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Abe Foxman on anti-Semitism in the modern world

Octavian Report: Is anti-Semitism, in fact, on the rise today? If so, what’s driving that rise?

Abe Foxman: I do not believe that actual anti-Semitism is on the rise. Our awareness of it is on the rise. The coverage of it travels on the internet. I’ve been involved in measuring, combating, evaluating, assessing, and analyzing anti-Semitism for over 50 years. Anti-Semitism is a given. It’s there.

There used to be a joke: where there’s life, there’s bugs. Well, where there’s life, there’s prejudice. And anti-Semitism is the mother of all prejudices. It’s always been there. What has changed is its perception, its acceptance. When many of us struggled to combat it, we understood that we’re not going to eliminate it unless we find a vaccine and an antidote.

It’s part of the human condition. People need to hate, want to hate, look to hate. It’s political, it’s cultural, it’s all these things. And so from those of us who fought it with an understanding that it will always be there, our goal has been to contain it. To keep it unacceptable, put a price on it. Make sure there are consequences to anti-Semitic behavior. And to make it un-Christian, un-Muslim, immoral.

It isn’t on the rise. What’s on the rise is that the containment elements that we have attained in all these last 50 years through legislation, through litigation, through education, are losing their impact. Let’s look at the U.S., for example. I don’t think Charlottesville has always been that way. Yes, anti-Semite bigots have always been there. And institutions such as the Anti-Defamation League or the American Jewish Comittee, whose job it is to monitor them, always knew where they were.

But 200 neo-Nazis never before had the audacity, the chutzpah, to march publicly, to show their faces and come out of the sewers, if you will. So what has changed is that the restraint which existed, certainly in the United States in the last 20 years, that says it’s unacceptable — this restraint has been removed. Some blame it on Trumpism or Trump, but once you remove the taboos, once it’s okay to say A, B, C, D, E, then it’s okay to be more anti-Semitic.

I do not believe that there’s more of it. Look, again, I go back 50 years in the ADL. We issued reports, we did inventories, we did polling. It never was really big news. There were swastikas on college campuses over the last 50 years. But it was maybe local news, not the way it is today.

This is partially because of politics and partially because there’s a lot more media. There’s 24/7 media, which we didn’t have 20 years ago. The third element as to why there is this perception of a rise in anti-Semitism today is the Internet. It’s a superhighway on which bigotry travels in nanoseconds around the globe. And it travels at tsunami force.

OR: Are you more concerned than you normally are about what you’re seeing?

Foxman: Yes. Again, I don’t think it’s a crisis, but I think it is serious. It is a lot more serious because it is a lot more open. It is a lot more blatant. You see manifestations publicly. That changes the nature. If people perceive, and if bigots perceive that it’s okay, that they can get away with it, that they have more support and adherents — that  makes it more dangerous.

But again, look, here when we go back to if you begin to measure the difference between the U.S. and the rest of the world. And again, going back to the ADL, we did a global survey of anti-Semitism. And the worst anti-Semitism is today is in the Arab countries and North Africa. The level of anti-Semitism there reaches 70, 80, 90 percent of the population.

And yet you don’t see manifestations much beyond the realms of the internet and social media because there are few Jews in those countries. The Jews have been kicked out, or ran. So when you start measuring anti-Semitism, it’s attitudinal, but you don’t see the activities. In Europe, you see the numbers. And part of the reason there is the human conveyor belt. Some of the Arab and North African anti-Semites have now relocated to the European continent.

They not only have raised the level of anti-Semitism, but also anti-Semitic behavior, in many cases violent. In Europe, you have legislation. You have laws against Holocaust denial. You have laws against anti-Semitism. And yet the level there is still higher than it is here.

Again, the reason why we have here for a while at least established that there’s a consequence to the behavior. Yes, our Constitution protects your right to be an anti-Semite. But if you act out as an anti-Semite, you will pay a social price. Mel Gibson is a perfect example of how the system works. He was the number-one performer, actor, producer until his anti-Semitism was revealed. And then, all of a sudden, he plummeted because our society knows and understands, or at least it did, that anti-Semitism is not acceptable. That today is no longer as secure an antidote as it used to be.

OR: Is the present irrational hatred of Israel one can find in some political quarters a form of anti-Semitism? Why do you think it is tolerated by the political Left?

