It will be hard to imagine the Jewish landscape without Abraham Foxman as its most visible and most vocal spokesman, goad, and referee. In his almost 50 years of service at the Anti-Defamation League, and 27 years as its head, he is the closest thing our fractious, diverse community has to a “rosh kahal” — a leader whose authority is respected among the Jewish hoi polloi and by non-Jewish power brokers alike.
So dominant has Foxman been as a public personality that it is sometimes easy to overlook the vast infrastructure he built to promote tolerance, combat bigotry, defend Israel, remember the Shoa, and champion human rights. And so closely is he identified with fighting anti-Semitism that we sometimes forget his statements of solidarity with Christians, Muslims, gays, and victims of oppression around the world. Foxman has also been misunderstood in other ways: The Left objects that he is too quick to equate criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism; the Right has complained when he condemned Jewish extremists or defended liberals.
In fact, second-guessing Foxman — and even satirizing his ability to bestow or withhold the anti-Semite label — is a parlor game among Jews and non-Jews. Some object that no single figure should have such authority. But it is important to remember the social revolution of the past half-century, in which Foxman played a central role: Anti-Semitism, once tolerated among intellectuals, politicians, and everyday people in this country, has been thoroughly discredited as an acceptable point of view and social force. Only in Muslim lands can a mainstream politician embrace anti-Semitism with impunity. Even in Europe, where a resurgent nativist Right is gaining traction, anti-Semitism is still a scarlet letter. That will be seen in part as Abe Foxman’s legacy.
With the announcement of Foxman’s retirement, in July 2015, there will be much speculation of who will — even can — replace him. And perhaps the Jewish community is ready for new kinds of spokespeople, less rooted in the trauma of the Holocaust era and more attuned to a Jewish community wrestling with questions of identity, their relationship with Israel, and an increasingly diverse America. When those leaders emerge, however, they will be standing on the shoulders of giants — like Abe Foxman.