Filling Foxman’s Large Shoes


When Mark Burnett and Roma Downey looked for the kosher seal of approval for “Son of God,” their retelling of the Jesus story, which opened in theaters nationwide last week, they turned to Abe Foxman, the iconic Anti-Defamation League national director. Foxman blessed the film as an “antidote” to Mel Gibson’s Jewishly troubling “Passion of the Christ,” according to The Wrap, which covers Hollywood.

When Foxman walks out the door next summer after nearly 40 years at the ADL (27 as its head), it’s hard to imagine folks like Burnett and Downey seeking such approval from his replacement, whoever he or she might be.

Nevertheless, the race for his replacement is on. And sources close to the ADL say Foxman’s replacement will likely be named by Sept. 1, even though he isn’t scheduled to step down until July of 2015. The reason? “So someone can sit at Abe’s knee for 10 months,” a source said, adding that the search committee has already conducted some interviews.

Last month, the Religion News Service, in a piece carried in the Washington Post, floated some names as possible replacements; they were culled, RNS said, from conversations with activists across the Jewish community. Some are former members of Congress (Rep. Gary Ackerman from Long Island and Sen. Rudy Boschwitz from Minnesota); others are Jewish community insiders (Jewish Federations of North America Washington director William Daroff and American Jewish Committee interfaith director Noam Marans). Still others, like former Jewish Council for Public Affairs head Hannah Rosenthal and former National Jewish Democratic Coalition head Ira Forman, have close ties to the Obama administration and have headed the government’s anti-Semitism monitoring operation.

A far-outside-the-box name that has emerged as a possible Foxman successor is Fordham law school professor and novelist Thane Rosenbaum, who has been a regular Jewish Week contributor.

Rosenbaum, 54, who teaches human rights at Fordham Law School and directs the Forum on Law, Culture and Society at Fordham, is a leading figure of the so-called Second Generation of Holocaust survivors. As a child of survivors, he has spoken out forcefully for the rights of survivors and their heirs in the ongoing debate over Holocaust reparations, often clashing with Jewish institutions like the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. He criticized The Jewish Museum for its 2002 exhibit that featured the use of Zyklon B gas canisters artwork, arguing that such art is insensitive to survivors. His trilogy of Holocaust novels (“Elijah Visible,” “Second Hand Smoke” and “The Golems of Gotham”) probes the lingering effects of the Shoah on the children of survivors.

Rosenbaum has long moderated panels at the 92nd Street and currently hosts “The Talk Show with Thane Rosenbaum” at the Y.

According to sources, Foxman, who was hidden by his Polish nanny during the Holocaust, threw Rosenbaum’s name (among others) into the ring, passing it on to the Maryland-based headhunting group that is trolling for candidates. Over the years, Rosenbaum has moderated some panels at ADL conferences.

Whether a dark-horse candidate like Rosenbaum (who has no experience running an operation as big as the $50 million ADL) or a more traditional pick is tapped to lead the ADL, the group will have to determine what kind of organization it wants to be, post-Foxman. It has drawn some criticism for its increasing focus on Israel in recent years, though Foxman has framed the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement to isolate Israel on the world stage as a cover for anti-Semitism. The ADL is sometimes the butt of jokes for churning out a seemingly endless parade of press releases, even about minor incidents. And some have criticized Foxman’s leadership for not having groomed a successor, a charge he bristles at.

A close observer of the Jewish organizational world, Jerome Chanes, who has written extensively about anti-Semitism, wonders whether it matters at all who replaces Foxman. “Who cares?” Chanes said.

The key questions for him are more existential: “What’s the mission of the ADL? Can it retool itself to address new realities, including the diminution of anti-Semitism in the U.S.? Will it be able to contour a sober response to threats to the security of Jews in Europe? Is Israel still to be at the core of its mission? And, of course, the money. Where will the money come from?”