'The only weapon we have': An interview with Abe Foxman
Abe Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League,
discusses his life, his career and his most important job — speaking out — with Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, Chair of the Board of The Defiant Requiem Foundation
This article is a summary of a lengthy interview between Mr. Foxman and Ambassador Eizenstat on July 15, 2014.
In January 1950, on the day a 9-year-old boy arrived in the United States after surviving the Holocaust, Boston was painted in gray.
It was raining when Abraham “Abe” Foxman, the future president of the Anti-Defamation League, reached America with his parents. His very presence there was remarkable — they were a family miraculously reunited.
For a significant part of his young life, he was raised by his Polish Catholic nanny while his parents were incarcerated. His mother ultimately escaped from a Nazi ghetto in Lithuania and his father was liberated in Estonia. The nanny, deeply attached to the young Abe Foxman, didn’t give him up without kidnapping him first.
The will to survive, heart wrenching legal battles and pure determination brought the family – together — to the U.S., but Foxman, now 74, acutely remembers a bleak first day in rainy Massachusetts.
The first meal they ate there, he said, was hard-boiled eggs and matzo.
“President Truman did not meet us at the dock,” he said.
Foxman spoke during a wide-ranging, impactful interview in July with Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, chairman of The Defiant Requiem Foundation, about his family’s survival, his nearly 50-year tenure with the ADL and the fight against anti-Semitism around the globe.
The two men have collaborated for decades. As President Jimmy Carter’s chief White House domestic policy adviser from 1977-81, Eizenstat worked with Foxman on issues involving Israel and civil rights. Currently, Foxman also attends meetings of the Jewish People Policy Institute of Jerusalem, where Eizenstat serves as co-chairman.
The ADL also directly partners with The Defiant Requiem Foundation by generously hosting performances of Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, in the U.S.. On Oct. 11, 2012, a performance in Atlanta hosted by the ALD chapter there with the Atlanta Symphony was well received by a packed house, and a similar partnership is planned for , 2015 May 25 in San Diego.
For Foxman, who is one of the most recognized, visible and respected spokespersons today on fighting anti-Semitism and advocating for civil rights, the importance of the Requiem performances is obvious. To him, it represents “the supreme example of the desire to live.”
“I think the real chapter of Jewish resistance is the spiritual resistance, the cultural resistance,” Foxman said in the interview. “… This almost naïve hope, spiritual defiance against those whose only purpose was to break you down and destroy you.”
That message of hope, he said, has its lasting impact. Audiences “want to celebrate the rise of the human spirit, and that’s what it does.”
“It reminds them, it teaches them, but they walk out with hope. They walk out to teach their kids about hope and (the) future, even though mankind sometimes is pretty nasty,” he said. “The more people see it, the more people experience it, the more they will understand the horrors and yet not be horrified by it.”
An unlikely upbringing
Speaking from his office in New York, Foxman detailed an incredible personal story of identity and perseverance that began with an unlikely upbringing in the Catholic Church. The association would frame his perspective for the rest of his life.
Foxman’s parents moved east from modern-day Belarus to escape the Germans, and eventually landed in Lithuania. When the order came in 1941 for Jews to report to the ghetto there, Foxman’s nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi, offered to take Foxman for his protection, after learning what would become of young Foxman. His parents agreed. He was less than a year old.
“Nobody thought it was going to be four years, and they made this very fateful decision which they could never articulate the rationale for it,” Foxman said. “It was a decision that not only saved my life, (it) saved their lives, because a unit of three with an infant, the chances of survival were minus zero.”
As a boy, he was baptized by a priest, recited the rosary and knelt at the altar. In those years, his nanny was known as his mother, and he was called Henryk Stanislas Kurpi. Foxman credits the church, and the courageous priest who converted him, with saving him from death and greatly influencing his views on Jewish-Catholic relations.
Foxman’s parents were separated, but survived. After a year and a half, his mother escaped from the Vilna ghetto in Lithuania, where thousands were murdered, forced to perform labor or sent to death camps from 1941-43. With false Aryan papers, she visited Foxman while purporting to be his aunt.
“So I got to know her as my aunt,” Foxman said. “She would provide. She stole, smuggled to make sure that (we) were taken care of. And dad was liberated in Estonia. My parents’ first thought was to come and get me, their only child, back.”
When Foxman and his parents were reunited, his nanny claimed that his parents were imposters who had had a child and then left it. There were no documents from the war years; however, after several custody battles, the Soviets ruled that Foxman belonged to his parents, and they were then repatriated to Poland. Foxman remembers that “the nanny went back with us to Poland. Her family kidnapped me. My parents got some Jews to re-kidnap me, and we got out of Poland and wound up in the American zone at a displaced persons camp from 1947-50. That’s when I really began to be Jewish.”
The boy who said the rosary had joined other Jewish children and attended a Jewish school. He tells the story of the first time his father took him to a synagogue, when he was 6. On the way there, he passed a Catholic Church and crossed himself. He passed a priest, kissed his hand, and went to synagogue on the holiday of Simchat Torah.
“I came home and I said I like the Jewish church because they sing and dance,” Foxman said.
His father traded his son’s crucifix for a Magen David (Jewish Star of David).
In 1950, Foxman’s family was granted visas, and they moved to the United States.
“I was 10 years old, and my father always said that in that time, I had lived a lifetime. After being reunited with my parents, I had to learn how to be Jewish. I used to say my prayers in Latin,” Foxman said. “My father taught me my prayers in Hebrew. … I didn’t understand Latin. I didn’t understand Hebrew. It didn’t matter. I stopped kneeling. To me, this was I guess when you grow up. You don’t have to kneel.”
A new life
He and his family came to the U.S. in 1950, and arrived in New York’s east side with the help of relatives and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which aided hundreds of thousands of displaced people after the war. Foxman called the experience “comfortable.” While his parents spoke Yiddish, Polish, Russian, German and Hebrew, he was the English speaker (he also knew Polish, Russian, and a little German, Yiddish and Hebrew).
He went to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, and he remembers sneaking out at lunch to sit with Jewish writers and authors. On weekend evenings, his father would take him to Yiddish book readings. There were five Jewish daily newspapers to read. It was, in his words, a “cocoon.”
At one point, he and his family traded city streets for a chicken farm — “another element of immigrant Jewish life,” he said.
“My father wasn’t well, and so he needed the country,” Foxman said.
With a loan from the Jewish Agriculture Society, they moved to a farm in Toms River, New Jersey, but Foxman called it “economically a disaster.” His father returned to work in the city, so they relocated to Brooklyn.
Foxman attended Yeshivah of Flatbush and the City College of New York. After graduating from NYU law school in 1965, he immediately took a job with the Anti-Defamation League. Ironically, the man responsible for Foxman’s introduction to the ADL, Dr. Joseph Lichten, was a former Polish diplomat who began the first Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the U.S. in 1953 and went on to participate in scores of other interactions with Catholic leaders.
Lichten was the ADL’s director of Jewish-Catholic relations who called Foxman’s father with a question: Would he be interested in translating a text on the ADL into Yiddish and Hebrew?
“My father said, ‘No, but my son would, maybe,’” Foxman said.
Foxman accepted, and the relationship between the two men turned into a job in the organization’s international affairs division.
“Lichten at the end of his days taught Jewish and canon law in the Vatican at one of their schools, but he was a pioneer,” Foxman said.
Foxman’s career has spanned a dramatic reshaping of Jewish-Catholic relations. He cites Pope John XXIII, who adopted a policy of reconciliation with the Second Vatican Council and famously declared to a delegation of Jews in the 1960s, “I am Joseph, your brother.” Pope John Paul II became the first pope to enter a synagogue as part of an official visit in 1986 and called Jews “our elder brother.” Foxman called that “the most important, significant, dramatic step in Catholic-Jewish relations.”
“Again, I came in with a very, very personal view because if it wasn’t for the Catholic Church or at least the Catholic woman of faith … I wouldn’t be here,” Foxman said. “Somebody else would be here.”
When he began his career, if a job hadn’t been available at the ADL, Foxman might have become a corporate lawyer. And if his parents hadn’t survived the Holocaust, he has said, there was a chance he might have become a priest.
“When I graduated law school,” he said, “I wanted to do something with and for the Jewish people,” he said.
‘The only weapon we have’
Foxman said he’s not quite ready to reflect on his most important accomplishments with the organization, but he is quick to identify the ADL’s most important commodity — its voice, and his voice, which reverberates faster than ever in today’s superwired, social-media-powered arena.
There was a turning point in how he viewed his role in the organization about 25 years ago. Something happened, he said, that paralyzed him.
“I woke up one day to realize that people are listening to what I’m saying,” he said. “Because … once you realize that you are being taken seriously, it’s a very scary moment.” What freed him from the insecurity of having a microphone, he said, was owning his mistakes.
“If you look at modern history and you look at the scandals in life, it’s not about the mistake. It’s about people not willing to take responsibility for a mistake, own up to it, apologize. If I make a mistake, I’m going to stand up and say I made a mistake and move on. It’s an insecurity, and I think that liberated me,” he said.
