Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency has been notable for several reasons, and infamous for several more. Falling into the latter category has been its flirtations with anti-Semitism. From his refusal to disavow anti-Semitic attacks on a reporter (and his initial refusal to disavow support from David Duke) to his tweet of an image taken from the sewers of the white supremacist web (which he also refuses to disavow), Trump has sparked significant concern about the prevalence of anti-Semitism in America.
To discuss Trump’s campaign, and bigotry in the public square, I spoke by phone this week with Abe Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman is famous for his outspokenness, weighing in (often acidly) on everything from Mel Gibson to worldwide anti-Semitism. The ADL’s stances under Foxman were occasionally controversial, including its opposition to a resolution in Congress that labeled the slaughter of Armenians a century ago as genocide and the position that a mosque should not be built near ground zero.
During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we discussed the Trump campaign’s use of anti-Semitic imagery, the role the internet plays in spreading bigotry, and how prejudice against Jews and Muslims is related.
Isaac Chotiner: Do you think there is something new about the Trump campaign and the anti-Semitism we are seeing among some of his supporters?
Abe Foxman: Anti-Semitism exists and unfortunately always existed. The fact that it manifests itself shouldn’t surprise anybody. The advent of the internet and social media is really what’s fueling not the anti-Semitism but the ability to communicate it in nanoseconds, respond quickly, and be anonymous. Anonymity makes things uglier because it encourages people to be ugly. It’s nothing new, except for the phenomenon of how you express it.
With the Star of David issue, do you have a sense of whether Trump world is directly taking things from far-right websites or just simply seeing things and not caring about where they came from?
You know what, I don’t understand how that campaign works. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I look at results, and the results were that whoever did it, when they realized that it was insensitive or wrong or maybe misinterpreted, they took it off in two hours. To me, that’s what’s important.
Well but Trump defended it for days.
Trump defended it—
Yeah, but it was off. At the end of the day—not at the end of the day, at the beginning of the day, it was off.
I know, but he kept defending it publicly.
I think he was wrong in defending it, but the campaign understood and knew quite well, very quickly, that it may cause mischief, and it may be interpreted as anti-Semitism, and they removed it. So, you know, the fact is that it was no longer out there.
But he did defend it and say it was OK.
That seems worse.
But the campaign removed it. They didn’t put it back after he said it was OK, right?
Yeah, but that seems like only part of—
Yeah, but you know what, hello, he took it off, and therefore it wasn’t in the campaign. When he defended it, if they’d put it back, you and I would have an issue. But they didn’t put it back.
OK, well I still have an issue.
OK. [Laughs]. Good.
So what do you make of the Trump campaign more generally?
OK, I wouldn’t focus on the Trump campaign as much as I would focus on Trumpism. All Donald Trump has done is identified an anger and frustration and unhappiness in our society. And he has provided for people a vehicle for expression. He has not created anti-Semites. He has not encouraged them. He is not responsible for them. But he has broken some taboos that have existed in our country. We have developed, throughout the years, a social contract amongst ourselves. In Europe, for example, there are a lot of laws against prejudice, anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, etc. And the level of prejudice and anti-Semitism is much higher than it is here in the U.S. And you ask the question, how come? The answer is what I would call the social contract. Donald Trump calls it political correctness, which I don’t see as a crime. I don’t think it’s a sin.
What we have established in our country is that you can have bigotry in your heart, but if you act out bigotry, there will be consequences. Take a look at Mel Gibson. Mel Gibson was on top of the world until he was unmasked as an anti-Semite and society acted and he went from the top to the bottom. Donald Trump has removed some of those taboos. He has identified that there is this anger and frustration and he has proven you can criticize a veteran, a woman’s looks, a Mexican, a Muslim. He has released it and given it life. He hasn’t created it.
How important do you think it is for the Anti-Defamation League and other people worried about anti-Semitism to also fight against prejudice more generally?
Absolutely they are tied together. The ADL pillars or principles are to defend Jewish people against anti-Semitism and to defend equal opportunity for all. It will always be one together with the other. A bigot is a bigot. They always start with one and finish with the other. You can’t fight for tolerance for one without tolerance for the other.
I ask because you were criticized for positions you took on thing such as the mosque near ground zero, which I believe you opposed.
Well, you know what, we can revisit. I didn’t oppose it. I asked the question: Once you have the right to do something, you have to ask yourself whether it is the right thing to do. I never opposed it.
You wrote a piece opposing it, no?
No, I never wrote a piece opposing it. Not only that, but when I was director we set up a task force of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to fight for the rights of Muslims in the United States to build mosques. With the ground zero mosque they got all their zoning rights. The question was the best place to do it. That task force is still in existence because there are still places in the country where Muslims can’t build mosques because they are Muslim.
I am just looking at your article: “To us, after much discussion and debate it became clear that the overriding concern should be the sensitivities of the families of the victims that dictated finding another location for this massive, $100 million project.”
Right, so I wasn’t opposed to it. It was a question of sensitivities. Look, many, many years ago, I was part of a group that was opposed to building a church outside Auschwitz. We said, “not in our cemetery.” And for many of the victims of 9/11, that place is their cemetery. If you want to reach out, if you want to reconcile, if you want to build bridges between communities, do you do it in a place where there is a cemetery and people say, “please don’t do it?” But they have a right.
Before the Trump campaign, that felt like the biggest example of a real anti-Muslim backlash since 9/11.
It was hijacked. The issue was hijacked by political parties and interests on all sides who politicized it.
One other controversy from your time at the ADL was the issue of the Armenian genocide.
My position moved on that. I still think it should be resolved by the Turks and the Armenians. The question of what do you call them: Is it a genocide, is it not a genocide? I felt a little uncomfortable about someone telling me what I should call it. Jews don’t tell anyone that you have to call the Holocaust a Shoah. I called [the Armenian slaughter] atrocities, I called it horrors, but eventually I said, fine, and I used the word.
You are telling me that the ADL would not be furious if people refused to call what happened with the Jews in Europe a genocide?
That’s not the issue. The issue is: Do we have a right to tell somebody what they must call our tragedies, and the answer is no. They can call it what they want. We call it what we want.
It’s not a matter of rights. It’s a matter of should. Isn’t it often the ADL’s mission to tell people what they should be doing?
You know what, to compare what people should be doing regarding hate to what they should be calling our tragedies are two different things, with all due respect.