Feisty Foxman says hes portrayed as bad guy for rebuking anti-Semitism

Abraham Foxman is a not a man who is often asked to speak louder. That goes double when he’s upset.

And these days, Foxman is upset.

The longtime executive director of the Anti-Defamation League claims that anti-Semitism and tolerance of anti-Semitism has surged in the last five or so years. But all too often, he says, he’s the one portrayed as the bad guy when he protests.

To top it off, Foxman, who was in the Bay Area last week, is none too pleased with a profile by James Traub called “Does Abe Foxman Have an Anti-Anti-Semite Problem?” that appeared in the New York Times Magazine on Jan. 14.

The article, Foxman contends, portrayed him as “a hysterical, paranoid, Holocaust-obsessed individual” and described his physical appearance as resembling “a kingpin — a Cadillac-driving ward-heeler out of Saul Bellow.

“These days he wears his wedding ring on his pinky,” the article went on to say.

“Why aren’t you asking me about my pinky ring?” he asked, waving around the aforementioned pinky ring during a sit-down interview with j. on Feb. 28. “Why aren’t you asking me about that?”

The question turned out to be rhetorical. “All right, I admit it, I gained weight after marriage,” he said. “But I didn’t want to change this ring!”

Foxman, in the Bay Area for ADL meetings and fund-raising, vows that the article won’t change his behavior one iota. At the same time, he makes no pretense that the unflattering profile didn’t hurt. And he is not the type to take an insult quietly.

Foxman takes particular umbrage at Traub’s assertion that he is the “hanging judge of anti-Semitism” and has made the ADL into a “one-man Sanhedrin,” a biblical council of judges.

“That’s nonsense,” he said. “The ADL is almost 94 years old and has [regional] offices and boards and if anyone thinks it acts like a Sanhedrin, that’s their problem, not mine.”

He has no regrets about honoring Italy’s oligarchical former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with a 2003 ADL Distinguished Statesman Award, since it only recognizes his friendliness to Israel and has nothing to do with allegations of corruption and media manipulation during his tenure. As for lobbying President Clinton to pardon fugitive financier Marc Rich, he has already apologized for that.

“Anyone who’s still obsessed with Berlusconi and Rich, that’s their problem,” he said.

Primarily, however, Foxman is upset that he is essentially being told to shut up. Take the case of Tony Judt, for example. When the outspoken Israel critic and New York University professor’s speech at New York City’s Polish Consulate was canceled recently, he fingered Foxman.

As it turns out, Foxman had nothing to do with the cancellation. But before Foxman could respond, Judt launched an e-screed saying that “pollution like him [Foxman] swirls around in the gutters of every democracy.” The email resulted in a slew of letters signed by hundreds of angry academics landing on Foxman’s desk.

“I received two letters, one signed by 144 professors, the other by 120, accusing me of stifling free speech,” Foxman said. “For what? For criticizing [Judt]? I didn’t do it, but let’s assume I did. He’s allowed to say what he wants, but we as Jews are not entitled to challenge?” he asked incredulously.

Foxman continued the analogy. When American professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt claimed in their paper, “The Israel Lobby,” that pro-Israel Jews have a “stranglehold” on American policy, “they are not anti-Semites but they are flaunting anti-Semitism,” Foxman said. “And [for this], Richard Cohen, my dear friend, accuses me in the Washington Post of name-calling? I don’t understand. They can call American Jews traitors, but I can’t call them anti-Semites?”

But didn’t Foxman just say he didn’t call the professors anti-Semites? “I came close,” he admitted. “I didn’t call Jimmy Carter an anti-Semite, either.”

Nor does he plan to. Indeed, he doesn’t plan on saying much to the former president, mostly because he doesn’t believe it would get results. “Jimmy Carter doesn’t listen,” he said. “I talked to rabbis who met with him in San Diego. It was not a productive dialogue. I’ve talked to people who work with Jimmy Carter and know him and they say he believes he possesses the truth.”

Foxman does not claim to be the sole seer of the truth. But he does say that charges of Jewish control of the media and foreign policy are also far from truth — and claims his right to say so.

“To say the world is under the control of the Jewish lobby, or the universities, or that the Jewish community controls what goes on on college campuses — if it wasn’t so serious, it’d be really funny,” he said.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.