Former ADL director says he won't support non-democratic Israel - exclusive

Abe Foxman is considered one of the foremost Jewish leaders and formerly served as the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Abraham Foxman at an Anti-Defamation League event at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., May 8, 2014.  (photo credit: MICHAEL KOVAC / AFP / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA)
Abraham Foxman at an Anti-Defamation League event at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., May 8, 2014.
(photo credit: MICHAEL KOVAC / AFP / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA)

“If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it,” American Jewish leader Abe Foxman told The Jerusalem Post.

Referencing the reports of the incoming government’s plans to implement significant changes to the judiciary and issues regarding religion and state, Foxman said he is going to have a difficult time trying to get American Jews to support Israel.

“If they change the Law of Return and Israel’s world-class judiciary system, all these things will impact [the relationship with American Jews] dramatically,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “If Israel becomes a fundamentalist religious state, a theocratic nationalism state, it will cut Israel off from 70% of world Jewry, who won’t qualify into their definition of ‘who is a Jew.’ According to [Religious Zionist Party chairman Bezalel] Smotrich and [Noam chairman Avi] Maoz, I won’t qualify as being a Jew.”

Foxman shared that it would be difficult for him and for most Diaspora Jews, “to support Israel” if these demands by the religious parties, including Otzma Yehudit, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, are implemented.

“I never thought that I would reach that point where I would say that my support of Israel is conditional. I’ve always said that [my support of Israel] is unconditional, but it’s conditional. I don’t think that it’s a horrific condition to say: ‘I love Israel and I want to love Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that respects pluralism.’” He concluded this point, saying that “I want Israel to be Jewish, absolutely. But I want it to be a democracy.”

Abraham Foxman (credit: JUSTIN HOCH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)Abraham Foxman (credit: JUSTIN HOCH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Foxman's career as a Jewish leader

Foxman, 82, was and still is considered one of the foremost Jewish leaders in the US. He served as the national director of the Anti-Defamation League for almost three decades and is currently the ADL’s director emeritus.

He then served as vice-chair of the board of trustees at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, until 2021. Foxman is a Holocaust survivor, born in what is today Belarus. He was left by his parents with his Polish Catholic nanny for three years while his parents were sent to a ghetto.

He was raised as a Catholic in Vilnius, Lithuania, and was later returned to his parents. He immigrated to the US in 1950 with his parents and studied at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn.

He has always been a staunch supporter of Israel and close to Israeli leaders. Foxman said this isn’t the first time American Jews were anxious about Israel’s government, referring to the election of Menachem Begin in 1977.

“It was a  shock to the American Jewish system because they didn’t know him. It was a very scary time,” he recalled. “I personally knew Begin and I knew what he believed in. It wasn’t a shock to me, but to the American Jewish community it was horrifying.”

Foxman said that American Jewry was “blessed at that time with [Reform] Rabbi Alexander (Alex) Schindler,” who then headed the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella body for Jewish organizations in the US.

“Schindler wasn’t a supporter of the history or the philosophy of Begin and of Revisionist Zionism,” Foxman said, adding that in just two weeks, Schindler “turned the American Jewish community around, basically saying that, as long as Israel is a democracy and as long as Begin was elected by the Israeli public, we will find a way to work with them.”

According to Encyclopedia Judaica, Schindler “publicly embraced Begin, a man with whose views he disagreed as the elected prime minister of Israel’s democracy, and demanded that the Jewish establishment give Begin a fair chance and not delegitimize him at the outset.”

This led to a deep personal friendship, in which Begin consulted with Schindler at many pivotal moments, including on the eve of Camp David and peace with Egypt, honored Schindler in Jerusalem, and brought him along as his guest on official state visits.

Even though there are similarities to 1977, Foxman said 2022 isn’t the same situation.

“There’s a lot more anxiety today than there was then,” he said.

Will Netanyahu change the nature of Israeli democracy?

“If [Benjamin] Bibi [Netanyahu] changes the nature of democracy in Israel, he will change the nature of Israel’s support in the US, certainly the American Jewish community, probably the general community and the US government if it continues to be Center-Left,” Foxman said. “Israel has two important allies in the world,” he continued, specifying that they are “America and Diaspora Jewry, which, in effect, is the American Jewish community.

“I don’t need to tell you how politically and strategically American Jewry is critical as a cement to the relationship between the two countries, and therefore it is critical that this new government not do damage to relationships."

Abe Foxman

“I don’t need to tell you how politically and strategically American Jewry is critical as a cement to the relationship between the two countries, and therefore it is critical that this new government not do damage to relationships; not tamper with Israel’s democracy, its institutions, its legal systems, its civil rights of Arab minorities; not tamper with the Law of Return and the status of Christians and Muslims,” he stressed.

Foxman emphasized that he is especially worried about the rights of non-Orthodox Jews and the pluralism of the Jewish state.

“I will unconditionally support Israel’s decisions on security and defense – as long as it is a democratic and Jewish state,” he said, but “If democracy is tampered with, if pluralism is destroyed, then it will become difficult to stand up to defend Israel. I would say Israel needs a Diaspora and the Diaspora needs Israel.”

Foxman added that this will be especially dramatic for Jews who “don’t support Israel unconditionally, but supported it because it is a liberal Jewish and democratic state.”

Based on his experience of more than half a century working for American Jewish organizations, he said, “there have always been issues of pluralism [between US Jews and Israel], but they’ve been dealt with in a reasonably rational way; compromises have been made.”

That is not the case today, he said. “Some of the people who will have serious positions in government are not a Begin type, but rather a [Meir] Kahane type – fundamentalists.

“The anxiety is much greater, because we know a lot more about the Ben-Gvirs and Smotriches,” he said.

“These unknown figures come with a history and a background of violence; with a record of extremism. In their campaigns, they went all the way out with extremism. I’ve been around in organized Jewish life for over 50 years. Most people were ignorant regarding Begin and what they knew was propaganda coming from the Labor Left. It turned out there was a guy who made peace with Egypt,” he said.

Foxman observed that he has been telling critics in the US Jewish community to “relax. Bibi is smart. Bibi knows us. I am an optimist. And I think that Netanyahu, even though he has all kinds of personal needs, also has historical needs. He wants to leave a legacy. And I don’t think he can afford to put into his government people who will blackmail him every day.”

Foxman said that in the prime minister-designate’s interview with Bari Weiss on Wednesday, Netanyahu “said all the right things.” He added that at the first opportunity Netanyahu said that “he won’t change the status quo of being LGBT in Israel. So he’s a pragmatist.”

“I think he understands America more than most Israelis.... He understands the nuances of the relationship. There’s no guarantee that the next government in the US is going to be to his liking. But I’m an optimist. I think he’s sensitive and smart enough to listen, to see the very serious concerns that we have.”

Asked if the American Jewish leadership should be creating dialogue with heads of the right-wing Israeli parties, Foxman said, “I don’t think they care about us. I don’t think they really care what I think, or American Jewry thinks. I think it’s a different mentality. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

“I don’t think they appreciate [us], so I don’t think this is a time for dialogue. I think this is the time for the prime minister to understand what’s out there and what’s at stake. If he changes the nature of Israel’s democracy, he will change the nature of the relationship with the Jewish community, with the general community and with the United States and that’s very serious.”

Foxman concluded by saying that if Israel becomes a “fundamentalist theocratic state,” they’re not going to have relationships with my grandchildren, and that is very, very sad.”