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Abraham "Abe" Foxman

(1940 - )

There was a time at the height of 1990's prosperity when Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, thought that the long, hard-fought battle against anti-Semitism was winding down. Anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents were on the wane, having reached historic lows in the United States and in Europe, while terrorism, violence and warmongering against Israel had abated with the prospect of a settlement in the Middle East conflict close at hand.

That was then. Much has changed in the past few years. Today, Foxman is far less optimistic about the prospects for the eventual demise of anti-Semitism. Instead of further diminishing on the cusp of the new century-as many had predicted-the old disease of anti-Jewish hatred saw a sudden spike, with new manifestations appearing in far-flung regions of the world, and closer to home. "It's serious, it's different and it's dangerous," says Foxman. "It's not a fact of history. It is current. It is the most dangerous crisis the Jews have faced since the Holocaust."

Anti-Semitism and its modern variants are the subject of his new book, Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003). In it Foxman examines the sharp, sudden rise in anti-Semitic incidents and attitudes of the last several years and the disturbing prevalence of anti-Jewish attitudes on the current world scene-despite all efforts to combat it through education and advocacy.

The 63-year-old Foxman, a lawyer, Holocaust survivor and Jewish community leader who has devoted his professional career-including 38 years with the ADL, the last 16 of them as national director-to fighting anti-Semitism, says his book is an effort to raise the alarm about its troubling re-emergence and the disturbing new forms it is taking around the world.

So why write a book now? And why was the book's title, Never Again?, which was the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust, followed with a question mark? Foxman says it is because he believes that in today's changing world, the old warning signs are there.

"'Never again' is a declarative, it is like the Eleventh Commandment," he says in an interview from the League's national headquarters in New York City. "It has been a rallying cry and an expression of our determination that the horror of genocide will never be repeated. Now I find myself forced-to my shock and dismay-to add a question mark to it."

Foxman says that the events of the past few years harbinger a difficult period ahead for world Jewry. Israel is under constant attack by terrorism and increasingly isolated from the rest of the world; new manifestations of anti-Semitism are cropping up in the United States, in the Arab World and in Europe-scene of the Holocaust and the one place the world thought the disease had been dampened forever. Furthermore, recent polls have shown that anti-Semitic attitudes are on the increase, or at least still potent, in the United States and across Europe.

"Most people view anti-Semitism as a problem that is elsewhere, not something that is happening to them," says Foxman. "As little as five years ago, I could have given a speech about how much things have changed and how our children and grandchildren will be able to live their lives free of hatred and prejudice. But we can't take this for granted any more. We woke up two or three years ago to the fact that we're not passing on to the next generation a world where Jewishness is irrelevant."

The first signs of a re-emergence of global anti-Jewish hatred began in 1999. Then, within a few years, anti-Semitism metastasized, when the number of violent attacks against Jews around the world more than doubled and the threat of global terrorism hit home with the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

In his book, Foxman revisits episodes along the way that seem to suggest that this was not a series of isolated events, but rather a buildup in the level of anti-Semitism, when people decided to act out their bigotry.

In the United States, the first signs came during what has come to be known as the "summer of hate." In 1999, a series of violent attacks against identifiably Jewish individuals and institutions were carried out by adherents of virulently anti-Semitic and racist groups. In Los Angeles, a white supremacist went on a shooting spree at a Jewish community center and day-care center in Los Angeles; in Sacramento, Calif., a series of fire bombings carried out by skinheads left three synagogues reduced to ashes; and in suburban Chicago, a follower of the anti-Semitic World Church of the Creator fired a gun at groups of Jews walking home from Sabbath services and also targeted Blacks and Asians before turning the weapon on himself.

On the world stage, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process foundered at Camp David in 2000, and shortly thereafter Israel was facing a new wave of terrorist attacks, while bearing the brunt of international scorn and criticism for its efforts to combat Palestinian terrorism and protect its citizens from harm.

Foxman recalls watching in horror as Israel, once lauded for taking bold steps in seeking peace, virtually became a pariah overnight in many circles, as Zionism was once again equated with Nazism, boycotts were organized and the Jewish State was accused of being "racist" and "apartheid" at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. That now-infamous gathering of world leaders and non-governmental organizations ended in a series of anti-Israel pronouncements and squandered opportunity just days before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The anti-Israel climate around the world contributed, in turn, to the legitimization of anti-Semitism, resulting in a wave of violent, ugly attacks against Jewish institutions, synagogues, cemeteries and communities in Europe, especially in France and Germany, where large immigrant Arab populations have emerged as an important political and social force.

In his book, Foxman says the attacks were blatantly anti-Semitic, yet Europe's leaders were at first loathe to acknowledge the problem or to admit that anti-Semitism was emerging yet again on a continent that witnessed the Holocaust.

"It has taken Europeans far too long to admit that the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe today is not a history lesson, but a current event," Foxman says. "When France experienced hundreds of incidents, including synagogue burnings in 2002, French President Jacques Chirac was reluctant to label it for what it was: anti-Semitism. Never, as a Holocaust survivor, did I believe we would witness another eruption of anti-Semitism of such magnitude, in Europe of all places. But the resiliency of anti-Semitism is unparalleled. It rears its ugly head in far-flung places."

Today, European leaders are finally taking steps to deal with the problem they at first refused to recognize, he says. "Good people must stand up and say `No,'" Foxman says. "In France, after leaders began speaking out against anti-Semitism, the number of incidents fell from 400 in one year to fewer than 100. This is true today as it was during the Holocaust. When the Bulgarians and Albanians stood up against Hitler's Final Solution and said, 'No,' Jews lived."

But Foxman adds that European nations still have a long way to go to counteract the damage. He points to recent newspaper headlines from around the world that detail attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions: "Synagogue Firebombed in Belgium"; "Two Jews Stabbed to Death by Arabs in Paris"; "Museum Honoring Holocaust Victims Is Bombed in Germany."

Meanwhile, in the Arab world, anti-Semitic stereotypes and depictions of Jews imported from Europe have taken on new forms in cities from Damascus to Cairo, where the official government news media and opposition newspapers continue to repeatedly single out Jews and Israel for attacks. Jews are routinely depicted in newspaper cartoons and articles as hook-nosed, greedy, vengeful, violent and conspiratorial.

In Never Again?, Foxman says that the most troubling aspect of this new form of Muslim and Arab anti-Semitism is that it has brought together disparate groups with the common goal of blaming, scapegoating and vilifying Jews. The new anti-Semitism is becoming increasingly virulent because it has united the extreme right and extreme left in this common goal. This alliance of disparate groups denies engaging in anti-Semitism and claims unity under the banners of the politically correct rhetoric of "anti-imperialism," "anti-racism" and "anti-Americanism," Foxman notes. This has led to alliances, between leftist anti-war coalitions and Palestinian activists, for example, or U.S.-based right-wing extremists and hatemonger in the Muslim and Arab world.

After the 9/11 attacks, for instance, right-wing groups in the United States were among those spreading rumors that Israel or "the Mossad" were the real agents behind the terrorist attacks. This anti-Semitic accusation, along with the conspiratorial canard that "4,000 Jews" didn't show up for work at the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks, was parroted back and forth between anti-Semites in the United States and their counterparts in the Arab World and shared in articles on the Internet.

What most disturbs Foxman is the legitimization of anti-Semitic views. "Instead of being 'anti-Semitic,' their views are also being labeled 'anti-Israel' and 'Anti-Zionist,'" Foxman says. "The line between criticism of Israel and hatred of Jews has blurred. This is a new form of poison that blends several streams of intolerance into a particularly deadly cocktail."

Such views are being mainstreamed into popular culture through the mass media and the Internet, which Foxman says can be used as "the superhighway of anti-Semitic hate." The communications revolution has brought the world closer together, but that interconnectivity "comes with a dark underbelly of hate," says Foxman, explaining that the Internet facilitates the spread of hate by giving hate mongers the ability to spread hate literature around the world at the click of a mouse. What's more, he says, the Internet gives the information an added legitimacy "simply because it appears on screen, instead of in a pamphlet handed out on a street corner."

Most recently, anti-Semitism has emerged in a controversy over the Mel Gibson film, The Passion. The firestorm that has erupted over the unreleased film was prompted by concerns of Catholic and Jewish theologians and interfaith scholars that the film could fuel anti-Semitism through its depiction of Jews as "Christ killers" and enemies of God. Gibson, a member of the Catholic traditionalist sect, insists that his film is based on a traditional reading of the Gospels' telling of the crucifixion and is not anti-Semitic.

ADL previewed an early version of the film in Houston, Texas and initially voiced concerns that the film's portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus could fuel anti-Semitism, Foxman says. More recently, after an interview with Gibson in the Sept. 15 issue of The New Yorker magazine-where the actor claimed that "modern secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church" — Foxman accused Gibson of harboring anti-Semitic views. Foxman says that Gibson is attempting to use his film to drive a wedge between mainstream and traditional Catholics at the expense of Jews.

"The film can and may trigger anti-Semitism," Foxman says. "In fact, even though it hasn't opened yet, we at ADL are getting hate mail from mainstream, God-fearing people who have enough chutzpah to sign their names and say that maybe the Holocaust was justified because it was punishment by God for Jews killing Christ. If, before this, you would have said that deicide would even be an issue for Jews, I would have said, 'Oh, come on.'"

Foxman says the film, if released in its present form, could have potentially damaging consequences for the more than 50 years of interfaith dialogue between Catholics and Jews. Those efforts led to the Vatican's official renunciation of the deicide canard in the watershed Nostra Aetate statement at the Second Vatican Council of 1965. The Gibson film, Foxman says, could turn back the clock on those and other reforms within the Catholic Church by harkening back to the passion plays of old, where the Jews were portrayed as bloodthirsty mobs conspiring to kill Jesus.

Foxman says he is concerned that The Passion, which was filmed in Latin and Aramaic, will only add fuel to the already pervasive anti-Semitic attitudes in European nations, where rising anti-Semitism is well documented and a matter of great concern. Recent polls have suggested that more than one in five Europeans are infected with hardcore anti-Semitic attitudes, he points out.

A traditional Jew who was born in Poland in 1940, Foxman brings a unique perspective to the subject of anti-Semitism. To save his life during the Holocaust, his parents, Joseph and Helen Foxman, gave him to his Catholic-Polish nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi, in 1941 when the Germans occupied Lithuania and Jews were sent to the Vilna Ghetto. At great risk to her own life, she had him baptized as a Catholic, and he became immersed in his new identity.

"I've heard that whenever I passed a church, I would make the sign of the cross, and when I met a priest on the street, I would stop to kiss his hand," Foxman says. "I would spit when Jews from the shtetl were being marched by, and call out 'dirty Jew!'"

In 1945, when the Russians liberated Lithuania, the 5-year-old "Catholic" Foxman and his Jewish parents were reunited. Foxman says that since he was so young, it was not difficult to return to Judaism. "In the Jewish tradition, once you're Jewish, you're Jewish," he says. "My father was a very wise man. He started taking me to the synagogue and, little by little, I made the transition. I was raised in the faith, so as long as I had a substitution, I was fine. I was so young that I didn't understand Latin, which is what the Catholics used, and I didn't understand Hebrew — it was all Greek to me. And I became immersed again in the Jewish environment."

As far as stemming the current crop of anti-Semitism, Foxman has no easy or quick solutions.

"First and foremost, the Jewish community must have an awareness that the threat is there," he says. "There must also be an understanding and recognition today that anti-Semitism is more virulent than ever before. We must speak out and act when tolerance is threatened-and not just in our own backyards or when our own families or friends are in danger, but in all times and all places."

"Now more than ever," he says, "the motto 'Never Again!' must become a rallying cry for all people of goodwill-for Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, for lovers of freedom everywhere who profess no creed. We can't wait for the next crisis and the explosion of hatred and violence it may provoke."

Sources: LifeStyles Magazine