Q&A with Abraham Foxman

abraham foxman 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
abraham foxman 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Mohammad cartoons

Erica Sherman, Brooklyn, NY: Dimona Comix, a Jewish publishing company in Israel, announced their own anti-Semitic cartoon contest, in response to Iran's contest of a more insidious nature. Amitai Sandy, the artist & publisher, announced that "We'll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!" Do you think levity is the right approach to take, or should Jews have undertaken a more serious response, given the extreme backlash that resulted from the Mohammed cartoons? Abe Foxman: Humor definitely can play a useful role in exposing hypocrisy in controversial issues, particularly in getting young people to pay attention. The question is where to draw the line. Holocaust cartoons or a contest of such cartoons, in my view, clearly cross the line. Humor does not negate the need for sensitivity, particularly when volatile issues are the subjects. I recognize there's an inherent contradiction here, which cartoonists point out. They say that it is exactly the sharp-edge of the cartoonist that hones the thinking and makes a cartoon an effective vehicle. Ultimately, it still comes down to responsibility and the Holocaust is not a subject for humor. Even the movie "Life is Beautiful" which used humor, did it as a vehicle to protect the child from the reality around him rather than about the Holocaust itself. Dayna Miller-Annis, Montreal, Canada: What sort of actions can the Jewish community take against vehemently anti-Semitic cartoons printed regularly in the Arab world? Obviously violent protests are out of the question, but I refuse to just sit back and allow the Muslim press to print whatever they want without any repercussions. Abe Foxman: ADL sees exposing this reality as a priority. We have been doing regular reports on the subject, which we share with the media, congress and world leaders (see our web site ADL.org). We recently took out an ad in the International Herald tribune focusing on the hypocrisy of the Arab world because of the widespread anti-Semitism in the Arab media. Alex Stotland, Detroit, Michigan: Do you expect to see any political or social development anytime soon resulting from the apparent gap between European public opinion, on the one hand, and the apologist posture taken by most European politicians, on the other hand, relating to the Mohammed cartoons? Abe Foxman: Less short-term, more medium or long-term. If the gap grows between leaders and the public on issues of national identity, particularly the role of Islam, there will exist opportunities for far-right political parties to exploit it. Of course, government officials are in a bind, much of their own making; bringing in large numbers of foreign workers, unwilling to truly integrate them into European society, and now worrying about the future identity of the continent--great challenges without obvious answers. Laurence Morrell, Maitland, Australia: Since the West is dealing with a totally different mind set, how do you suggest we reconcile differences so that Muslims and non-Muslims can co-exist peacefully? Abe Foxman: One should make a distinction between what takes place in the Western world and Arab and Muslim world. In The West, the cartoon controversy points to the need for continuing discussion and consideration as to how to maintain freedom of the press while being sensitive to ethnic and religious minorities in increasingly multi-cultural and multi-religious societies. Discussions can help Muslims living in the west come to appreciate that a free and responsible press serves everyone's interest, including theirs. In America we seem to do a better job at this than Europe because our mindset is based on integrating minorities into society as equal partners. On the other hand, in much of the Muslim world there is no such conversation taking place. In general, there is neither a free press nor a responsible press. In so many Arab countries we see the worst of both, a state-sponsored press that disseminates anti-Semitic and other hateful material. Hypocrisy is the only word to describe the outrage in the Arab world toward the West. At least in the West there is serious conversation about what to do, whereas in the Muslim world little of that exists. So, my bottom line is that in the west we need to continue to struggle in a serious way with these issues. In our approach to the Muslim world however, we need to be firm and not defensive - articulating the values we believe in, including respect for Islam, but demanding that Muslim countries start taking responsibility for their own actions. Respect, freedom, sensitivity must be two-way streets if there is to be reconciliation.

Jewish-Christian relations

Shepard, Fargotstein, Memphis, USA: As a staunchly pro-Israel American Jew born and raised in the South, I feel the ADL has taken a position regarding the Christian right that puts us on opposite sides of a few domestic issues - the end result being that the ADL alienates them - rather than cultivating them. The lunatic fringe Christian Right is just that...a fringe, and no more represents the CR than the Jewish Kahane followers represent the Jews. Your comments would be appreciated. Abe Foxman: The ADL has long encouraged evangelical support for Israel. We have also said, however, that we would continue to speak out on issues of church-state separation and against efforts to Christianize America because these matters are critical to the unique quality of life that American Jews experience. In recent years, we believe that the challenges from some on the religious right to the kind of society we have known have become more aggressive and if allowed to grow will become a threat to American Jews and indeed to American society. That is why I recently spoke to this issue. Let me be clear. I still welcome evangelical support for Israel. They say they support Israel both for theological reasons and because America and Israel are on the front lines together for the survival of Western civilization. Both factors still are relevant. On the other hand, American Jewish support for Israel has been so effective especially because American Jews are so comfortable, feel completely equal in American society. If this would change, if the Christianizers would have their way, then not only would American Jews find themselves in more difficult circumstances, but it would have an impact on our ability to support Israel. Lee Goffin, Auckland, New Zealand: What positive action can non-Jewish, non-church-going Zionists take to protest the stand being taken by the Church of England? Abe Foxman: It is particularly effective when non-Jews who believe in and support Zionism explain to Christians what Israel is about and the legitimacy of the Zionist idea. The historic connection of the Jewish people to Israel and the righteousness of Israel's cause since its creation, including its desire for peace with its neighbors, should stand on their own in making Israel's case to the non-Jewish world. However, sometimes who is making the case is as important as what the case is. Therefore, I strongly urge non-Jewish Zionists to speak up, whether it is to the Church of England or to any other institution or individual who denies Israel the right to exist, to defend itself, to be accepted as an equal among nations.


Norman Heifetz, Mashpee, MA, USA: Why is it that after the ADL has spent so many years and vast amounts of money, that anti-Semitism is worse than ever? Does the ADL have any plans for new ways to fight this plague. Abe Foxman: There is no doubt that we are living through a difficult period where anti-Semitic threats are significant. In my view, that should not discourage those of us that have spent our lives combating this disease but reinforce our commitment. I say this not to be a cheerleader but because there are two aspects of the problem that are relevant and about which I have been talking for some time. First, anti-Semitism has a life of its own and will be with us because it serves a variety of interests that are unlikely to disappear for the foreseeable future. The scapegoating of Jews enables political leaders and groups in society to divert attention from real problems and provide an easy though false, solution. We see that today manifesting itself in significant parts of the Muslim world whether through holocaust denial or citing the Protocols or blaming Jews for the tragedy of 9/11. In sum, anti-Semitism is not going to go away. Secondly, Jews today, despite the severity of the problems, are not helpless and alone the way we were in the 30s and 40s. Many factors are different which enable us to act. The existence of Israel, the self-confidence of American Jews, the important leadership role of America in the world, the very different posture of the Vatican toward Jews, the spread of Holocaust education are among the reasons that enable organizations such as ADL to believe that progress has been made and that there are powerful vehicles to combat this evil. And so we all have a responsibility to work at it, to educate the public, to pressure government officials, to persuade the media to do the right thing. It's a tough time, but not a hopeless time. Ignacio Russell Cano, Zaragoza, Spain: There is an issue I never got to understand: why is that the ADL criticizes so very little a country nastily anti-Semitic as Spain is? I have been following ADL activities for more than 2 years now, and it seems somebody is deleting the country from any radar, which is strange considering, for instance, the badly solved Solana-Hamas-Leibler affair or the link Moratinos-Hamas. Abe Foxman: In fact, ADL had a mission to Spain several years ago in order to meet with Spanish officials to raise concerns regarding anti-Semitism and Israel. In two ADL polls of European attitudes toward Jews, we found a higher degree of anti-Semitism in Spain than other West European countries. Since then, Spain hosted the Cordoba conference and has exhibited warmer relations toward Israel. Still, these issues continue to be on our agenda.


Ahmad Sadeghi, San Diego, CA: What do you think about Ahmadinejad's recent statement about the Holocaust and threat to eliminate Israel off the map? Abe Foxman: We can't afford not to take him seriously. The combination of words and capability make Iran the greatest threat to the Jewish people since Hitler. Fortunately, his bluntness helped awaken some in the West to the danger of Iran developing nuclear weapons. Now we must all work to see to it that it is not viewed as Israel's problem but that of the west and entire civilized world. So far we're making progress in that regard, helped by Ahmadinejad's words, but the forces of appeasement will surely resurface. The challenge is great.


D. landau, New York, NY: The Bush administration is clearly very pro Israel. Why does is appear that the Justice Department is not as pro Israel, after the AIPAC affair? Abe Foxman: At this moment in time there are more questions than answers and it would be irresponsible to jump to any conclusions. But that said, it does not impact or diminish the US administration's or American support for a strong Israel. Only time will reveal what we are not aware of. Joshua Hecht, Westport, CT, USA: Why is it that constantly the ADL brings forth issues that are heavily weighted towards some sectors of Jews (liberal progressive) and is lax or ignores other sectors of Jews in America - the most egregious the slow response to the Crown Heights riots? Abe Foxman: I feel comfortable in saying that we stand up for Jews on a non-partisan basis. People on the left and right each suggest that we favor one or the other, but the truth is this is not a factor in what we do. Remember, for example, that we have taken the lead against progressive churches in the US who have supported divestment. We expose the anti-Semitism of the extreme left as well as the right. We condemn anti-Semitic stereotypes whether they come from conservative or liberal public figures. There are always decisions to be made as to the best way to respond to any incident. Differences of perspective may emerge. But ideology is not a factor in that decision-making. David Jacobowitz, Teaneck, NJ: I am curious as to the reason you feel "Munich" is "just a movie", yet felt so strongly about Gibson's film. Abe Foxman: We did not see it as anti-Israel. It did not create a moral equivalency between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli counter-terrorists. It did not deny the right of Israel to go after terrorists. Rather, it raised questions as to how to go about it, what is the impact on Israel, and where does it lead. Legitimate questions that Israelis ask. I might have done it differently, but I don't believe that people seeing it will question the right of Israel to defend itself in the face of vicious Palestinian terrorism. On the other hand, Mel Gibson's film carried an anti-Jewish message, not only Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, but stereotypes of Jewish power and evil. A far different film.