WHEN ABE Foxman joined the Anti-Defamation League exactly 50 years ago this summer, there were three predictions he recalls that were prevalent among sociologists regarding the future of American and world Jewry: One was that there would be no American Jewish life 25-50 years hence; the second was that Israel would be accepted as a normal member of the community of nations and the third that anti-Semitism would disappear and become a historical fact.
Almost 50 years on, and after having been director of the ADL for the past 28 years, Foxman, who steps down from his position this summer, can look back and say that they got it all wrong.
“American Jewish life is vibrant 50 years later, it’s got its problems and issues but it’s creative,” says Foxman, speaking in New Jersey in late March at a gathering of Limmud FSU, an organization that brings together Jewish youth of Russian speaking origin for a weekend of study.
On acceptance of Israel, notes Foxman, “after 70 years, one country cannot determine its own capital, one country is defending its legitimacy and one country still has to defend its right to defend itself.”
But where they really got it wrong, he says, is on the issue of anti-Semitism. “I don’t think any of us 50 years ago, certainly those of us who survived the Shoah, which I did as a child, could have imagined, that in our lifetime, anti- Semitism could be a clear and present danger to Jews around the world.”
Foxman adds that the surge in global anti- Semitism – in Europe, in the Middle East, in South America, in Africa – “is a reminder that the lessons of Auschwitz are still as pertinent today as they were 50 years ago. “ In what could perhaps be seen as a stark warning, he says: “We know that the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other concentration camps across Europe did not start with bricks and mortar; they began with words – ugly words, hateful words. And they grew out of an anti-Semitism that had thrived in Europe for centuries and found the peak of its expression in the rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism.”
Most Jews, says Foxman, believed that anti- Semitism was a part of history – although he exempts from that analysis the Jews of the former Soviet Union who lived with anti-Semitism, understood it, and for whom that optimistic prognosis never made sense – but then in the early 2000s came an explosion of that oldest hate, primarily in Western Europe. Since, then, it has continued to spread. “When we come to the present time,” he says, “anti -Semitism is not like it was in World War II, but it’s the worst that it has been since World War II, and it is global.”
Foxman points to a 2014 ADL poll taken in 102 countries that found that 26 percent, or one out of every four adults in the world, are seriously infected with anti- Semitism. Those figures vary from 10 percent in the United States – where Jews are still the number one religious target of prejudice – to around 90 percent in North Africa and Arab countries.
That high figure in the MENA countries has been a factor in the spread of anti-Semitism, posits Foxman. “What happens there is when the Middle Easterners or the North Africans migrate to Europe they bring it in their baggage, it becomes a human conveyor belt of anti- Semitism that travels from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe.
When it comes to Europe, says Foxman, the role of Jewish organizations should be to do everything in their power to provide a safe as environment as possible for Jews to be able to practice their religion freely and in safety if that’s where they want to be, but if that fails, sure, there are rescue plans in place, be it to Israel or beyond.
While he says that anti-Semitism is the worst since World War II, Foxman says the big difference between then and now is that today governments are speaking out. Perhaps though, he adds, they are not speaking out as loudly or as clearly as they could be. “When Angela Merkel called her rally she should have made sure there were 500,000 people, not 5,000,” he said, referring to a September 2014 public speech by the German chancellor following a surge of anti-Jewish incidents in the wake of the latest round of conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza earlier in the summer. “Maybe that’s part of their responsibility too because part of the picture is that after Charlie Hebdo there were four million Frenchmen marching in the streets and we need to remember that in Toulouse, when four Jews were murdered basically in the same context, there weren’t 4,000 Frenchmen marching in the streets.”
As for the situation in the countries of the former Soviet Union, Foxman says it all depends on whether it is utilitarian for the government in control to keep a lid on anti-Semitism. “In Russia today, it is utilitarian for [Vladimir] Putin to protect the Jews and so long as it is utilitarian for him, quote unquote, the Jews are more secure, but is anyone doing anything to educate, to remove the venom? No. So it’s there, but people know you don’t cross Putin on this. In Ukraine, it isn’t as safe because there isnt control. So the answer is that [Jews are safe] as long as its utilitarian to the government that is in control, but. how long will that last.”
Foxman was born in 1940 in Barnovichi, once part of Poland and now in modern day Belarus. Of its pre-war population of some 9,000 Jews only around 250 survived. Foxman himself was saved by his Polish Catholic nursemaid who baptized and raised him as a Catholic during the war years. His parents survived the war and after a custody battle with the nursemaid in 1950 they emigrated to the US.
He has been a regular participant in the March of the Living, which he says “brings home very, very graphically the price of anti- Semitism and hatred – that ugly anti-Semitic words can in fact lead to violence and even genocide.”
At a time of rising global anti-Semitism, he adds, the March of the Living is a poignant, significant reminder and witness to the evil of hate and the power of redemption.
“When I think of the March of the Living,” says Foxman, “how we walked those miles from the towns where Jewish life once thrived to the railroad tracks that had their one-way terminus inside of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I know that we cannot afford to let down our guard, to be less than eternally vigilant. We must use every weapon at our disposal and every ally at our side to stand up and fight every manifestation, every new permutation of the world’s oldest hatred.
“The challenge of the six million voices that were silenced is to make sure that our voices are never, ever silenced.”