If ever a man had the ability to polarise opinion in the Jewish world, it is Abraham Foxman, the instantly identifiable and famously histrionic director of the Anti-Defamation League in New York, who has a justifiably fiery reputation. There is only one Foxman. Those who know him, even only slightly, nod knowingly when they hear I am to speak to him.
In more than 40 years with the ADL he has had a series of knockdown confrontations with the great and the not-so-good, and yet he remains the voice and the heart of the ADL, trailing the defeated bodies of the antisemitic world behind him like a poacher with a fistful of shot pheasants.
Some of Foxman’s critics think that he picks fights with the wrong people — Hollywood star Mel Gibson, for example, whose film The Passion became a box-office blockbuster after a series of increasingly bitter confrontations with the ADL.
But Foxman will have none of it.
With no trace of his Polish origins present in his creaky New York growl, he insists he has no regrets about challenging Gibson.
“I never called him an antisemite. I said he would fuel antisemitism. I think I have been vindicated about Gibson over and over again. I didn’t make Gibson the issue: Gibson made Gibson the issue.”
Foxman, as a Jewish politician, represents everything about American Jews which we quivering Brits have learnt half to resent and half to admire. He is defiantly out there and in your face; he sees no risk in taking his case to the very top, whether that is the Pope or the President. And he has made the ADL his own, so that it is hard to distinguish between the man and the organisation.
His own life story is suitably dramatic. He was born in Poland in 1940 and, as his own account makes clear, “my parents tried to stay ahead of the Germans and so we headed east. The Germans caught up with us in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius in 1941. For my parents, there was nowhere to run.”
The Foxmans’ nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi, was a Polish Catholic who took care of the little boy when his parents were rounded up in the Vilna ghetto. She renamed the child Henryk Stanislas Kurpi, and brought him up as a devout Catholic.
He was what is now known as a Hidden Child, except that this was hiding in plain view: a Jewish boy who went to church but could not play with the other children in case they discovered that he was circumcised. Both Joseph and Helen Foxman survived the war and began trying to get their son back from his nanny, who, he remembers, “had raised me to despise Jews”.
Kurpi first tried denouncing Joseph Foxman to the new Soviet authorities, but eventually there was a custody trial. Though the Foxmans won, an increasingly desperate Kurpi had one last attempt at keeping the child. She got some of her relatives to kidnap and hide him in an apartment building. The Foxmans found some Jewish friends to re-kidnap him. “This was the last straw. My parents now realised that they had to get out of Europe once and for all.”
The family spent three years in the American zone of a displaced persons camp in Austria, waiting for US visas; and gradually, Joseph and Helen Foxman re-introduced their son to his Jewish identity.
Foxman became a lawyer but chose not to go into court work: instead, straight out of law school, in 1965, he joined the ADL.
A simplistic way of looking at this would be to suggest that having come so close to being lost to Judaism, Foxman over-compensated with his Jewish advocacy work. Jonathan Jacoby, founder of the Israel Policy Forum, told the New York Times: “Then, he had to hide his identity. Now, he’s the most out Jew in the world.”
Whichever the case, the increasingly tough Foxman began to carve out a high, and at times, controversial media profile. He’s on good and easy terms with many reporters in the US and around the world, and even the most uninvolved of journalists is aware that Foxman gives good soundbite. He punctuates pithy messages about antisemitism with colourful New York slang: what’s not to like?
The ADL was founded in 1913 to combat the mistreatment of Jews and has evolved over the years in a number of directions, most laudable of which has been its championing of the civil rights movement. For Foxman, education and combating antisemitism remains the core of the ADL mission and though he says on its website that his dream would be “to put the ADL out of business… that would be the greatest achievement of all”, he has recently spoken of a “pandemic of antisemitism” in the wake of Israel’s Gaza offensive. So it might be gently suggested that the ADL’s message — for which read that of Abe Foxman — is not getting through.
Currently, Foxman is dealing with the noxious combined fall-out of economic meltdown, Bernard Madoff and Gaza. Interestingly, the word he chooses to rebut the connections among these three phenomena is the one with the most Catholic of connotations — “trinity”.
He says: “I don’t see this trinity… although it may subconsciously impact. But Jews and money are an ancient classic antisemitic tie-in which go back hundreds of years. It has become part of our culture. The term ‘Jewing down’, for instance…” I tell him that’s not a term I hear in common use in the UK, but Foxman, almost triumphantly, responds: “They don’t use it in front of you!”
Antisemitism and the ingrained use of antisemitic stereotypes is “out there”, Foxman maintains. He tells a story of the four-term Governor of Wisconsin, and latterly Health Secretary, Tommy Thompson, who sought to run in the 2008 presidential race. “He came to a group of rabbis to reach out to the Jewish community, and he told them, ‘You know, I now realise what it’s like to be Jewish.’ They said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, all my years were in public service, but in the last couple of years I went into business and I made money, so I now know what it means to be Jewish.’
There was a buzz in the room, and one of the rabbis explained the impact of what he said. And he said, ‘But I thought Judaism taught how to make money.’” Foxman is simultaneously incredulous and furious when he tells this story: Thompson had sat in the US Cabinet. He had wanted to be president. And this was the level of his ignorance.
He gives other instances of what he calls “classic antisemitism” and says that Madoff is simply “the icing on the cake. We did a survey recently: one out of three Europeans blames the economic crisis on the Jews. But we also did focus groups in four US cities on Madoff and you know what the response was? It didn’t matter because it was Jews screwing Jews. They didn’t feel it, because they didn’t get hurt. But the same people who believe Jews are too powerful in the economic world believe Jews are too powerful in the political world.”
Foxman sighs. “If you had asked me, say, 10 years after I started working for the ADL, I might have been more optimistic. Naive, maybe, believing that we could eradicate antisemitism, eliminate it.
“But as the years went on I came to the conclusion that the best we could do was to keep a lid on it, keep it under control. Make sure that it’s regarded as un-Christian, immoral, un-American, not British. But until and unless we develop an antidote or a vaccine, it will be with us. How much with us is the shock. I did not believe that it could reach the level that we saw last month. There aren’t even pretences to differentiate between Jews and Zionism. It’s Jews. It’s attacks on synagogues, it’s ‘death to Jews’ — it’s not only sobering, it’s very distressing.”
Even so, Foxman, ever the optimist, grins. “You could say, if we did not do what we are doing, it would be worse.”