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A Year Since The Pittsburgh Massacre, What Have We Learned? A Q&A With Abe Foxman

We are approaching the one year anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting in which Robert Bowers murdered 11 Jews at prayer. For the Yahrzeit, we will be rolling out a series of pieces reflecting on the tragedy, and what we’ve learned in the year since, beginning with an interview with Abe Foxman, the former longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization committed to combatting hate. Foxman spent half a century at the ADL fighting hate. In this interview, he discusses what has changed, and what has stayed the same.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The Forward: What is the state of anti-Semitism today?

Abe Foxman: It’s serious, but it’s not critical. Pittsburgh was a shock, but it should not have been a surprise. It was a shock in the sense that in our history in this country, we have not had that kind of tragedy.

The reason it should not have been a surprise is that those of us who spend time monitoring and analyzing anti-Semitism have always known and believed that anti-Semitism in America is serious: It’s there, it’s deep.

A Year Since The Pittsburgh Massacre, What Have We Learned? A Q&A With Abe Foxman

Image by Getty Images

For example, society has come a long way regarding the charge of Christ killing. The Vatican even “forgave” us, and we dialogued, and we met, and we went to church and they went to synagogue.

But after all is said and done, the fact is that almost 30% of the American public, to this day, believe Jews killed Christ. Thirty percent in America means millions of people! So Christianity has been a major element in legitimizing that anti-Semitic stereotype throughout the ages, and we have not been immune in this country.

Another element of a major stereotype is this whole notion that Jews can’t be trusted. We’ve been reading about it recently: Are they loyal? Disloyal? This notion that Jews are only loyal to themselves and you can’t trust them is also a very ancient anti-Semitic canard. And here too in this country, close to 30% of Americans believe this canard, and it hasn’t changed throughout the years with all the progress that we’ve made with laws, attitude and assimilation. It’s still there.

Anti-Semitism is like a virus for which we do not have a vaccine or antidote. I think we came to that conclusion in the early years after the Holocaust. After the world saw what anti-Semitism can do, and it did not muster the scientists, engineers, philosophers and whoever to find an antidote, we came to the realization that it’s always going to be with us.

What has served us well is that these attitudes for all these years have remained latent, beneath the surface. And to the extent that those of us who have made it our life’s work to study anti-Semitism came to the realization that it will never disappear, what we did as a community and society was to build a firewall, and include elements of containment. So, while we couldn’t make it illegal and we couldn’t vaccinate against it, we did develop a civil society consensus that you pay a price for anti-Semitism. So if you’re in business, you may not be successful. You may, but chances are you won’t if you engage in anti-Semitism. If you’re in politics, you may pay the price in the long run. And it has worked for us.

Now, in the last decade or so, the societal changes are such that I would say the firewall is breaking down. The elements of containment no longer work as well as they used to. Part of this is the breakdown of civility in general and political civility, the destroying of taboos — which are not total protectors, but they were part of that firewall.

The internet has contributed. Again, anti-Semitism was always there, but it was under the surface. Now, anti-Semitic canards travel in nanoseconds across the globe. They come with a certain sense of credibility and legitimacy.

And in our society today, truth has no validity anymore; nobody knows what is true and what is not. Truth has almost disappeared, and with it, the credibility of the media. For those of us trying to contain anti-Semitism, media was critical. We used media to fight the lie and to protect the truth. We used it to shame, to embarrass, and primarily to expose and to educate. Media today does not have that sense of certainty, of the impact that it used to have. We used to hold the notion, How do you answer bad speech? With good speech. Now, when bad speech comes in a tsunami, how do you deal with it?

And coalitions today are not what they were ten years ago. There is a lot of identity politics, identity interests. It’s very hard to build a coalition, as we’ve seen in the women’s movement, for example, which you’d think would be easy.

So all these things that worked for us are now either not working, or not working as effectively, and in turn, we’re seeing this latency come to the fore.

Is Trump responsible? Trump didn’t create it, but he has to take responsibility. What I mean is, the 200 neo-Nazis that marched in Charlottesville were not created by Trump. They were always there, but for a long time the firewall system worked. They knew enough not to surface their anti-Semitic hatred.

What happened was, at some point it became okay. They felt emboldened and legitimized and able to do it. That is part of Trumpism and the neo-nationalism that is sweeping not only the United States, but the world. And that basically permitted the anti-Semites who were previously in the sewers to come out with the chutzpah to act out.

So it was a miracle that we didn’t have deaths resulting from anti-Semitic hate like we did in Pittsburgh. And it is no longer a miracle because it’s now okay and it’s out in the open.

How is today’s anti-Semitism distinct from other periods or places in history?

First, I think the internet is critical here. It has changed the way anti-Semitic hate is delivered, the way it’s transmitted and even probably the credibility quotient. We’re not really even sure at this moment how powerful the internet is. It has already destroyed privacy, and it’s on its way to destroying civility.

Another major element is political. That is, anti-Semitism is being politicized on both sides. It has become a political football, which I don’t think helps; it only exacerbates.

