For Jewish communities around the world, there is no name more synonymous with the fight against antisemitism than Abe Foxman. Born in Poland in 1940, Abe survived the Holocaust when his parents entrusted him to their Catholic nanny. He would go on to spend three decades as the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), speaking out against antisemitism and bringing it to the forefront of American minds. Throughout his career, Abe has written four books and made the ADL a household name through his relationships with prominent figures like President George W. Bush, Pope John Paul II, President Obama, and many more.
Please join us for Part II of a special series on antisemitism. Listen as Jay and Abe discuss his personal Holocaust story, his unparalleled career, and his take on antisemitism in America today.
Abe Foxman, Holocaust survivor and former national director of the anti-defamation league.
Speaker 1: (00:03)
All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: (00:13)
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman, and this is All Inclusive, a podcast focused on inclusion, innovation and social justice.
Jay Ruderman: (00:24)
For Jewish communities around the world, or those who have consistently battled against the uprise of religious persecution, there’s no name more synonymous with the fight against antisemitism than Abe Foxman. Born in Poland in 1940, Abe survived the Holocaust when his parents entrusted him to their Catholic nanny, who baptized him and raised him as her own son. After the war, Abe reunited with his parents and immigrated to the United States at the age of 10. In 1965, after obtaining his law degree, he joined the Anti-Defamation League. Abe would spend the next 50 years with them, 28 as its national director, devoting his professional career to educating the world on combating antisemitism. Throughout his career, Abe has been a trusted authority on antisemitism in the United States and worldwide, by prominent figures like President George W. Bush, Pope John Paul II, President Barack Obama, and many more.
Jay Ruderman: (01:28)
Abe, so good to see you, and it’s an honor to welcome you to my podcast, All Inclusive. I hope you’re well, I hope Golda is well.
Abe Foxman: (01:35)
It’s good to be on. Good to see you again.
Jay Ruderman: (01:38)
So, let’s jump right into it. How would you describe the current state of antisemitism in America and around the world?
Abe Foxman: (01:47)
I would say it’s serious, but not critical. It’s always been there. It’s always been out there. The difference today is, we’re more aware of it. We’re aware of it because it’s more covered in the media, because of the internet, because it’s being politicized. But basically, the disease has always been there. It’s been contained at times, it’s been underground, but it’s always been there. Today, it’s a lot more public. In the United States, there is one significant difference. No Jew has been killed in the United States, because he’s a Jew, for a hundred years. Since Leo Frank was lynched in Atlanta, in 1915, no Jew has died in this country because he was a Jew. That’s a major change. That’s a serious trauma to the American Jewish community, and I would hope to the American public, that even in this country, a Jews not immune from being hurt or killed because of his faith.
Jay Ruderman: (02:51)
So in terms of, that antisemitism is not worse than it’s been since the Holocaust in America, but you’re seeing more physical attacks and more killings than we’ve ever seen in the past.
Abe Foxman: (03:03)
Well, we’re seeing killings, I’m not going to say more killings. We’re seeing killings for the first time in a hundred years. The other thing is, again, antisemitism is more public because of the internet. There’s more of, it’s more visible. Look, I was with the ADL for 50 years. We, every year, we issued reports on antisemitic incidents. Every year we did studies on attitudes. They were always there, but nobody cared. Nobody covered it. Today, it’s more in the news, again, I said, because it’s politicized. There’s a political interest to hype a little bit, but the threat has always been there. I think when we realized, those of us dealing with the subject many years ago, that it’s a disease without a vaccine, without an antidote, we developed a strategy. What I would call a containment strategy. Put all the pieces together to set up a firewall, to make sure latent, to make sure that it’s not acceptable.
Abe Foxman: (04:02)
It’s worked, until about the last five or 10 years, where the firewall dissipated. Look, we had a containment policy, which was a combination of a consensus in this country of what’s right and what’s wrong. We had coalitions, we used litigation, legislation, coalitions, all these things together worked. Sometimes in one area with exposure, we use the media. We use truth. Antisemitism, at the end of the day, is the big lie. It’s the big lie about who the Jews are, what they are, what they believe, what their aspirations are, what their history is. And we use truth to answer that lie. Sadly, truth is gone today. In the last five or six years, the political establishment has destroyed truth. So, we’ve lost an element of response. The media. We used to use newspapers to answer the big lie, to tell the truth. And again, media today doesn’t have the credibility, the stature, the strengths, the power to respond to the antisemitism. So again, it was always there. It’s still here, but the environment has changed, dramatically changed. And, because there is no civil consensus about civility today.
Jay Ruderman: (05:26)
So, let me talk to you on that vein about leadership. Many of the people who are leading the world today, who have led the world in the past are people that you’ve interacted with. Biden is the president right now. You know Biden. You’ve had interactions with him. Do you feel that in terms of support for the Jewish community, responding to antisemitism, he’s where he should be?
Abe Foxman: (05:50)
Yeah, I think in most democratic countries, the difference in the past is that the democratically elected leadership is ready to speak out on antisemitism. Especially, you look at Germany and Merkel. Look where Merkel is on the issue. She’s been out there. She’s been outspoken. She cares, she raises her voice. And you find that in most democratically elected countries. So there is a shift from a hundred years ago, from 50 years ago, 70 years ago, where there was silence in positions of power. Look, sadly in the United States, there’s still this debate, where Franklin Roosevelt was on the issue of the Holocaust.
