Abe Foxman: Bad for the Jews

Three cheers for Fareed Zakharia, who yesterday announced he was returning the award and the $10,000 honorarium he got from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) after their abominable support of bigotry and hate in the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy in New York.

The ADL and its leader, Abe Foxman, have come under a great deal of criticism, and a significant amount of it has come from unusual sectors.

ADL President Abe Foxman

It isn’t enough.

The ADL’s hypocrisy when it comes to Israel should have discredited the organization some years ago, after many decades of their being a legitimate leader in the fight for civil rights in America.

Consider these words, which Foxman wrote in 2007: “The Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn’t be the arbiter of that history, nor should the U.S. Congress, and a Congressional resolution on such matters is a counterproductive diversion and will not foster reconciliation between Turks and Armenians and may put at risk the Turkish Jewish community and the important multilateral relationship between Turkey, Israel and the United States.”

Do we even have to guess how Foxman (or most any Jew) would react if the Holocaust was spoken about in such a manner? The notion that such political considerations should factor in any way into the acknowledgment of genocide should be profoundly offensive to anyone, certainly to a Jew steeped in Holocaust memory.

But their stance on the mosque is a new low. The ADL has openly sided with bigots on this issue. And, laughably, their defense is that “Just because bigots agree with positions you hold, does that make you a bigot?”

Hey, Abe, remember the book you wrote a few years back, The Deadliest Lies? You know the one where you claim to respond to Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby, but in fact hardly addressed the substance of their book at all? How often did you discuss, in the book and in subsequent interviews, all the people who allegedly held (though they almost always did not) the same views as Walt and Mearsheimer? (*NOTE: For a more serious, yet respectful, challenge to W&M’s views, see my piece here as well as the article I wrote with Chris Toensing at Middle East Report Online)

But the problem is not the mealy-mouthed racism of Abe Foxman. No, the problem is how he and others like him have turned a victim identity into a collective identity for so many Jews. In Foxman’s view, we should indulge those people whose bigotry rises from a horribly traumatic experience.

One cannot say how many bigots draw their hatred from such real experiences, but surely it’s many. A man who was deeply wounded by a woman; a person of one skin color who was beaten and robbed by a person of another; a Palestinian whose home was destroyed in the middle of the night by a group of Jewish soldiers. All of these are trargedies, traumas which could have permanent and very serious effects on a person’s life. But if that person then attacks an innocent of the same group as the person who hurt him or her, are these “sensitivities” also to be catered to?

Of course not. Among the most fundamental ideas in anti-racism/sexism/homophobia work, or efforts against bigotry of any kind, is that the actions of an individual, or several, cannot be taken to define the group. If I am robbed by a black man, I am justified in anger against that man. If I have anger against all black men, I am a racist. Would Abe Foxman really dispute that? Maybe he would, but if so, that makes him a bigot.

In my view, this issue goes deeper than Foxman’s brand of Jewish/Israeli exceptionalism. Sure, he obviously clings to this racist theory because it gives Jews and, more to the point, the State of Israel a great deal more latitude for action as long as we wear the mantle of victimhood. And who can deny that Jews are the ultimate victim?

Well, it’s time we Jews did.

The history of anti-Semitism is long and onerous. The fact that before the 20th century, that history was not nearly as bad in the Muslim world as it was in Christendom speaks not to the tolerance in Muslim lands, but to the brutality of historical Christian anti-Semitism. In its secular form, that anti-Semitism found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust.

But since then, we Jews have experienced a period of prosperity that is close to unique in our history. In the US, Europe, Australia, Canada, we are generally accepted, organized and well off. But you wouldn’t know it to listen to Foxman and some other Jewish leaders.

That is not to say anti-Semitism has disappeared. I have personally experienced a good deal and a wide spectrum of it. As a child, I grew up in a housing project in New York, an Orthodox Jewish kid, one of few in the neighborhood and, along with my brother, the only one we knew of in our project. The threat of violence was real enough that the few times I ventured out of doors without an adult, I was immediately set upon, with the assailant kids’ parents sometimes looking on, impassive. Later, in a neighborhood that was more mixed, I and my brother still encountered violence on occasion, our yarmulkes making us targets.

Later, as an adult and activist for peace in the Middle East, I repeatedly encountered bald-faced anti-Semitism, in the form of conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial and just straight out unambiguously bigoted epithets. True, the people whom I encountered it from were very much the exception, in stark contrast to ADL’s bogus “new anti-Semitism” theory, but they serve to remind us that anti-Semitism still loves and sometimes it hides among those who legitimately are working for justice for the Palestinians.

But anti-Semitism is just not with me, or with the overwhelming majority of Jews, every day the way racism is to an African-American or sexism is for a woman. That doesn’t mean we need not be vigilant; this state of affairs can change quickly, as it has in the past. But we should not allow that vigilance to overwhelm our ability to enjoy our freedom as Jewish citizens, or to act responsibly with our fellows.

