Abe Foxman

The ADL boss is the best kind of pest. 

Abe Foxman had the right idea at the right time for exactly the wrong person. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, revealed in March that it was he who had the inspired notion of enlisting Denise Rich to ask President Clinton to pardon her ex-husband Marc Rich. Foxman, who barely knew Denise Rich, made the suggestion to a Marc Rich aide who had asked for advice on winning his boss a free pass. Foxman also wrote a letter to President Clinton on ADL stationery in support of the Rich application. The (formerly) fugitive financier had given $250,000 to the ADL over the past 15 years, and Foxman was chummy with him.

Foxman has been lashed in the media for his effort on Rich’s behalf. New York Times columnist William Safire even suggested that Foxman should resign as ADL honcho. (Safire all but recanted in his next column, a classic of the “fuck you, let’s have Seder” genre, in which he delineated Foxman’s sins then excused them.)

Foxman did indeed do a favor for a big donor. (That he helped a major contributor will shock only those who have never worked for a nonprofit. Such back-scratching is the rule, not the exception.) And Foxman certainly didn’t do enough to investigate the merits of the Rich application, feeling that Rich’s good deeds were enough to make the case. Foxman’s lapses were real, if hardly capital crimes.

Even so, what has gone unappreciated in the whole fiasco is that Foxman—unlike President Clinton or Jack Quinn or Beth Dozoretz or Denise Rich or Eric Holder or anyone else associated with the pardon—has had the decency to admit he screwed up. Foxman came clean to reporters. He concedes he made a mistake endorsing Rich, because supporting Rich had nothing to do with the essential business of the ADL. Though Rich’s benefaction represents only a tiny fraction of the ADL’s $50 million annual budget, Foxman acknowledges that Rich’s fat checks got his attention in a way that $100 donations wouldn’t have.

Foxman’s apology, like Foxman himself, was simultaneously honest and self-serving. It was the standup thing to do. It also affirmed his reputation as a mensch—a reputation that has been very useful to him. (“I was in an executive dining room yesterday,” Foxman says. “The CEO came over and said, ‘You made a mistake. I make mistakes. Whatever I gave you last year, double it.’ “)

Most activists, Jewish or otherwise, choose between two methods: defend my group at all costs, or tell it the truth at all costs. Foxman has become the most important activist in Jewish America—and one of the most admirable—because he tries to do both.

Foxman is a case study in biographical determinism. Born in 1940 in Poland, he survived the Holocaust because his parents entrusted him to their Catholic nursemaid, who baptized him and kept him as her own son. Foxman’s parents miraculously survived the war, then had to sue to regain custody of him. “So two elements in my life formed me: I escaped the cauldrons of anti-Semitism, and I survived because someone had a passion to care for me and did not care that I was Jewish.” This duality—he calls himself the “pessimistic optimist,” seeing danger to Jews everywhere and opportunities for them everywhere—has guided his life.

Foxman’s family immigrated to New York City, where he spent his childhood in young Zionist organizations, polishing his Jewish pride. He graduated City College and New York University law school, then immediately signed on with the ADL. He arrived at the ADL in 1965 and never left, graduating to national director in 1987.

The ADL’s charge is to defend Jews from anti-Semitic slights, harassment, and violence, and to oppose discrimination and prejudice generally. Foxman has been extremely aggressive at both tasks. The ADL trolls for evidence of disrespect to Jews, and when Foxman perceives a slight, he pounces with press releases, demands for apology, proposed diversity training: No mau-mauer could do it better. Michael Jackson (anti-Semitic lyrics), Jesse Jackson (“Hymietown,” etc.), and George W. Bush (no Jews in heaven) have all been Foxmaned. Did the pope’s statement on Catholic anti-Semitism pass muster, and should Nelson Mandela be excused for sympathizing with the PLO? American Jews look to Foxman for the answers. The ADL maintains the best file on hate groups in the country, compiling dossiers and sometimes spying on white supremacists, neo-Nazis, militia members, and others. Foxman brought America’s attention to the more repellent aspects of Louis Farrakhan and educated reporters and cops about the dangers of Matthew Hale and other extremists. The ADL also publishes an annual accounting of the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the 50 states.

The ADL has been an important force in Jewish activism since it began in 1913, but Foxman’s media savvy and sense of the Jewish gut made it the pre-eminent Jewish group. “Foxman has a very canny instinct, a very Jewish everyman sensibility,” says J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward. It also helps that he enjoys the public attention. The ADL’s basic philosophy seems to be: Kill a bug with a machine gun. The ADL aims withering fire on any target. Foxman’s rhetoric is always overwrought. When anyone criticizes Foxman for hand-wringing over minor insults, he answers that “the crematoriums of Auschwitz did not begin with bricks. They began with words.” Foxman always refers to anti-Semitism as “the disease of anti-Semitism.”

Foxman’s work is a paradox: All survey evidence shows that attitudinal anti-Semitism has plunged in the last generation. According to the survey Foxman cites, the percentage of Americans holding anti-Semitic views has dropped from 30 percent to 12 percent. Official anti-Semitism has vanished.

Yet any news is bad news for the ADL. If the number of incidents in the ADL anti-Semitism audit increases, the ADL worries about rising bigotry. If it decreases, Foxman says the disease is “latent, but the danger is still out there.” He is right: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, etc. If we don’t squash the cockroach now, it may well breed and breed. But the dangers have been oversold. According to a recent survey, more than 60 percent of American Jews view anti-Semitism as the greatest danger to American Jews—a preposterous number. Foxman agrees that figure is too high. Even so, the ADL and Foxman depend on that anxiety: “Jews are part of the mainstream of America, but there is a feeling of insecurity, always a need to fight the bigots.”

This paradox is a headache for Jews like me who believe we have essentially assimilated into America. I sometimes find myself embarrassed by Foxman’s perceptions of anti-Semitic slights. But I also recognize that it is the ADL’s very vigor that has helped make America so tolerant to Jews. Foxman and colleagues have worked tirelessly to pass new laws, enroll thousands in diversity workshops, and shine bright lights on bigots. But is it ever too much?

Foxman challenges Jews when they’re wrong. He can be as hard on Jews (and himself) as on enemies. Foxman believes that the best way to defend Jews is sometimes to offend them. (Foxman owes his fearlessness partly to temperament and partly to organizational structure. Click for an explanation.) When virtually every Jewish organization in the country petitioned for the release of spy Jonathan Pollard—many claiming that he was persecuted because he was Jewish—Foxman refused to join the mob. He insisted that Pollard’s prosecution had nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

In the mid-’90s, right-wing Jews all but accused Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of treason because he negotiated with the Palestinians. Foxman warned that this hate speech would lead to disaster and quit his synagogue to protest his rabbi’s anti-Rabin rants. After Rabin was assassinated, Foxman launched a Jewish tolerance initiative and urged Jews to cease their violent rhetoric. Almost alone of Jewish leaders, Foxman condemned right-wing extremist Meir Kahane. Foxman criticized a popular Holocaust book for exaggerating the horrors of the Shoah. Foxman has deplored the McCarthite tendency of some groups to smear any Jew who says a critical word about Israel as an anti-Zionist traitor. And Foxman chastised vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman for his incessant talk about how religion is the foundation of American political life.

Foxman’s contrarianism requires courage, but not infinite quantities of it. His instincts are slightly Clintonian. He makes himself a pariah, but only to folks on the far left or far right of the American Jewish community. Foxman never strays too far from the center, which is where both his true heart and his shrewd head tell him to be.