Watching Abraham Foxman, outgoing national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wipe the tears off his face in front of an audience of about 1,200 people is an experience that one is not likely to witness often, if ever again. But it happened at a recent tribute to Foxman that took place at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
This was not the only exceptional experience that has ever taken place at the Waldorf. I’ve been to more events at the Waldorf than I care to count, but this one topped them all. First off, the food. I’ve never tried pierogies with honey. “Delicious,” is a word that does not come close to doing them justice. There were mountains of food of all sorts — all kinds, all tastes and sizes.
Foxman is leaving the arena with the most powerful rebuke he could have given to Jew haters everywhere. If any of them had shown up there and seen Jews having such a kingly feast, they would have plotzed and immediately died of disappointment and rage.
I’ve known Abe for years. At times I’ve yelled at him, but I’ve always recognized that he is the last of the Mohicans; they don’t manufacture this kind anymore. Like him or hate him, he has always been one of a kind.
I’m about to leave New York for a long trip through America for my next book, so I sat down with Foxman and asked him to sum up his years at the ADL, his feelings about anti-Semitism here and what he thinks I might find on my journey. [Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and style.]
Tuvia Tenenbom: Let me ask you, is the state of anti-Semitism better or worse after the last 28 years since you became national director of the ADL? Or the last 50 years?
Abraham Foxman: The answer is “yes” to both. On one hand it’s better and on one hand it’s worse.
I’d say that in the United States it’s significantly better; it’s gotten better in the last 50 years. In this country, when I started, for example, the level of anti-Semitism as measured by attitudes was about one-third; one third of the American public in the ’50s was infected by anti-Semitism. Today, America is not immune, but the level of anti-Semitism is about 10 to 12%. It’s still pretty serious, because it means that 35, 40 million Americans are seriously infected with the disease of anti-Semitism, but legislation, litigation, education, all of these things, cumulatively, have had an impact. But I think probably the most important thing is that in this country, our laws permit you to be a bigot, an anti-Semite. In Europe you have laws against anti-Semitism, not here. Why? Because in this country, even though the law says you can be a bigot, the pressure of society is such that there are consequences, public consequences, to being an anti-Semite. Here, if you are in business and you engage in anti-Semitism, you’re not going to succeed very much. You remember Mel Gibson? He was a great hero of Hollywood: the best producer, the best director and the best actor. And he revealed himself as an anti-Semite. He went all the way down. Not because of legislation, not because of litigation, but because the American people reject this.
But this rejection started with legislation, correct?
If the ADL did not exist, do you think the level of anti-Semitism in this country would be the same as it is now?
This is for somebody else to say.
But what do you think?
There’s no question in my mind that it would’ve been worse. If I did not believe that I could change people’s minds and hearts I wouldn’t go to work. I wouldn’t raise my voice. So, it’s a question of faith. I believe that if we in the ADL, the American Jewish Committee and other institutions didn’t act, it would be worse. How much worse? I don’t know. I see in Europe how much worse it can be, even with legislation. In Europe it’s worse today than it’s been since World War II. It’s not like in World War II, because the governments of France, Germany, Holland, Great Britain speak out publicly, but in terms of measurements, of attitudes, it’s the worst it’s been since World War II.
In Europe we’re talking about the rise of anti-Semitism in the last 20 years. Is there a rise of anti-Semitism in America as well in the last 10, 20 years?
No. If anything, it has declined. While in Europe, anti-Semitism has gone up, here it has come down.
What’s the origin of anti-Semitism?
Jealousy? When I look at Jews, I see a nation that has been persecuted for all its history —
Tuvia, bigots see what they want to see!
And what do they see?
They see Jewish success.
If you look at the issue of anti-Semitism, they believe that the Jews control: They control banks, they control finance, they control government.
I know what they say. But explain to me the “jealousy” part.
They see that Jews are rich, that Jews are smart…
Are Jews really smarter than other sects or groups?
I don’t know. Some people say, look at all the Nobel Prizes. I think that Jews are more driven; education is part of our culture, and it’s also part of our baggage. If you are a people who cannot work the soil and cannot be in carpentry, you study. You develop skills which are a lot different.
What’s the level of anti-Semitism in the black community?
Thirty-five to 40 percent, and it has not changed in the last 40 years. Why? Because there is no leadership. The last African-American leader who stood up to say that anti-Semitism is a sin was Martin Luther King.
I’d love to know what you think of Barack Obama. Do you support him? Do you think he’s doing well with Israel, or do you think that he has gone a little too far — either on the right or on the left?
I don’t have the luxury to either like him or not like him.
But as a citizen…
I’m not a “citizen.” I’ll become a citizen on July 20. I’ve given up the luxury of my personal opinion until July 20. Talk to me July 21! Americans elected him, he’s now president; that’s what we have. I do have an opinion as to whether he’s a friend of Israel or not.
Would you share it with me?
Sure, but could you be more specific?
Do you think Obama cares, as he says, deeply about Israel?
I believe that he believes that he’s a friend of Israel. Okay? And that’s important, to have a president in the United States that believes that he’s a friend of Israel.
Do you think that he sincerely cares about Israel?
Listen, we have this need to be loved. Now, he doesn’t have to get up in the morning and say either “I love Israel”or “I hate Israel.” We are so obsessed with ourselves being loved.
We the Jews, the American Jews. Tuvia, I believe that he believes that what he does is in the best interest of the United States of America.
But is it in the best interest of America?
He believes it is.
What do you think?
I disagree. I believe it’s in the best interest of the United States to keep Iran from having a bomb, but how one goes about doing that is a question of judgment. I think that he’s going about it in the wrong way. But I don’t think he’s doing it to hurt Israel. Yeah, sometimes he cares.
Do you think the Obama administration will veto the pending French proposal to recognize Palestine in the U.N.’s Security Council?
I think they will veto it.
So I’m soon starting a six-month journey across the United States. Do you think I’ll find that 12% of the population is anti-Semitic?
No, I’ll give you my prediction of what you’re going to find.
What’s your prediction?
You are going to find a lot more anti-Semitism than what we find by asking people in the normal manner than by asking people questions about how they feel about Jews. What will you find? I predict you will find twice as much. Why? Because you will, in your inimitable style, remove their inhibitions. You will release their innermost feelings, which are prejudiced. Americans are prejudiced, but they know not to express it and not to act on it. Now for me that’s good enough; I can live with that. If they don’t act on it, if they keep it underneath the carpet, if they keep it in the sewers, that’s fine with me. You’ll release them, Tuvia; there’s no question in my mind that you will release them. You’ll fool them, you’ll charm them, and they’ll become more honest with you. Your flashpoint will be your charm. You’ll disarm them. You’ll make them feel comfortable, and that’s when they’ll share with you the secrets, they’ll share with you the shame. There’s no question in my mind: It’s much worse out there.
I’ve read about your history, and it’s quite an interesting one. I’d like to hear it from you, though; could you share it with me?
I was born in Poland in 1940. We ran, with my parents, east — away from the Germans. The Germans caught up with us in Vilnius. We traveled with my nanny. They ordered the Jews to go to the ghetto. My nanny said, “It will take a couple of days, a couple of weeks; I’ll take care of him.”
And your parents accepted that offer?
How they made the decision? They never could explain to me. It was a decision that saved my life and their lives. She kept me for four years. She baptized me, hid me, protected me, for four years!
She was Catholic?
Did she sing for you some Catholic hymns?
I used to spit on Jews in the street! I used to go to church. I said my prayers every night.
And you spit on Jews in the street?
How old were you?
You still remember it?
It’s hard to remember what I remember and what I don’t remember. My parents survived by miracles. My mother used to come as an Aryan; I knew her as my aunt. My father came back, found my mother and found me. He found out that everybody was gone. He said to [the nanny]: “We’ll go together wherever we go, to Palestine,” and she said: ‘I saved him., He belongs to me and the Catholic Church.’”
What age were you then?
Six. She then tried to get my father out of the way. She went to the Soviets and said he collaborated with the Germans. They arrested him, interrogated him and let him go. A couple of weeks later, she said that he steals, where he worked, in a factory. They arrested him again, and let him go. Third time, she brought in the KGB; they arrested him again, and they said to my parents: “You have to go to trial to decide who will have the child; we don’t have time for these games.” So they went to court and the court ruled that I belonged to my parents.
Where did you want to go? Did you want to stay with the nanny?
Her lawyer wanted me to be asked, and the judge ruled that I was too young to know what’s best for me. If I were asked, I wouldn’t be here today.
You would be with the nanny?
Sure. I’d be a priest. Maybe a cardinal. Who knows?
And when you were finally back with his parents, you didn’t know you were Jewish.
After the war, I came home one day, crying to my mother: “They called me dirty names, they called me a ‘zyd.’ Mami! Mami!”
What age were you when the nanny first took you in?
A year and three months.
At what point did you learn you were Jewish?
My father, in the beginning, took off my zelem [cross] and put on a tallis. To me, as long as I had a substitution I was fine. I’d go to church and I’d go to shul — with my father. On the way to shul I’d kiss the hand of the priest. I used to say my prayers in Latin, until one day my father told me, “You don’t have to kneel.”
Your nanny never kept in touch with you or with your family, except when she was signing for packages that your parents sent her over the years. In 1956, your parents learned that she had passed away. When you think of her now, do you love her?
I love her.
When was the last time that you thought of her, that her image came to you?
A lot in dreams. I dream about my parents and I dream about her.
What will you miss most after you leave here?
The ability to get up every morning and have an opportunity to make a little bit of difference, to fight the ugly side — I will miss that.
Tuvia Tenenbom is the author of “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room” (Jewish Theater of New York, 2011) and, more recently, “Catch the Jew!” (Geffen Publishing House, 2015).