Nine months after stepping down as national director of the Anti-Defamation League — a post he held for 28 years — Abraham Foxman is by no means retired. At the age of 75 he remains active as director of the new Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York.
Foxman was born in the town of Baranovichi — now in Belarus, then in the part of Poland taken over by the Soviet Union. He survived the Holocaust in the care of his nanny, who raised him as Catholic the first few years of his life. At the age of 10 he and his parents moved to New York, where he attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush, City College, New York University School of Law, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the New School.
On Wednesday evening, May 4, he will talk about “Justice After the Holocaust” at the annual Yom Hashoah Holocaust Commemoration at Kean University in Union.
The event is cosponsored by the Kean University Holocaust Resource Center and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Rather than discuss the contents of his talk, Foxman opted to review his career as head of the ADL in an April 15 interview with NJ Jewish News.
NJJN: What would you say were your biggest accomplishments and disappointments during your tenure at ADL?
Foxman: The greatest disappointment is that there is still anti-Semitism and bigotry, and there continues to be a need for an ADL. Many Holocaust surviviors thought that after the handiworks of prejudice and anti-Semitism were laid bare to the world and after Auschwitz, everybody would come together. We’ve conquered the moon, but we have not addressed ourselves to the disease of hatred, which has killed millions.
At the same time, we’ve made progress. The good old days were not good old days when it came to human relations. We’ve got a long way to go.
NJJN: In what ways have things changed for the better?
Foxman: The Catholic Church was for hundreds of years the greatest enemy of the Jewish people, from conversion to expulsion to Inquisition. Today the Catholic Church has done the greatest turnaround in terms of respect, reconciliation, and forgiveness that one could have ever imagined. It means that people can change their attitudes and can change their beliefs. I have been fortunate to be part of the struggle to help change those attitudes, and we have succeeded.
NJJN: The Vatican is a very powerful and difficult institution to pressure. How was the ADL able to persuade several popes to change centuries of anti-Semitism?
Foxman: There was a coordination of Jewish organizations and Jewish scholars who spent time at the Vatican. Part of our professional staff was dedicated to the notion of getting the Church to change its attitude. If there had not been Pope John XXIII and John Paul II it would not have happened. But our pressures did work, absolutely.
NJJN: The words “Never Again” are recited at every Holocaust memorial, and yet, even if the victims change, the genocides continue.
Foxman: No Holocaust survivor believes it cannot happen again. “Never Again” is not so much a pledge as it is a fear. For Jews, “Never Again” is an 11th commandment that was etched in pain. It means never again for us to be silent, not only about anti-Semitism but any prejudice directed at anybody because of their faith, their race, their ethnicity, their gender.
NJJN: Is there a definitive line about when it is anti-Semitic to criticize Israel and when it is not?
Foxman: You can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic when you set a standard not only applicable to Israel. Pope Francis said in a letter recently that to question the legitimacy of Israel is anti-Semitism…. If you set standards of moral behavior or justice which you apply only to Israel but not to China or Saudi Arabia, that is anti-Semitism.
NJJN: Are you troubled by what some consider rhetoric of hate in the current presidential campaign?
Foxman: I am very worried because there is such anger and frustration in our society. Taboos are being broken. We live by a very interesting legal precept. Our Constitution guarantees the right to be a bigot…. When you have an election campaign where you break these taboos, I start worrying. What is going to hold our country together if it is now OK to ban Muslims and call Mexicans rapists and murderers and criticize a woman’s looks? As we break these taboos it will undermine the civility in our society. We cannot afford to ignore it.
NJJN: Can you describe the new project you are involved with, the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism?
Foxman: The Holocaust museums in the United States tell you what happened to the Jews, but they don’t explain why it happened. Most people believe that the Holocaust was an issue between Germans and Jews that ended in 1945. That not only distorts history but limits it…. But to me, it has a universal message that hatred unchecked is rampant and can engulf everybody. So I convinced the Museum of Jewish Heritage to have a museum on anti-Semitism. It starts even before Christianity and unfortunately exists to this day.