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He is one of the strongest personalities in an American Jewish world that has no shortage of outsized egos. To know him is not always to admire, let alone love him.
But there is no denying that Abe Foxman, the longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, has a unique place in the political culture of the United States. Whether it is because of the power of the ADL name or his tremendous skill at fund-raising and networking among the rich and powerful - or just the passion that this child survivor of the Holocaust brings to his job - when Foxman speaks, the mainstream media and government figures generally listen.
And that is why, despite the criticisms that can be leveled at him, the recent effort by some leading intellectuals and media types to target Foxman as the man leading an effort to "silence" critics of Israel is something that even those who aren't his biggest fans should be worried about.
If The New York Times can pigeon-hole a mainstream centrist like Foxman - a man who has schmoozed with Denise Rich and the Clintons on Air Force One, and who provided Steven Spielberg with a kashrut certificate after the filmmaker's despicable film Munich - as a mere shreier of gevalt out to squelch "innocent" leftists who dissent from the party line on Israel, then heaven help the rest of us.
The image of the ADL leader that comes across in the profile devoted to him in The New York Times Magazine on January 14 is that of a huckster of the fears of the past. Author James Traub portrays a man whose fervor may be genuine, but whose dictatorial control of the prestigious group puts him in a position to be a "one-man sanhedrin doling out opprobrium or absolution for those who speak ill of Israel or the Jews." Foxman's sincerity about anti-Semitism gives Traub a degree of sympathy for him, or at least enough to deter him from seeing him as a Jewish version of Al Sharpton ("another portly, bellicose, melodramatizing defender of ethnic ramparts," according to the writer).
But what makes Foxman interesting to Traub appears to be his role as enforcer of what John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have called the "Israel Lobby's" hard-line policy of silencing any and all critics of what they see as the Jewish state's stranglehold on American foreign policy.
It is a theme echoed by former president Jimmy Carter in his scurrilous book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, who has found his own "amen corner" (to steal a phrase from Israel-hater Pat Buchanan) among left-wing Jews such as the Israel Policy Forum's M.J. Rosenberg and New York University professor Tony Judt.
Walt and Mearsheimer write that "anyone who criticizes Israel's actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle Eastern policy ... stands a good chance of being labeled an anti-Semite." According to Traub, "That would be where Abe Foxman comes in." Judt is the poster-boy victim for those who claim "the lobby" is busy shutting up Israel-bashers. Judt, the author of viciously anti-Zionist screeds in The New York Review of Books, was supposed to give a talk at the Polish Consulate in New York about Israel's nefarious influence over America last October. But before the event was held, the Poles, who have reason to worry about being associated with conspiracy theories about the Jews, told Judt to take his act somewhere else.
Judt publicized the affair and managed to get many of the leading lights of New York intellectual life to sign a letter published in the Review of Books, accusing Foxman and the ADL of creating "an atmosphere of intimidation" toward poor, downtrodden Israel-haters like him.
FOR TRAUB, this was proof that Foxman was caught red-handed, even though he concedes the ADL director probably played no role in the cancellation (that honor may properly belong to David Harris of the American Jewish Committee). Though Traub rightly dismisses Judt's rhetoric as more "Leninist" than democratic, he still considers Foxman "the hanging judge." Foxman is an easy target for caricature. His political compass seems to point neither to the right nor the left, but always in the direction of the big money he raises with a skill that is matched by few of his contemporaries. He does appear to run the ADL like a one-man show and his ability to survive scandals, such as his key role in Bill Clinton's pardon of financier Marc Rich, is uncanny.
But for all of the barbs that he has earned in his long tenure at the ADL, he is dead right about the main threat facing the Jewish people today: a frightening rise in international anti-Semitism.
Many, including this writer, were quick to dismiss the ADL's continued focus on anti-Semitism in the early 1990s. But given the way the virus of Jew-hatred has spread from the Arab and Muslim world to Europe, and the threat that a fanatical regime in Iran might acquire nuclear weapons to make good on its threat of genocide against Israel, there's no escaping the fact that Foxman was right and those who wanted to change the subject were wrong.
Traub seems to dismiss the intellectual seriousness of Foxman when he says he is "an anachronism" who "dwells imaginatively in the Holocaust." The description of Foxman describing his vision of Iranian nukes falling on Israel makes him seem over-baked at best.
But the nature of the global threat to Jewish survival has never been greater. And the biased delegitimization of Israel and Zionism that masquerades under the veneer of intellectual debate on college campuses and in left-wing publications like The Nation and The New York Review of Books is no passing fad. The fact that Jews like Judt can be found to attack Foxman and others for defending Israel does not mean prejudice is not at work. Accusations (repeated by Traub) that Foxman indiscriminately labels foes as anti-Semites are simply untrue.
Far from being able to silence attacks on Israel and the ability of its many friends - both Jewish and non-Jewish - to stand up for its right to self-defense, the so-called "lobby" is itself the focus of an unfair and dishonest campaign. The intent of Walt, Mearsheimer and Carter is to make sure uppity Jews like Foxman pipe down when Israel's life is at stake.
Foxman, who was a supporter of the failed Oslo peace accords when wiser heads were more skeptical, is no right-winger. But his ability to swing away at those who dismiss the real peril that still faces the Jewish people and be heard in the corridors of power has made him a target. That means attacks on him in this context are actually a thinly veiled assault on the Jewish community's last line of defense.
Flawed Foxman may be, but if his work has placed him in the crosshairs of the Israel-bashers, then it is incumbent on fair-minded observers to answer attempts to shut him up with a long, loud Foxman-like roar of anger.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. firstname.lastname@example.org.