Interview: Abraham Foxman
Abraham Foxman has spent most of his adult life attempting to debunk racist stereotypes. As national director of the US-based Anti-Defamation League, his voice is regularly heard condemning antisemitism. Ironically, so strident has been that voice that some feel he has turned himself into a stereotype - that of the touchy Jew.
But if Foxman is sensitive to Jew-hatred he has a right to be. Born in Poland in 1940, he was taken in by his Polish nanny when the Nazis invaded. The nanny raised him as a Catholic and an antisemite until his parents, who survived the Holocaust, reclaimed him at the end of the war, after a long custody battle.
Foxman was brought up in New York from the age of 10 and later trained as a lawyer. He has devoted his professional life to the fight against Jew-hatred and he believes his wartime experience turned him into the man he is. "Maybe it's my antenna or my baggage from the Holocaust, but while many people were saying that we should be quiet and keep our heads down, I always believed we had to react to antisemitism. Of course, we also have to use our sechel, our wisdom and our judgement, but in today's world of modern communications we have to react."
Foxman's idea of reaction is not merely to give knee-jerk responses to the press. "The only weapon we have is our credibility. If we cry wolf then nobody will listen to us next time. It is important not to over-react and see things which are not there."
Having said that, he believes that there is plenty of antisemitism out there. And he has spent the past year or so writing a book about a particularly pernicious myth - the one concerning Jews and money. He says: "In western civilisation, antisemitism has two pillars. One is deicide - the killing of Jesus - and the other is the slur which emanates from the story of Judas - that Jews will sell anyone out for money. Add to this the concept of Jewish conspiracy, and the money myth plays both ways. Jews want power to make money and Jews use their money to buy power."
The trigger for Foxman's book was the conviction for fraud of financier Bernard Madoff, a man who was publicly identified as a Jew, and whose story was taken as vindication by antisemites for their prejudices. Foxman feels that while Madoff focused attention on the Jews and the money myth, it will not be significant in the long term. He feels that the worldwide economic downturn is far more dangerous. This is backed up by ADL opinion polls which say that 30 per cent of Europeans believe that the crisis was caused by Jews. "In an economic crisis, these stereotypes get reinforced. This is the time to talk about it, deal with it and expose it. It's not mild, it's not benign and Jews themselves need to understand what it is about," he says.
Even anti-Israel sentiments are fuelled by the money myth, he claims. "Zionists are seen as controlling US foreign policy. They are said to control Wall Street, which controls Washington, which controls the State Department. Our polls indicate that up to 50 per cent of people think Jews control US foreign policy, and in countries including Spain and Poland it is more than 50 per cent.
"It's worse than it was 10 years ago because the economy is worse. People woke up and found that the banks had foreclosed on them. They blamed the bankers, but, of course, the term banker is a euphemism for Jew."
The irony is that it was restrictive antisemitic laws which forced Jews to enter the financial professions, says Foxman. He cites many other cases to back his view that antisemites will seize on whatever they can to make their accusations, even when they are contradictory. "After the Holocaust, Jews had a reputation for being weak and passive, but we also have a reputation for being powerful and conniving, and in Israel Jews are condemned for being violent and repressive. We're both capitalists and communists. Prejudice does not need rational reasons or facts. Some of the stereotype comes from ignorance, but not all. Some antisemites are very erudite. Our best hope is with the ignorant ones, because you can educate them. That's the best antidote we have."
Foxman is particularly exercised at the power of the internet to disseminate hate anonymously and with phenomenal speed. He feels that in an era when the vilest Jew-hatred is but a mouse-click away, we need to be vigilent. "With the communications revolution and with 24-hour rolling news, we don't have the ability to say: 'Well, we'll let this one go'."
However, his willingness to put himself on the line has made him a controversial figure. He was strongly condemned for attacking Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ. "When Gibson made this movie, he was an icon in American film-making. Someone of that standing who gives legitimacy to the charge that the Jews killed Christ - at a time when 30 per cent of people in the US still believe this - needs to be challenged. So we spoke out. And lo and behold, guess what?" Foxman's beaming smile alludes to Gibson's subsequent antisemitic outbursts.
There has been more criticism over the charge that the ADL, an organisation dedicated to resisting discrimination, opposes the building of a mosque at Ground Zero. Foxman is weary of the allegation, mainly because, he says, the ADL has never opposed the mosque. "We believe they have a perfect right to build a mosque at Ground Zero or anywhere else. But is this the best method of bringing about reconciliation? Most of the victims' families say that Ground Zero is their cemetery and they oppose it. All we did was raise the question. But then very few people read what we say. They respond to what they think we have said."
Despite his anger at being, in his view, regularly misquoted, Foxman does not plan to moderate his voice - ever. He laughs: "On my tombstone I would be quite happy if they wrote the words: 'Abe Foxman spoke out'."