James Traub has written a penetrating NY Times Magazine profile of Abe Foxman awkwardly called Does Abe Foxman Have an Anti-Anti-Semite Problem. Abe will NOT be happy. In fact, I’m sure Traub’s received calls from the Man Himself on High complaining about the ‘unfair, biased’ portrayal of him. For me, I think Traub is on the money and applaud this effort at placing into context the Jewish survivalist mentality of much of the conservative national Jewish leadership when it comes to issues like Israel or anti-Semitism.
Much of Foxman’s alarmist perspective on the subject derives from being a Holocaust survivor and child of survivors. It also didn’t help that his nanny saved his life while raising him Catholic and that, after the war, she refused to give him up without a fight with his parents. This has to have contributed to the making of the bellicose, hectoring, and anti-Semitism obsessed Jewish leader he has become.
The first glimpse Traub presents of Foxman begins with this quotation:
“…Never before has there been such a threat to Israel and to the Jewish people from a geopolitical conglomerate — the Arab world, with Iran, with Hamas, with Hezbollah, with its position that it will not recognize Israel. The vise is closing.”
So begins the grandiosity of thought and overeager melodrama of professional anti-Semitism macher, Abe Foxman. “Never before has there been such a threat to Israel and to the Jewish people from a geopolitical conglomerate.” Oh really. Does that include the Axis powers during WWII??
We should add here that Abe isn’t the only Jewish leader who resorts to grandstanding and scenery chewing when it comes to exhorting Jews to watch their back from ‘die anti-Semiten.’ Bibi Netanyahu is another one who does this extremely well. He had his audience at the recent GA meeting half-expecting Adolph Hitler to step onto the podium to reinforce his charges that as far as Israel-Iran relations, it is 1938 and we are in Munich with Neville Chamberlain. Will we succumb to the dictator’s wiles or will we hold fast?
Who believes this stuff? Well, precisely the aging, wealthy and right-wing Jewish monied classes who are the ADL’s, and Foxman’s bread and butter. I’m not exactly a spring chicken myself (though not yet of retirement age as many of ADL’s donors are), but the melodramatic style of Jewish leadership leaves me utterly cold. It reminds me of what Salo Baron, the dean of Jewish historians, used to call the “lachrymose theory” of Jewish history. In other words, the distorted notion that Jewish identity is all suffering, all pain, all anti-Semitism and cataclysmic disasters.
Lately, of course, the organizations comprising the Israel lobby have been on the defensive after sharp attacks via the Walt-Mearsheimer essay and Jimmy Carter’s new book, alongside Israel’s military defeat in Lebanon and its ineffectual Gaza campaign. AIPAC’s ignominious defeat in its campaign for the Palestinian Anti-Terror Bill, at the hands of three small dovish Jewish groups, has added to the dying sense of impregnability the lobby used to possess. It is in this context that Traub’s article continues and expands upon this stream of political discourse by focussing on Foxman as one of the lobby’s key leaders. I wish someone would do the same for Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of President’s of Major Jewish Organizations.
Traub asks Foxman whether he understands the feelings of suspicion and mistrust with which opponents of the lobby like Tony Judt or Walt-Mearsheimer greet his efforts at managing and controlling the political debate:
Abe Foxman isn’t doing the stifling — he’s the one being muzzled with the charge of stifling. But the stifling won’t work: Foxman says he will not be intimidated; people all across the Islamic world already believe every kind of pernicious fantasy about the Jews and about Israel. And now here come credentialed American — even Jewish! — scholars saying, as he put it, “The Jews control the media, control the government, control Congress.” The Jewish people, Foxman said gravely, “have paid a very, very significant price for that canard.” And yes, he’s willing to shray gevalt until he’s blue in the face.
So what’s the problem, the thing Abe Foxman is fighting or Foxman himself?
That’s rich. Foxman doesn’t want to control anyone, not Judt, not Walt, not Mearsheimer. Rather, it is they who want to stifle Foxman. Is this guy real? How do you stifle the flamboyant head of a $50-million organization? Do the anti-Lobby intellectuals have access to that kind of cash to either advance their own views or “stifle” Foxman’s. Don’t be ridiculous. Of course, they don’t. This to me is akin to Goliath complaining that David was bullying HIM.
It’s also important to note how Foxman willfully distorts the true views of Judt, et al in his fake recapitulation of their alleged agenda (“Jews control the media, control the government, control Congress”). This is of course NOT at all what they are charging. Rather, they are charging something more subtle, more nuanced, but no less pernicious. Of course, Jews don’t CONTROL the media, government or Congress. But a certain subset of Jews, our national leaders, wield amazing powers to manage, manipulate and shape the national discourse related to Israel.
Here is how my friend, M.J. Rosenberg, a 20 year plus former veteran of Congress and AIPAC, describes the way the lobby’s power operates in Congress:
“The way it works is that most members of Congress feel that saying things on the Middle East that are not strictly the Aipac line will get them in more trouble than it’s worth.” Rosenberg notes that legislation on the Middle East generally consists of symbolic statements, like the recent Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which are “written by Aipac.” No one, Rosenberg says, “advocates anti-Israel policies,” and even the modest American Task Force on Palestine is “closer to what the American Jewish community supports” — a two-state solution, the rollback of settlements in the occupied territories — “than any of these right-wing Jewish groups are.” Rosenberg describes the attitude of most legislators as a shortsighted “path of least resistance,” which, he says he fears, will do real harm to Israel in the long run.
There you have it: fear, intimidation. The anticipation that every editor, publisher, media executive, Congressmember, and even President must face when they contemplate airing views or stories that might be considered ‘anti-Israel’ by the Abe Foxmans of this world. For a perfect example of how this works that encompasses both Congress and the media, see my stories on the pressure brought to bear on NPR to “stifle” its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Traub believes that Foxman only began to make his mark once he abandoned the ADL’s traditional engagement with issues like Black-Jewish dialogue and reverted to a more restricted “Jewish defense” mode:
The A.D.L.’s world became increasingly binary — “good for the Jews,” “bad for the Jews.” This change had the effect of moving the organization, as it had other mainstream Jewish bodies, to the right. Foxman upset many of his colleagues by extending a welcome to Christian conservatives, whose leaders tended to be strongly pro-Israel even as they spoke in disturbing terms of America’s “Christian” identity. Foxman was willing to cut them some slack on issues of social justice, and even of church-state relations, in the name of solidarity toward Israel.
I call this the Mephistophelean moral compromise. How is it possible that a powerful religious force that is so inimical to Jewish values and issues Jews hold dear, can become Foxman’s great ally in his war on Israel’s alleged Arab-extremist enemies? Doesn’t he have his priorities completely askew??
I was tickled by Foxman’s rhetorical blunders which Traub manges to point out without appearing too partisan:
[Foxman] did believe that it was wrong to give really evil figures, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad…at present the world’s most famously anti-Semitic head of state, the legitimacy of a meeting, as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Council on Foreign Relations recently had. I asked if Annan also shouldn’t have met with Saddam Hussein. “There is a difference between Ahmadinejad and even a Saddam Hussein,” Foxman rejoined. “Here is a man who says time and again, ‘I will wipe this nation’ ” — Israel — “ ‘off the face of the earth,’ and says afterward that the Holocaust never happened. This is not ‘Israel as victim’; this is the destruction of Jewish identity.”
What is interesting about this interaction is that Traub is trying to discover whether Foxman is willing to attack Annan. Foxman refuses to take the bait. But, he does something far worse by making the fatuous statement that Ahmadinehad is worse for the Jews than Hussein. Does he seriously believe that Hussein did not want to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth?” Just how, precisely, are they ideologically different in terms of their danger to Israel or Jews??
What follows is one of the dramatic high-points of Traub’s profile. In it, Foxman continues the discourse from the previous quoted passage, rising into an incantatory state of righteous indignation. Note Traub’s penetrating portrait of an over-the-top personality type and his delicious parting shot at the end:
Foxman made a beseeching gesture, his fingertips cupped before his mouth. “Plus, it has happened before,” he went on. “It’s not an abstraction. By a man, by a government, who aids, abets, fuels suicide bombers, makes them martyrs, celebrates them, who asks for volunteers from his country, and I don’t know what they have, 40,000 now, who have volunteered in future to go kill Jews!” Foxman was now shouting at me across the table. “And you arm yourself to take out as many Jews as possible!” Foxman’s hands were wheeling in circles before him; this possible Holocaust, so remote to many of us, seemed to rise up before him with a terrible clarity. “Oh, my God!” he cried, as if reeling in horror before the vision he had himself conjured.
Foxman really does dwell imaginatively in the Holocaust.
These last few lines are the “money” passage in the article: “…This possible Holocaust, so remote to many of us, seemed to rise up before him with a terrible clarity.” There you have the problem in a nutshell. The majority, perhaps even vast majority of American Jews, do not share Foxman’s vision of the coming calamity for Jews. But nevertheless, Foxman sees it as his duty to make Jews and the world see what he sees. It doesn’t matter to him that very few except his chosen acolytes and ADL members share his view. It only matters that he continue to gin up his troops on fear, hysteria and doomsaying. For that is what stokes the fundraising coffers.
Cool, calm analysis. Rational discourse. Finding ways to compromise with one’s enemies. All of this sounds nice, but doesn’t ‘pay the bills.’ It doesn’t have the fearful, apocalyptic tone of a real stem-winding sermon on anti-Semitism, and the beasts who are coming to get us if we don’t watch out.
It’s really a stylistic and generational divide in addition to a political one. Foxman of the Holocaust generation, not to make too grand a comparison in his favor, is something like Moses and the generation who wandered in the wilderness. None of them were allowed over the mountain to see the Land of Israel which their descendants would inherit. Just so, Foxman will never be the one to lead an organization that sees Israel at peace with its neighbors. The very idea is anathema to every fiber of his being. He thrives on ethnic discord and tribal conflict. Talk of peace or Arab-Jewish coexistence if something alien and even frightening for Foxman’s generation. One hopes of course, that a new generation will arise which “knew not” Foxman and his phobic obsessions. Then we might regain some sense of equilibrium in American Jewish relations with Israel, Muslims and Arabs. It can’t come a moment too soon.
I thought Traub’s “Foxman really does dwell imaginatively in the Holocaust” was the coup de grace for poor Abe. How could he live it down?
Returning to the theme of Foxman’s rhetorical-analytical blunders, Traub notes another one here (italics are mine):
In his most recent book — “Never Again?” — he makes the stupefyingly counterintuitive claim that high rates of Jewish assimilation are a reaction to discriminatory treatment, rather than a proof of the opposite. “One out of three people in these United States believes that the Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the U.S.,” he growled. “That’s a classic anti-Semitic canard.” And yet a Pew Global Attitudes Poll in 2004 found that anti-Semitism had declined in much of the West and was lowest in the United States. A Pew poll last year found American support for Israel as strong now as at any time in the last 13 years.
That’s right, you heard the Man right: anti-Semitism is so bad and it’s so damn hard for the Jews here that we’re all leaving the faith in droves. Is the man in his right mind? If all he needs to do is throw red meat to his insular, fearful true-blue believers in order to maintain his sway, then I suppose there is a twisted method to this madness. But the point of it all escapes me. Or I should say it leaves me cold.
When the NY Times reporter asks the ADL leader about his role in denying Tony Judt the right to speak at the New York Polish consulate, Foxman goes apoplectic. He detests the charge that the ADL is trying to ‘suppress’ debate:
That, Abe Foxman would say, is “abject nonsense.” The A.D.L., he says, doesn’t operate that way; it seeks balance, not suppression. Foxman told me that he believes he’s challenging his adversaries to a debate, not shouting them down. But, I asked, isn’t slinging the dread charge of anti-Semitism at people like Jimmy Carter and Tony Judt and Mearsheimer and Walt really a way of choking off debate? No, it isn’t, Foxman said. This was at our lunch; Foxman got so exercised that he began to choke on his gratin. I asked if it was really right to call Carter, the president who negotiated the Camp David accords, an anti-Semite.
