Abraham H. Foxman, the outgoing national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is a champion of tolerance, empathy, and compassion, no matter its source.
Since taking over ADL in 1987, Foxman has expanded the organization’s original mission — “stop the defamation of the Jewish people” — to the eradication of bigotry and discrimination in all its forms. A staunch supporter of Israel, Foxman has met with Palestinian leaders to discuss terrorism, democratic values, and a host of issues stemming from ethnic hatred.
“I’ve been accused or lauded, depending on who you ask, of expanding the mission of the ADL to deal not only with Jews but with other victims,” Foxman said in an interview from his New York office on Thursday. “The truth is, I’ll take the credit for it, but I don’t think I’ve done anything extraordinary. That mission has always been there.”
Trained in Jewish theology, Foxman has also cultivated a relationship with the Catholic Church, meeting six times with Pope John Paul II, four times with Pope Benedict XVI, and twice with the newly installed Pope Francis.
“He believes in the concept that we all live together, and we all should be able to have dialogue together,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. “His hallmark has been sitting at the table with men and women of other faiths, other backgrounds, to solve problems.”
Foxman, 73, attributes this duality to his experience during World War II, when he was saved from the Holocaust by his Polish Catholic nursemaid, Bronislawa Kurpi. Born in Poland in 1940, Foxman was entrusted to Kurpi by his parents and then baptized and raised as a Catholic until the family was reunited at the end of the war.
The first time Foxman met Pope John Paul II, he asked him to bless the soul of Kurpi. The pontiff embraced Foxman and said, “Thank you for bearing witness to human kindness.”
“I learned how to pray with a rosary and kneel at the altar of the church,” Foxman has written. “I could not play with other children, as it was too risky. There was always the possibility that someone would see that I was circumcised and discover my Jewish identity.”
Although both of Foxman’s parents survived the war, 14 family members were killed.
After immigrating with his parents to the United States in 1950, Foxman attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y., and later received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the City University of New York and a law degree from New York University. He joined ADL in 1965, one day after passing the bar exam.
In May 1991, the organization helped arrange the First International Gathering of Children Hidden During World War II, a meeting of 1,600 survivors who had been secreted in sewers, closets, barns, and fields during the Holocaust or been saved by Christian foster parents.
“We examined the guilt that continues to haunt us; the pain we felt at losing our loved ones; our anger; our inability to speak of these experiences with our family; our identity crises; and our confused, frightening, lost childhoods,” Foxman has written. “I’m convinced there are thousands of Jews who don’t know they are Jewish, especially in Poland”¦. Every day we lose potential Jewish souls because their foster parents died without telling them that they were children of Jewish parents — either because they didn’t want to discombobulate their lives, or because of the stigma of having saved Jews, or because of feeling guilty for not having told them before. All these things conspire against truth-telling.”
A preeminent figure in the American Jewish community known informally as the “Jewish pope,” Foxman speaks multiple languages, including Polish, Russian, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish. During his tenure at ADL, he strengthened the organization’s ties to the progressive community — often to the consternation of ADL’s conservative and orthodox members. But he shuns political labels in favor of open-mindedness.
“Probably the most significant thing we’ve done is education, which never makes the news,” he said. “The antidote to hate, short of a vaccine, is education, education, education.”
Yet Foxman was not hesitant to condemn Hollywood filmmaker Mel Gibson ahead of the 2004 release of The Passion of the Christ, a graphic depiction of Christ’s final 12 hours.
“I think he’s infected — seriously infected — with some very, very serious anti-Semitic views,” Foxman said at the time. “[Gibson’s] got classical anti-Semitic views. If he can say that there is a cabal out there of secular liberal Jews who are trying to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church, that’s a classic anti-Semitic canard — that Jews operate in cabals to get their way.”
In an open letter to supporters, Foxman reiterated that the primary purpose of ADL is to combat the global scourge of anti-Semitism.
“For almost five decades, ADL offered me the perfect vehicle to live a life of purpose both in standing up on behalf of the Jewish people to ensure that what happened during World War II would never happen again and in fighting bigotry and all forms of oppression,” Foxman said. “We have never lost sight of the fact that we are an organization whose first priority is to fight anti-Semitism and protect the Jewish people. I’m proud of all that we have accomplished.”
In the interview, Foxman looked back to his early years. “The good old days were actually the bad old days,” he said. “People forget. Jim Crowism, anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry — all of that was horrific. Today is a lot better, but that doesn’t mean we can close shop. This battle isn’t over in my lifetime and won’t be over in the next person’s lifetime.”
That is especially true about the Jewish state, he said. “Israel has been continuously under attack since the day of its inception and it was almost wiped off the face of the earth in 1967,” Foxman said. “The ultimate form of anti-Semitism in our lifetime would be, God forbid, the destruction of the state of Israel.”
Foxman will stay on at ADL until July 2015.
“He is a major leader of the last generation, someone who has earned recognition “¦ on significant issues like civil rights and anti-Semitism,” said the Jewish Federations’ Silverman. “He is a mentor, teacher, someone who speaks his mind, and one who truly helps guide new and younger people in the field”¦. Somebody of his stature, warmth and ability to connect is not easily replaceable.”