Abraham's life-long war on antisemitism

Simon Yaffe finds that Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman is still as determined as ever to fight antisemitism

THE question seemed plausible. Did being a Holocaust survivor led to Abraham Foxman leading the fight against antisemitism? "Why do people become proctologists or dentists?," he asked.

"It is definitely beshert, but I feel privileged to do what I do."

Speaking on a visit to England to meet government ministers and fellow antisemitism fighters, he is reticent to talk about his heart-rending childhood, explaining that it is well documented.

Abraham was born in Baranovichi in present-day Belarus in May, 1940.

His Polish-Jewish parents Helen and Joseph left him with his Polish Catholic nanny Bronislawa Kurpi months later when they were ordered into a ghetto by the Nazis.

He was baptised a Roman Catholic and raised as one in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the next four years.

But a custody battled ensued and he was returned to his parents. Five years after the end of the war, the family moved to America.

Abraham said: "All I know is that I am both lucky and privileged because I survived and more than a million-and-a-half children didn't.

"They perished because they were Jewish. Only God knows why I survived and I struggle with it.

"It is both presumptuous and arrogant to believe that I survived to do what I am doing.

"But I am lucky to have the opportunity to get up in the morning and make a difference."

Abraham has spent 45 years at the ADL and the last 23 as its national director.

Set up in 1913 by America's Independent Order of B'nai B'rith, the New York City-based organisation to stop defamation against the Jewish people, the ADL has 29 offices in America and three offices in other countries.

Its headquarters are in New York City.

Lawyer Sigmund Livingstone, one of the ADL's founders, helped to establish the organisation in response to the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Georgia accused of murdering a young female employee.

Abraham said: "I get up in morning and I am excited about changing the world.

"If I didn't, bigoted or ignorant people could have an epiphany about their views - and then I would not go to work."

After graduating from Brooklyn's Flatbush Yeshiva, he read political science at the City College of New York and law at the New York University of Law.

He joined the ADL in 1965, working in its international affairs division.

"I didn't want to practise law per se - I wanted to have an impact on the safety and the well- being of the Jewish people," Abraham explained.

"I am lucky to have moved up the ladder at the ADL."

Perhaps quite the trendsetter, the ADL introduced polling, in conjunction with the University of Southern California, to measure antisemitism in the 1960s.

They still use the same method today, but it is more advanced.

And, just 20 years after the Holocaust, they found that one- third of American people were "infected with serious antisemitism".

"The positive thing is that over the years many people's attitudes to Jews have changed," Abraham said.

"Statistically, the percentage of antisemites is down, but we still find that 12 to 14 per cent of Americans - that is 40 million people - are antisemitic.

"Many of them believe that Jews killed Christ - this is America, not Poland, Spain or Mexico.

"We have also found that 30 per cent of Americans believe that American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their native country. It is serious."

Abraham also revealed that the African-American community was disproportionately antisemitic.

He said: "About 30-40 per cent of their community is infected with antisemitism and that has not changed in 40 years.

"Jews were prominently involved with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but that doesn't matter.

"Their community has had no real leadership since Martin Luther King and he was the one who said antisemitism was a sin and that anti-Zionism was antisemitism."

Abraham lives and breathes fighting prejudice.

If he isn't meeting with a head of state to discuss racism, he's countering anti-Zionism in the media or dealing with antisemitism on the Internet.

It's a busy life. But he's still found time to pen a new book, Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype.

"I wrote this one primarily because of the advent of the recent global economic crisis," he explained. People need to know that Jews are not solely responsible for the world economy."

The book also focuses on the antisemitism due to the activities of Jewish investment adviser Bernard Madoff, whose ponzi scheme defrauded thousands of investors of billions of dollars.

"Many people believe that the Jews' thirst for money is a way of acquiring power," Abraham said.

"Madoff became news - the fact he is Jewish became news. How deep is this canard that has become part of Western antisemitism?

"Don't forget that Hitler began his antisemitic campaign by claiming that the Jews controlled Germany's economy. Consequently, this is a serious subject."

Dealing with hate online has become one of the ADL's major tasks.

"We meet regularly with Internet providers and people in the industry to try and get them to sensitise particular websites," Abraham said.

"When we complain to providers about antisemitism, they are sensitive and they remove it. But when the Madoff scandal broke, it took on a life of its own in Florida.

"The Palm Beach Post, for example, put letters up on its website about Madoff that were antisemitic.

"They didn't have the ability to censor it, so they made an announcement that they would not publish any more letters on the website concerning Madoff.

"The Internet has changed the world of bigotry in ways we have not been able to assess fully yet.

"Bigots and racists can communicate across continents in nano-seconds and be protected by anonymity.

"It enhances information and education, but there are so many unintended consequences, too.

"It is an underground river of bigotry."

Abraham is married to Golda, who he met at a Jewish summer camp.

The couple have two children and three grandchildren.

Perhaps it's protecting their future - and future generations of Jews - that continues to drive him forward.

Surprisingly, he admits that it is entirely legal to be a bigot in America, due to the First Amendment of the constitution which entitles citizens to free speech.

"Statements can be made that would be illegal in Europe," Abraham continued. "But if you are antisemitic, it doesn't bode well for those in public office or life - you're not going to do well.

"Look at Mel Gibson - he went from number one actor to bottom of the heap."

As well as combating hate, the ADL works with ethnic groups in the fight against racism.

But he admits that they have been least successful in that area with American Arab Muslim groups. Abraham explained: "Dialogue is tougher because of Israel.

"We've pointed out to many of these groups that we are not saying that their cause isn't just. We want them to say that no cause justifies antisemitism and terrorism.

"Individual members have said it, but not collectively."

Abraham also revealed that the ADL had set up an interfaith task force to deal with the erection of mosques in America.

"Many Muslim American communities have had difficulty in building mosques," he added.

"The community in Tennessee, for example, had difficulties.

"Through legal documents, we have ascertained that this is discrimination and we have started to build relationships with Muslim Americans.

During his time with ADL, Abraham has dealt with several American presidents.

And he nominated George Bush Senior as one of the best in relation to world Jewry.

That may come as a surprise to some, given the Texan's not-always-friendly attitude towards Israel.

But Abraham stated: "He was courageous in helping Soviet and Syrian Jews to get them out of those countries. Bush saved more Jews than anyone since the Second World War."

He said George Bush Junior and Bill Clinton were among the best with regards to Israel, but labelled Jimmy Carter the worst.

"I am not sure what is in his heart - he certainly seems to have a problem with Jews and Israel," Abraham explained.

"Richard Nixon was an antisemite, yet he was pro-Israel and did a lot for its safety and security."

He is also optimistic about current White House incumbent Barack Obama's relations with Jews.

Abraham went on: "Yes, there may be disagreements with some of Obama's policies regarding the Middle East, but American Jews will continue to have it good as long as we maintain our courage and ability to stand up for ourselves.

"The American Jewish community is a lot more vocal in its support for Israel, too."

He ends on a poignant yet positive and succinct note when describing what he does.

"I am fighting hate because I was almost destroyed by antisemitism," Abraham said. "A Catholic woman risked her life for me, so I am building respect, understanding and sensitivity."

Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype is published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced 16.99.

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph