When something terrible happens — and when something that could have been even more terrible is narrowly averted, the result of training and raw courage — many of us want to talk to someone who can put it into some kind of context.
This community is lucky to have Abe Foxman, the longtime (and now retired) head of the Anti-Defamation League living here.
He’s had a lifetime of experience that qualifies him to talk about antisemitism, hatred, and resilience. He was born in Poland in 1940, to parents who had both financial and emotional resources. His nanny hid him, and he grew up with her, with love, as a Catholic; his parents both survived and reclaimed him, bringing him back to them, and to Judaism, and eventually to the United States. From all three of the adults who raised him, he learned about love, about hope, about moving forward, and also about loss and tragedy, and how it’s necessary to live with those desperately sad things if you are to move forward with integrity.
When they left the DP camp in Vienna, the Fuksman family became the Foxmans and moved to Toms River, where they tried chicken farming. From there — because, it turns out, their hearts were not in their chickens — they moved to Brooklyn. Abe went to the Yeshiva of Flatbush and then, eventually, to the ADL, where he stayed for 50 years and retired in 2015.
So when he looks at antisemitism, he recognizes it. He’s lived it.
“The most concerning element of what happened in Texas is that it continues to remind us that antisemitism is still here, and that it is deep and serious,” he said. “Because when you look at Texas, it had nothing to do with us. Nothing nothing nothing. In that sense, the FBI agent was right.”
He was talking about FBI Special Agent Matt DeSarno, who said: “We do believe from our engaging with this subject that he was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community. But we’re continuing to work to find motive.”
That was a ridiculous thing to say, and Mr. DeSarno and the FBI backed away from it. But, Mr. Foxman said, it was not entirely wrong either.
He continued to talk about Malik Faisal Akram, who was shot and killed after his hostages escaped.
“Here was a Muslim man, from Britain, very much preoccupied with what he believed was an injustice done to another Muslim by the U.S. government and the judicial system. He had a grievance; right or wrong, he was entitled to his grievance.” But that grievance had nothing to do with Jews.
“So he gets on a plane to the United States from the United Kingdom. He buys guns in New York and then he flies to Texas, presumably because that’s where she” — Aafia Siddiqui, who was convicted of terrorism and attempted murder, and is serving an 86-year sentence in a federal prison in Fort Worth — “is incarcerated.
“So what does he do? Does he go to a MacDonald’s? Does he go to a bank? Does he go to a police station? No. He goes to a synagogue, and he takes hostages on behalf of the lady he wants to free.
“And then he makes two phone calls to a New York rabbi” — Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue, a large, prestigious Reform shul whose name apparently led Akram to think that it had some sort of official position in a nonexistent hierarchy. “Not to the police. Not to the media. Not to a church. To a New York rabbi.
“That is the essence of how deep, how noxious, how serious, how dangerous this antisemitism is. It is so pervasive. It so consumed him.
“It tells us that he believes that Jews control everything. That’s what Aafia Siddiqui said at her trial. She said that 9/11 was done by Israel. That Jews are everywhere, Jews are evil, Jews control everything.” In fact, Siddiqui — a woman who earned an undergraduate degree from MIT and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from of all places Brandeis — also tried to ensure that the pool from which her jury was drawn be tested so their DNA could prove them not to be Jews — is a gurgling fountain of antisemitic bilge.
“So he goes to a synagogue because he believes that Jews are responsible for her being in prison and can be responsible for getting her out,” Mr. Foxman said.
This noxious belief is old, but it’s being spread farther and faster and wider now, he continued. “Today, it’s on social media, 24/7 squared.”
Akram “didn’t have to go to Pakistan,” where his family came from, and where Siddiqui was born, “to learn this. He didn’t have to go to a mosque to learn it, although he would find these concepts prominent in Palestine and in some — not all, certainly not all, but some — mosques. All he had to do is click on his iPhone, and it will feed him this poison, and reinforce it.
“The really scary part is that he is not alone. God knows how many others like him there are floating around. That is a very scary reality.”
It’s not news that the Jewish community faces threats from the right, Mr. Foxman said; “there are hateful individuals all over, and they are being fed this stuff continuously.
“And it’s fed by the left’s notion that all Zionists are enemies of Islam. There is the idea that if all Zionists are Jews, and most Jews are Zionists, then we are all targets. We are all legitimate targets.”
The worst, most dangerous idea that can grow logically in that soil is that “it is isolating Jews,” Mr. Foxman said.
There is some good that came out of the situation in Texas, Mr. Foxman, a man who at other times might have been accused of unrealistic optimism, said. “We are very grateful to law enforcement, and to God. And the reaction of the Muslim community in the United States has been unexpected and extraordinary. That is a positive.
“But as Jews, we say, ‘Why was this on page 17 of the New York Times?’” (To be fair, both the Times and the Washington Post later devoted many resources and column inches to the story as it developed, although that did not happen quickly.) “Why didn’t this merit attention right away?
“An Israeli pundit recently said that the BDS movement is a greater danger to the American Jewish community than it is to Israel, and I think he’s right,” Mr. Foxman continued. “The BDS movement has not really hurt Israel. You have the Abraham Accords, you have closer relations with Arab Muslim countries, despite BDS.” But in the United States, “it is isolating us as Jews. It is separating Jews from each other.
“I remember, from my early days at the ADL, one of the major battles we had was fighting the Arab boycott of Israel. It was coming from Damascus, with the support of Arab states, in the 1950s and primarily the 60s; its impact was on American Jews.
“That’s how we got anti-boycott legislation in the 1960s,” he continued. “We were able to establish that the boycott was harming American Jews — i.e., it was harming American citizens. “So now you have this movement that isolates Zionists. But Jews, whether they are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist, they all pray facing Jerusalem, they all say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Some of the 613 commandments can be fulfilled only in Israel. So it’s all interchangeable; Jews are Zionists, Zionists are Jews.”
He pointed to last week’s scandal with Big Duck, the oddly named PR firm that waddled into a PR disaster when it first said and then disavowed having said that it would not work with the Shalom Hartman Institute because, somehow, of Zionism. (Hartman is an Israel- and New York-based academic institution known for its open-mindedness, intellectual orientation, and, yes, it’s Zionist.)
“Here is a PR firm that gets caught and cannot articulate itself out of it,” Mr. Foxman said. “That to me is scary because look how deep it goes. The antipathy and animosity toward Israel is so deep that it doesn’t matter if you’re a good Zionist or a bad Zionist. If you are a Jew, you are a Zionist.”
He turned to the “60 Minutes” expose about who turned Anne Frank and her family over to the Nazis; it’s based on a book that will come out next week. That book, which already has become highly controversial, posits that a Jew betrayed the Franks, and it names a name. “‘60 Minutes’ made a lot of noise about it,” Mr. Foxman said. “I even stopped watching football to see it.
“And I was flabbergasted. Without any convincing evidence, they put the blame on Jews. A Jew sold her out. Jews.
“There is no convincing evidence. There are questions. Without conclusive evidence, to air a show that says a Jew was responsible for the death of Anne Frank? I found it horrific.
“It’s like it is open season on Jews.”
We must remember that the threats come from all sides, Mr. Foxman said. “We have always known that there is danger from the right; the fascist right, the neo-Nazi right. We have always known that authoritarianism threatens democracy, and that when democracy is threatened, that threatens Jews. That hasn’t changed.
“On the left, we always have known that communism was horrific for Jews, but it is a surprise when there is antisemitism on the left because we always felt that that’s the part of the political world that shares values with us, so it would be more sensitive and understanding. We are waking up to find that woke-ism can be nasty, that liberalism can tolerate antisemitism. That’s scary because that’s where we are supposed to have our base of support.”
So, Mr. Foxman, what do we do?
“We do what we’ve always done,” Mr. Foxman said. “But maybe we do it with a little more intensity. We have to take security seriously. We always take it seriously right after something happens, and then little by little we forget about it.
“I think that after Pittsburgh, most American Jews thought okay, this is over. It’s not a happy realization to know that even in this wonderful medinah” — this great country — “of ours, things that happen other places can happen here. That is a stark reality, and we have to acknowledge it. We have to understand it.
“We have to be vigilant. And we have to do what we’ve always done — we have to educate against this poison, knowing that we can’t stop it but we can contain it. We can legislate against it where that is possible. And we have to get good people to stand up and be heard.
“And we have to be proud Jews,” he continued. “The greatest victory for antisemites is when Jews stop being Jews. When they fear being Jewish, God forbid. Continuing Jewish life is the greatest answer to Hitler. He did not win. We have a Jewish state. We have Jewish communities all over the place. We cannot be intimidated.
“Those who have bully pulpits should use them. President Biden has called this both a terrorist act and an act of antisemitism. That has to be said. The president spoke very clearly. He didn’t equivocate. That’s important. And he committed the government to continue to take it seriously.”
Since he retired, and increasingly, Mr. Foxman has used the metaphor of a sewer with its lid newly lifted to describe what’s been going on. In that metaphor, antisemitism courses through the sewer. “The American Jewish community’s leaders, who spent their nights and days dealing with this, always understood that antisemitism is a disease without a vaccine or an antidote,” he said. “And all of us knew all along that it will always be there. But in the last 50 years, we succeeded in developing a containment policy, a strategy that kept it in the sewers, with the covers on.
“It was a combination of a lot of factors —building coalitions, working with the media, using every bully pulpit we could, telling the truth. A lot of those things have dissipated.
“Truth is gone. Antisemitism is the big, big lie. The best antidote is education, but when truth is gone, it doesn’t work.
“That was Mr. Trump’s gift to America. He destroyed the truth. He destroyed faith in the media. We used the media to answer lies, to expose them, but the media is not what it used to be. Now it’s all about tribalism. People only care about their own group.
“We have to find a new firewall.”
Underlying all of this, feeding the toxic filth in the sewer, are the antisemitic stereotypes that “are so deep and so pervasive that unless we figure out a way to undo them, they will continue to plague us,” Mr. Foxman concluded.
Those stereotypes feed antisemitic ideologies of people around the world and across the political spectrum. Those stereotypes — that Jews are all powerful, control everything, are rich, cannot be trusted, and cannot be believed — “are very deep,” he said. “Last year we did a survey of 100 countries; 40 percent of adults in the world believe that Jews are too powerful,” Mr. Foxman said.
We have to figure out how to stop those ideas; how to change hearts and minds. Which never seems to have worked, but still we must keep on trying. “The same stereotype that motivated this guy in Texas motivated the right-winger in Pittsburgh,” Mr. Foxman said. “It’s the same stereotype that has killed several people in France.
“Education is too slow a process, and it doesn’t go deep enough. These lies are so deep, so established, so profound, that unless we develop a strategy to undo them, we are going to be stuck with them for years to come.
“It’s haunting,” Abe Foxman, the survivor, Mr. Optimist, said. “It’s haunting,” he repeated. “It’s haunting.”