Abe Foxman: (06:30)
So, no, I think if you’re talking about Biden, absolutely, he’s there. He’s spoken, he’s acted. He’s appointed a new ambassador on antisemitism. I think on most cases, when you see any incident in this country, you see a response from this government, whether it’s from Homeland Security, whether it’s from the Justice Department, whether it’s from the Secretary of State, it’s there and that’s his leadership. So, that is not a problem. The problem is our general environment, and to what extent his words impact. That’s really the question.
Jay Ruderman: (07:06)
So, let me dig a little bit deeper on that. The last four years, the last administration, things seemed to get worse. And I don’t know if you met Trump personally or had any dealings with him. I know you’re a lifelong, or, most of your life in New York. He’s a prominent New Yorker. It seemed to me that there were dog whistles out there. Close to the Jewish community, obviously, his daughter is Jewish, his son-in-law is Jewish. But at the same time, when you had the March in Charlottesville, and the slogan, Jews Will Not Replace Us. And then afterwards him saying, “Well, there are good people on both sides.” Were there dog whistles there, that were sort of encouraging people who are anti-Semites to come out and be much more vocal about their antisemitism?
Abe Foxman: (07:53)
So, first, I know Donald Trump. I’ve known him in New York. I’ve known him in Florida, had a relationship. He endorsed one of my books. So we’ve had a relationship before the presidency. Not very much during the presidency. Look, Jay, the 200 Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were there before Donald Trump. He didn’t create them. They were there. They were Neo-Nazis. They were anti-Semites. What happened? What one can accuse Trump, or blame him for is he emboldened them. He gave them the legitimacy. These anti-Semites were anti-Semites, but they knew better not to go public. For whatever reason, as I talked about, we had this consensus of civility and yeah, our constitution permits people to be anti-Semites or bigots. But if you act on it, there are consequences. And so these 200 knew that if they acted out publicly, there’d be a price to pay. Whatever, maybe their job, maybe their kid, whatever.
Abe Foxman: (09:07)
They woke up one morning to feel times have changed. That, now it’s okay to surface, to stand in front of the media to say, “Jews will not replace us.” And they were emboldened by Trump and Trumpism, because what Trump did is he broke all their taboos. There were taboos in this country. What’s right. What’s wrong. Sure. You can do it. The constitution says you can do it, but you’ll pay a price. He’s spoke out in terms of racist terminology, et cetera, which said basically if it’s okay. And if it’s okay for the president, it’s okay from some guy from Charlottesville. And so, that’s the major difference. He’s not an anti-Semite. I’m not even sure he knows what it is, even though he’s engaged in some stereotype-like language. And again, I’m not sure he understands it. He has a daughter who is Jewish, has grandchildren who are Jewish.
Abe Foxman: (10:00)
I wrote him a handwritten personal letter after Charlottesville. And when he talked about, there are good people on both sides. And I talked about the impact it would have on his children, his grandchild. I didn’t get an answer back. But he made it okay. Not only about antisemitism. I think this atmosphere that all taboos have been broken applies to Asian Americans, applies to African Americans, Latino Americans, the LGBT community. You’re seeing a more open bigoted atmosphere out there. So he let the genie out of the bottle. I think this, Biden and this administration is trying to put that genie back in the battle. It’ll take time. It’ll take time.
Jay Ruderman: (10:45)
So, I don’t want to dig too much to his psychology, but he did some good things for the State of Israel. He was close to the State of Israel and obviously to the Jewish people. How do you put that together at the same time, sort of giving a wink and a nod to extremist anti-Semites, and at the same time saying, “Yep. I support the Homeland of the Jewish People.”
Abe Foxman: (11:08)
You can support Israel and still be an anti-Semite. That, one does not necessarily obviate the other. And I think from the perspective of the Jewish community, I think we should say, “Thank you,” to former President Trump for recognizing Jerusalem. We should say, “Thank you,” for his attitudes towards Jews and strengthening Israel, et cetera. But at the same time we should say, “No thank you,” for calling us double loyalists, that we’re not loyal enough for this country, if we don’t support him or his policy. No thank you for the immigration policies. No, thank you for the racism that you’ve legitimized. And so, I think as a Jewish community, we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Thank you, Mr. Trump, for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but no thank you for the atmosphere of legitimizing bigotry that you’ve released.
Abe Foxman: (12:03)
Look, there’s also this quandary. The Israelis, yes, the Israelis, the overwhelming majority of Israelis like Trump. The overwhelming majority of American Jews don’t like Trump. And, to me, I explained it very simply. You stand where you sit. Now, where the Israelis sit in terms of their environment, sure to them, he was a great president. Where American Jews sit, yeah, they like some of the things that he’s done. But in terms of the general atmosphere of this country, in terms of democracy, in terms of equality, et cetera, American Jews don’t like him. And I think we can deal with both at the same time.
Jay Ruderman: (12:41)
So, before we move to Europe and the rest of the world, in antisemitism and the role that plays there, talk for a second about your experience and the growth of antisemitism on two different spectrums in the United States. On the far right, and also at the far left, sort of at the same time.
Abe Foxman: (12:59)
Well, many years ago, over a hundred years ago, Mark Twain went to Europe, giving a lecture tour. And he came back from the tour, and he wrote an essay concerning the Jews. Wherever he went, he found antisemitism and it shocked him. He became a Philo-Semite. He became an advocate against antisemitism. And he wrote the essay and he said, “Smart people and dumb people are anti-Semites. Rich and poor, religious and atheists, albeit all walks of life were infected with this disease.” And what was true 120 years ago is true today. It’s a disease that serves interests, depending on the time, the period, the political environment, of the geographic environment. It’s a disease that metastasizes to serve interests. And so communists are anti-Semites, fascists are anti-Semites.
Abe Foxman: (13:58)
So, we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s antisemitism in the left and there’s antisemitism in the right, because what antisemitism does is serve certain interests. And blaming somebody else, scapegoating somebody else, whether for political, for religious, for economic reasons has always been there. And Jews have been the number one scapegoat in history. And so, yeah, it doesn’t surprise me that in our political environment, which is pretty extreme, you find antisemitism on the right. You find it antisemitism on the left. Shouldn’t shock us, shouldn’t surprise us. It should make us understand that we’re dealing with a disease, which still has no antidote and no vaccine.
Jay Ruderman: (14:46)
And is antisemitism different than being a racist, or anti-gay, or anti-trans, or all the other terrible things that go on in our society, where people hate other people? Is there something distinct about antisemitism?
Abe Foxman: (15:04)
Yeah, I think so. It’s interesting. I wrote down … I was watching some of the coverage and the Malmö, the Swedish government last week had an international conference on antisemitism, and the prime minister opened up. And as a whole, we’ve been dealing in the last several years on a definition of antisemitism. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance took six years trying to develop a definition of what antisemitism is, which 34 countries have adopted. A lot of organizations, universities have adopted. And, when I listened to it, I later looked it up and I wrote down how he defined, the prime minister of Sweden. Sweden has been iffy on a relationship with Israel, Jews, et cetera. So it’s interesting. And he basically answers your question. So let me read it.
Abe Foxman: (16:01)
He said, “Antisemitism differs from other forms of racism. It is in itself, a conspiracy theory based the notions of Jewish power, and Jewish interest, and the secret desire to rule the world. It is a specific toxic form that drives conspiracy theories.” So, that is quite different than racism, in general. You racism basically is, “I don’t like you because of your color and your ethnicity, maybe your religion,” et cetera. But this has very specific ideologies. It’s about Jews and money, Jews and power, Jews and control, et cetera, which was created by the anti-Semitic, John, and it feeds on itself. So yeah, to that extent, it’s different.
Jay Ruderman: (16:52)
So, let’s talk about Europe, and anti-Semitism in Europe, and what form it takes, and how it’s going. Specifically, in light of the rise of nationalism recently over the last few years in countries like Poland, and Hungary, Austria, how do you see anti-Semitism in Europe right now?
Abe Foxman: (17:13)
Europe, unlike the US, our politics have also been violent. We had a Civil War, which we lost 600,000 of our own, and I guess it was economics, but it was politics as well. But unlike the US, in Europe, politics and ideology is violent. And so, there’s always been violence attached to political differences, and certainly to isms with a loss of life. I don’t think that Europe has totally catharcized its Holocaust experience. I think when you look, in certain of the former Soviet union countries, they still compare communism to Nazism. They still see, don’t recognize if you will, the horrific uniqueness of the genocide of the Holocaust. Yeah, sure. Communism for fascism, or Nazism, the right foot is left. But for ideology, for territory, the Holocaust, Jews had no territory. Jews had no ideology. They were being exterminated because of who they are, and what they are, and what they believed in.
Abe Foxman: (18:21)
So, I don’t think Europe has, even to this day, understood the differences. It’s still there. There’s guilt, there’s ignorance. There’s politics. I still worry about what’s going on. There was a good sign, I think, out of Czechoslovakia this week, where something interesting happened, which was all the left of center, centrist political parties came together against the right. And the problem has always been that they splinter and they don’t understand the great threat of nationalism and populism. Yeah. So, I think there aren’t that many Jews in Europe, but I do worry about their future.
Jay Ruderman: (19:04)
And so, I’m going to ask you about a controversial issue in Poland. Poland passed a law saying, “If you equate the Polish people or the Polish government with the Holocaust, you can be prosecuted.” Any thoughts on that?
Abe Foxman: (19:18)
That’s ridiculous. I have a very, very emotional relationship with Poland. I was born in Poland. It’s nice. The time was bad. I survived because of a Polish Catholic woman who risked her life to save me. So there are two parts of the history of Poland during World War II. There’s the good part, which is the Bronislawa Kurpi, the Catholic Polish nanny who risked her life to save me. And, and there’s the other part of collaboration. There’s a part of Jews being killed after the war in Poland, who came back, who survived. So, the truth is there’s the two sides to that story. And to only say that there’s only good, and to say, you cannot talk about the truth. There was collaboration, there was antisemitism, there’s still antisemitism. It’s hideous and it’s horrific. And I would say, it’s antisemitism again.
Abe Foxman: (20:13)
So yeah, look, there is a very serious problem. There’s a problem of compensation and restitution. Poland is the only country that was occupied under the Nazis, et cetera, that has not dealt with the issue of restitution. I think all of the, I think most recently, Latvia just, or was it Lithuania? Latvia, just publicly said, “We will pay compensation to Jews.” There is a problem. The problem is that, look, there are some cities that were 50% owned by Jews. You’re talking about Łódź, you’re talking about Białystok. So if you were going to pay restitution, it would be very, very difficult for Poland, economically.
Abe Foxman: (20:56)
I once met a gentleman in Poland who came up with an ingenious approach, because I don’t think the Jewish people will resolve its relationship with Poland unless this issue of restitution is dealt with. But it has to be dealt with in a way that brings a measure of justice without hurting the Polish people. And he came up with an ingenious plan. He said, “Set a value of what Jewish property was. Let’s say it’s $10 billion. Symbolically, you give that $10 billion to the State of Israel, who are the inheritors of those who perished, and then the State of Israel reinvests that $10 billion in Polish industry, to create jobs, to change the infrastructure, et cetera. And the profits of that money goes for Holocaust education, or for aid to children, Jewish children in Israel.” And so that, nobody gets hurt. So, we need some ingenious creative plan to resolve it. Otherwise, it will haunt our children, and grandchildren.
Jay Ruderman: (22:03)
So, you and I traveled with a group to Poland many years ago, in a delegation of leaders of the Anti-Defamation League and officers of the Israel Defense Forces. And, it was a very emotional trip. You touched on this, but maybe you can talk a little bit more about being a child of the Holocaust, and your own personal story. And the impact that, that’s had on you, for what you’ve done for your life.
Abe Foxman: (22:32)
Well, I’ll share with you, but people have said to me, “Well, a million and a half Jewish children perished. You survived. You survived so you could do what you do.” That’s arrogance. That’s the height of arrogance. Who knows? Who knows why I survived? And when people say, “Well, because what happened to you, you spent the last, your adult life fighting prejudice and antisemitism.” My answer is, “Well, what about proctologists? Why does somebody decide?” So, I’m not comfortable with this cause and effect. I don’t know why I survived, and I’m not sure I know why I gravitated to where I gravitated. I started as a chemical engineer in city college, round out in political science, went to law school. And then, the ADL. I read a book about the ADL, and I applied, and there it was my adult life.
Abe Foxman: (23:22)
All right. So about my beginning, I was born in Poland. 1940 was a bad time to be born a Jewish kid in Poland. But I was very, very lucky, or miracles, or whatever you want to call it. We were in Poland. Some people knew, some people didn’t know. Some people had means. Some people did not. My parents had a sense of what’s going on. And so, as the war broke out in Poland, they moved east in the hope of staying ahead of the Germans. And they went to Baranovich. Baranovich is where my father was born. Baranovich today is Belarus. And that’s where I was born. Then as the war continued, or things got worse, my parents decided to continue to move further east. And the Germans caught up with them in the city of Vilna, which is in Lithuania. They had a nanny. They traveled with a nanny.
Abe Foxman: (24:20)
And, when the order went out for the Jews to be herded, assembled into a ghetto, my nanny said to my parents, “Listen, you go. I’ll take care of him. You’ll be back in a couple of weeks.” So, who knew what it was? My parents made one of the most difficult decisions for any parent to make and that is to separate from their child. Now, again, they had no idea it was going to be four years. They had no idea what was in it, but it was a fateful decision which saved my life and indirectly saved their lives. A, it saved my life, because she baptized me, protecting me, hid me, risked her life every single day, doing it. And at the same time, made it possible for my parents to fend for themselves.
Abe Foxman: (25:10)
A family unit of three with an infant had no chance of survival, but acting alone, and with the hope of coming back for me, they had a greater chance of survival. And in fact, my mother escaped on an error inside. She got false papers. I knew my mother as my aunt. I grew up with her as my aunt. She would provide for us. My father wound up in a partisan group, and were reunited finding me. And then things turned a little ugly. Then my nanny said to my parents, “I saved him. He belongs to me and the Catholic church.” And they tried every which way to say, “We’ll be a family. Whatever happens with us, you’ll be with us.” It didn’t impact. She tried to get my father arrested. She got him arrested by the Soviets, said he collaborated, and said he steals. They arrested him several times. And then the Soviets said, “You have to litigate this because we can’t play family politics.”
Abe Foxman: (26:12)
So, there was a trial with two appeals. The court ruled I belonged to my parents and we were separated. We were repatriated. Soviets permitted refugees within their empire to go back to where they came from. We went back to Poland. She followed, I was kidnapped. My parents kidnapped me back. And then we smuggled the borders to come, to eventually we got to the American Zone in Austria. So as my father would say, at the age of 10, I was an old man, but very lucky. The sad part, Jay, was, I never said goodbye to her. I never said thank you to her. And I remember, I couldn’t understand if she loved me so much, why was there so much hate and anger? And my father was a very wise man, said to me, “Everything in excess is no good. Too rich, too poor, too smart, too stupid, too fat, too skinny, too much love. Too much can turn into hate.”
Abe Foxman: (27:13)
And so, it’s sad because my father smuggled out pictures of us, of her. And when I asked him why he risks smuggling out the picture, he said, “Because I wanted to make sure that for the rest of your life, you had her face in front of you.” And sadly, ironically, Jay, and somebody asked me the question, “Would you remember her?” And I don’t know. If I hadn’t had the pictures, would I? I hope I would, but I don’t know. But, so to sum it all up, it’s miracles. Human miracles, and my father believed, God’s miracles. And what I did, I don’t know why I did it, but I was blessed, and lucky, and privileged to do what I did for 50 years, on the platform of the Anti-Defamation League.
Jay Ruderman: (27:59)
And, I understand that despite everything that happened to your family, you still sent packages to your nanny for years until she passed away.
Abe Foxman: (28:08)
Yeah, there was a process called [PEKOW 00:28:11] under communism, that you can send money and packages. We did, she had to sign for it, but no communication except that she received it. And then we received notice, the package had came back because she passed away. I’m still trying to find where she’s buried, try to bring closure, hopefully someday.
Jay Ruderman: (28:32)
Well, Abe, it’s quite a life that you had at a very young age. And, I think that you’ve turned it into a hugely successful life on behalf of the Jewish people and others. Let me touch on something I think is central in what’s going on now with antisemitism, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on the connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, because I hear this debated all the time. It’s debated on college campuses. It’s debated, I’ve been caught up on it. If you’re a supporter of the State of Israel as the Jewish Homeland, and if you’re connected to Israel, you’re attacked. And I’d like to hear from you, are those attacks legitimate, or is that antisemitism?
Abe Foxman: (29:22)
Let’s start with criticism of Israel. Can you criticize Israel and not be an anti-Semite? And the answer is yes, absolutely. There are more critics of Israel, of Israeli policy in the State of Israel, per square kilometer, and per square Jew than anywhere else in the world. So it’s not a question about criticizing the government, the policies. Yeah. That’s legitimate and it’s fine. I do, however, ask a question of people, not Jewish, not in Israel who criticizes Israel. And I asked the question, “Okay, so you set a certain standard and value. Do you apply this anywheres else? If you think that this is wrong, would you say that this is also wrong in China, in Cuba, in America, and Spain?”
Abe Foxman: (30:17)
And if, after a period of time, the only criticism of any government action that somebody is out there is the State of Israel, that at the end of the day, it’s not legitimate criticism. It’s singling out the Jewish states, singling out Israel for criticism, and that becomes antisemitism. But per se, criticizing the government or its policies, hey, you know what? That’s part of democracy. But, when it’s only focused on what Israel does and you set certain standards only for Israel, then at the end of the day, it metastasizes into antisemitism.
Abe Foxman: (30:58)
Then we go to Zionism. What is Zionism? Zionism is national liberation movement of the Jewish people. That’s what it is. It says, the Jewish people, like all other people have rights, aspirations for self-determination. To have its own country, its own flag, its own history, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So if you don’t like that, again, it could be okay. There are some people in this world who are universalists, who don’t like nation states, who don’t think anybody should be nationalists. That’s fine with me. You, want to be universalist. God bless you.
Abe Foxman: (31:35)
But if the only nationalism that you don’t like is Jewish nationalism. If the only country that has no right, and the only nation that has no right for self-determination to have its own country, its own flag, its own capital is the Jewish state, well whamo, you’re an anti-Semite. So, if you don’t like Zionism because it’s nationalism, I better not catch you liking Palestinian nationalism, or French nationalism. And so, what you find is it’s just an excuse. It’s a euphemism to try to legitimize their antisemitism on a political platform. The INEJ is, designed this movement, while it was created to make the Jewish people their normal, like all nations that have their own homeland, their own place, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And they thought this would do away with antisemitism because part of antisemitism is, the Jews don’t have a place.
Abe Foxman: (32:33)
But, if Jews become normal nation, with their own country, with their own laws, et cetera, then antisemitism will disappear. The irony is, that what the designer’s movement hope for in the fact, almost provided a platform for antisemitism. So, in the past it was, Jews can’t do this. They can’t be lawyers. They can’t own land. They can’t live here. They can’t do this. Now, it’s about Israel. Israel has become the Jew amongst the nations. So, every nation in the world can determine its own capital, except Israel. Every nation in the world has a right to defend itself, except Israel. So every nation can make its own rules, and it’s not called racist or apartheid, except Israel. So, you can criticize Israel if you criticize somebody else. If you only criticize Israel, then whamo, you’re an anti-Semite.
Jay Ruderman: (33:29)
And, as a child of the Holocaust, what do you think when you hear people say, which I heard during the last war with Gaza, Jews are white colonialists?
Abe Foxman: (33:39)
Well, it’s hideous. Look, Israelis compared to Nazis, we see this all the time. So either one or two things, either you’re ignorant of history, which most of these people are not. Or, you’re a bigot. To compare Israeli soldiers to Nazi soldiers, et cetera is hideous. But again, we try to apply reason, logic, rationale, decency to people who don’t engage in logic or reason, don’t care about truths. Listen, I worry more about trivialization of the Holocaust today, than I worry about Holocaust denial, Holocaust deniers, I said, just people say it is, it didn’t happen. Trivialization, when you compare mandates on vaccinations to the Holocaust, it undermines the history. So, some of these people, again, some of these people are comparing the Holocaust to vaccine mandate, either are totally ignorant of history, or they’re totally bigoted. Take your choice. Either one is no good.
Jay Ruderman: (34:42)
Do you feel that Jews are under a physical threat, both in the United States and Europe?
Abe Foxman: (34:50)
I would put it this way. I think if you were to say to me, “What are we doing fighting antisemitism today?” I would put, number one, security, security, security, security. I think again, in the US, law enforcement is with us. It’s on our side, will protect us, et cetera. But again, I go back to my years at the ADL. Every year, we would say to the American Jewish Committee and to the American public at large, “Listen, there is a potential. This is a poison, that has acted out in violence. So, you need to take it seriously.” In the last 30 years, since the FBI has been taking inventory, attacks against Jews are number one in America. So we should always take that seriously. And again, since what happened in Pittsburgh, and Poway, in Jersey City, where we saw on our soil that we’re not immune to Jews being killed because they’re Jews. Yeah, I think we should take security very seriously.
Abe Foxman: (35:51)
Then you, again, I think we need to rebuild a containment policy. I think we need to figure out how to bring back civility into our society, because it impacts so disproportionately on us. A lot of things that have changed, but probably the most significant element in making antisemitism so much more blatant is the internet, social media. Social media and the internet have already destroyed privacy. They’re on the way to destroying civility. It has provided a super highway for bigots, for the anti-Semites. You can now transmit anti-Semitic thoughts, conspiracy theories about Jews, lies about Jews in nanoseconds globally. What you could not have done 30 years ago. 30 years ago, you would publish it. You would put it on a fax machine. You’d have to have a meeting. Maybe you’d give a speech. You’d meet in some bar.
Abe Foxman: (36:57)
You couldn’t recruit. You couldn’t communicate this hatred in such a sophisticated manner as you do it today. And it impacts. That means, the hate is out there. It’s all around us in ways it never was. You have to go and seek it out. Or somebody had to seek you out. Today, it’s there whether you want it or not, it comes into your faith. So it’s a new challenge. And it’s a very serious challenge, because after 9/11, Jay, we struggled how to balance our freedoms, our basic freedoms with security. And we compromised. We used to get on a plane without any, just showing their ticket. That was it. We gave some of those freedoms in order to protect our safety and security. I think we’re at a stage in America and society where we have to figure out, how do we balance civility with freedom of speech?
Abe Foxman: (37:58)
Because, freedom of speech unfettered, it’s like crying fire in a crowded theater. Where is that balance? And I think we’re just beginning to deal with it. I don’t think that at this moment in time, we yet understand how the social media and internet is impacting on us. Listen, socializing has changed. Dating has changed. Some people talk to each other, or don’t talk to each other, has changed. Now, all of that has societal results. Some good. Listen, we can communicate better. We can exchange information. You resolve fights around the dinner table by asking what the answer is. So there’s some good stuff. There’s some fun stuff, but there’s also some very, very unintended consequences, which we’ve seen in the election, which we see in hate, which we see an impact on our children. And we haven’t yet begun to figure out how to deal with it. Is it legislation? Is it regulation? Is it from the pulpit? I don’t know, but I know that we better start dealing with it soon.
Jay Ruderman: (39:04)
So, let me ask you regarding social media. One of the most traumatic incidents that we’ve had as Americans recently is the attack on the Capitol, on January 6th. You saw people in that attack very, they were on social media. Obviously, people wearing t-shirts that said Camp Auschwitz. Antisemitism was part of that. Why? What’s the fit there between antisemitism and an attack on the American democratic system?
Abe Foxman: (39:38)
Well, it’s the people. Well, listen, the people who gravitate towards populism to super nationalism are people who gravitate to racism, and racist theories, and white supremacy. So they are white supremacists. And white supremacists have a higher level of antisemitism than other supremacists. So, and that’s, maybe shouldn’t surprise us. But, during my years at the ADL, I reached out to Palo Alto. I reached out to the geniuses who helped create this new world of social media, et cetera. And, I went, talked to them and I thanked them for their genius, giving us all these wonderful things. But as I indicated, I said, “But they’re unintended consequences, which are serious.” And their answer to me was algorithms. “We can’t help. We can’t do.” And we now know that was BS.
Abe Foxman: (40:31)
They control the algorithms, they move the algorithms. So we now know it’s within our power to monitor, to control. Now, then the bigger question is, who does it? Do we trust the business people who do it with the profit motive? Do we tell government to do it? I don’t know what the answer is, but January 6th, the recruiting was enhanced by social media. The message was enhanced. So yeah, it’s a serious challenge. But, I’m not surprised, Jay, that you found Camp Auschwitz on January 6th in the Capitol, because that’s where they come from. That’s part of their ideology. That’s part of their conspiracy beliefs.
Jay Ruderman: (41:15)
So setting aside, what’s going to happen with so social media and who’s going to reign it in, whether it’s going to be the social media companies or whether the US government is going to step in, or other governments. Some European countries have laws that curb antisemitism, or make it illegal to be outwardly anti-Semitic. Would those laws work in the United States?
Abe Foxman: (41:38)
No. It’s an irony that you point to. Europe has more anti-antisemitism, anti-hate laws than you can imagine. The US does not, because the constitution prohibits us from limiting free speech. Before I got to the ADL, there were efforts to find, to develop a hate law. And, it didn’t pass constitutional muster several times. So, the interesting thing is that what we have, until recently developed, is in our country, whether there were no laws, there were consequences. You paid a price for being a bigot. You can be a bigot and lawyers can defend your right to be a bigot. But if you acted in a bigoted way, at the end of the day, you would pay a price, whether it’s in politics, whether it’s in commerce, whether it’s in entertainment, whatever. And, to me, the best example that I have is Mel Gibson.
Abe Foxman: (42:33)
Mel Gibson, in time of his career was number one. Number one on People’s Choice. Number one actor, number one director, producer, you name it. He was king of entertainment until he exposed himself as a bigot and as an anti-Semite. And that’s when it wasn’t laws. It wasn’t litigation. It wasn’t. It was the consequences of the American people saying, “That’s not America. That’s not who we want.” And he paid a price. He went from number one all the way to the bottom. And that’s what had worked for us. And that was this, if you will, contract of civility. What’s right and what’s wrong. So, even though the law says to you, “Yeah, you can be a bigot,” but if you are a bigot in the public arena, you paid a price because it was un-American, and unacceptable, immoral, un-Christian, whatever it was. We’ve lost that. We’ve lost that consensus of assure that. Legislation basically says, “This is what the American people, or New Jersey, or Massachusetts believes in.” But, you still have to have the people accept it.
Abe Foxman: (43:42)
Look, in the ADL, we pioneered hate crimes legislation. And again, very interesting. It was to punish for a hate crime, but we were very careful not to make speech or intent a crime, because again, it would not pass constitutional muster. So, what does a hate crime legislation mean? There has to be an underlying crime. So, if you commit arson for say, to collect money on insurance, the penalty is one year in prison and a thousand dollars. But if I can prove that you committed that arson, because you didn’t want the African American, or the Jew, or the Hispanic to live next door to you, and you committed arson the crime, then your punishment is two years in prison and $2,000.
Abe Foxman: (44:34)
So, it goes to the penalty because it says, “American society so abhors hate that if you commit a crime, which normally is a crime, but if you do it for hate purposes, you will pay a greater penalty.” And that goes to the issue of consequences. That, Jay, has worked in our country. It’s falling apart. It’s falling apart because again, truth is gone, right and wrong is gone. The media’s gone. All these things worked in the system where you didn’t need legislation to say, “Don’t hit somebody because you don’t like him for who he is.”
Jay Ruderman: (45:12)
But, Abe, I think that the point about Mel Gibson is, it was your activism and the activism of ADL that called him on the carpet, pointed out his antisemitism, and really elevated the issue without any legislation. But I think the point you make is that, activism is important. It important to take a stand and to speak up against antisemitism.
Abe Foxman: (45:35)
Well, but there’s also something else that’s happening. What’s happening is people are dealing with it now in a different way. It’s called cancel culture. I was always opposed to cancel culture. I believed it was our job to change people’s minds and hearts. And you don’t do it by cancel culture. What you do is, you remove them, but they’re still out there. And so, yeah, I tried in my years and in public service to try to change people’s minds and hearts. There was always, at the end of the day, consequences, if you don’t. To be very honest with you, I never personally interacted with Mel Gibson. It was, they tried every which way, but there was no agreement as to what we’re talking about. But society acted. Yeah. We made it public. I spoke out, I challenged, I questioned, but it was the societal response that made the difference. Today, we’re not trying to change people’s minds and hearts. We want to cancel them out. I think at the end of the day, we’re all going to pay a very serious price for that.
Jay Ruderman: (46:42)
So, let me ask you, you’ve been an activist, but you’ve also, you’ve had the ear of presidents. You’ve spoken to presidents like George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama about antisemitism. What would you advise the United States, or President Biden today? What’s the best thing he can do to combat the rise of antisemitism in the United States?
Abe Foxman: (47:04)
Number one is, protect democracy. First and foremost. Democracy is very important to minorities and certainly to the Jewish people. When there is no democracy, Jews suffer. Number two is, to be a bully pulpit. That’s the biggest bully pulpit in the world. The world listens to the president of the United States. And, so when he speaks about antisemitism, when he speaks about prejudice, when he speaks about those issues, it’s very, very important. And then of course, to make sure that the instruments of government follow the message, so that law enforcement and FBI gather the data, that Congress look at the data seriously.
Abe Foxman: (47:46)
And, there is legislation in certain areas that, there are issues of protections, of security. The community itself, the Jewish community, I think can afford all the funding that would be necessary to protect all the Jewish institutions. So there is a role for government, federal, and state. And then again, comes out of the message, comes out of the bully pulpit. I think, what the leader, what the president says, what the governor says, what the mayor says does make a difference. And what’s important is, that they speak out in time, in real time. Not wait several days until it moves away. So, yeah, I think they have a role. So far, I have no complaints.
Jay Ruderman: (48:28)
So, I want to ask you BDS. There is a famous case a couple weeks ago, Ben, and Jerry’s said, “We’re going to stop selling our ice cream in parts of Israel.” It got a lot of attention. It’s a movement that’s trying to de-legitimize investment in Israeli companies. What are your thoughts about it?
Abe Foxman: (48:54)
I’m a minority view on the whole subject of BDS. I think BDS, there’s no question in my mind that it is antisemitism, because it attacks the legitimacy of Israel. It’s being, et cetera. So, I don’t have an issue with how we define BDS and that it is anti-Semitic because it says, “Boycott Israel. Israel has no legitimacy. If you boycott it, then it will cease to exist.” I have an issue with how serious it is. And that is, to some extent, I think we have given it more success that it deserves. At the end of the day, all right. So big deal, Ben and Jerry’s. Big deal. What impact does it have on Israel’s security, wellbeing? And you had the soda company that was boycotting it. After all is said and done, they’ve had no successes. That means, no university has canceled its relationship with Israel, if it had one, because of BDS.
Abe Foxman: (49:54)
I was a man who recently met with the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu then. We talked about BDS and he said, “You know what, Abe? I don’t have time to go to the bathroom. The countries are lining up. Corporations, they want to do business with us.” So, and you take a look BDS, and now you have the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. So, it’s almost ridiculous that, we’re talking about Ben and Jerry’s when Arab Muslim countries are making peace with Israel. So, I’m a little concerned that we give it so much attention, that it gives it more credibility than it’s worth. But what they have, the only thing they have achieved is it frightens campuses. Campuses, universities don’t invite Israelis, because they don’t want noise. They don’t want controversy. There they have succeeded. I mean, we really should fight it. But in terms of impacting on Israel’s trade, economy, place in the world, it has had no impact. It hasn’t. So let’s not give them more credit, and more visibility than they deserve.
Jay Ruderman: (51:02)
So you raise a good point about college campuses. There’s been surveys that have said, that there’s a shocking lack of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen Z. How do we turn that around? How do we teach them about the Holocaust, and not repeat the mistakes that have been made in history?
Abe Foxman: (51:22)
Well, Jay, I was on a college campus in the ’60s. It was weird. Nowadays … It was no picnic being pro-Israel, and a Zionist on the college campus in the ’60s. There was SNCC, and CORE, and there were Arab students and there were swastikas. There was no internet, that made it not huge. But, today on the college campus, when it comes to Israel, there are more college students that have visited Israel than ever. So, in my time there were very few. There are more pro-Israel organizations on a college campus today. In my day, there was students learning this organization in ALL. Today, there’s a confederation of organizations on campus. So I don’t see the campus as that much of a calamity.
Abe Foxman: (52:08)
When you come to the subject of the Holocaust and knowledge of Holocaust, we first have to take a look at how we teach history. We don’t teach modern history. By the time I finished high school, and I went to day school, so it’s different. But look at the curriculum of public schools and high schools. They don’t teach geography and they don’t teach modern history. So, World War II, most students never get to in high school in the United States. Okay? They just don’t get to it. And if they get to it, it’s very minute. And so, the Holocaust doesn’t make an impact at all. So I, again, I am not shocked that so many people don’t know what Auschwitz or the Holocaust is. I would be shocked if Jewish kids didn’t know, but at the same time, I think there are serious efforts to educate. I think there are now 13 states in the United States that mandate education on the Holocaust. But again, you need specialized teachers. You need time, you need funding, et cetera.
Abe Foxman: (53:06)
To me, Holocaust is not so much about Jews as it is to teach what hate can do. It’s a vehicle. It’s a platform. Recently in New York, got a Museum of Jewish Heritage, we brought an exhibit in Auschwitz. And I argued that the title, subtitle of that exhibit should be, “See what hate can do.” The Holocaust needs to be a lesson, a universal lesson of unchecked hatred can eventually lead to an Auschwitz. I’m not sure we’ve done that very successfully.
Abe Foxman: (53:42)
On the other hand, there are more books and more films written about the Holocaust, 70 years later, than we ever could have imagined. I sat on the council that decided on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. And I remember we agonized, “Listen, we’re going to build this museum in Washington. And after the Jews come, nobody will come and it will be an insult to the victims.” How wrong we were. In the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, until recently was number two. Now it’s number three after the African American. So again, the other side of the picture is, thousands of Americans are coming to know, and understand, and learn. We have to make sure that we focus on the lesson, and the lesson is, the Holocaust and the genocide of Jews, it shows you and teaches you what uncontrolled hate can lead to. That’s an universal lesson based on Jewish history.
Jay Ruderman: (54:40)
It’s so powerful. And I just want to add that, we’ve talked a lot about antisemitism, but at your time at ADL, you have been a champion of historically marginalized groups, and standing up for them. Immigrants, the LBGTQ community. How did that happen? That as a Holocaust survivor, you looked at other groups and you said, “I’m going to stand up, and speak out in favor of them.”
Abe Foxman: (55:06)
Jay, the ADL mission when I was there was to fight the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure equal rights for all. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have rights for one group, or not have rights for the other. Chances are, bigots today hate one, tomorrow hate another. So, it’s all linked. And a struggle to fight antisemitism is the same struggle to fight bigotry against any group that’s singled out, because who they are, what they are, what they believe, what they look like, what their sexual orientation is. So, I always saw it as part and parcel of our struggle for equality. And, if we didn’t fight for other people’s rights, then our equality would be meaningless, if and when we achieved it. So, it was never a question of debate, discussion. It was always there. If you strengthen the rights of one group, you at the same time strengthen the rights of other groups, but you also have to be ready to stand up for them. And we did.
Jay Ruderman: (56:07)
It’s an excellent point. And I just want to end with, 50 years working at the ADL, being a champion of combating antisemitism, hate, is there something that you’re most proud of? I know that’s a really difficult question to ask someone which with such a long and varied career, but is there something that stands out to you?
Abe Foxman: (56:28)
No, it’s interesting, but when we had our hundredth anniversary, people asked that question. Not about me, but what’s in the history of the ADL, though. “If you had to find one significant thing that you guys did that had the greatest impact on hate, what would it be?” And so, yeah, I came up with one. I wasn’t there, but I think if you’re looking for one thing that, and that is we pioneered, we wrote, we drafted anti-mask legislation. This was in a heyday of the Klan, and the Klan was active. And what you had was bigots who during the day were lawyers, doctors, Indian chiefs, whatever, members of society who at night, covered their head with a hood and acted out their racism and their bigotry.
Abe Foxman: (57:23)
So, we passed a law called the anti-mask law, which basically said, “You can be a bigot. You can say whatever you want, but you must take responsibility for it.” And it removed the mask from bigots, and therefore removed the mask from the Klan. It couldn’t march in the streets with hoods. It couldn’t meet, et cetera, et cetera. It was the one single act that was the thing that destroyed the Klan. Because if these people could no longer hide their identity, which could affect their jobs, their welfare, whatever, all of a sudden they weren’t bigots. I think that was the most significant. Ironically, 50 years later comes the internet and puts that hood back on the bigot. So today, the bigot can operate internationally anonymously. It sort of sets it back.
Abe Foxman: (58:17)
I don’t think any of us can point to one thing. There are times, it was great satisfaction in communicating with somebody, having somebody understand that they’re bigots. Sometimes even trying to rehabilitate somebody. So, on a personal level, there were a lot of those things, but in its totality, thank God, there is an ADL. There was an ADL. There’s American Jewish Congress for each committee. Thank God that the Jewish community understood that it needs to organize to fight bigotry, not only for itself, but for Americans all.
Jay Ruderman: (58:51)
Abe, I want to thank you so much. It’s been an honor speaking to you. I learned a lot. So, thank you so much.
Abe Foxman: (59:00)
Jay Ruderman: (59:01)
And I wish you good health.
Abe Foxman: (59:03)
Stay safe and see you soon.
Jay Ruderman: (59:05)
Speaker 1: (59:10)
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