The notion of “Jew as victim” is the foundation of Foxman’s ideology, and the common thread in his stances against bigotry in the past, against recognizing the Armenian Genocide and his current one against the Ground Zero Mosque. It is a notion that is a subtext in much of the aging Jewish leadership; we, as Jews, will not be truly liberated until we move past it.

And Israel will not be a normal country until it does the same.

Israel faces double standards all the time, as we all hear so often. The trouble is those double standards actually work both ways. Just look at some recent events.

Both Hezbollah (Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah accused Israel of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005) and Hamas (who just today claimed Israel had fired missiles from Sinai at its own city of Eilat in order to justify more attacks on Gaza) have made rather absurd accusations against Israel which play well to some of their supporters. Some will believe it, just as some jumped on Israel before evidence was in hand in their firefight with Lebanese troops last week.

On the other hand, in a display of what can only be called the most blatant racism, a former member of the US cabinet under Bill Clinton was harassed and delayed at Ben-Gurion airport because her name was Arab. Instead of expressing offense and shock, Donna Shalala expressed her support of Israel’s blatantly racist treatment of her.

Both double standards stand in the way of Israel being treated as a normal country. And they make it difficult to both strongly identify as Jewish and enjoy what remains one of, if not the best, eras to be a Jew in history.

Until we can rid ourselves of leaders like Foxman who embrace the “Jew as victim” identity, we will not, as a people, transcend that identity. Foxman and his ilk cannot disappear from the scene fast enough for the good of the Jewish people, the good of Israel and the good of all who work with us.

8 thoughts on “Abe Foxman: Bad for the Jews

  1. Oddly, Foxman’s ADL statement deplored hatred and bigotry and it never actually argued that the Muslim community had no right to locate its center there. What his statement did was to wrongly give a veto to bigotry by being overly solicitous of the pain of victims’ families. Instead of arguing that their fear and hatred is understandable but cannot trump this country’s Constitutional commitment to freedom of religion, Foxman gave them license to hate. How sad and how infuriating.

    But I want also to emphasize that the statement itself was not hateful. Still, like David commenting above, I too felt that it’s time for Foxman to retire.

  2. Hi, Ralph,
    I don’t entirely agree. While it’s true that Foxman did not argue that, as you say, “…the Muslim community had no right to locate its center there,” he did more than merely give bigotry a “veto power,” he legitimized such bigotry by reducing it to a sort of understandable reaction to the horror of 9/11.

    I believe the problem in the statement also digs deeper, when ADL states that questions have been raised regarding funding. Would Foxman also agree that a Jewish Community Center should be examined to see if its donors also support the Hebron Fund or other settlement-supporting groups?

    This was a biased statement based on a clear prejudice against Muslims, in my view. It did not just demonstrate tolerance toward bigotry (which it certainly did, and I agree that is the biggest problem with the statement) it was bigoted in itself.

    • Mitchell,
      We both oppose ADL’s position but disagree on how we characterize it. When I actually read it, I was surprised to see that it’s tone was actually more benign than David Harris’ AJC statement that supported the project.

      It is entirely understandable that victim families react to the 9/11 attacks with bigotry. And it is entirely wrong to endorse this reaction in any way.

      But being concerned about the funding is legitimate. And it is different in this case than a JCC being funded by supporters of the Hebron Fund. As bad as the Hebron Fund is, it doesn’t support some Jewish version of Jihad against Americans. But rather than issuing some dark warnings in a public statement, ADL, AJC or whoever else should contact representatives of the Muslim community center project to hear what they have to say. The point should always be to invite dialogue.

      • Ralph, I certainly agree on the feeling in comparison to AJC’s support for the project, and we can agree to disagree about how we characterize ADL’s statement.

        I do, however, have issues with the notion that the funding for a Muslim project should be questioned out of hand, publicly. On principle, I do not see any difference between questioning funding because it is Muslim and questioning it because it is Jewish, Cuban, Greek, African-American, etc. If there were legitimate reason to suspect that the funding came from a terrorism-related source, fine, but if the initial cause for suspicion is simply the faith of the donors (or the faith underlying the project), this is a serious issue. There has to be something more than Islam to cast such an initial public suspicion. If there was something credible, I missed it, and if so, i will stand corrected.

  3. It is distasteful to me that the funding of a Muslim community project is questioned out of hand. But the fact that we were attacked by people who claimed to act out of Muslim principles has opened up this can of worms.

    Still, rather than to simply grandstand on looming suspicions with public statements, the ADL and AJC should reach out to politely ask the project sponsors about their funding. It’s only if dialogue fails that this becomes a legitimate cause for complaint.

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