In Search For Abe Foxman Replacement, An Unusual Candidate Emerges

Thane Rosenbaum Could Usher in a New Era for ADL

Thane Rosenbaum (right) with Jeb Bush.
Thane Rosenbaum (right) with Jeb Bush.

By Judy Maltz

Published May 16, 2014.
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(Haaretz) – When it comes to who will replace Abraham Foxman when the legendary Anti-Defamation League director retires in a few months, any guess is as good as the other. But among the names being tossed around, one definitely stands out as unusual.

With his messy mane of sun-streaked hair (just beginning to show a bit of gray), Thane Rosenbaum doesn’t come across as a Jewish establishment type. He looks like he’d feel a lot more comfortable jumping on a surfboard back on the beaches of his native Miami than stepping into the giant shoes filled by Foxman over the past 40 years.

Unlike some of the other names being floated, Rosenbaum is not an organizational insider, a Jewish-community leader or a politico with close ties to the administration. Nor has he ever managed an operation anywhere near the size of the ADL.

So when Foxman let him know his candidacy was being considered for this most coveted of jobs in the world of Jewish organizations, the 54-year-old law professor, novelist and essayist was frankly surprised.

That is, until he gave it some serious thought.

“In many ways, I realized I was sort of oddly built for this,” Rosenbaum, who is in Israel this week on a lecture tour, told Haaretz. “I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. All my writing, fiction and nonfiction deals with Holocaust-related themes, or with hate, bigotry and defamation. I’m a human rights law professor. I jokingly say that in a way I’ve been doing the same job for decades, just without the portfolio.”

It’s a long shot, he knows, but if he were offered the job of running the world’s best-known anti-Semitism watchdog, would he accept? “I’d answer the call,” he says, “and I’d be very honored.”

A professor at Fordham University’s law school in Manhattan, Rosenbaum is a familiar face in New York Jewish circles. Aside from directing the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at Fordham, he moderates a series on culture, politics and world events at the 92nd Street Y, where he gets to rub shoulders with big-time celebrities. He has published four novels, all Holocaust-themed, several short stories and two books on legal issues that challenge in-the-box thinking (a third is in the making).

With so much of his current work (and perhaps future work) influenced by the Holocaust, Rosenbaum can’t avoid taking note of the different attitudes in Israel and the United States toward the murder of six million Jews.

“In the United States, the grand narrative of the Holocaust is mass death. For Israelis, the grand narrative of the Holocaust is ‘Never again – we are the answer to the Holocaust,’” he says.

“American Jews feel that surely as well, and some of their support for Israel is based on it, but I think that the Holocaust has oftentimes been exploited here in Israel for reasons having nothing to do with Holocaust memory and everything to do with ‘this is why we do what we do.’ That’s exploitative. The Holocaust can’t be used as justification for behavior that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable.”

In his latest book, “Payback: The Case for Revenge,” Rosenbaum argues that contrary to popular belief, revenge is a healthy instinct (“even though psychologists tell you it’s bad for your kishkes”) provided it doesn’t get out of hand. Over the course of history, Rosenbaum says, most societies have learned how much revenge to mete out and when to stop. The rare exception today, in his view, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“They are sort of a modern-day Hatfields and McCoys. With each new retaliation, there is a vow for revenge. In the case of the Israelis and Palestinians, it’s become tit-for-tat on steroids – doubling down on retaliation so that no one can ever remember what the original affronts were,” Rosenbaum says.

“With the exception of some corners of Sicily, there are very few places around the world today where you have these biblical blood feuds. And it’s a great tragedy. Not only can’t both sides achieve peace – they can’t even achieve measure for measure. This is vengeance gone wild with no end in sight.”

In an earlier book, “The Myth of Moral Justice,” Rosenbaum also took a swipe at conventional attitudes toward justice when he argued that the American legal system is legal but not moral. Both books, not surprisingly, have drawn as many fans as detractors. Rosenbaum expects no different with his upcoming book “The High Price of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment,” in which he argues, as the title suggests, that freedom of expression is overrated.

Rosenbaum seems to have fun giving voice to ideas that verge on the politically incorrect. Whether that will help or hinder his chances of landing the big-time establishment job remains to be seen.

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