As Some Retire From ADL, Will Abe Be Next?

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published October 27, 2010, issue of November 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Longtime Chief: Abraham Foxman has been the national director of the Anti-Defamation league since 1987.
Longtime Chief: Abraham Foxman has been the national director of the Anti-Defamation league since 1987.

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

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.