“I didn’t call him an anti-Semite.”
“But you said he was bigoted. Isn’t that the same thing?”
“No. ‘Bigoted’ is you have preconceived notions about things.”
The argument that the Israel lobby constricted debate was itself bigoted, he said.
“But several Jewish officials I’ve talked to say just that.”
“Are they bigoted?”
Foxman didn’t want to go there. He said that he had never heard any serious person make that claim.
Thankfully, in the dim recesses of his mind he realized that calling dovish Jewish leaders “bigoted” would not look good in the pages of the New York Times. But how ’bout that artificial differentiation between “bigoted” and “anti-Semitic?” Foxman doesn’t say Carter is anti-Semitic. No, of course he doesn’t.
What Ol’ Abe doesn’t realize is that “bigots” who “have preconceived notions about things” can also be Jewish leaders who believe that virtually all Arabs and Muslims are evil and enemies of Israel and all Jews. We owe a debt of gratitude to James Traub for providing the raw material in this profile by which we might judge the man and his prejudices.
There is another rather remarkable statement from the “wise-one” that clarifies his lack of faith in our American democracy:
John Stuart Mill’s dictum [was] that in a democratic society the free market of ideas ultimately sifts through falsehood to produce truth. Abe Foxman says this is naïve…Experience — primal experience — has taught him that the truth does not win on its own merits; the market for falsehood is just too powerful.
Abe Foxman just doesn’t trust democracy. What would he call his vision? Democracy plus? Democracy with a menacing face (if you get out of line, that is)? This is one of the key differences between these conservative Jewish leaders and younger (than Foxman) doves like me. We trust to the marketplace of ideas to eventually consign aberrant political ideas to the dustbin of history. We trust that in the long haul those political ideas which have the greatest merit (like the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace) will rise to the top and subsume all other hateful nationalist ideologies. Abe doesn’t trust that view. He’d rather manage, massage and shape the debate with the club he tends to use. Does anyone still believe his statement that he doesn’t believe in “suppressing” views he holds abhorrent??
Traub makes a telling analogy between the Foxman and Bush-Cheney world-view that envisions enemies from within supposedly chipping away at religious or national identity:
What is the difference between this claim [that our enemies take comfort from the division sown by critics of Israel or U.S. foreign policy] and the accusation, a favorite of Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that critics of the war in Iraq, or of the war on terror, or of homeland-security preparations, are emboldening the enemy? And isn’t that claim, too, designed to suppress debate, or at the very least to make the critic think long and hard before opening his mouth? Is that a price worth paying? Put otherwise: Should we make the existential choice to err on the side of fear, or of hope — a prudent, watchful hope, that is?
I know which side I’m on. Which side are you?
Traub closes with a stinging rebuke which questions his subject’s relevance to current and future Jewish discourse:
Foxman is an anachronism. The demographic of which he is a member — Holocaust survivor — is rapidly disappearing. Younger people don’t know quite what to make of him. In a recent column in The Jewish Journal, David A. Lehrer, formerly the head of the A.D.L.’s Los Angeles office, observed that Jews are now the most widely admired religious group in America, as well as the most successful, and lamented that Jewish leaders — Foxman specifically — continue to harp on Jewish “insecurity” and the threat of anti-Semitism. Lehrer says that when he raised his view that the A.D.L. had to learn to speak to this new, confident but less affiliated generation of Jews, Foxman dismissed it out of hand. The generational question does not interest him. “It’s not my job to judge whether they should feel beleaguered or not,” Foxman snapped when I raised the subject. “I do feel. And I’ve got news for you: Every one of them, in their maturing process, will experience this.”
So, if we just get old enough and wise enough, we’ll “get” where Foxman is coming from. I don’t know whether to feel sad for him in his intellectually delusional thinking; or to rail against his willful ignorance of what most American Jews actually believe.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.