Q & A: Abraham Foxman


The following is an edited transcript of an interview conducted last month with the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, about his new book, “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and The Myth of Jewish Control.” During the interview with JTA, Foxman discussed criticisms of Israel and Jewish groups put forth by former President Jimmy Carter and scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. He also addressed the controversy over his initial refusal to use the word genocide to describe the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I.

JTA: Why did you write the book?

FOXMAN: When Mearsheimer and Walt’s article appeared, what I was very much concerned about was that it would give this whole issue of Jewish power, Jewish control, Jewish influence, Israel lobby, etc., a sense of credibility that it has never had in the U.S., except for maybe before World War II. My concern was that it would stimulate discussion in the mainstream – which it did the moment the article appeared – and that for the years to come it will become a resource for universities, primarily for every course in government, every course in foreign policy, to use as a point of departure, and that there was not much else out there.

So the motivation was that audience. It’s not to convince the Jews but to convince others.

In Davos in January, there was a professor from MIT who I happened to be sitting next to. When he found out who I was, he said, “Do you mind, could we talk and you won’t take this personally. I’m a professor of physics, I spent a lot of time studying science. I’ve been hearing all this stuff about this Israel lobby, this Jewish lobby. Is it true? How much of it is true?” So we spent about an hour-and-a-half in a coffee shop, and he said to me, “You could do us a service, there are a lot of people like me who aren’t sure, we don’t have time.” So that reinforced in me the idea that there needs to be that kind of book.

Were you concerned that given the attacks on you in recent years, that people would take aim at the messenger and ignore the message?

Now it’s my book, and I come with baggage. We all come with baggage. OK.

But the answer is no, not at all, no hesitancy whatsoever. I still believe I have credibility. I think the book adds credibility. It’s not hysterical; it’s rational, reasonable. I didn’t hesitate for a moment. I wish others would do it, still plenty of time for others to do it.

I’ve been asked am I not making it more of an issue by writing a book, by confronting the issue. So I’ve asked journalists if I wasn’t there, if I didn’t write it, would you still cover it. And they said yes.

Before the ADL adopted its position in support of U.S. action in Iraq, were you lobbied by the administration? What were the forces at work as your organization was trying to figure out its position?

It’s primarily an internal discussion. When we interact on the Middle East with the administration, there is a give-and-take on issues, policies, priorities. And it’s not a secret that the administration would come and try to explain how it all fits in. All you have to do is read the public statements, the president’s speeches, the secretary of state’s speeches, the national security adviser’s speeches, where they saw it as part of the struggle against terrorism, on which certainly the Jewish community saw eye to eye with the administration and continues to see eye to eye. Whether it’s the best way to fight terrorism or the second best way, that’s their decision, but certainly there was a commonality of interest that America needs to stand up, as Israel has stood up. So it was more in the context of terrorism rather than in the specifics of war.

In your book you write that “in the American tradition, we hold that the best remedy for ‘bad’ speech is not cencorship but more speech,” and denied that you pressured the Polish Consulate in New York to cancel a lecture by New York University Professor Tony Judt. At the same time, you did not criticize the American Jewish Committee for doing just that, and you defended the right of Jewish groups to take such steps. Are you trying to have it both ways?

They’re not wrong. It’s their expression of freedom of speech. When Mearsheimer and Walt now say its censorship when groups cancel them – my foot. Groups have a right to do it, we have a right to say we don’t want to hear you. The fact that a place does not select them or changes its mind does not mean it’s a restriction of freedom of speech. I have also said time and time again that we don’t engage in boycotts, we don’t support boycotts, we do not encourage boycotts, we think boycotts are contrary not only to freedom of speech but to our own tradition. We Jews have been subject to boycotts and continue to be subject to boycotts, but does that mean that I have to go out and chastise people who are out there expressing their freedom of speech?

From a strategic perspective, is it a mistake to lobby for the cancellation of objectionable speakers? You write that you would not have told the Polish Consulate to cancel the talk, so by implication was it wrong for David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, to do so?

I didn’t criticize Committee, I defended myself. I got a rap of being accused of what I didn’t do. By the way, there were people who were critical, asking why didn’t I do it. David Harris is entitled. I would not do it. I think it is wrong. He has a different relationship with the Polish government; one needs to take a look at that. From his perspective, I think he was trying to do them a favor. He had just gotten an award from the Polish government, they have a representative in Poland, they have a lot invested in the Polish-Jewish relationship, a lot more than we do, and what he saw was this would embarrass them, undermine Polish-Jewish relations, undermine Committee-Polish relations. I understand where he went; I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t have that investment. I’m Polish born, that’s enough for me.

Had the consul general called me and asked me what to do, I would have given him advice. Had he called me originally I would have said set up another speaker, either at the same event or at another time. I wouldn’t have told him to cancel. I would have told him to announce that a week or two weeks from now you will host somebody with the other point of view.

In countering Mearsheimer and Walt with your own book, you took the exact approach that critics of the Jewish community would want. Yet when The New York Times first wrote about the issue in August, the story wasn’t about your book versus their book, it was about Jewish institutions being pressured into canceling events with Mearsheimer and Walt. So didn’t the approach of trying to keep them out backfire?

But that’s not accurate. They’re hyping their book. This is the oldest trick in the book, to buzz a book before it even comes out. They want to sell a book, they don’t want to debate it. They’re entitled, but don’t complain.

I am concerned about intimidation. Jews were not that vocal on Iraq because they didn’t think it was their issue. I think we were pleased, pleased that there is no Saddam Hussein who was sending checks to suicide bombers, who politically, if not militarily, was supporting the worst in the Palestinian movement. But we were not out in front.

Iran was the much greater concern to Israel. Iraq was not an existential threat to Israel. Iran is an existential threat. My concern is that this whole effort is to stifle us, to shut us up on this issue. That is of concern because I think we should speak up on Iran. We didn’t speak up on Iraq because it really wasn’t our issue. But they’re trying to put the blame on us, which I think is very detrimental because I worry that the Jewish community will now be hesitant to speak out where it is imperative that we speak out. Yes, Iran is a threat to the globe. Yes, Iran is a threat to the Gulf. Yes, Iran is a threat to Europe. But first and foremost that mamzer [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] says, “I will destroy the State of Israel, I will wipe the Jewish state off of the face of the map.”

At the end of the book you encourage Jews who disagree with Israel-related issues to engage the community, to weigh in with their opinions. But if you, the director of the ADL, can get attacked for inviting Thomas Friedman to speak, doesn’t the average left-wing Jew have a point when he complains that communal leaders just don’t want to hear any criticism of Israel?

There is still an effort out there to shut me up, and if they can shut me up, they can shut the Jewish community up. The New York Times tried to do it by calling me hysterical, by calling me an Al Sharpton. They tried to intimidate me to the extent that I do stand up on behalf on the Jewish community, and that’s very, very serious.

But two problems can exist at the same time. If people in the general society are trying to silence the Jewish community, that doesn’t change the fact that some elements of the Jewish community are trying to silence others.

Absolutely. We have to fight both. One doesn’t justify the other.

Do groups need to do a better job of defending the ability of people to express criticisms?

I fought a fight against extremism in the Jewish community, whether it was Meir Kahane or my rabbi [who issued harsh condemnations of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin prior to his assassination], and I did it alone. I did it not only because I believed that it was right, but if we don’t do it, we have no credibility. We’re not immune to being extreme. And we woke up very tragically to how non-immune we are when Rabin was killed. When I spoke about it before, it’s because I understand that when we say words can kill, we’re not exempt, we don’t have a vaccine that words only kill if they’re from someone else but not from us. But the truth is there weren’t many people standing up.

How do you go about criticizing President Jimmy Carter of Mel Gibson – and if it’s the case, suggest that they are in danger of engaging in anti-Semitism – without alienating the tens of millions of fair-minded people who identify with them? Is there an effective way to address such issues in a way that would seem less confrontational?

That’s not a luxury that we have. Here again it’s that thin line. When you say Mr. X engaged in anti-Semitism, the first time that they do it you can say it’s ignorance, it’s insensitivity. But when you say to them that they are engaging in anti-Semitism when they say the Jews control the media and the Jews control universities, and when they repeat it the second time, the third time and the fourth time, are you or are you not an anti-Semite?

By raising the specter of anti-Semitism, do you end up turning people against you?

There is no choice. There is no choice. There is no choice. We can’t euphemize it. We have to understand that they are using it as a weapon against us to keep us quiet. Why is it you can call somebody a racist, no one says you are stifling debate? You can call somebody a homophobe, you can call somebody anti-Hispanic and no one says you’re stifling debate.

It’s not an exact science. If we controlled the media, it would be much easier.

Critics say you helped Mel Gibson with your criticisms of him and “The Passion.” Could you have taken a different approach?

Those who are honest on this issue will know that I didn’t make the issue, he made the issue. He made the issue. Anybody who really cares will examine where I was and where we were. Read my first letter to him. Read what happened when somebody sent us the script. We didn’t say “we got it, we got it.”

Is there any lesson that you take away from the controversy?

I know I did everything that I could to avoid a public confrontation. I’m not a fool, I know who he is, I know the celebrity image that he has, but so did he. He knew exactly what he was doing. Do I want to confront Jimmy Carter? No, but he’s a former president of the United States, he’s not any jerk who calls Israel apartheid. He’s a former president of the United States. You can’t ignore what he says about Jews.

People would say to me, ‘”Why you worried about Imus? Why are you bothering?” And I said excuse me, presidents go on Imus, senators, every intellectual in this country goes on Imus, he has a credibility, and when he says something anti-Semitic we can’t just roll over and say it’s Imus, you can’t. Did he attack me? Sure. But I don’t have the luxury. I have to see it in terms of who they are, what influence they have.

In the same respect, people say why are you challenging Billy Graham? Well, because Billy Graham had the ear of presidents for 40 years, and he was an anti-Semite, no longer an anti-Semite, but he was all those years, and he had presidents’ ears. So we don’t have this luxury to say, “Well, you know, it’s going to turn some people off.” It will. It may. It’s not a perfect world.

During the past year The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine published several stories, including a profile of you, that could be read as suggesting that Jewish groups are not credible.

It’s not just a New York Times problem. When my son came back from Harvard for the first time, he said, “Dad, you have a real job ahead of you.” I asked why. He said, “I was in the room with seven other first years, all non-Jews. Any time there is a question about yiddishkeit, Judaism, they turn to me and I’m the Gospel. But when the subject of Israel comes up, I have no credibility because I’m Jewish.”

So what do you do about that?

You worry about your credibility. You don’t get intimidated, and everyday you make this ‘”cheshbon” [you take stock]. And to me, the one thing that haunts me is my credibility because that’s all we got.

At the end of the day, though, The New York Times Magazine runs a major profile of you suggesting that you exaggerate the threats against Israel and the Jewish people. Even though you’ve been harshly criticized by conservatives for slamming the religious right, the magazine portrayed you as someone who believes evangelicals should get a free pass on domestic issues because of their support of Israel. Is there anything you can do about that?

It says something. The Anti-Defamation League is 94 years old; 94 years. I think we’ve done some things. The New York Times never did a profile; this is the first time. And when I got the phone call from [writer James Traub], I asked how come you’re doing a profile. He said it’s about Tony Judt. I said you’re going to do a piece about me about something I didn’t do. He said, “We’ll see.”

I don’t think they destroyed my credibility. I think they tried, but I don’t think they succeeded.

It is not just the writer. This is a newspaper that did not cover adequately the Holocaust because of a conscious decision that people not think that it was Jewish. This is a newspaper that consciously decided not to support the Jewish state so that people would not accuse them of double loyalty. And this is a newspaper that said to a managing editor, you want to be managing editor, you’d better not have a name “Abe,” you’d better call yourself A.M. Rosenthal. So this is the newspaper that after 94 years of the Anti-Defamation League being in business, comes to write a piece about my pinky ring. So I’m sorry, it’s not just an individual, it’s a worldview.

Are you more worried about your credibility than you were 10 years ago?

I am more worried about what’s going on out there. I am worried that whether Jews are loyal in America is today a mainstream debate. That worries me an awful lot. It worries me that a former president can get up there and say all over America that the Jews control the media. That’s what worries me.

It’s not Pat Buchanan and David Duke. We live with that, we can deal with that. It’s when it crosses over. It’s not ignoramuses. That’s what’s scary.

Is it my credibility? I know I weigh and measure every time I speak out because I woke up one day to realize that I’ve come to a certain stage with this organization that people listen to what I say. It’s a very awesome realization, it’s a very scary thing. The responsibility of knowing that people listen to your words is awesome. It’s not for me, it’s for the safety and security of the Jewish people. I do know one thing – that before I do speak, I do a very serious “cheshbon hanefesh” [personal accounting]. That doesn’t mean my judgment is always correct. So frequently when you speak, you are only responding to what you know at that moment.

I had this situation with “60 Minutes” many years ago. I’ll never forget it. This was the rock-throwing incident at Har Habayit [the Temple Mount]. “60 Minutes” did a reportage which was so ugly, so disgusting in my view, I wrote a public letter, chastised Don Hewitt and “60 Minutes.” Six months later an Israeli investigative panel came to a conclusion that made “60 Minutes” correct. I wrote a letter to Don Hewitt and I said I apologize to you and Mike Wallace because we were wrong and you were right. And if you wish to use this letter publicly, you may. He called me and said are you for real? I said yeah. He said in 20 years no one ever apologized. I got clobbered by the Jewish community.

I don’t believe that all my judgments are correct, and when I’m wrong I’m ready to get up there and say I’m wrong. Again, because it’s about credibility. We have nothing else. And for the people who say I do this for the media, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you have something to say and you’re credible, they are going to come and ask you again.

In the book you write, “Criticism that condemns Israel simply for existing and implies that the only way Israel can satisfy its critics is by disappearing is not legitimate.” So if opposing Israel’s existence crosses the line, does it cross the line to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state?

Do I go after every Arab and Palestinian who says no to a Jewish existence? No, we talk about the concept. We’ve taken on racism in Israel, Jews who have expressed the thought that there is no room for Arabs. I criticized Jerry Falwell when he said horrendous things to Pat Robertson about Islam, just like I criticized Robertson when he said that Ariel Sharon was punished by God because he gave up Eretz Israel. I don’t shy away from being critical of our own. On the other hand, the enemy is bigger out there than it is within.

Did you do anything wrong in the controversy over whether to describe as genocide the World War I-era killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks?

I didn’t do anything wrong. I miscalculated. We said it is a massacre, an atrocity, we’ve said it for 40 years. The Armenians wanted us to say genocide. To me it was sufficient for us to say I’m not a historian, we don’t adjudicate all the issues. What I miscalculated was the Jewish community. I respect the Armenian community for wanting their memory, their pain, their suffering to be recognized globally in the most sensitive way or the most meaningful way. So we said it is an atrocity and it is massacre, but we just don’t think that Congress should adjudicate it. What I did not suspect was where the Jewish community was.

I was shocked, upset, frightened by the fact that this was an issue where Jews were attacking us. It’s one thing for the federation director or the CRC director or for Jewish pundits to support the Armenian position, but to criticize us, to organize against us, that shocked me.

I think there are two things going on out there. We are a community in transition. I believe in Hillel, I think this agency is an expression of the Hillel thesis [If I am only for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?] In fact, our founding fathers had this vision in 1915, to defend the Jewish people and to protect the right of all individuals. But there is one and two. To me it was very clear, there are moral imperatives here – the moral imperative to feel somebody else’s pain, to recognize their anguish, and the moral imperative which is the safety and the security of the Jewish community.

I don’t believe that the Turkish government tomorrow will go and take it out on the Jews. But the Turkish Jewish community came to the United States, met with Jewish representatives and asked them to transmit a letter on this issue. It was very clear to me what the interests of the Jewish community in Turkey are. It was also very clear to me that after the United States, the most important ally Israel has is Turkey. It’s a country that not only has promised to provide Israel with water until moshiach comes, but it’s a country that permits Israel’s pilots to do maneuvers over its land. And so, to me, it was very clear that there are two moral issues, but one trumps the other. And it was clear to me that I cannot save one Armenian human being, not one. But if I do what the Armenians want me to do, I will put in jeopardy the lives of Turkish Jews and Israeli Jews.

What I didn’t realize was to what extent the American Jewish community has reversed Hillel, or at least in Boston and Massachusetts. That comes out of a changed demography, sociology. When we talk about assimilation, when we talk about intermarriage – you know what, that’s what it is.

So that’s one thing I misread. Two, I misread something else: Israel is no longer as significant. Some of this stuff I read and hear about in Boston was, “Why do we have to sacrifice our relationship with our Armenian friends and neighbors for Israel?” I heard people say to me if the [Jews in Turkey] are in trouble, let them leave. That’s what I miscalculated.

Then I turned around and I got made fun of for it, and said we need unity now because Iran is a threat, Hamas is a threat, Hezbollah is a threat, anti-Semitism in Europe and Latin America. The last thing we need now is for [Boston Jewish leaders] Barry Shrage and Nancy Kaufman to be fighting us.

Given your concerns about Turkey, why did you reverse yourself on the use of the word genocide?

I need, you need, we need a strong unified Jewish community to help Israel. And if we begin splittering …

I gave for the greater purpose so that we can now sit and talk together. It almost destroyed our operation in Boston. And in the greater scheme of things, to go from massacres and atrocities to genocide, OK.

You know what, I’ve had sleepless nights about it.


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