Abdullah Gul needed a favor. It was February 5 of this year, and the Turkish foreign minister was fighting a push in the U.S. House of Representatives to recognize the Turkish murder of over one million Armenians during World War I. In past years the House had placated Turkey by dropping similar resolutions. But now, with the American-Turkish alliance weakened by the Iraq war, the resolution had found renewed support. Gul summoned representatives from the Anti-Defamation League and several other Jewish-American organizations to his room at the Willard Hotel in Washington. There he asked them, in essence, to perpetuate Turkey’s denial of genocide.
Abraham Foxman’s ADL acquiesced, and in so doing, performed the pièce de résistance of Foxman’s highly effective, if unintentional, decades-long campaign to demoralize Jewish America and send young Jews scurrying for the communal exit doors. The ADL chief is a danger to the future of the community, and it is a scandal that he remains at the head of a major Jewish organization. Foxman must go. And the organization he has done so much to shape must either change or go with him.
Soon after the meeting with Gul, the ADL joined three other American Jewish organizations—the American Jewish Committee, B’nai Brith International, and the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs—to deliver to Congress a written plea from the Jews of Turkey that the U.S. not recognize the Armenian Genocide. Turkish Jews are more vulnerable now than at any time in recent history as they struggle to reassert their place in a society polarized by the competing visions of Turkey’s Islamists and secular nationalists, so it is hardly surprising that they would parrot their government’s denialist claims. By dutifully passing their letter to Congress, the Jewish American groups cynically exploited a small, frightened Jewish minority.
Worse was to come. “I don’t think congressional action will help reconcile the issue. The resolution takes a position; it comes to a judgment,” said Foxman in a statement issued to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn’t be the arbiter of that history, nor should the U.S. Congress." Foxman‘s statement is in every way that matters equivalent to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that he takes no position on the historicity of the Jewish Holocaust, but only hopes to see the matter resolved by dispassionate study. Throughout the Congressional saga surrounding the resolutions, virtually no one other than Turkish lobbyists had explained their opposition by challenging the nearly undisputed consensus among historians that a genocide did indeed take place.
It is a scandal of unprecedented proportion when one of the most prominent figures in our community, a man who claims to speak on our behalf, publicly challenges the historicity of another community’s genocide. Foxman’s ADL no longer represents the interests of the Jewish community. In fact, it seems the only interests it represents are its own.
What’s surprising is how unabashedly forthright Abraham Foxman has become about what motivates him and his institution. In October of 2005, Foxman addressed a classroom of Jewish students at New York University. Young heads nodded and brows furrowed as Foxman riled them with his customary rhetoric: Isn’t it antisemitic for pro-Palestinian groups to seek divestment only from Israel, ignoring the far greater crimes of regimes like Sudan or North Korea? How do we describe this sort of selective flagellation of the world’s only Jewish state, if not as antisemitism?
"What if the campus Free Tibet club campaigned for divestment from China? Would that be anti-Chinese bigotry?" asked Asaf Shtull-Trauring, a 20-year-old student and conscientious objector from the Israeli army.
Of course not, answered Foxman, but it was preposterous to compare the two conflicts, what with the Jews’ experience of two millennia of murderous persecution. Shtull-Trauring responded with two questions: Did Foxman mean that selective treatment is okay so long as it’s not directed at Jews? And where did the Anti-Defamation League get off telling Jewish university students which opinions about Israel were acceptable and which verboten?
The dialogue spiraled into a confrontation. Shtull-Trauring says Foxman, frustrated and under attack, placed his cards on the table, angrily retorting: “I don’t represent you nor the Jewish community! I represent the donors.”
Foxman’s outburst was surprising not because of its content, but because of its candor. Foxman needn’t bother himself with the trifling concerns of American Jews who happen not to be multimillionaire philanthropists. If he makes the Jewish community less appealing to young Jews, if his theatrics turn us off and turn us away, that’s all beside the point. Foxman’s job is to keep the millionaire benefactors happy: the rest of us can go jump in the Kinneret.
Without a meaningful mission to pursue, the ADL has resorted to scaremongering to fill its coffers and justify its existence. These efforts have grown increasingly bizarre and damaging. For example, the ADL website surveys the vast changes in Jewish-American life over the past century and offers the grandiose judgment that they “are due, in large measure, to the efforts of the League and its allies.” Yet Foxman also claims that today the Jewish people face as great a threat to their safety and security as they did in the 1930s. In other words, the ADL takes credit for the vast improvements in the circumstances of American Jewry, and then denies that those changes have taken place. It is still 1939. It will always be 1939.
