Abraham Foxman has been delivering a surprising message to Jewish leaders in recent weeks: Stay calm and lay off President Trump.
“I’m telling them: ‘Cool it, cool it,’” he said, “But it’s very tough. People are very emotional.”
The former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who had spent a lifetime calling out any expression of anti-Semitism, big or small, spoke to the Forward amid a wave threats to dozens of Jewish community centers and vandalism incidents targeting Jewish cemeteries.
“Serious but not critical” is how Foxman views this wave of hate crimes. That’s why he is sounding a contrarian voice to the Jewish leadership and urging it to ease off on President Trump.
Foxman spoke before the arrest of a St. Louis man for allegedly making several of the JCC threats.
He said he was satisfied that Trump condemned anti-Jewish attacks during his address to Congress Tuesday, after seemingly avoiding taking a firm stance.
“OK, enough. He uttered the words,” Foxman said. “Now its time for law enforcement to do the work.”
Foxman is no Trump supporter and he tries to remain non-partisan even after retiring from three decades at the helm of the Anti-Defamation League.
Even though Foxman believes Trump empowered haters with his appeals to far right wing white nationalists, he does not think the president himself is a bigot.
“He legitimized it, but he did not create it,” Foxman said. “Trump is not an anti-Semite.”
Foxman, who now heads the center for study of anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in in New York, believes the Jewish community is making a serious mistake in trying to pin the raise of anti-Semitism on Trump and in expecting the president to come up with the answer to the problem.
Instead, he suggests the community take a step back from political score-settling and focus on the culture in the country that has created the wave of hate.
“We woke after the elections up to discover that our country is not as loving of each other as we’d like it to be,” he said. “It’s convenient for us to blame (Trump).”
He believes, in fact, that Trump is “slowly, slowly” beginning to “put the cover back” on the sewers where anti-Semites and bigots thrive.
The danger, Foxman believe, is with the Jewish community’s reaction to the rise in anti-Semitic incidents. He argued that the issue “has been hijacked politically by Democrats who’ve made it a political issue to attack Trump, and by Republicans who have made it a political issue to defend him.”
Foxman believes that the demand that Trump come up with a plan to combat the anti-Semitic attacks is misguided, since it is up to the Jewish community to suggest such plans.
“The whole issue has become a political football and that doesn’t serve us,” he added.
Foxman sought to offer some historical perspective, which, he believes, would put the recent surge in threats and attacks against Jews in the right perspective. He pointed to ADL and FBI annual reports that find, year after year, Jews to be the leading target of hate crimes in America, and to polls that show 10 to 12% of Americans are “seriously infected” with anti-Semitism.
During his years at the ADL, Foxman experienced incidents where Jews and non-Jews were killed in anti-Semitic attacks including in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and in Washington. Those deadly incidents put the wave of bomb threats at Jewish community centers and synagogues into perspective.
“I am not shocked that this is happening,” Foxman said. “What we’re seeing now is serious, but it is not a crisis.”
Would an earlier response from President Trump make a difference? Foxman is skeptical.
“Does anyone think that had he condemned it earlier we wouldn’t have threats to 90 JCCs? I don’t think so,” he responded. “It would have made us feel better. But that’s all.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.