One thing is certain about Abraham Foxman and his Anti-Defamation League: They are never out of the headlines for long.
Among Foxman’s most recent statements were ones castigating actor/director Rob Reiner’s for comparing Tea Party members to Nazis, and a Greek Melkite archbishop, who, Foxman argued, “effectively” suggested at a Jerusalem conference that Judaism has outlived its usefulness. A week earlier, the ADL turned heads when it issued its list of the country’s top 10 anti-Israel groups and included Jewish Voice for Peace.
And on October 13, the organization honored media mogul Rupert Murdoch with its International Leadership Award, leading some ADL-watchers to question whether Foxman is still fighting bigotry on the right as heartily as he seems to be going after it on the left.
Two of Foxman’s senior lieutenants retired at the end of October, adding to longtime wondering when — and if — he plans to retire. At 70, Foxman is older than both Jess Hordes, who directed the Washington office, and Myrna Shinbaum, who directed media and communications. Each had been at the ADL for over two decades.
But no one, it seems, has been there longer than Foxman, who joined the Jewish civil rights organization 45 years ago and has served as its national director since 1987. Gruff and outspoken, Foxman has become such a fixture in the Jewish communal world that it’s hard to imagine the ADL without him, and yet some of his recent controversial stands — against the planned Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, for instance — have left even supporters baffled about where he is taking his beloved organization.
Meantime, fundraising at the ADL, as at most non-profits, is down. The most recent publicly available figures are from 2008, when the agency raised just under $59 million, a decrease from nearly $68.3 million in 2007 and a high of over $73 million in 2006. Foxman’s salary, however, is the highest in the Jewish advocacy/public service community; last year, the Forward reported that he earned $532,378 in 2007, the most recent figure available.
Todd Gutnick, ADL’s new director of media relations and public information, declined to provide more recent figures.
In a surprising show of opacity for the organization, Gutnick also refused to provide answers to even simple questions about the number of ADL employees and about whether any reductions in staff or regional offices have been required because of lower fundraising. “The Anti-Defamation League continues to work, we haven’t closed any offices and we are being fiscally responsible,” was all he wrote in an email response.
While the ADL was founded as a civil rights and human relations agency, Foxman in recent years has clearly focused on defending Israel, which some say is to the detriment of the ADL’s legacy and stated mission. Targeting Jewish Voice for Peace — a left-wing group but a Jewish one — is one example. The recent award to Murdoch is offered as another.
“It just seems like everything right now is about Israel,” said Rich Klein, a former ADL communications official who now runs his own public relations firm. The ADL has denounced top Fox News broadcasters, such as Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, for spreading extremism. But said Klein of the group’s award to Murdoch, “It’s this ‘wink wink nod nod,’ we’ll take Murdoch’s money because he supports Israel, and we’ll ignore everything happening on Fox News.” On several recent occasions when Klein posted polite but critical comments of the Murdoch award on the ADL’s Facebook page, they were deleted within hours. Through Gutnick, Foxman declined to be interviewed for this story.
But it’s difficult to entirely categorize Foxman on Israel. He vigorously defended the progressive New Israel Fund when it was attacked by the Israeli student group Im Tirtzu last January, for example.
Nonetheless, some say that Foxman and the ADL are increasingly out of step with the priorities of younger Jews. “Many people in my cohort are really disturbed by the ADL’s selective attention at times to issues of discrimination and racism,” said one rising professional leader at a major Jewish group, who did not want to be identified. “Its policies have looked grossly out of sync with its mission and its values.”
“None of the national agencies, including the ADL with its big budget, has much of an impact anymore,” said Jerome Chanes, a longtime observer of Jewish organizations (and a Forward contributing editor). “It’s a mistake to confuse visibility, which the ADL has, with its impact, which is limited.”
Then there remains the question of who will take over from Foxman when his tenure ends; no successor is being groomed. Ken Jacobson, ADL’s deputy national director, a 40-plus year veteran of the agency (who did not respond to an interview request), is also part of Foxman’s generation.
“The ADL has an institutional culture that eats its children. It’s more than they don’t cultivate them, it’s a negative thing. And with this erosion of top professional leadership, which isn’t being replaced or nurtured, I don’t see any serious nurturing going on. It’s partly the executive,” said a source who did not want to be identified.
No one dares bring up the subject of retirement in Foxman’s presence, insiders say.
Foxman “is the national director, he is Mister ADL,” Hordes said in an interview. “At some point he will retire, but it’s not now and not in the immediate future or even in the near future.”
“I don’t know that anything productive can come of hypothetical discussions right now,” he added.
Contact Debra Nussbaum Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org