we are for human rights and we want to show the world that we... and I’d say fine, if you want to use boycotts to express yourself, to strengthen human rights, fine.  But, if Israel is the only country that you select to use the boycott to enforce human rights and you ignore China, and Cuba, and Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, where there are violations galore of human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, religious rights, etcetera, then that’s not legitimate criticism of Israel.  That’s bigotry, that’s anti-Semitism.  Now if you make a list of 10, 15 countries and you include Israel I will argue that Israel has equal rights for women, has respect, has a judicial system, Palestinians can come to the... and all that, but okay I can live with that.  But when the only country... when you look at the United Nations, okay you want to criticize Israel fine, but when 40 percent of the agenda of the United Nations human rights, so called human rights council, is only Israel that’s anti-Semitism.

Are Obama and Biden true friends of Israel?

Abraham Foxman:  I think they are friends, I think what’s troubling to the American Jewish community, troubling to me, is I think there’s been a change of strategy, and I think that comes as a result of the fact that the United States today is facing a major challenge in the world.  It’s not Russia, it’s not China, it’s not Chavez; it’s the Arab Muslim world.  We’re at war; America is at war with two Muslim countries, we may be at war with a third.  Not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims.  It’s a major challenge for the U.S.  And I think what we’re seeing in this administration is an effort to deal with it, and I think part of that effort is this notion of linkage; that if only you could solve the Arab/Israel conflict, the Messiah will come in the Middle East.  And it’s that notion, that analysis that is motivating American policy.  And so, yeah, I think friends, but when I think the President went to the Middle East, Istanbul, Cairo, Riyadh, three times... he was in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, didn’t visit Jerusalem, sent the wrong message.  Sent the message that we’re reaching out to the Arab Muslim world at the expense of our friendship or relationship with Israel.  I think focusing on settlements without focusing on Palestinian incitement and stuff, was another mistake.  So I think what we’re seeing is a policy which sees itself distancing the United States from Israel in order to reach out in some manner to the Arab Muslim world.  I don’t think it’s worked, and so many in the Jewish community have been concerned that this nuanced, or non-nuanced change is I believe, as I indicated earlier, is hurting prospects of peace because 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.  And if you take a look at it during the Bush Administration, whether you like Bush or not, the first president to come out for a Palestinian state was Bush.  Why?  Because Israel trusted him, and Sharon trusted him to the point that when President Bush announced that the Americans for Palestinian state, Prime Minister Sharon left his political party because they were opposed.  Disengagement from Gaza happened under Bush.  The Annapolis talks... so when it’s closer... now we have no talks.  The Palestinians and Israelis are talking through proximity, which is they’re 15 kilometers away, nine miles away, and they’ve got to talk through the United States. 

How can we work towards making religion a force for good?

Abraham Foxman:  Well, the irony, the tragedy is, that’s what religion is supposed to be.  It’s supposed to teach us the difference between good and evil, and yet it’s been used so frequently or abused, for separation, for hate, for rationalizing so much hurt, I’m one of those that believes there needs to be a separation between religion and state.  And yet, at the same time, if the spirit of love which comes from religion doesn’t inspire our leadership, it could be very, very dangerous and counterproductive.  So it’s a very difficult balance.  Look, you have Iran, it’s a “religious” country, and look how much hate there is there.  In Israel there’s a lot of religion, it hasn’t resolved all the problems.  In our country we’re struggling with it.  Some of the most – some of the most, I’m trying to find the word, some of the most polarizing elements in our society come from religious leaders.  When – I think when the Jewish community – when we found out that Billy Graham was an anti-Semite, it sort of – you know, so what’s religion all about?  Here is the spiritual guide to so many presidents, here is the guy that presidents would go for spiritual council and advice, and here we find out he’s just a pure, simple, ugly classic anti-Semite.  So how do you deal with that?  I’ve been raised in faith, I’ve been raised in faith during the war as a Catholic, and then when I returned to Judaism I’ve been raised in faith.  I think it has a role, but frequently it’s abused.  It’s abused by temporal powers, by political institutions for its benefit.  And sometimes it is seduced by the political, by the secular.  I think – I think 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.  I think the most important element for faith and religion, to be positive instrument and love, is the difference between A and the.  As long as we teach that we have the truth, the only truth, it will only under mind understanding, and respect, and love.  If we can teach that all we do is have a truth; I have a truth, you have a truth, Catholics have a truth, Muslims have a truth, it’s their way to salvation, it’s their way for their people to achieve tranquility, love, future, whatever.

Recorded on June 11, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman