Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti Defamation League (ADL), has announced that he will step down in 2015.
Over the past 50 years, the name Abe Foxman has become a byword for the fight against antisemitism and prejudice. During his career he has dealt with presidents, prime ministers and politicians, many of whom sought his advice on issues affecting their Jewish communities.
Under Mr Foxman’s leadership, the ADL, headquartered in New York, has become an organisation with 30 regional offices, a permanent presence in Washington DC and an office in Jerusalem. Add to that dozens of community programmes and anti-racism initiatives and you get a glimpse of the kind of powerhouse that is the ADL.
US President Barack Obama’s tribute to Mr Foxman underlined his importance to public life. Mr Obama called him “a tireless voice against antisemitism and prejudice in all of its forms, always calling us to reject hatred and embrace our common humanity”.
Part of Mr Foxman’s success as director of the ADL has been his ability appeal to a plurality of Jewish communities in the US, regardless of their religious affiliation. Key to that appeal is his willingness to criticise injustice wherever he sees it.
When Mel Gibson’s film The Passion hit the cinemas it was Mr Foxman’s voice that the media was clamouring to hear. Characteristically, he did not pull his punches when he said: “I think he’s infected, seriously infected, with some very, very serious antisemitic views.”
The ADL was never an organisation concerned “just” with antisemitism. Mr Foxman has stood up numerous times for the gay community and against Islamophobia, even when doing so has generated controversy.
Controversy is something that has dogged him throughout his career. He made headline news in the New York Times for all the wrong reasons by coming out against the building of a mosque near Ground Zero. The story led to him and the ADL being tarnished by the brush of Islamophobia in the US. He also sparked controversy when he argued against a 2007 Congress resolution recognising the Armenian genocide.
From his early life, Mr Foxman was exposed to the very worst antisemitism. He was born in Poland in 1940 and was hidden with his nanny’s Catholic family while his parents were forced into the ghetto. After the war, his parents had to fight to win custody of him from the people who hid him. They then emigrated to the US.
Mr Foxman qualified as a lawyer and began his career in Jewish advocacy at 25. The ADL — and indeed the American Jewish community — has changed a great deal since then but it has always been able to rely on the guiding hand of Mr Foxman.
He will be a tough act to follow.