The ‘Jewish Pope’ Prepares to Step Down

Abraham H. Foxman will retire as national director of the Anti-Defamation League next year.

Abraham Foxman is retiring in July 2015 as national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
National Journal
Feb. 27, 2014, 1:18 p.m.

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.”

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