It was June 1990. Nelson Mandela, newly released after 27 years in a South African prison, was headed to New York for an expected hero's welcome. A group of Jewish militants planned a rally, protesting Mandela's links to Moammar Khadafy and Yasser Arafat. Fearing a Black-Jewish flare-up, civil rights leaders convinced a Jewish delegation to meet Mandela en route and hear him out. Some Jews warned, though, that the mission wouldn't help, as it consisted entirely of stock liberals.
Just before takeoff, Abe Foxman agreed to join the mission. A veteran ADL staffer, he had a reputation as a staunch opponent of racial pandering and an Israeli security hardliner. If he found Mandela kosher, the opposition would dissolve. Indeed, Mandela went on to a triumphal American reception that helped cement South Africa's peaceful transformation.
A decade later, it's hard to imagine the episode repeating itself the same way. Not that Foxman no longer shakes hands with former foes. No, he's accepted apologies from Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson (for an anti-Semitic song lyric) and George W. Bush, for saying Jews can't enter heaven. Along the way, he's all but lost his hardline reputation.
Lately Foxman is displaying his conciliatory side more and more. He's still a hardliner by temperament, particularly concerning Israel. But he seems increasingly concerned not just with how others treat Jews, but how Jews appear to treat others.
"If you want people to change their minds and hearts," he says, "you have to be ready to accept it when they do change."
Last month he raised hackles by opposing isolation of Austria after Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party entered the government. "Three quarters of the Austrian people didn't vote for him," Foxman says. "What are we telling them?"
And last year he caused shock waves by speaking out against what he saw as overemphasis on Holocaust restitution. If things continued, he said, "the last Holocaust soundbite of the 20th century could be about money."
Attitudes like that infuriate Foxman's onetime admirers on the right. One militant group has a Web site called "Foxman's Follies," detailing the treasons of "Dishonest Abe." He's repeatedly attacked by supporters of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew imprisoned for spying for Israel, because he refuses to lobby for Pollard's release, insisting there's "no evidence that anti-Semitism played a role" in Pollard's draconian life sentence. Some critics say Foxman has been "bought by the CIA."
Foxman says he's used to being attacked. Louis Farrakhan, David Duke and "pontifex" Matthew Hale of the World Church of the Creator routinely single him out as Public Enemy No. 1. Militia Web sites and chat groups brim with curses and threats. "I guess you can measure the seriousness and effectiveness of ADL by how much we're attacked," he says.
Attacks by fellow Jews are something else. "They hurt," Foxman says. "I would like to think we're a little different, but I guess we're not."
After Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995, Foxman helped push for a code of civility among Jewish groups. It was adopted in 1996 by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. So far it's been invoked once -- against Foxman. He had lashed out in 1998 against a rightist who was accusing the ADL of softness on Israel. Foxman was forced to apologize.
Born in Warsaw in 1940, Foxman was taken by his nanny and baptized at age one, after his parents were sent to Auschwitz. His parents, leaders in Vladimir Jabotinsky's Zionist Revisionist movement, survived the war and retrieved him afterward by court order. In 1950 they moved to New York, where Abe attended a series of Orthodox day schools and joined a series of Zionist youth groups -- the right-wing Betar, then the left-wing Habonim, then the apolitical Young Judaea. "I wasn't bothered by the severities of the ideology," he recalls.
He went to work for ADL in 1965, after receiving a law degree from New York University. His first case was suing Aramco, the Arab-American Oil Company. A Jewish job applicant had been warned by the job interviewer that he wouldn't fit in at Aramco. Ironically, Foxman recalls, "he was trying to be nice to him. But the young man felt it was discriminatory and came to ADL."
Blunt-speaking and unreflective, Foxman rarely tries to articulate a seamless philosophy. There are common threads, though. They start with support for Israel and opposition to anti-Semitism, framed by a rare pragmatism. He's always ready for a fight. He's usually ready to patch things up.
This month Foxman was quick to reject the pope's "apology" for church sins, saying it should have mentioned the Holocaust. Later he reminded reporters that John Paul II had an "unparalleled" record on Catholic-Jewish relations.
He's a firm supporter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reversing ADL's staunchly pro-Likud policies during the 1980s. Yet he defends Israel's West Bank settlements against Arab-American efforts at economic boycott.
Consistent or not, his formulas have vast appeal. In 13 years as ADL's national director, he's turned the league, traditionally the biggest Jewish defense agency, into a colossus dwarfing every other Jewish advocacy group. Its $50 million budget is bigger than the budgets of AIPAC, the American Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Center combined. It runs diversity training for the CIA and the German government. Its intelligence on extremists often rivals the FBI's.
Foxman himself has emerged as one of the only figures who can speak authoritatively for American Jewry and be sure that others -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- are listening. He's one of just a handful of Jewish leaders recognizable outside their own office suites.
That unique stature was thrown into sharp relief this week, as Foxman's ADL prepared to honor him with an unusual fundraising dinner, featuring Henry Kissinger as master of ceremonies and an all-star speakers' list including CIA director George Tenet and sex guru Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Celebrities aren't unusual at fancy Jewish dinners, of course. What's almost unheard of is a Jewish organization throwing a fancy dinner to honor one of its own employees.
"I'm a product of the worst and the best," he says. "The worst being anti-Semitism at its nadir, which killed people, and the best being a woman who risked her life to save me. How do you blend the two?"
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal