Foxman joined the ADL in 1965 upon graduating from New York University Law School and was appointed director in 1987.
Under his leadership the organization has gained a reputation as one of the nation's preeminent human rights organizations, going after neo-Nazi groups and winning passage of groundbreaking hate-crime legislation. It has also been a magnet for controversy and criticism for its outspoken stands on issues ranging from Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" to the Armenian Genocide.
A week before coming West for the ADL's annual meeting, Foxman spoke by phone with the Jewish Journal's Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman.
Rob Eshman: The Republican Jewish Coalition ran a series of ads implying Sen. Barack Obama is anti-Israel and soft on terrorists. If those charges were true, it seems the ADL should have weighed in on Obama.
Abe Foxman: We don't weigh in on political charges.
RE: But if you truly thought he was all those things, you'd be compelled to weigh in.
AF: We don't weigh in one way or the other, except when there were rumors very early on which started before it became a major issue, floating in the Jewish community that Obama was a Muslim, went to a madrassa, was sworn in on the Koran. We did our own research, ascertained none of it was true, posted it on our Web site before it became an issue. Whether he is or isn't [pro-Israel], nobody knows; that's an opinion, a political opinion. And there's a whole debate about William Ayers -- that's an opinion. That's not an issue we would get an involved in.
RE: You released a statement saying the downturn in the economy has increased anti-Semitic invective. But your evidence is online message boards, which consist of crazy people posting on the Internet. How worried are you about this problem?
AF: We're worried because there is a spike. You call them crazies. I call them bigots. Maybe every bigot is crazy or not. It's not a surprise that bigots use a crisis situation to spew forth their venom, their hatred, their anti-Semitism. What is of concern is the quantity. What you call crazy or I call bigot out there can communicate his anti-Semitism instantaneously, in nanoseconds, if you will. We don't know how far it reaches, into whose home, into whose institution, into whose school. We want people to be aware that it's out there, and we've reached out to the servers, those who provide the platforms for it, and at this point they have been responsive. Some of the horrendous stuff is removed, but it doesn't take very long for it to come back in another forum on another server, so we take it very seriously.
RE: Have you seen any signs that the hate has gone beyond the Internet?
AF: I don't care what category you put it in, [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad stands in front of the world and declares that the economic downturn is the result of Zionist Jewish control of finances. Hamas declares the same thing on its media. Yeah, it crosses into mainstream.
RE: You believe extremism in Iran is the most important issue facing Jews today?
AF: I think it's the most important issue facing the free world. I think that ... when Iran obtains nuclear power, it will first blackmail the Middle East. Then it threatens freedom and democracy in Europe, it will threaten trade, it will threaten oil supplies, etc. But, yes, I do see it as a greatest threat to the Jewish people, because here is a state in our lifetime that threatens the destruction of the Jewish state. It's one thing for him to use words, and we believe words can kill, but he is developing the ability to deliver on his words.
RE: Your biography is so striking, so emblematic of the plight of Jews under anti-Semitism. But now there have been two or three generations who have no first-hand experience like you have. Do you worry that they simply won't feel the urgency on these matters that you lived through?
AF: There are so many people working for the ADL; they are not all Holocaust survivors; they are not all of my age group. What's happening now, unfortunately, is that ... many who felt they would be handing over to our children and grandchildren a different experience wake up in the year 2008 and see that they better become concerned with anti-Semitism, looking at what's happening in France and in Great Britain and in the Middle East and in Latin America. So this has nothing to with the fact that Abe Foxman is a Holocaust survivor.
RE: Yet the ADL seems to have an image problem. Do you agree with that?
AF: Tell me what that image is?
RE: You had someone like Joey Kurtzman write on Jewcy.com and Joe Klein write in Time that the ADL engages somewhat in fear-mongering.
AF: They have their own interests and axes to grind. I respect it. I disagree with it. I work for an organization that is as quick to say that it's not anti-Semitism as we are to say when something is anti-Semitism. So, in fact, if you want, why don't you look at the statistics of our sister agency, The American Jewish Committee, who finds in their polls that Jews see anti-Semitism as the greatest threat to them in the United States? I'm not even talking about abroad. Because when you take Iran or you take Europe or you take the Middle East, it has grown exponentially in the last six to eight years. But I think what you will find is that we are an institution that when it's up, we say it's up, and when it's down, we say it's down.
RE: During the height of controversy over Mel Gibson's 'The Passion,' we ran a Purim spoof cover showing Mel Gibson thanking you at the Academy Awards for drawing so much attention to his movie. Of course, it's easy for us to make fun. How do you balance drawing attention to anti-Semites versus letting them blather in obscurity?
AF: We never have the luxury of ignoring anti-Semitism. By the way, I believe -- I don't think I should say it, I think you should say it -- I believe I've been vindicated by the very fact that we raised issues about Mel Gibson and his film. We raised concerns, and I never called him an anti-Semite until he himself stood up and exposed himself publicly as the anti-Semite that he was. But you always ask the question, 'If you talk about it, do more people know about it?' 'Is it worth it?' etc.
My justification, if you will, is to say to you and all those who had a good time on Purim, take a look. Mel Gibson was an icon in this county. When this issue and debate began, Mel Gibson was the people's choice. He was the most popular actor, producer, director, moneymaker in Hollywood. OK? And when we spoke up, people said, shocked, 'He's an icon.' Well now look, several years later. In the interim, he did his film, he made his money and then he revealed himself for what he was. That's the beauty of America. Where is he today? He's still around; he's no longer an icon. He's no longer the most popular guy to run after. Where is he? He is where he needs to be. Because this country, the good people of this country did make consequences for him. It happens to politicians in this country; it happens to commercial enterprises. It's not foolproof; its not 100 percent, and that's what encourages me to stand up and speak out.
RE: When you see that anti-Semitism is up, around the world, when we thought anti-Semitism would end after the Holocaust and now it's going on in Iran and in Europe, you have to wonder -- is it just built into the civilization? Is it immortal in some ways?
AF: Hatred has been around since Cain and Abel. I'm not a philosopher; I'm not a sociologist. I don't pretend to be. But they used to say, 'Where there's life, there's bugs.' When there's life, there's hate.
We're into the age of DNA. The greater hope in our business is DNA, because if we can eventually map and find and isolate these DNA that makes people good, love, courageous, altruistic verses hate, greedy, jealous, etc., we may be able to change the universe.
RE: But the same technology could be reversed to take good people and inject them with hate.
AF: Absolutely. There's always a risk in science. Take a look at the Internet. Great use for education and information, great use for bigots.
This interview has been condensed and edited
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