Abraham Foxman of Bergen County knows far more about antisemitism than anyone ever should have to.
He faced it as a small child, in Poland, before he was old enough to understand it (not that anyone ever really can understand such a vicious, pernicious, ancient, irrational handed-down feeling), when his parents, who were about to be forced into the ghetto in 1941, gave their only child, their 1-year-old, to his childless nanny, who brought him up as her son.
Once the war was over, Mr. Foxman’s parents reclaimed their baptized-Catholic son; once again Jewish, still a child, he moved to rural New Jersey with them. (Because even in waking nightmares people are people, and love is love, the relationships between the Foxmans and their nanny were complicated; his parents tried their best to help her as she gave up the child she loved and then vanished into grimly communist Poland.)
Abe Foxman grew up to become a lawyer, and to work at the Anti-Defamation League; he spent 50 years at the ADL, almost 30 of them as its director, and he’s now its director emeritus.
This positions him as an expert on antisemitism, personally and professionally, from the inside and from the outside.
He knows antisemitism when he sees it. And he’s seeing it now.
“I don’t think that we should be surprised by the resurgence of antisemitism,” he said. “For the last 100 or so years in America, we thought we were unique, and our experience was totally different from the rest of the world. But in truth, it really wasn’t.
“That means that we hadn’t eliminated the hate, bigotry, and antisemitism. It was always there. What we were successful at was in containing it.”
Using a vivid metaphor that he often finds helpful to describe the situation, Mr. Foxman described hatred in America as an underground sludge running though the county’s sewers, usually controlled by the manhole covers that limit it. Sometimes it breaks through; sometimes people remove the covers. But in the last eight or so years, many of the manhole covers that had protected us from the toxic sludge of hatred have been tossed aside with intention and glee.
It used to be that “there was a price for antisemitism. America was unique in that we were able to use the institutions, the values, the media, everything at our disposal in our democracy, to contain it, to put a price on it, to impose consequences.
“But I guess that we lost sight of the fact that although we’re unique, we’re not immune to the poison, and the poison is there.
“Throughout the years in the ADL, we issued annual reports, which would say to what degree the emerging society is racist and antisemitic. We weren’t taken seriously. We were told, you know, the sky is not falling.
“And then American Jews woke up, shocked.
“I am not surprised by the hate, but I am shocked by its intensity. I knew it was there. All it needed was a trigger mechanism.”
That was the war in Gaza.
Mr. Foxman’s learned a second surprising thing from this outbreak of antisemitism. “We always assumed that it was a disease of the ignorant. No, it’s not. It’s a disease of the educated as well. We see what’s happening in universities.”
The third thing that surprised Mr. Foxman is how fair-weather so many of the community’s apparent friends have been. “The response of the civilized community, of people we’ve worked with for the last 50 years to make America more respectful and more civil — the people we stood shoulder to shoulder with, our friends and allies and partners — all we hear is silence.
“It’s not only painful, it’s scary.”
There’s also a painful irony, Mr. Foxman continued. “Zionism created Israel to undo antisemitism. It was to make Jews normal, like all other nations. And if we could be like all other nations, that would end antisemitism.” Having a homeland, an actual physical home, subject to the same laws of nature and physics as all other peoples, somehow would eradicate antisemitism, the thinking went.
“What we didn’t realize is to what extent the establishment of the State of Israel would provide antisemites with another platform, another vehicle, another excuse to act out their antisemitism.
“So now Israel has become the Jew among the nations.
“It used to be that a Jew can’t do this, a Jew can’t do that — now it’s that Israel can’t do what every other nation does. Every other nation can decide where its capital is. Let’s negotiate where Israel’s capital is going to be. Has anyone told Ukraine where it can shoot, how long it can shoot, how many civilians it can shoot? Ukraine is fighting for its life. Nobody tells it what to do. There aren’t any editorials or parades about what it can’t do.
“When the United States was at war, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, did anyone tell it that it had to have pauses?
“But again, the Jews are being treated unlike everyone else. We have Israel, we have our independence, we have our sovereignty — but everyone’s telling us how to defend ourself.”
The response of the progressive left is a related problem — in fact, a related trauma, Mr. Foxman said. “There’s an emerging shock in the American Jewish community that the left isn’t there for us. And not only is it not there, it’s attacking us.
“That’s a very deep trauma to the American Jewish communal psyche. We marched with them for civil rights. We marched with them for gay rights. We marched with them for immigration rights, for abortion rights, for all the rights that you can imagine. And here we are, being slaughtered, defending ourselves, and they’re not marching with us.
“That’s a very serious trauma. We thought we had allies. We thought we knew who our friends and our enemies were. We knew that the right was not our friend. But to wake up in the morning and find that your friends aren’t your friends — that’s trauma.
“We’re going to have to figure out where we can go from here.”
Mr. Foxman always prided himself on his optimism. He and his parents survived the worst evil imaginable, he would say, so what could be worse than that? But now, “I’ve lost my optimism,” he said. And then he backtracked immediately. “Look, it’s not now the way it was then,” he said. “I get very upset with people comparing it to the Holocaust. Israel has an ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, and he represents a sovereign state with an army. The Jewish people are defending themselves.
Mr. Erdan wore a yellow star — the kind of yellow star Nazis forced Jews to wear — when he addressed the U.N.’s Security Council three weeks after Hamas’ murderous rampage. He wore it to shame the body for its refusal to address the horror.
Mr. Foxman thinks Mr. Erdan made the wrong move. “We have a country now,” he said. “We have an army and we have ambassadors.
“This is not the Holocaust. It is the worst day since the Holocaust — but it is not the Shoa.
“So yes, this is a dark moment, and it reminds us that things haven’t changed that much — but a couple of things have changed a lot.”
If there is anything positive to have come out of the pure evil of Hamas’s attack, it is how Israelis have come together, Mr. Foxman said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promised judicial overhaul had divided the country into bitter factions, “but the country that was split in such an ugly way on October 6 is together now.
“They’ve become one. The people who said they wouldn’t serve in the IDF? The reserves are coming up at 150 percent of their quota. All these people who were against the government? They’re taking over to do the reservists’ jobs. Kids are volunteering on the farms.
“The people are taking over the responsibilities of the government while the government is falling down.
“That’s optimistic. To me, that’s the beauty of the Jewish people.”
The world has changed for the better since World War II, when the United States did not help Europe’s Jews as they were slaughtered.
“Today, the United States is here.
“Thank God for America and thank God for President Biden. For the way he’s standing up for Israel. He said that America today is not the America during the Holocaust; today, we understand our responsibilities. There’s still a big problem with antisemitism in Europe, but leaders of France, Germany, the U.K. flew to Israel to stand with Israel. Things have changed for the better.”
Mr. Foxman does not pretend to know what will happen during the course of this war or once it’s over — to be obvious and clear, no one does — but he thinks, along with most other commentators, that Mr. Netanyahu’s premiership is unlikely to survive long after the war’s end.
The war won’t end until Hamas is gone, he continued. Hamas is backed by Iran, and there can be no peace until Iran is contained. But “Israel can’t confront Iran alone. It needs help from the United States, and if possible from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Gulf States.”
Mr. Foxman talked about the impossibility of separating Hamas from the Palestinians; people like to talk about them as if they’re two separate groups, but they’re not, he said. And so far, they’re not interested in peace.
“When Egypt said that it would recognize Israel, there was peace,” he said. “When Jordan said they’d recognize Israel, there was peace. Israel made sacrifices. It gave up land.” But the Palestinians did not want to compromise; instead, “they went to war in ’48. They went to war in ’67. They went to war in ’73. And now it’s Hamas. We have this fantasy that we can talk to the Palestinians. Who can we talk to?
“These are people who don’t want Israel to exist.”
Okay, but where does all the hatred come from? The barbarity? The ability to butcher babies?
“Pogroms against the Jews in the Arab world are not new,” Mr Foxman said. “There were pogroms in Baghdad in the 1920s, the Hebron pogrom against the Jews in the ’30s, and all the Jews were expelled from the Arab countries in 1948.
“When the Arabs went to war to destroy Israel, they expelled all their Jewish population.
“Antisemitism has been there in the Arab world way before the issue of the establishment of the State of Israel.
“When I was in the ADL, we did a survey of antisemitism in 100 countries around the world. We found that 90% of the Arab and North African world was infected with antisemitism. It’s always been there. It’s in Christianity because we were accused of killing Christ. But even though there were golden ages for Jews in the Muslim world, Muhammad also created antisemitism because we rejected Islam. It’s been there all along. We tried to emphasize the differences, and we said that the Muslims weren’t as bad for the Jews as the Christians were, but it was no picnic for Jews in the Arab world throughout the years.
“So yes, antisemitism has always been there. It’s also been used politically by believers by Muslims, just as it’s been used in the Western world.”
Migration is making the problem worse, Mr. Foxman continued, as people with deeply ingrained antisemitic beliefs move to countries where it’s been forced underground. It will bloom again, he fears.
Another big problem is social media, which amplifies misinformation. “The internet has changed how people talk or don’t talk to each other,” he said. “It’s changed how they get their news. Now, the misinformation, the disinformation, the lack of truth in our society, the lack of trust in media — it’s a big problem.
“Those things were part and parcel of our containment firewall. In the last 10 years, we lost those tools. We lost truth. We lost civility.
“Donald Trump was both a symptom and a cause of that coarsening,” he continued. “He identified the weaknesses in our society and exploited them. By exploiting them, he became a leader.” But Trump did not create antisemitism. He was just ahead of his followers in prying up the manhole covers.
“It took 50 years for Holocaust denial to take root. It took five days of denial of the Hamas attacks for it to take,” Mr. Foxman said. “It’s overwhelming. Social media is building hatred and anger. If only we did control the media!”
Still, there is room for hope, Mr. Foxman said. “It’s the secret of Jewish survival. We have a right to be angry. We have a right to be livid. But I don’t think that we should be afraid.
“The secret of Jewish survival is that after every tragedy, we get up and we say that we want to be Jews.
“We say it with pride, that we want to be Jews, because we value it. We value who we are and our commitment to each other.
“We witnessed the birth of the Jewish state after the Holocaust, and the state will continue.
“Parents have asked me what we should tell their kids about wearing their stars of David, and I said, tell them to keep wearing it. You don’t have to flaunt it, but don’t take it off.
“Pride is important, and so is security.”
In the end, Mr. Foxman is sure that we’ll make it through this fetid swamp of antisemitism, as our people have done before.
That’s why he went to the huge rally in Washington. As he texted from the train, “I have so many mixed emotions. It’s a good feeling seeing so many Jews of all ages on the train — with and without kippot — giving each other a nod and a smile.”
The community will endure.