The Anti-Defamation League will surely find a new national director to take over when Abe Foxman retires in July 2015, but it won’t replace Abe Foxman. And it won’t be the same ADL.
For one thing, he’ll be a hard act to follow. There’s nobody quite like him, inside the league or outside. Nobody with his range of contacts in the Jewish world and beyond, his grasp of the issues from civil rights law to Middle East politics, his ease with Jewish cultures from Torah to Hollywood, his skill at pressing the flesh and squeezing the checkbooks. His feel for the pulse of the Jews in the pews. And, of course, his chutzpah.
That’s at least partly his fault, as folks around the agency have been whispering anxiously for the past few years. He never nurtured a successor. The ADL has been the Abe Show. He did it so well that it was hard to fault him, but everybody knew the day would come when he wouldn’t be around, and then what?
Well, now it’s coming. They’ll have to find someone else. The challenge will be to find someone who isn’t Abe but can run a different sort of operation with the tools that Abe hands over. That will take a bit of imagination.
You can sort of imagine the search committee sitting and doing the math. Let’s see: We’ve got research and investigative (we call it “fact-finding”) units that study bias and hate groups. We’ve got our “World of Difference” and “No Place for Hate” diversity training and anti-bullying curricula operating in schools and law-enforcement agencies all over the place. We’ve got our civil-rights and religious-freedom legal defense teams, plus our interfaith and Middle East staff experts. We’ve got a Washington office that lobbies our issues with the government. We’ve got 30 regional offices that promote the programs in the communities, organize local interfaith and intergroup dialogues and raise money to fund the whole thing. Who can we find that will be able to take that pile of blocks and work with it? What would it all look like with candidate X in charge? Candidate Y?
In a way this is nothing new for ADL. More than most other major Jewish agencies, the league has always been a reflection of the person at the top. Having no direct dues-paying membership—since it used to be merely a department of another organization, B’nai B’rith—the staff (or its chief) has more independence than in most agencies. Hence Foxman’s sprawling operation is worlds away from the neoconservative hothouse he inherited in 1987 from Nathan Perlmutter, as distant as Perlmutter’s agency was from the brawling, gang-busting outfit that Ben Epstein and Arnold Forster had built after World War II out of the prim and proper educate-and-protest bureau that Richard Gutstadt built in the 1930s. After Foxman leaves, it will be something else again. If the search operation is successful, the next ADL could be as interesting as the last few have been.
The harder part, in fact, will be imagining the American Jewish community in the next period. Foxman hasn’t just been the head of the ADL for the past 27 years. He’s the closest thing the Jewish community has to a national spokesman.
As Washington and Jerusalem jockey over terms for renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman insists that his organization will continue to support Israel. But he warns that Israelis make the job harder and hurt their own cause by allowing hardline opponents of Palestinian statehood to speak for them.
He singled out Israel’s economy minister Naftali Bennett and deputy defense minister Danny Danon. Both have spoken out forcefully in recent weeks against the principle of a two-state peace agreement, contradicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated statements of support for the two-state approach.
“We say we support Israel, but you have to be credible,” Foxman said by telephone from Jerusalem on Sunday. “And with Bennett and Danon, you’re not credible.”
Foxman was describing what he said was the approach of mainstream Jewish advocacy organizations in the complicated crossfire between the State Department, the various factions within the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority as Secretary of State John Kerry seeks a formula to restart peace negotiations.
In a June 3 speech to the American Jewish Committee, Kerry appealed for American Jews to speak out in support of his effort, which focuses in part on winning Israeli concessions to woo that Palestinians back to the table. The weeks since then have seen a steadily intensifying debate among Israelis and their supporters, highlighted by remarks by Danon on June 6 and Bennett on June 17 dismissing the possibility of a two-state peace agreement.
On the other side, Israeli army chief of Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, the senior officer in charge of the West Bank, told a conservative Jerusalem think tank on June 18 that failure to restart negotiations could lead to a breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian security coordination and an eruption of unrest on the West Bank.
That’s right: Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has written a forceful essay attacking what he sees as a tendency among Jews to see enemies everywhere and overlook signs of friendship, and thus to risk missing opportunities for peace.
Foxman frames his thesis around the Carmel fire and the outside help that Israel sought and received. Some Israelis found it humiliating to depend on the kindness of others, given the country’s image of self-reliance, Foxman writes:
Now Israel had to admit that it wasn’t capable of dealing with the blaze alone.
More than that, for some in Israel there is a reluctance to admit that Israel is not isolated, that not everyone is against Israel. The willingness of nations and peoples to rush to Israel’s side, including the Turks and the Palestinians, challenged this assumption.
Foxman maintains his familar stace that anti-Israel sentiment is intensifying in various parts of the world. He sounds an unfamiliar, nuanced tone, though. Some of the anti-Israel rhetoric (that is, some but not all) is expressed “in ways that even suggest a heavy dose of anti-Semitism within it.”
The picture, however, is more complicated, and the response of many nations to Israel’s plea for help this week is the tip of the iceberg. It is obvious that not only does Israel have a special relationship with the United States, but it has excellent bilateral relations with states throughout the globe, including some that routinely vote against Israel at the United Nations.
That goes for the Arab world, too, in ways that are too often ignored:
The Anti-Defamation League reports in an October 15 press release that it has received an apology from the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Liberty Commission, Richard Land, for a September 26 speech to the Christian Coalition in which he described the congressional Democrats’ health care reforms as “exactly what the Nazis did.” In the same speech Land also quipped that he had given “the Dr. Josef Mengele Award” to Ezekiel Emanuel, President Obama’s chief health care adviser (and Rahm’s brother), for his “advocacy of health care rationing.”
In an October 14 letter to ADL national director Abraham Foxman, Land said he had been “using hyperbole for effect and never intended to actually equate anyone in the Obama administration with Dr. Mengele.” He promised to “refrain from making such references in the future,” and added: “I apologize to everyone who found such references hurtful.”
Land was responding to an October 9 letter from Foxman, complaining that the “Nazi comparison is inappropriate, insensitive and unjustified. As a Holocaust survivor, I take particular offense. Such comparisons diminish the history and the memory of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others who died at the hands of the Nazis and insults those who fought bravely against Hitler.”
Foxman had a busy summer on the health-care-is-Nazism front. Among those he scolded was Rush Limbaugh, who, among other things, repeated Glenn Beck’s riff about the Obama health-care logo looking Hitlerian. Another scoldee was syndicated radio talk jockey Bill Press, who had accused opponents of health care reform of using tactics that were “straight out of the Nazi playbook.”
The battle didn’t start this summer, though. Holocaust abuse is a continuing theme among Jewish community advocates. Sometimes, as in the case of Land, it yields results. Other abusers, like Limbaugh, remain unbowed.
One of the most celebrated successes was the 1998 campaign by the Zionist Organization of America to derail the appointment of Holocaust scholar John Roth as chief historian of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial