Where are the upstanders?

Where are the upstanders?

Despite his storied optimism, Abe Foxman is worried by unanswered hate

Abe Foxman is worried about the rising level of antisemitism.
Abe Foxman is worried about the rising level of antisemitism.

Abraham Foxman is scared. And that is scary.

Mr. Foxman, who lives in Bergen County, is the longtime, now-retired head of the Anti-Defamation League. He’s also a child survivor of the Holocaust, the son of survivors who left him with a non-Jewish nanny and found him after they were liberated from the camps, and he also endured a long fight between his parents and his nanny, a result of real love on all sides but a tragic story nonetheless.

So, to understate, he’s been through far more than the rest of far-luckier us, and it has left him startlingly optimistic. He’s sanguine by nature. He doesn’t scare easily. His glasses are so rose-colored that they look like Barbie could wear them.

And he’s scared.

Or, in his words, “I am very worried, concerned, troubled, not about the presence of antisemitism as much as about the absence of outrage at the antisemitism.

“Throughout my years at the ADL, people would ask me about the difference between Europe and America. Why is Europe so antisemitic? Why is there so much less of it in America?

“My answer basically was that in Europe there are laws against antisemitism, but neither much enforcement nor will for enforcement. In America, we don’t have laws against antisemitism. The Constitution permits us to be antisemitic, racist, misogynist, homophobic.” That’s because the First Amendment ensures freedom of speech. “But in our country, there are consequences for antisemitism and racism. In America, people know that there is accountability.

“That sort of worked for the last 100 years — but it looks like it has totally fallen apart in the last six to eight months.”

To be fair, Mr. Foxman conceded, antisemitism has been oozing up from the sewers in which it had been contained for the last eight or so years as the street-level caps have been lifted, but the huge surge in filth has come since October 7.

“Twenty-three years ago, I wrote a book called ‘Never Again?’ where I raised the question of whether we have buried the monster. I wrote books about the idea of Jewish power and control and conspiracy, about Jews and money, about viral hate. I am not naïve about the presence of antisemitism, about its presence back then. It’s always been there, and it continues to be here.

“We did a survey of 100 countries 10 years ago that indicated that 26 percent of the adult world is  antisemitic.” (Readers should note that those 100 countries include places where Jews are rare if they are present at all.)

“What we are witnessing now is an isolation, a distancing, a sanctioning, a removal of Jews from all aspects of American society. We are finding antisemitic behavior on college campuses to an extent we could not have imagined.” Look at Columbia and UCLA, among others, Mr. Foxman suggested. “We are seeing violence against synagogues.” This week’s horrifying attack on a shul in Los Angeles is stark proof of that. “We see it in museums in cities around the country in the way that they are interpreting Jewish history.” Look at the attacks against leaders of the Brooklyn Museum, not for their position on Israel — which would be irrelevant to their commitment to the museum anyway;  they didn’t take public positions on Israel — but simply because they are Jewish. And look at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, which first excluded Jews from its exhibit on the history of Hollywood, and then, when pressured to included them, did, but vilified them.

“Jewish writers are telling us they are having difficulties placing books,” Mr. Foxman continued. “Psychiatrists don’t want to have Jewish patients. This antisemitism is rampant.”

Perhaps the most pernicious part of this new  hate is the way it defines Jews as Zionists, and Zionists as evil.

“For a long time, the word ‘Jew’ was pejorative,” Mr. Foxman said. “We — the ADL — worked very hard to remove that pejorative sense. To change the  definition. So now the word ‘Jew’ has been replaced with the word ‘Zionist.

“I said a  long time ago that Israel has become the Jew among the nations. Zionism is the liberation movement of the Jewish people, and it is the only liberation movement that is evil. All other liberation movements — certainly the Palestinian liberation movement — are lauded. But Zionism is evil.

“Zionism is racist. Remember the vote in the United Nations?” The U.N. passed the Zionism-is-racism resolution in 1975; it was revoked in 1991.

“We” — that is the ADL, along with most American Jews — “believed that antisemitism is latent, but I don’t think that any of us could have imagined this explosion. What troubles me the most is not that it exists, but the lack of communal outrage.

“What we need is a collective response to the outrage. At the ADL, our concern has always been with bystanders. We have always tried to figure out how to make bystanders be upstanders.

“We tried. And we failed.”

He cited a quote attributed to Albert Einstein (who probably said something very much like it, but not necessarily in exactly these words): “The world is a dangerous place to live — not because of the people who are evil but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Jews are the canary in the coal mine, Mr. Foxman said.

“Jews are being used here. It’s not about Jews. It’s about our society. People are rebelling. They want anarchy. They want chaos. We, the Jews, are being used. They are using the Middle East and Gaza as a vehicle. It is a trigger for their anger. We are scapegoats once again.

“It is not about Gaza. Many of them don’t even know what Gaza is. But they know that it is plugged into antisemitism, and that antisemitism will attract a lot of people for a lot of other reasons. And it is working.

“Antisemitism is pernicious, persistent, and pervasive. It is like a tsunami. And there are very few upstanders.”

Would the attacks against Jews be accepted with such a lack of outrage if they were against any other minority group, Mr. Foxman asked rhetorically. No, of course not, he answered.

“We have to look at ourselves.

“I think that we have to stop gathering statistics on antisemitism. We spend a lot of time and effort on collecting data. I remember that when I first came to the ADL, 60 years ago, it was doing a University of California study on antisemitism. They spent half a million dollars on it.” That was a fortune back then.

“My mother said that they could save a lot of money. Why don’t they just ask me about antisemitism?” She knew.

“I think we have to stop ascertaining what it is. Does it really matter if it is up 10 percent or just 7 percent? We need to begin more sophisticated data-gathering. We have to be more sophisticated in understanding what it is, who it is, and why it is. We always have said that we don’t know the reason. The effort should be in finding the reason.

“We have to find a new strategy. How do we get our American institutions to make sure that hate crimes have consequences? And we have to understand why so few good people stood up.”

Looking back at the last half century, Mr. Foxman sees that “containment gave us a false sense of security. We  believed that the world changed after World War II, and that Israel could make a  difference. But now Israel is the Jew among the nations, and support for Israel is being used to bludgeon Jews.

“We need a functional, reasonable government in America, that understands that Jews are the canary in the coal mine. America now is losing civility, it’s losing respect for the truth, the media is not reliable, and all this has an impact on how Jews are being singled out.

“Jews need democracy more than anyone else does. All minorities need democracy. Therefore, whatever threatens democracy undermines the security of Jews and other minorities.”

There is also great danger to Israel, Mr. Foxman warned. “The situation there is far more serious than we could have anticipated. Its government is dysfunctional, it is at odds with the United States, the only real ally it has, at a time when Europe and the world are moving toward authoritarianism. In the United States, democracy is in danger.

“We are also alarmed at the global Jewish condition. Part of the Jewish people are in survival mode. The existential threat is real, and it is coming from many directions.”

But Abe Foxman still is Abe Foxman. He is alarmed, but his fundamental sunniness cannot be fully restrained. “At the end of the day, I continue to have faith in the Jewish future,” he said. “We have overcome much worse in the past. As long as we have faith, as long as we want to continue as Jews, as long as we have Israel, even if it’s dysfunctional — but we need unity, and we need strategy.

“Jews understand history,” he continued. “We understand that this is serious.” He quoted a friend as saying, “I have three kids in college named Greenberg. I worry. I don’t want them to change their name — but I worry.

“But in defesne of historical perspective, which we have, remember that at the seder we say that in every generation, they rise up against us to annihilate us. It’s not only a question of faith in the Almighty” — which people may or may not have— “but our faith in ourselves, in who we are, and in what we are.

“I am convinced that we will overcome this. It is a very difficult situation, but we will overcome it.”

And there are still miracles, Mr. Foxman added. Look at April 14, the night when Iran sent a blizzard of drones and missiles to devastate Israel, but Israel, with the help of allies, some of them, like Saudi Arabia, exceeding unlikely, was not harmed.

“It had been a long 2,000 years until 1948, when we got Israel,” he said. “Even though Israel is under threat, now we have it, and that makes a difference. It gives us hope. We have seen miracles in Israel. April 14 was a miracle.”

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