Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, the onetime child Holocaust survivor who retired after 50 years at the ADL, many of them at its helm, has seen more horror than most of us could imagine. He’s managed to use his optimism, an intrinsic part of his nature, as a shield against cynicism, an emotional release he’s never allowed himself.
He’s not only an official Wise Man, an eminence grise, he’s also a legit wise man.
Last week, Mr. Foxman went to a screening room in Manhattan to see the 43-minute video of the brutal attack Hamas terrorists unleashed in southern Israel on October 7. The video is a compilation of film taken from various sources — the cameras the terrorists used to capture their savagery, often accompanied by their own grunts of pleasure, and then dropped or lost or were found on their dead bodies, as well as victims’ cameras and other pieces of surveillance footage.
It is a horrifying video, according to people who have seen it, and it’s not shown widely. It’s not online. It’s a tool that the Israeli government is using when it feels it has to prove that the atrocities happened, or to prod influencers into telling their followers about it.
There is some debate over whether the film should be more widely available.
“I have very mixed feelings about it,” Mr. Foxman said. “On the one hand, I understand the reasons not to let the world see it, to protect the families and respect the dead.” It’s hard for families to come to some sort of grips with the idea that one of them has been murdered, harder for them to understand that they were tortured before they were murdered, and that their assassins reveled in the fact and took spiritual pleasure from it. It’s harder still for a family to allow photos of, say, its murdered daughter as the men who kill her actively desecrate her body.
Mr. Foxman sympathizes wholeheartedly with that position, he said.
“On the other hand, I am more convinced by what Eisenhower did after he saw the camps.” That’s President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the five-star general who became the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War II, and who went to see concentration camps right after they were liberated. He famously was shocked by what he saw.
“Eisenhower didn’t only bring photographers, he brought German civilians to see the camps,” Mr. Foxman said. “He said that it was important to see and bear witness.
“Eisenhower foresaw the likelihood of Holocaust denial. Now, we see October 7 denial. It took about seven hours after October 7 for the denial to start.”
The Hamas terrorists, if anything, were more savage than the Nazis, Mr. Foxman said. “Yes, the Nazis were brutal. Most of the Nazis killed Jews because they had orders to kill Jews. Some of the Nazis were sadists, but the majority killed because they were ordered to kill.
“In this video, you see how happy the terrorists were. They aren’t saying that God had anything to do with the killing. Listen to them. They don’t say anything having anything to do with the occupation, or with Palestine. You don’t hear the words Palestine, or Israel, in those videos.
“You just hear the words Jews and dogs.”
Protesters against Israel’s actions in Gaza say that the terrorists are freedom fighters, but “their brutality had nothing to do with Palestine. It was about Jews.
“I think the whole world should see this video. But how do you balance protecting the families, protecting the sanctity of the dead with telling the story?
“Often their families talk to the press — once. But those victims shouldn’t have died just for an article in a newspaper. “
So far, the film’s been shown to social-media influencers, as well as to the United States Senate and Congress; it’s also been screened at Chabad at Harvard, Mr. Foxman said.
When he went to see the film, he didn’t know what to expect. Mr. Foxman knows a large percentage of the Jewish world. But this time, “I knew only one other person in the screening room. But it didn’t matter; this is not the kind of film where you watch it and sit there and talk to anybody.”
Mr. Foxman is disturbed by the antisemitism crawling out from the sewers in the United States, but he’s not surprised by it. As for the subspecies of Jew-hatred coming specifically from college students and college campuses, he thinks it’s been a long time coming.
The history starts about 40 years ago, or even farther back, he said.
“We tend to have forgotten that in the 1970s and ’80s, when oil was king, and America was so dependent on oil, and then the Arabs doubled the price of oil, they invested heavily in a campaign to buy influence. In the ’80s, they invested heavily in schools like the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton” — the school’s since been stripped of the Wilson name, given the former president’s pervasive and increasingly hard-to-ignore racism — “and other university schools and think tanks. I remember that once in a while universities would consult with the ADL before they signed the agreement, to make sure that there would be no discrimination at the schools — but there was discrimination.
“The universities would set up Middle East departments — but they excluded Israel.
“So 40 years or so ago, Saudi Arabia, Aramco, other countries, other oil companies invested in universities to set up schools that were Judenrein. They did not include Israel.
“They also gave money to professors, for scholarships, for programs. And in those days there wasn’t much to be done. America was for sale.”
Jewish philanthropists gave money too, but “they didn’t put conditions on it,” Mr. Foxman said. “They wanted their names on the schools, but they didn’t have any conditions about having to have Israel studies, or anything like that.
“I remember one of my classmates, who I graduated from yeshiva with.” (Mr. Foxman’s high school was the Yeshivah of Flatbush.) “He was a Middle East scholar, and he told me, ‘I can’t be a Middle East scholar because I can’t get a job anywhere doing that.’ So he became a Judaic scholar.”
Now, Mr. Foxman said, we’re reaping the harvest that those donors sowed so long ago “How can scholars be so blasé about what’s happening to Jews in the Middle East? Because generations ago, they were bought, and scholars begot scholars begot scholars.”
Next, Mr. Foxman came to the issue of what used to be called political correctness. On the most basic level, political correctness is just politeness — don’t call people using names by which they prefer not to be called, don’t say unnecessary things that cause predictable pain — but it soon morphed well beyond that. “Many liberals celebrated political correctness but we found out very quickly that it included everybody but Jews. It didn’t apply to us. It applied to everyone else, but not to Jews.”
Because Jews are defined as the oppressor. Jews are white; Jews are powerful; Jews are colonizers. (Yes, of course in most cases that’s not always true, not necessarily true, not generally true, or entirely untrue — but that’s always irrelevant.)
That idea of Jews made it an easy fit for intersectionality, the philosophy that believes — and perhaps this is an oversimplification — that the world is binary, that if oppressors are bad and the oppressed are good, and if oppressors are white and the oppressed are not, if oppressors are European and the oppressed are not, if oppressors are powerful and the oppressed are not, then the oppressors cannot be victims. If Jews appear to be victims, as they did on October 7, then the problem is that the perception is inaccurate. It’s all the Jews’ fault.
“That’s how we ended up with that horrible circus in Congress last week,” Mr. Foxman said; he was talking about the hearing that pitted three university presidents against the House Education Committee, where none of the three could utter the simple declarative sentence that to call for genocide against Jews is to act against the university’s policies. That’s because the right to freedom of speech made such calls dependent on context.
For decades, “universities did react to speech that the left found objectionable,” Mr. Foxman said. “Professors were fired over it. There was no freedom of speech. But now freedom of speech is sacrosanct” — at least when its target is Jews.
So now what?
“The truth for the Jewish community is that we’ve had a series of sad wake-up calls,” Mr. Foxman said. “Israel is in trauma. American Jews are in trauma. Jews in the diaspora are in trauma.
“And in the United States, with all the marching with other people that we did, all the partnerships that we built — we are alone. We have learned that we are alone.”
But still there is some good news, Mr. Foxman — the eternal optimist whose unfamiliar pessimism is far more disturbing than a less sunny person’s possibly could be — said.
“The good news is that more Jews are putting mezuzahs on their doors than are taking them off. And this is very important. I think that we are seeing more Jews standing up — and as Jews — than we thought there would be. Whether they are in law firms or in corporate settings or in Hollywood, they had been neutral or apathetic, but now, all of a sudden, they are standing up.
“We’ve paid a high price for it, of course, but still…”
So why have the Jews survived? he asked rhetorically. He said that he’d been to a retreat focusing on the question, and on whether we will continue to be here in 2123. “Why did the Roman civilization perish? Why did the Greek civilization perish? We don’t know much about the Incas, but they were an empire. Why did the Incas perish? And why did the Jews survive?
“After the Roman empire fell, no Roman got up and said, ‘I want to be Roman.’ After the Greek civilization fell, no Greek got up and said, “I want to be Greek.’ And we don’t know about the Incas, but we can assume something similar.
“But with the Jews, after every tragedy, they got up, brushed themselves off, and said, ‘I want to continue to be a Jew.’ After the destruction of the First Temple, after the destruction of the Second Temple, after the Shoah, when one-third of our people were destroyed, people said I want to be Jewish, I want to raise Jewish children, and I want to grow the Jewish state.
“That’s the key to our survival.
“So here we are, in a crisis again. and the test is, will we stand up and say, ‘I want to continue to be Jewish?’
“We see it in synagogues, which suffered during covid. Now people are going back to synagogues. There’s more Jewish philanthropy right now than we’ve seen in years.
“And that makes me an optimist. If that’s the secret of our survival, we’re doing okay.
“People are wearing kippas and stars of David. You see it all over. You see it on campuses. You see it in the business community. Even if we have to stand alone, we’ll stand alone.
“We’re okay. If this continues, we’ll be fine. We’ll have to build a new strategy. The old one worked up to a point, but then it fell apart. Now we need a new one, given the new science and technology. And we will develop it.
“We’ll be guided by ‘Im ein ani li mi li’” — if I am not for myself, who is for me? — “even if we have to rely more on the first part of that than on the second part.”