Abraham Foxman is a man of his time. The man of his time. Foxman is so intertwined with our personification of American Jewish leadership that when he announced February 10 that he would retire as leader of the Anti-Defamation League — not until 2015, of course — the reaction seemed universal. Abe was the ADL. Abe is the “Jewish Pope.” No one can speak for the Jewish community like Abe.
Even President Obama weighed in, heaping praise upon the man he must have tussled with in private because Foxman sure wasn’t shy about disagreeing with this, or any, president in public.
Foxman’s singularity was rooted in his upbringing. His experience as a child of Holocaust survivors seared into him a primal knowledge of political evil; his rescue by a “righteous Gentile” left him with the eternal gratitude of one who owes his life to the kindness and courage of others. This dichotomy shaped Foxman in a way unique to his times: He was deeply suspicious of those he thought would do serious harm to the Jews, but he was also willing to believe in redemption, or at least the power of apology.
He came of age when a Jewish refugee to America could parlay smarts and determination into educational degrees and then professional success. By the time he retires, at age 75, Foxman will have been employed by the ADL for 50 years, as national director since 1987.
Foxman has exploited his long tenure to make himself indispensable not just in the United States, but on the world stage, amassing a list of contacts that would make any diplomat envious. He intuitively grasps what worries American Jews, and also what makes them proud, and so he takes a tough approach to Israel’s perceived enemies while positioning the ADL to uphold an expansive view of liberal tolerance at home.
And he has made himself the arbiter of anti-Semitism the world over. Those of us in the media can count on Foxman to issue a press release scolding some obscure European politician for an ill-chosen phrase within moments of its utterance. He was asked about this role in a meeting in April 2013 with Forward staffers, and shrugged: “Do I seek it? No. Does it happen? Yes.”
History can decide whether Foxman sought the spotlight or it sought him. (We lean toward the former.) Certainly his accessibility and volubility contributed to his ubiquity, but there’s something else. Over the years — the decades, really — Foxman has amassed the confidence and the chutzpah to speak for millions of Jews on ADL’s core issues of discrimination and anti-Semitism, and much, much more.
Sometimes, Foxman led but didn’t listen. He violated the ADL’s own values by opposing the proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, and displayed a surprisingly tin ear in his dismissal of the Pew Research Center’s findings. But those missteps match his view of leadership: forceful, perhaps imperious, never in doubt, built on the assumption that there is a prevailing and correct view shared by most American Jews.
That kind of leadership may not be relevant anymore. The community is far more diverse than it was a half-century ago, less prone to accept one leader’s pronouncement or point of view, more secure and therefore more skeptical. It’s probably a good time for Foxman to gracefully leave his position and cede it to another style and generation of leadership.
The Jewish community owes an incalculable debt to Abe Foxman. “I’ve been very, very lucky about what I do,” he told the Forward. We all are.