When the ADL was born, in the early 20th century, institutional discrimination against American Jews was commonplace at every level of society. Populist politicians employed the most vulgar antisemitic language, and “restricted” hotels and country clubs reassured patrons that Jews would be stopped at the front door. In 1915, 31-year-old factory manager Leo Frank was lynched in Marietta, Georgia after he was accused of raping a Christian girl. But today, American Jews are successful and well-integrated. And unlike in Weimar Germany, where we were accepted only so long as we obscured our Jewishness behind the accoutrements of gentile culture, in America we are accepted even as we celebrate what sets us apart.
Such a reality, however, doesn’t serve the fundraising interests of the ADL. The ADL’s jihad against Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was typical of the organization’s destructive, self-interested efforts. Foxman, as you might remember, fanned fears it would inspire Chmielniki-style pogroms. Yet not a single documented act of violence against Jews resulted from the film, nor even a single verbal assault. A study conducted by Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles indicated some anger among Christians toward Jews—but because of the reaction to the film, rather than its contents. Thanks to the ADL, our strong and self-confident community was made to appear silly and paranoid before the world.
The Passion fiasco was hardly the ADL’s only effort to alienate and insult American Christians. In November 2005, Foxman delivered a widely publicized speech in which he warned that American Christian organizations were engaged in an insidious campaign to “Christianize” America. It’s a shocking allegation: firstly, because Jewish interfaith groups have developed very strong ties with precisely such organizations in the past decade; and secondly, because conservative Jewish groups have been just as aggressive in their efforts to breach the wall between church and state. While Christian groups can’t get the ornaments of Christianity placed in government buildings, Chabad has succeeded in publicly erecting enormous, gaudy menorahs throughout the country.
In this environment, where the push for more religion in public life unites religious conservatives across all faiths, why would Foxman single out Christians? Again, the answer is simple: Fundraising. Such headline-grabbing proclamations add a historically evocative Christian dimension to the terrifying nightmare-world in which the ADL encourages its benefactors to live.
The ADL can libel American Christians in general without fear of legal consequence, but when it goes on to identify specific “antisemites” it leaves itself more vulnerable. Time after time, Americans who resented being named-and-shamed as antisemites have sued the ADL for libel. In 2000, Colorado residents Dorothy and William Quigley received a ten million dollar verdict against the ADL, which, according to Federal judge Edward Nottingham, “had labeled a…neighborhood feud as an antisemitic event.” Nottingham concluded that the ADL had not properly investigated the case nor considered the consequences of its accusations. But what the ADL lost in libel fees, it gained in bogus credibility. Baseless accusations of antisemitism contribute to a paranoid fundraising atmosphere that makes Foxman’s ADL seem utterly necessary; maybe the Quigleys weren’t antisemites, but that doesn’t mean your neighbors aren’t Hitlerists in disguise. Still, such bullying by the ADL has an inevitable chilling effect: Jewish community leaders, even those who take exception to the ADL’s techniques, fear speaking out lest the ADL accuse them of some crime against the Jewish people. Like all bullies, the ADL is widely disliked, but less widely spoken out against.
Ultimately, it is the seductive appeal of the ADL’s dark visions that most threaten us. American Jewry enjoys privileges undreamed of in Jewish history: we are a more accepted, more integral part of our country than any Jewish community ever has been. We have entered unprecedented territory in Jewish history, and the enticements and possibilities of this new era should be setting our souls alight.
Foxman’s ADL justifies its existence by beckoning us backward, encouraging us to hide from the ever-present Cossacks in a psychological shtetl. It’s a dark vision that serves the ADL’s interests, but not ours. So perhaps we should be grateful to Abraham Foxman for acting as he did after the April meeting with Abdullah Gul, and doing something to so publicly and incontrovertibly demonstrate how destructive he has become to his own organization, and to the Jewish community he claims to serve.
* Check our always up-to-date list of Jewcy’s posts on the ADL/Armenian Genocide issue
Joey Kurtzman is former president of Jewcy Partners, LLC, and co-founding editor of Jewcy.com