Abe Foxman, 'Jewish Pope,' Retires From ADL — and Communal World Gasps

Iconic Figure Leaves the Stage After 50 Years

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By Nathan Guttman

Published February 13, 2014.
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While some questioned the ability of a new director to fill Foxman’s shoes and maintain the ADL’s high profile and national success, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and an ally of Foxman in many human rights battles, was unconcerned. “Abe has built a strong organization, which I am confident will continue his legacy,” Saperstein said.

Sarna, however, speculated that given Foxman’s failure to groom a natural successor, “they will probably bring in someone from the outside who will inevitably bring about a different culture.”

Foxman will be leaving an organization that, despite some difficulties during the financial downturn, has been raising $50 million a year. The ADL also has an endowment fund of nearly $90 million. Much of the ADL’s success has been credited to Foxman’s personal fundraising abilities. He bonded strongly with major donors, many of whom came from his own age group and background. Critics from within the organization have noted, however, the aging profile of ADL donors as a source of concern for the future.

Foxman’s gripping life story was also part of his unique ability to attract supporters. Born in Nazi-occupied Poland, Foxman survived World War II and the Holocaust thanks to a Catholic nanny who brought him up as a Christian before he reunited with his parents and moved with them to America. This background put a vivid human face on the ADL’s fight against anti-Semitism and bigotry.

But Foxman’s most important quality as a communal leader, friends and commentators noted, has been his ability to speak to all sectors of the Jewish community, and to masterfully represent a diverse community’s collective view — or come as close as possible to doing so.

“He just has this incredible knack for knowing how to do the right thing at the right time,” Shinbaum said. With political and geopolitical savvy, Foxman was, for example, one of the first in the Jewish community to raise the issue of the Kosovo ethnic cleansing, while choosing, a decade later, not to back calls for recognizing the Armenian genocide.

When it came to American politics, Foxman successfully walked a thin line, especially with the Obama administration. He was quick to speak out against Obama’s pressure on Israel to freeze settlements, and was among the first critics of the choice of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. But in both cases, as in many others, initial contentious statements were soon replaced by a practical approach focused primarily on the need to work with decision makers rather than fight them.

“Abe spoke truth to power. With respect, but also with passion,” said Jess Hordes, the ADL’s former Washington director, “but he didn’t play at all the partisan game. He called it as he saw it.”

Foxman’s unique ability to make headlines with the right choice of words and a fair share of alarmism earned him the title of “the most quoted Jew” in America. His spectrum of statements, when discussing what he viewed as offenses to the Jewish people, ranged from “troubling,” to “abhorrent” to “classic anti-Semitic.” The frequency and tone of Foxman’s alerts, as well as the breadth of their reach, triggered the most common criticism against his work, that of crying “gevalt” at the slightest perception of anti-Jewish bias. Foxman, who himself admitted that anti-Semitism in America is in decline, would not let any hint of bias or bigotry go unaddressed.

“Abe fully resisted the growing common thread of finding anti-Semitism where it does not exist,” Saperstein said.

As anti-Semitism subsided, Foxman stirred the ADL to take on a broader human rights agenda, including the fight against Islamophobia and white supremacist extremism. His agenda also embraced equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; women’s rights, and anti-bullying.

“Civil rights issues were important for him more broadly than you’d expect from a guy whose normal posture was ‘Israel right or wrong,’” said Leonard Fein, a Jewish scholar and activist. Fein recalled coming to Foxman with the idea of establishing a task force for helping Arab Israelis gain equality. Foxman bought into the plan without even waiting to hear Fein out.

In broadening the ADL’s agenda and in expanding its operations, a supportive lay leadership that rarely questioned his moves or sought to dictate policy aided Foxman. His successor will face a different reality, with a board less likely to show deference and with Foxman’s shadow still present.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman


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