The Anti-Defamation League will surely find a new national director to take over when Abe Foxman retires in July 2015, but it won’t replace Abe Foxman. And it won’t be the same ADL.
For one thing, he’ll be a hard act to follow. There’s nobody quite like him, inside the league or outside. Nobody with his range of contacts in the Jewish world and beyond, his grasp of the issues from civil rights law to Middle East politics, his ease with Jewish cultures from Torah to Hollywood, his skill at pressing the flesh and squeezing the checkbooks. His feel for the pulse of the Jews in the pews. And, of course, his chutzpah.
That’s at least partly his fault, as folks around the agency have been whispering anxiously for the past few years. He never nurtured a successor. The ADL has been the Abe Show. He did it so well that it was hard to fault him, but everybody knew the day would come when he wouldn’t be around, and then what?
Well, now it’s coming. They’ll have to find someone else. The challenge will be to find someone who isn’t Abe but can run a different sort of operation with the tools that Abe hands over. That will take a bit of imagination.
You can sort of imagine the search committee sitting and doing the math. Let’s see: We’ve got research and investigative (we call it “fact-finding”) units that study bias and hate groups. We’ve got our “World of Difference” and “No Place for Hate” diversity training and anti-bullying curricula operating in schools and law-enforcement agencies all over the place. We’ve got our civil-rights and religious-freedom legal defense teams, plus our interfaith and Middle East staff experts. We’ve got a Washington office that lobbies our issues with the government. We’ve got 30 regional offices that promote the programs in the communities, organize local interfaith and intergroup dialogues and raise money to fund the whole thing. Who can we find that will be able to take that pile of blocks and work with it? What would it all look like with candidate X in charge? Candidate Y?
In a way this is nothing new for ADL. More than most other major Jewish agencies, the league has always been a reflection of the person at the top. Having no direct dues-paying membership—since it used to be merely a department of another organization, B’nai B’rith—the staff (or its chief) has more independence than in most agencies. Hence Foxman’s sprawling operation is worlds away from the neoconservative hothouse he inherited in 1987 from Nathan Perlmutter, as distant as Perlmutter’s agency was from the brawling, gang-busting outfit that Ben Epstein and Arnold Forster had built after World War II out of the prim and proper educate-and-protest bureau that Richard Gutstadt built in the 1930s. After Foxman leaves, it will be something else again. If the search operation is successful, the next ADL could be as interesting as the last few have been.
The harder part, in fact, will be imagining the American Jewish community in the next period. Foxman hasn’t just been the head of the ADL for the past 27 years. He’s the closest thing the Jewish community has to a national spokesman.
Many observers jokingly (sometimes only half-jokingly) call him “the Jewish pope.” Dozens of people run big organizations that can somehow claim to represent a cross-section of affiliated American Jews. There’s even a few whose organizations consist of—and therefore speak for—a range of larger membership organizations gathered under a single “umbrella.” But Foxman is the only one that most people have heard of.
He’s the one that the newspapers call when they want to know what American Jews are thinking. He’s the one political junkies attack at dinner parties when they’re mad at Jewish lobbyists. His is the name that makes ordinary Jews in Houston or Atlanta or Cleveland nod and say, Oh, I get it, that’s what Those People in New York are thinking, or saying in my name, or doing for me (or to me). Most folks have heard of AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee (though they’re usually not sure what it does) but very few could tell you who runs them. Foxman is the guy they’ve heard of. He’s that guy who attacks the anti-Semites.
It’s partly because he’s always good for a pithy quote, while others drone on in compound sentences, trying to cover their butts. But it’s more than that. He has a feel for the mood in the pews in a way that few others do. He’s not an ideologue of the right, though he’s widely viewed that way on the left, nor of the left, though he’s often seen that way on the right. He’s all about amcha , the Yidden, the folks at home. He hugs and pinches cheeks, even at black-tie galas. Sometimes it makes him a sort of Jewish redneck. More often, it makes him the people’s tribune.
He’s quick to take umbrage when he sees Jews or Israel under attack. Sometimes too quick, as when he criticizes loose comparisons to Hitler or advocacy of settlement boycotts or other things that many consider a legitimate part of robust debate. But he’s also outspoken—in press releases, Washington lobbying and local chapter activism—on gay rights, reproductive rights and fighting racism and Islamophobia. Foxman’s ADL has come down hard and often on the religious right, not just because of anti-Semitism but over its threats to democracy. It’s relentless on Israeli religious pluralism and settler violence.
In a weird way, ADL’s wide range of anti-bigotry initiatives under Foxman contributes to his reputation for seeing anti-Semitism under every rock. Because the league is known primarily for fighting anti-Semitism, it’s often assumed that when Foxman calls something anti-democratic or bigoted, he’s crying anti-Semitism. His universalism contributes to his reputation for knee-jerk parochialism.
The same goes for his defense of Israel. His predecessors at ADL came up with a thesis years ago that attacking Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism. He doesn’t buy it. He uses separate terms for anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and unfair criticism of Israel. He sported a portrait of Jabotinsky on his office wall for years. He also stood up at critical moments in inner councils for the likes of Peace Now and J Street—not for their views, but for their right to hold them and still be part of the community—at moments when it mattered. But when he attacks people he doesn’t like, they assume they’ve been called anti-Semites, because Foxman said it.
His position as the Jewish pope also allows him to do something almost no other figure in the community can or will do: accept apologies. Yes, he hits people over the head when they slime the Jews, as Mel Gibson and Louis Farrakhan can tell you. But when someone says they’re sorry, or they didn’t mean it, or they were misunderstood, he’ll listen, write a thank-you letter and even hold a press conference to hold hands and make up, as he’s done with Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson and a host of others, most famously including Nelson Mandela. His position as a leader allows him to do that and make it stick. His willingness to do it makes him a leader.
Sometimes his willingness to go with his gut takes him places he shouldn’t go. In 2010 the ADL put out a statement opposing the Park 51 Islamic center and mosque planned for downtown Manhattan, near Ground Zero. The statement specified that the center had a right to build, and that many opponents were motivated by Islamophobia, which ADL opposed, but said the raw feelings of victims’ families should carry weight. The statement went straight to the top of the front page of the New York Times, and ADL became a poster-child for the Islamophobia it had tried to separate itself from.
Over the past couple of years, he’s one of four people regularly called by the Obama administration when it wants to touch base with the organized Jewish activist community, to feel the pulse or sell a position. The others are the heads of AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. And of those, he’s the one who sometimes breaks ranks, quietly, when it must be said that while Israel’s position is over here, most of our community is over there. Yes, we respect your choice of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, though we weren’t crazy about it. No, we don’t want Congress to tie your hands on the Iran negotiations. Yes, I stand up for Israel, but I also speak for American Jews.
It’s not clear who will be willing or able to do that in the same way once he’s gone. It’s not too hard to imagine ADL finding its new voice. It’s hard to figure how American Jewry will do so.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).