Abraham Foxman of Bergen County has been a strong supporter of Israel for just about as long as he can remember.
And not a fair-weather supporter, or a flaccid one either. His love for Israel is surpassed only by his love for his family; like his love for his family, he always has known it to be unconditional.
Now, he is starting to realize that there may be a condition.
If Israel’s likely once-and-future incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, makes a coalition with partners who are allowed to fulfill their promises, Israel will redefine who is a Jew. And that eventually would be the end of the relationship.
Mr. Foxman’s life story is full of the dramatic and heartbreaking incidents that have cemented his feeling for Israel as the ultimate haven for Jews, a place that offers a home — an exciting, creative, intellectually, morally, and spiritually uplifting home — to all Jews.
He was born in Poland (or Belarus, or Belorussia, depending on the year) in 1940. When he was a baby, seeing the danger barreling toward them, his parents gave him to his Catholic nanny, who had him baptized and began to raise him as the Catholic he had become. After the war, his parents miraculously found each other and then him; they gently weaned their 5-year-old from Catholicism and back to their family and his people.
They moved to Toms River, where they lived on an egg farm, and young Abe learned that he did not see his future in agriculture. Instead, he went to work for the Anti-Defamation League, retiring from that organization in 2015, after exactly 50 years, as its executive director emeritus and as its face to the world.
All this is on the one hand a long story short, but on the other, a way to explain Mr. Foxman’s deep connection to the Jewish people, and to Israel.
So when he says that he now realizes that his love is conditional — that his congenital optimism refuses to let him believe that the condition that would sever his heart from Israel will be allowed to exist, but that’s not the same thing as unconditional love — it’s a huge big deal.
“I have always said that Israel cannot listen to the American Jewish community on issues of settlement, occupation, borders, or peace deals, because at the end of the day, regardless of whether American Jews, right, left, or in the middle, feel uncomfortable, it’s Israel’s decision. It’s Israel’s life or death. It’s their sovereign decision to make. That’s because if, God forbid, they get it wrong, they’re dead.
“So all these issues in the last 50, 70 years, all the disagreements between American Jews and Israel will not change the relationship. If in the end, again God forbid, they make a mistake and there is violence, the American Jewish community will stand with them.
“That is not the case in the issues I am talking about now.
“If the Jewish state will define who is a Jew, what qualifies as a Jew, how to qualify as a Jew, how to pray as a Jew, that will be a critical problem in our relationship.”
Mr. Foxman is talking in particular about three men, leaders of their parties, whom Mr. Netanyahu is courting. Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Avi Maoz have made promises to their voters about not considering non-Orthodox Judaism as being Jewish, about not accepting even some modern Orthodox conversions, about refusing to allow LGBTQ Pride parades, or for that matter openly LGBTQ Jews. They also talk about cutting back the power now held by Israel’s Supreme Court, and its judiciary. (They also talk about a range of other actions that are deeply distasteful to many Jews, both inside and outside Israel, including violence against non-Jews, but that’s not what Mr. Foxman is talking about now.)
Those men possibly could reframe Israeli law so that “I am not considered to be a Jew,” Mr. Foxman said; as the son of Orthodox Jews and a practicing Orthodox Jew for all but five years of his life, those years during his early childhood, because it saved him from the Holocaust, the idea that he possibly could be considered no longer a Jew, while far-fetched, is horrifying. But it’s not about him. “If those extremists could say that I am not a Jew, then certainly Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews will not be considered Jewish. And if that happens, God forbid, there will be a split.
“And if Israel does not recognize the Jewishness of American Jews who are not Orthodox, why would they care about the Jewish state?
“This is an existential question for us, just like issues of borders and security are for them.”
On the one hand, these ideas are not new to Israelis. Politicians have raised them before. “Until now, the Israelis have ignored them,” he said. “Issues like the Wall and conversion –- there’s always been a compromise.” Yes, Mr. Foxman, but the compromise generally has been one-sided. On such issues as non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, the Western Wall, promises are made, promises are broken, and nothing changes. “Yes, but that doesn’t matter,” Mr. Foxman said impatiently. “The point is that there always is a compromise somewhere.”
But Mr. Netanyahu’s potential government partners are fundamentalists, Mr. Foxman said. “They’re fanatic extremist religious nationalists. They have said so time and time again.”
Still, he does have hope, he continued.
“We need to ring the alarm, and I am ringing it. I know that the prime minister is smart, and I know that he knows America. I also know that he has personal needs. But he has said all the right things. I watched him on NBC and Meet the Press, and I read his interview with Bari Weiss” — in all three of those interviews, two on television and one with the print journalist, Mr. Netanyahu said that he knew the stakes and would do the right thing.
“But saying it and doing it are different things. And although Netanyahu says that he will make all the decisions, he cannot be everywhere all the time. He will have to give his ministers authority.” And if any of those gets power, “there will be damage.”
Mr. Foxman continued to describe why everything just possibly might work out. “At the end of the day, I am an optimist. And I know that the prime minister is a pragmatist. And I hope that he does the right thing.”
How can he do the right thing? Isn’t he stuck with those men and their parties? Does he have any other way of making a coalition? And doesn’t he need that coalition, so he can get that job, so he can keep himself out of prison? Remember, he is on trial for corruption, and the results of the election are likely to affect that trial.
First, Mr. Foxman said, “he could limit their powers on issues of diaspora relationships. He could make sure that they could not do damage to the law of return and the judicial system and the rights of LGBTQ community members and other minorities in Israel.
“He said he would. I hope he will act on that.”
The problem goes beyond those three politicians to the parties they represent, and the voters who back them. “The religious parties vary from moderate conservative to extreme,” Mr. Foxman said. “There are parts of the Orthodox coalition that aren’t as extreme in their acts and speech, but they certainly move in the direction of limiting religious freedom in Israel. If they are going to put kashrut back into the government, if they are going to push back on the freedom to do things on Shabbat that would change the nature of the country, it would go backward.” (Readers should note that Mr. Foxman, as an Orthodox Jew, depends on kosher hashgacha and is shomer Shabbat; he just doesn’t believe that the government should regulate those things.)
“He has people in his coalition who want to move Israel closer to being a theocratic state.”
But, Mr. Foxman said, there are other parties that at least in theory could join in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition. “The previous government made a coalition with parties after saying that they could never come together. Regardless of what he says today, remember that Netanyahu was the first Israeli politician to meet with the Islamic party. He certainly could find a way to make a coalition with the centrist and centrist left.”
Mr. Foxman talked briefly as well about the renewed waves of antisemitic filth sweeping this country. “It always has been there,” he said. “But only now has it become public and legitimate. It is enabled now. It’s above the surface.
“We had built firewalls in the last 70 years,” particularly since the horrors of the Holocaust made antisemitism socially unacceptable in polite non-Jewish society. “That’s all gone now.
“The internet makes everything okay. You can say it. You can spread it. It is a different world. But I always believed that it always is here. That it is serious. That we can’t eliminate it.
“We have to contain it. That is our challenge.
“If there is one single thing that has made antisemitism worse, it is social media,” Mr. Foxman said.
Our other challenge is to “balance First Amendment rights with civility.
“We faced a similar situation after 9/11. How do we balance life and security with freedom? If you don’t have life, you can’t have liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How do we balance it?
“We found a compromise, the Patriot Act. It wasn’t perfect. We gave up our freedom to get on a plane without being frisked, go into a public building without having to show our identity, or go through magnetometers. We willingly gave up those freedoms for that balance.
“Today we face a similar challenge. We have freedom of speech, but unfettered freedom of speech is yelling fire in a crowded theater. We have to balance free speech with safety and civility.
How do we do that? “You need a stable, rational Congress,” Mr. Foxman said.
Beyond that, we have to realize that “while the internet and social media are a force for good, the unintended consequences are that it’s also a superhighway for hate. We have to find the balance. The experts tell us that it’s all in the algorithms, but now we know that the algorithms are controlled not for balance but for profit. We have to make sure that they control for civility and values, not for profit.”
And once we can do that, solving the problem of Mr. Netanyahu’s grim choices, and the effects those choices will have on American Jews’ love of Israel, will be a piece of cake.