Q&A with ADL head Abe Foxman: The 'perfect storm' of anti-Semitism

With just under a year left in his post, one of the world's leaders in the battle against anti-Semitism, warns that the age-old hatred of Jews is still alive.

Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, shows the book "The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus"  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, shows the book "The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus"
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the most well-known figures in the fight against anti-Semitism, head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Abraham Foxman has dedicated almost five decades to preventing a repeat of the events of World War II. Himself a Holocaust survivor who was hidden as a child during the war, Foxman tells The Jerusalem Post that while the world has changed a great deal, anti-Jewish attitudes linger and "a vaccine has yet to be found for the more than 2,000-year-old virus of anti-Semitism." With just under a year left until he steps down from his post at the ADL, Foxman discusses the challenges facing world Jewry and how he intends to tackle them
The ADL recently released a statement condemning the UNHRC decision to investigate Israel for alleged war crimes in Gaza. Why are you so against such a probe?
The entire process is a sham and a disgrace. The UN Human Rights Council brings so much heavy baggage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that their credibility is permanently and irreparably tarnished. And those individuals appointed to this so-called “independent” panel to investigate Israel’s conduct in the most recent conflict in Gaza are transparently biased against Israel.
Anyone familiar with the history here will recall the UNHRC’s unremitting pattern of bias against Israel.  The council’s investigation into Israel’s alleged crimes during the 2008 to 2009 Gaza operation produced the biased and deeply flawed Goldstone Report, whose central recommendations embraced an outrageous and overreaching panoply of punitive actions against Israel while essentially giving Hamas a free pass. The central findings of the report were later repudiated by Richard Goldstone himself.
Given this history, how can we possibly trust this body to now produce an unbiased report?
The new investigation is being chaired by the Canadian international law professor William Schabas, whose opinions against Israel are well known. The Canadian Foreign Ministry, for one, has declared that the appointment “prove(s) without a doubt that Israel cannot expect justice from this body.”  The Israeli government is under no illusions either, which is why they are refusing to cooperate with the investigation. The cards are stacked. The report has already been written. The only question that remains is which world leaders will endorse it, and who will have the courage to stand up and denounce it as a flawed exercise.
Do you believe that the latest fiasco with a Zara clothing item that resembles Holocaust uniforms was a mistake? If so, do you think mistakes of this kind should be penalized? Do you think we should be concerned by such incidents?
We should always be concerned about incidents of Holocaust trivialization, particularly when it happens in pop culture. We live in a world where memory is short, where Shoah (Holocaust) remembrance is fading, and where Holocaust denial is on the rise. Our recent ADL Global 100 Survey, which polled anti-Semitic attitudes in 100 countries, found that 35 percent of those polled around the world had never heard of the Holocaust.  Of those who had heard of the Holocaust, 28 percent believe that the number of Jews who died at the hands of Hitler “has been greatly exaggerated by history.” So the need for education about history and memory has never been greater.
Two years ago, a gym in Dubai ran an advertising campaign promoting weight loss featuring pictures of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. That was horrific, and also an example of how Holocaust imagery is routinely abused or taken out of context.  It has become commonplace for anyone wanting to attack a political opponent to accuse them of using “Nazi” tactics or of being like a modern-day Hitler. This is a disturbing trend because it undermines the power and meaning of the lessons of the Shoah, and we must continue to speak out against the abuse of the Holocaust at the expense of the memory of the six million Jews and millions of others who perished during World War II.
In the case of Zara, I found the t-shirt’s imagery shocking. The shirt with the yellow star was clearly insensitive and offensive, given the imagery and the history.  Either it was a matter of total ignorance on the part of the designer, or of insensitivity. These are people who are supposed to know style and understand what’s out there.  How many people were involved in the design and production and nobody said anything?
The good news is Zara, after realizing its mistake, immediately pulled the shirt from its catalog. The most important thing is that it is no longer on the market.
I don’t believe the company should be penalized.  They’ve already paid a price in terms of the criticism and backlash on social media.  But this incident was another reminder of the need for more education to sensitize people about the history of the Shoah, particularly as time passes and we move further away from the events of that period.
Anti-Semitism spiked significantly around the world during Operation Protective Edge, particularly in Europe. Why do you think Europe is generally more affected by anti-Semitism than other parts of the world? 
Actually, the anti-Semitism we witnessed during Operation Protective Edge was hardly limited to Europe. During the recent conflict we witnessed a dramatic surge in anti-Semitism around the world. Serious incidents of violence and vitriol –- all directly linked to anti-Israel protests -- were reported against Jews and Jewish institutions in Western Europe, South America, Canada, Australia and North and South Africa.
The anti-Semitism was given voice during street demonstrations and at anti-Israel rallies, where Israeli leaders were compared to Hitler and the Nazi swastika was repeatedly displayed, often next to the Star of David. It also was manifested in the mainstream media and in the form of conspiracy theories that spread through society.
The good news about Europe is that many European governments are taking the problem seriously, particularly in countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Great Britain. Those governments have clearly and unequivocally denounced the incidents and have demonstrated a zero-tolerance policy for anti-Jewish hatred. That sends a powerful message in itself. 
But there is much work to be done, particularly in Eastern Europe, where there were much fewer anti-Israel demonstrations and anti-Semitic attitudes among the general population are generally higher and more deeply entrenched. 
We are looking forward to the upcoming meetings in Germany this fall of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which will look back at the commitments made by the OSCE member countries ten years ago in the historic 2004 OSCE Berlin Declaration against Anti-Semitism and we will reassess what it will take to work with European countries toward a common solution to confronting anti-Semitism on the Continent.
Did you notice anything new or different in this latest “round” of anti-Semitic incidents?
The viciousness of the attacks against Jewish individuals and property in Europe and other places around the world during Israel’s operation was unprecedented and is as bad as we have witnessed since the end of World War II.  This speaks to the fact that people who are infected with the virus of anti-Semitism are becoming less inhibited and feel freer to give full vent to their bigotry -- not just in words, but in actions.  This is a profoundly troubling development.  Anti-Semitism on the rise once again and there are no easy solutions.
Do you think we are in danger of another Holocaust?
Right now around the world we have many of the conditions that can give rise to a “perfect storm” of anti-Semitism.  Jews are being scapegoated and blamed for Israel’s actions simply because of who they are.  Israel, because of its actions to protect its citizens from harm, is facing an international tsunami of criticism and renewed calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions.  It is the proverbial Jew among the nations. And our global survey of attitudes showed that fully one-quarter of the world’s population – 26 percent -- is deeply infected with anti-Semitic attitudes. 
Still, the world has fundamentally changed since the Nazi onslaught.  So I don’t see us heading toward another Holocaust. While anti-Semitism is prevalent, many more people are willing to stand up and to speak out today than they were in 1939.  And today we have a vibrant state of Israel, secure in its borders, that serves as a safe haven for Jews around the world. 
True, the Internet and the information-sharing revolution has made it easier for bigots to spew their hatred in cyberspace and to reach ever wider audiences.  But instantaneous information has also made it possible for us to monitor and expose anti-Semitism in society and to deploy the tools for educating large segments of the public about the dangers of anti-Semitism, hatred and bigotry of all kinds. So the world has changed, but the world’s oldest hatred in many ways has not, which is why we must always remain vigilant against the threat.
In short, the world has changed a great deal since the Holocaust, but anti-Jewish attitudes linger, and we have yet to find a vaccine for the more than 2,000-year-old virus of anti-Semitism.
What is the most effective way to fight anti-Semitism?
There is no magic bullet, but there are a series of prescriptive elements that can be brought to bear in tackling the problem head on.
First is awareness, and a recognition – by governments, presidents, religious, and civil society leaders – that the problem of anti-Semitism exists and is real.  Second is active monitoring of anti-Semitic incidents and attitudes.  In America, for example ADL conducts an annual Audit of anti-Semitic Incidents that categorizes incidents and helps us to track patterns and show states where anti-Semitism is on the rise. Third is legislation – in the US we have hate crime laws on the books in 46 states that ensure enhanced penalties against those who carry out attacks based on an individual’s race or religious identity; in some European countries there are laws on the books prohibiting anti-Semitic expression and Holocaust denial. But in order for these laws to work, they must be carefully enforced.  Fourth is interfaith understanding. We must build bridges to other faiths to encourage and recruit more religious leaders to stand up and reject anti-Semitism bigotry in all forms.
What is the ADL’s biggest accomplishment to date?
The ADL has been around for 100 years. I’ll leave that to my retrospective when I retire. I would say that one of our biggest recent accomplishments was the release of our unprecedented Global 100 Index of anti-Semitism in May of this year which, for the first time in history, took a serious, credible and holistic look at the levels of anti-Semitic attitudes around the world. Now that we know where the hotspots are we will be in a position to educate more people about the perniciousness of the disease. Governments in the countries polled will be less able to slip into denial mode when we confront them with their statistics.
We hope to be able to continue polling around the world, and the ADL Global 100 Index presents an excellent benchmark for us to be able to tell whether anti-Semitic attitudes are rising or falling in certain regions of the world.  It is a terrific instrument for us to raise awareness of the problem and to effect change in the years to come.
You have one year left before stepping down from your position as ADL's national director - what do you wish for your last year in this post?
It would be nice to be able to say that I hope we could solve the world’s problems and close up shop. But our work has never been more challenging, and the situation for world Jewry has never been more perilous in the more than eight decades since Hitler rose to power.
I hope to have the opportunity, in the time remaining in my tenure, to bring the ADL message about the danger of anti-Semitism to as many world leaders as possible, to raise my voice as loudly as possible in speaking out against anti-Semitism, and to make sure ADL, this prestigious and storied organization, continues to effectively defend the safety and security of the Jewish people here in America, in the State of Israel and throughout the world.