Within the political realm is the very visible, public role that Israel plays. Today, anti-Semitism has more of a so-called legitimate platform than it had before. I’m talking about the BDS elements that are being debated and discussed so much lately. Because it’s so visible, it adds to this assessment that anti-Semitism is worse today than it has been in the past.

Now, it’s important to note that there are nuances there. In the past I’ve been asked, Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic? And I said, “No, it’s not anti-Semitic. But if there’s only criticism of Israel, chances are, it is anti-Semitic.” Take BDS for example. No, BDS does not necessarily have to be anti-Semitic if the element of looking at injustices in society is applied not only to Israel, but to Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba and so on. But if it’s only in Israel where you are seeking justice, then it is anti-Semitic.

What do we know about anti-Semitism today that we didn’t know before the Tree of Life massacre?

In the ADL and the American Jewish Congress, we tried to educate and promote vigilance between acts of violence and not just after. I think what we’re seeing now is a more serious, more realistic understanding that we’re not immune to violence; that as long as there is anti-Semitism and hatred and less civility, we have to take our safety and security more seriously than we have in the past. I think that’s a realization we came to after Pittsburgh and after Poway.

The question is, to what extent is publicly being a Jew dangerous? We don’t want to give Hitler a posthumous victory, in the sense that Jews need to live as Jews, proudly, openly, in any way they want without fear or intimidation.

We have to find a balance and make sure our new awareness and vigilance for protecting Jews and Jewish institutions does not become counterproductive in that it frightens Jews away from sending their kids to Jewish schools, or summer camps, or synagogues. It’s a very, very delicate balance.

When you go to Europe, for example, one way to find synagogues — I remember I was once there on Purim and I couldn’t find an address. Lo and behold, how did I find it? I looked around and saw two police cars, one military vehicle, and the street blocked off.

So, when parents have to make a decision, What’s the risk? then the anti-Semite wins even without — God forbid — committing violence.

So it’s a new reality and it’s being taken more seriously than ever before, in my experience. That’s good, but like I said, we need to find a balance so safety and security is not counterproductive to a creative, proud, engaged Jewish life.

For every problem that arises from anti-Semitism, the answer is always education, education, education. The problem is that someone can become infected with anti-Semitism in less than a second, whether it’s at home or in a church or wherever. But to unlearn it, takes much more time and effort.

We have no alternative but to educate. It’s a slow process, but we’ve been successful.

Another area where we’ve been successful is in getting the powers that be — public figures, celebrities, value-setters, influencers — speak out clearly against anti-Semitism. We need them to condemn it whenever it appears and not leave any doubt that it is unAmerican, unChristian, unacceptable, immoral — to make sure that there is a stigma to expressing anti-Semitism. That stigma is part of the firewall I discussed earlier.

I was just talking to my grandkids about the New Jersey politician who used the expression to Jew someone down. One of the kids asked me why I was so upset about it. I said, first of all, it came from a legislator, somebody who got elected. And I think we have a responsibility to make sure that we do not ignore this stuff and that it is condemned.

I will confess to you that in all these years, while I have taken anti-Semitism seriously, I never thought I would see it become so pervasive. It’s everywhere, and no element of society is immune. We used to say, Oh, the uneducated, the untutored… No. It’s the educated and the uneducated.

We always knew that the disease infects everybody, but we didn’t see it as clearly in all parts of society as we’re seeing it now. It’s everywhere, it’s every day, and it’s in all aspects of life from sports to business.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am that it is so hard to root out. And that’s discouraging, because we made so much progress in this country, so much progress from where we were.

What is the future of anti-Semitism in America?

I think we’re going to continue to need to be vigilant and to educate. I do worry about the intimidation factor — how many kids decide not to wear their Star of David, or remove their mezuzah from their dorm room? We don’t know.

And the stakes go beyond just fear about being publicly Jewish. Jews have always been a very important part of greater America’s progress on social values in terms of respect and liberal values. And we did it because we felt confident, we felt secure, and so we stood for others. When any people feels less safe themselves, it becomes that much harder to stand for others.

Look, I’m an optimist. I survived the Holocaust as a child, so I don’t have the luxury of being a pessimist. A million and a half children perished, and I survived, so how dare I be pessimistic about the Jewish future?

While I am an optimist about Jewish life, you have to work at it. You can’t just sit back. I think “Never Again” is an aspiration. But I don’t think any Jew, and certainly not a survivor, will say it means never again will it happen. There’s no certainty. It’s something we have to hope for, work for, aspire to.

But I think when you wake up one morning and Jews are killed in the United States of America because they are Jews, it is a very sobering moment of understanding what history is about and that there is no place in the world that is immune from this disease of singling out Jews. And we have been at the top of the hit parade all over the world, in good times and in bad times, in monarchies and democracies, communist states and fascist states.

So Pittsburgh is the reality, the wake up call that no place is immune, not even these wonderful, special United States. And the history of American Jews is still unique in Jewish history, anywhere! But it is not guaranteed that that’s the way it will always be. God willing, it will.


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