NEW YORK – Over 28 years as head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman emerged as a forceful torchbearer for American Jews. He counseled presidents and diplomats, CEOs and celebrities. He took on prominent figures over anti-Semitic remarks or representations — actor Mel Gibson among them — and accepted any ensuing apologies on behalf of an entire community. No other U.S. Jewish leader has wielded as much influence with policymakers, faith leaders and U.S. Jews.
On Monday, Foxman retires as national director, a major moment of transition in American Jewish life that raises questions about the future of the organization known as the ADL.
Foxman, 75, spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday amid the partially packed file boxes and memorabilia in his Manhattan office. He talked anti-Semitism and Israel, took on his critics, and reflected on the past and future of an organization he helped mold.
ANTI-SEMITISM IN AMERICA
There's both good news and bad in how far efforts to fight anti-Semitism have come since Foxman started with the ADL as a staff lawyer a half-century ago. The organization, which tracks anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents in the U.S. and overseas, has seen a decline in such problems here but a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic views in Europe while pervasive stereotypes persist elsewhere overseas.
The Internet has given bigots a way to spread their beliefs "not only anonymously but at the speed of light," said Foxman. Internet searches for "Holocaust," for example, yield results that include numerous denial websites.
"This is, today, where anti-Semitism lives and spreads," he said.
On the positive side, he said no effort has had a greater impact at fighting anti-Jewish prejudice than the 1965 declaration "Nostra Aetate" from the Roman Catholic Church, which stripped away any theological justification for anti-Semitic beliefs. Pope John Paul II furthered that message during his tenure, becoming the first pope to visit a synagogue (in Rome in 1986) and later praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
"It hasn't changed everything," Foxman said, "but it has been the most dramatic change."
The ADL was founded in 1913 with a mandate to fight anti-Semitism and all bias. But the emphasis differed over time depending on who was in charge and the issues of the day.
Foxman has faced criticism that the ADL puts too many resources into non-Jewish issues.
Under him, the organization built a formidable research arm into white supremacists and other extremists, advocated for immigrant and gay rights, conducted diversity training for law enforcement and developed programs for schools on issues ranging from the Holocaust to the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the impact of bullying.
And though Foxman opposed a planned mosque near ground zero in New York, his organization formed an interfaith coalition to defend mosque construction elsewhere in the U.S.
The complaints about the ADL's direction are part of a wider American Jewish debate about whether Jewish organizations should keep a strict Jewish focus or have a broader reach, according to Sarah Benor, a Jewish studies professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
Foxman said such critics are usually uncomfortable with the ADL's positions on gay rights, Latino immigration or other issues. In response, he quoted the Jewish sage Hillel: "But if I am only for myself, who am I?"
Said Foxman: "We have always believed you can't fight one kind of defamation without fighting the other."
TO FORGIVE OR NOT TO
Foxman long endured objections that he overreacted to perceived slights against the Jews and was too quick to condemn. Yet he was also chided for too easily forgiving and embracing those who repented their anti-Jewish remarks.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson's relationship with the Jewish community was left tattered after anti-Semitic remarks he made during a 1984 presidential bid. Yet Jackson emerged in the 1990s as an opponent of anti-Semitism, in part because of Foxman's counsel, according to J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of the Jewish newspaper The Forward. At a retirement dinner last month for Foxman at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel, a video tribute included a photo of Jackson with one arm around Foxman and the other around Henry Kissinger.
Foxman said it was essential to accept apologies, especially from those who can serve as prominent allies for Jews.
"If you don't let them change, then you become the bigot."
Foxman has taken the position that criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Jewish. But he said the condemnation often crosses the line into bigotry when it fixates on the wrongdoings of Israel, and ignores positive developments.
Foxman said the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement aimed at ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is "99 percent of the time" anti-Semitic. (BDS leaders say their battle is against Israel, not Jews, and they deny any bias.) The ADL has developed a list of "Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups" in the U.S., and provides training and resources on college campuses to combat anti-Semitism amid anti-Israel protests.
Foxman's successor is Jonathan Greenblatt, 44, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor who interned with the ADL in college and worked in the Obama administration shaping national service and civic engagement programs.
He joins an organization with a big budget ($60 million annually) and big bully pulpit, yet he takes over at a time when the American Jewish community is splintering. Fewer U.S. Jews formally affiliate with a synagogue or religious movement and the DIY ethos pervading American philanthropy has led to a proliferation of small Jewish nonprofits focused on very specific concerns.
Foxman said the multi-issue ADL can still play a critical role in Jewish life. "I believe our mission is, unfortunately, even more credible than when we started."
He plans to still work with the ADL as a consultant, but Foxman demurred when asked what advice he's shared with Greenblatt.
"People keep telling him, 'You have big shoes to fill,'" Foxman said. "They said the same thing when I came in."