NEW YORK (JTA) – As patrons filed into Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y to catch a sold-out appearance by Larry David, the scene outside was producing a punchline straight out of his HBO sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
David and one of his “Curb” co-stars, Susie Essman, were the main event on that recent evening. But protesters had gathered outside to jeer the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who was slated to speak – in another packed, albeit smaller, room – about anti-Semitism and his new book, “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and The Myth of Jewish Control.”
The demonstrators were voicing outrage over Foxman’s initial unwillingness to characterize the World War I-era Turkish massacres of Armenians as genocide and his continued opposition to a proposed congressional resolution that would put America on record as using the g-word.
“Larry David is in favor of genocide?” one confused visitor asked.
The mix-up could have served as the basis for a good “Curb” plot, to be sure, but in real life Foxman is the one who’s been taking it from all sides of late. And while he certainly has suffered some self-inflicted public-relations wounds, he’s also taken plenty of heat for things that he never said or did, including the misdeeds of others.
Legitimate or not, the barrage of criticism has had an impact: Foxman, who has worked at the ADL since 1965 and run the organization for the past 20 years, has become an increasingly polarizing figure for Jews and non-Jews on both sides of the political spectrum.
Despite, or perhaps because, he has become a walking flash point, Foxman remains the media’s top go-to guy on Jewish affairs – a status further cemented by his high-profile national book tour.
In short, he may have never commanded more attention or attracted as much criticism. It’s a high-stakes dynamic as he takes the lead role in the Jewish community’s fight against a growing list of vocal and respectable critics of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby, most notably former President Jimmy Carter and the academic duo of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.
Foxman insists he has no second thoughts about jumping into the center of the debate over the pro-Israel lobby.
“I’m not nervous. No hesitation whatsoever,” Foxman said during an interview last month in his ADL office at the start of his book tour.
Still, he conceded, “The one thing that haunts me is my credibility because that’s all we got.”
As it turns out, Foxman has written a reasoned, measured response to Carter’s “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” and the articles that evolved into Mearsheimer and Walt’s “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.”
Foxman’s book breaks little new ground in its bid to debunk the most objectionable claims put forth by Carter, Mearsheimer and Walt, et al. But for those seeking a quick and accessible road map for understanding the weakest points in the attack on Israel and the pro-Israel lobby, “The Deadliest Lies” does the trick – with a big boost from the foreword by former Secretary of State George Shultz.
The question is, will it be read by anyone who isn’t already settled on the issue? Does Foxman still command the respect and credibility to make headway beyond his base, to reach, as he describes them, “the fair-minded people who may be wondering whether there is any truth in the claims promoted in ‘The Israel Lobby’ and are willing to hear the other side of the story?”
Foxman essentially touches on the issue in his book during his recounting of the outrage triggered last year by an inaccurate claim that he had pushed the Polish Consulate in New York to pull the plug on a lecture by New York University Professor Tony Judt.
The ADL had inquired about the event, which was being sponsored by an outside group that was renting space at the consulate, but it turned out to be David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who had asked for the event to be canceled. Still, the furor eventually triggered a lengthy profile of Foxman in The New York Times Magazine last January.
Written by James Traub, the piece used the flap over Judt – who caused an uproar with a 2003 essay arguing that the idea of a Jewish state was and is a mistake – as a vehicle for examining claims that the Jewish community is guilty of trying to shut down debate over Israel.
Among other things, Traub’s piece played into the left-wing’s negative – and often unfair – attacks on Foxman by ignoring his efforts to line up American Jewish support for peace moves approved by the Israeli government. Traub also incorrectly lumped Foxman in with those who argue that the Jewish community should steer clear of criticizing Christian conservatives on domestic policy because of their support for Israel.
In fact, one of the biggest complaints of Foxman’s right-wing critics – Jewish and non-Jewish – is his continued willingness to confront the religious right. For example, they point to his speaking out against the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ” and a 2005 speech Foxman gave in an attempt to rally the Jewish community against efforts to “Christianize America.”
And of course they steam over his support for the Oslo process and the Gaza disengagement, which he framed as an issue of Israel’s democratically elected government deserving deference on issues of peace and security.
In “The Deadliest Lies,” Foxman argued that given the “preconceived notions” of his critics, it would be “almost impossible” for them “not to assume the worst about me.” He was talking about Judt and his supporters in left-wing academic circles, but the same applies to Jewish and Christian conservatives who falsely claim that the ADL leader suggested “The Passion” would spark anti-Jewish pogroms in America and tagged Gibson as an anti-Semite during the controversy over the film.
Despite his growing ability to invite backlash from some liberal and conservative circles, Foxman insists he has no plans to listen to those who say he needs to tone down his approach.
“We don’t have that luxury,” he said during the interview at his office.
Foxman in his book seemed to make an effort at maintaining some appearance of balance, stopping well short of full-throated apologetics for Israeli policy: “As in most conflicts, there have been rights and wrongs on both sides,” he wrote, “and there is plenty of room for open debate about how the blame should be apportioned – and, more important, about the best way forward.”
On the question of whether Jewish groups are in the censorship business, Foxman is guilty to some degree of wanting it both ways. He worked hard to clear his own name in the Judt episode, but defends the right of the AJCommittee and other Jewish entities to protest invitations to objectionable speakers. And if such efforts are successful, he argues, the blame rests solely with the institutions that comply, not the Jewish agitators.
“The fundamental truth remains that it was the Polish consulate alone that chose to cancel Tony Judt’s speech,” Foxman wrote. “To try to place the responsibility for that ill-advised decision on some cabal of pro-Israeli groups is fairly ludicrous.”
In the interview, Foxman stood by the point: Jews who feel so inclined are “not wrong” to move against speakers to whom they object.
“It’s their expression of freedom of speech,” he said.
While some segments of the Jewish community might go too far, Foxman said, it is really the Jewish community that is the target of a campaign of “intimidation.” The goal of Mearsheimer and Walt in arguing that the pro-Israel lobby and Israeli officials played a vital role in the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, Foxman said, is to scare American Jews from weighing in for a tough stand against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“I think part of this is an attempt to intimate us,” Foxman said.
Noting the attacks on himself, he added: “If they can succeed in shutting me up, then they can shut the Jewish community up.”
One thing is clear, at least when it comes to Foxman: “They” aren’t getting very far.