Appreciation: Arnold Forster, ADL leader and Israel advocate

He saw the security of Israel and American Jews as bound together, and was forceful and persuasive in arguing the case for Israel.

Israel, and world Jewry, lost one of its pioneer advocates last week with the passing of Arnold Forster, 97, a former leader of the Anti-Defamation League. Forster, who forged his reputation from the 1930s by confronting extremism and bigotry in America, was early to recognize that delegitimization of Israel was a new and no less pernicious form of anti-Semitism. He saw the security of Israel and American Jews as bound together, and was forceful and persuasive in arguing the case for Israel.
“He was one of the first Jewish leaders to advocate for Israel”, said Abe Foxman, who succeeded Forster and later became national director of ADL. Indeed, he was a transformative figure in the annals of American Jewry. A brilliant orator, a fighter and charismatic personality, Forster was at the forefront of marshalling support for Israel to confront a global campaign against the Jewish state.
“Arnold was prescient in viewing the danger to come,” said Dan Mariashin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, who began his career with Forster at ADL in the 1970s. “He saw the movement to demonize Israel over 40 years ago, and fought it from the beginning” He chastised the UN for the “Zionism is Racism” resolution, mincing no words in calling it “a vile act of anti-Semitism.”
He catalyzed the effort in the US against the Arab boycott of Israel, resulting in legislation that made compliance with the boycott a crime.
In one of his seminal books, The New Anti-Semitism, coauthored in 1974 with his colleague Ben Epstein, Forster saw a new danger to Israel and the Jewish people emanating from the left, a not-so-popular view in the post-Vietnam era. “In its assault on Israel’s right to exist, the radical left engages in what is perhaps the ultimate anti-Semitism,” he argued.
A FREQUENT visitor to Israel, he had close relations with Labor Party leaders Yitzhak Rabin, Abba Eban and Teddy Kollek. But when the Likud came to power in 1977, both unfamiliar to American Jews and the US, and amid criticism over its policies, Forster was no less forceful in advocating support for Israel and its new government.
Under his leadership, ADL was among the first of American Jewish organizations to establish an office in Jerusalem, in 1977. He believed that an office in Israel was both an important symbolic statement for ADL’s agenda, as well as an important liaison with the leadership of Israel.
He also was an early advocate for hasbara, or PR for Israel, arguing the case on the speakers’ platform and in the media, producing several television and radio programs. These include the broadcast Report from Israel, the radio program Dateline Israel and the award-winning documentary Zubin and the IPO, the story of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Zubin Mehta. The film garnered an Emmy in 1983 and several other awards. Forster understood the power of broadcast media to shape opinion and the need for Israel to get its story across to a much wider audience.
After retiring from ADL in 1979, he practiced law. Among his notable cases was as counsel to Ariel Sharon in his 1983 libel suit against Time magazine, a landmark decision that he won.
For Arnold Forster, the fate of the Jewish people was inextricably tiedto that of Israel. “Jews will neither feel nor be safe in a world whichacquiesces in the destruction of the Jewish state, either all at onceor piece by piece,” he wrote in the early 1970s.
It was with this unerring purpose that guided a remarkable career that spanned 50 years in public life.
The writer is a former director of the Anti-Defamation League office in Israel.