Using his voice, Foxman focused both his efforts and that of the ADL on fighting anti-Semitism both in the U.S. and around the world. With anti-Semitism being such a pervasive problem, Foxman said his challenge was “when to speak, how to speak, whether to speak – that’s because the only weapon we have is credibility. Where I came from, (my) philosophy (is that) if I am to be wrong, I’ll be wrong on the side of speaking out rather than being silent. I always get asked — well somebody’s says something anti-Semitic and you respond to it you only make it bigger. So what. I need to stand up so people know not to say it again. But credibility is all we have. You have to guard that.”
Just as important as exposing anti-Semitic views is “being able to say somebody’s not an anti-Semite,” Foxman said, “which is a lot tougher from where I come from in our society, and I have done so.”
Foxman has disagreed with presidents Bush and Obama, he said, but does not consider them anti-Semitic. After prominent fashion designer John Galliano was found guilty of making anti-Semitic statements in a Paris bar in 2010, he accepted responsibility and worked with the ADL, which issued a news release in January 2013 that recognized his efforts.
“People aren’t willing to forgive, which is another situation,” Foxman said. “If somebody is an anti-Semite and then tries very hard to atone and you don’t accept it … if I don’t believe that I can change people’s minds and hearts, why bother?
“Galliano studied Judaism and the Jewish community is not willing to forgive him,” Foxman said. “I said that’s horrific, too.”
What sets the United States apart from Europe, where anti-Semitic views are more prevalent, he said, is “societal consequence.” The actor Mel Gibson made anti-Semitic statements to a police officer during a 2006 DUI arrest, and later apologized, but “he paid a high price,” Foxman said. “That’s the difference in this country.”
Anti-Semitism around the globe
According to the ADL Global 100, an index of anti-Semitism that surveyed 53,100 adults in 102 countries and territories, about 21 million Americans harbor anti-Semitic views. That equals 8-10 percent of the U.S. population when the organization’s full, 11-question index is considered.
The ADL’s statistics are staggering in other parts of the world. Sixty-nine percent of people in Greece harbor anti-Semitic views. Twenty-seven percent in Germany. An average of 74 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, 24 percent in Western Europe and 22 percent in Asia.
And the ADL says the numbers are rising. A recent headline at adl.org proclaims: “ADL documents ‘dramatic’ surge in global anti-Semitism during Israel’s operation in Gaza.”
“I think we saw the beginning of (a) revival in 2002 or ’01 primarily in Europe, and the debate started. Is this the new anti-Semitism? Is it the old anti-Semitism? And the answer is yes,” Foxman said.
Anonymous electronic communication contributes to the upswing, he said: “It’s the old (that) we’ve never gotten rid of, and it’s the new, the Internet, which become a legitimizer. We don’t have to rehearse all the wonderful things that it does and can do and has done but the Internet is a superhighway. A communicator of [Anti-Semitism] you can spread it anonymously. It has no perspective. It just never dies. I think this is a major element in the vitality and the viability and the credibility of anti-Semitism.”
When the most recent ADL anti-Semitism survey was released in May 2014, The New York Times led an article with this fact: Nearly half of adults around the world have never heard of the Holocaust.
While the ADL is at the forefront of exposing and fighting anti-Semitism, Foxman said there is no “quick fix.” But the further the Holocaust drifts from the world’s consciousness, the more Nazis are trivialized, the greater the window for anti-Semitic behavior, he said.
As one example of the ADL’s efforts, it has invested time and money across the globe in law enforcement, a group that “can be part of the solution and part of the problem,” Foxman said. Anti-Semitism is just part of ADL’s mission: It also tackles LGBT rights, immigration reform, women’s equality and a host of other civil rights issues. Their outreach initiatives cover cyberbullying, Hispanic/Latino affairs and interfaith affairs.
“It’s education, education, education, education,” he said.
The next chapter
As Foxman nears retirement after 50 years at the Anti-Defamation League, he said the biggest challenge for his successor is clear.
“Eliminating anti-Semitism,” he declaratively said. “Whoever succeeds me still is going to have to deal with the fact that in terms of religious prejudice, in terms of acts against the community, we’re still No. 1.”
What’s next for the man who miraculously survived the Holocaust and escaped post-war Europe as a boy, and ultimately grew up to command one of the most influential organizations fighting anti-Semitism and advocating for civil rights? The longtime national director said he has no plans to fade from public view.
Foxman was adamant that his retirement — when it comes — will not be a quiet one.
“I think 50 years in one place is sufficient,” he said. “I think one needs to give the next generation time to establish themselves. I will try to find a place where I can continue to have a voice, where I can continue to make somewhat of a difference, but not with this platform … but with other platforms.”