Foxman: We tend to forget the Left included Soviet communism. That was an enemy of the Jewish people. They manufactured anti-Semitism, they engaged in anti-Semitism, they purged Jews. So, the Left has its own history: communism was as guilty as Nazism. The numbers may have been different because of the Holocaust. But the socialist movement — as much as some people try to fantasize it being more tolerant — was tolerant except when it came to Jews.

This is true even of political correctness. I know Trump thinks it’s a sin and a crime. But, in a way, it set a certain standard of social behavior. It came basically from the Left. And the circle of political correctness excluded Jews. We were not seen as minorities. Leftists argue that anti-Semitism comes from the Right, but, it’s always been there on the Left. If you even look today at the Labour Party in the U.K., it is anti-Semitic. Why? It’s political, it’s ideological, it fulfills all kinds of needs.

The Israel question is a camouflage. It is a platform. The UN resolved by a majority vote that Zionism is racism. The only national liberation movement in the history of the world which was called racist by the UN was Zionism — the Jewish national independence movement.

Usually the most frequently asked question on Israel and anti-Semitism is, “Can’t I be an anti-Zionist and not be an anti-Semite?” Or, “Can’t I criticize Israel and not be called an anti-Semite?” And the answer to both these questions is, “Sure, you can, but chances are if you engage in anti-Zionism, and the only nationalism that you single out as racist is Jewish nationalism — if you say Palestinian nationalism, French nationalism, Hungarian nationalism, are not racist but Jewish nationalism is . . . Bingo! You’re an anti-Semite.”

I’ll talk about the BDS movement for a moment. If young people who cared about justice in the world came together and declared themselves that they will through the vehicle of boycott strike out against injustice in the world, I would say, “Okay, God bless you.”

But then I would like to see a list of at least 10 countries — like Cuba, China, Iran — that violate basic human rights. And if they included Israel in such a list, I would argue that Israel is not stands ahead of all of them. But if that were the case, I could live with it.

But if the only country that they organize boycotts around is the Jewish state, that’s anti-Semitism. Even Pope Francis said about a year ago words to the effect that people questioning today the legitimacy of the Jewish state are anti-Semites. And that to me basically covers most of the BDS movement. When there was a war in Gaza several years ago, the demonstrations in European capitals targeted synagogues and Jewish business institutions. You know what? It wouldn’t have been so great if they targeted Israeli embassies but they didn’t do that. They went after the Jews.

And so, the manifestations of this political movement have moved into anti-Semitism and one reinforces the other. There seems to be some sort of legitimacy in certain crimes in the world where you can act against the Jews as long as it’s under the guise of acting against Israel. I think little by little it’s losing its cover and it’s losing its camouflage. But it’s out there. It is out there.

OR: Do you think the world is reaching a point where it’s not safe for Jews to be in Europe?

Foxman: Look, again, it’s a very, very personal view. I would not raise a family in Europe. I think we’re seeing that the Jews of Europe are realizing that there is no future for them. They’re voting with their feet. There is a lot of immigration to Israel; it’s a little tougher to get to the U.S. nowadays. But I think Jews are acting out of a realization and a fear that they have no future in Europe.

But again, you have to respect their decision. It’s where they want to be. But yeah, if somebody were to ask me as an observer from the outside looking at the situation, I would say, “I don’t see a future.”

On 9/11, our country had a very, very traumatic moment. We came to the realization after 9/11 that we have to sacrifice some of our way of life to balance our civil liberties with security.

We had the Patriot Act debate. We basically as a society gave up some of the freedoms that we had, whether it’s flying, whether it’s traveling, whether it’s access to government, all these things. I don’t see Europe having that moment yet. After the attack on Hebdo, they marched in the streets of Paris and I think they thought they took care of it. However, I don’t think they have.

I don’t think they have yet come to grips that they need to change some of their thinking, some of their laws, some of their behavior. And if they don’t, Jews are on top of the hit parade in terms of being singled out. So there were protests about anti-Semitism, but when Merkel called for a demonstration you had 5,000 people show up. When it’s demonstrations, protesting, and acting against anti-Semitism in Europe, you don’t have big crowds.

The only good thing, if you will, is that powers that be, the governments, and those that speak out, are acting to protect the Jewish community. But how long can you live in a society where you recognize a synagogue by the amount of police or militia around it? When your kids, if they want to go to Jewish school, have to go with a military or police escort? That’s no way to encourage future generations of Jewish life. If I were to be asked by my Jewish friends in Europe, I would advise them to find another place.

OR: Why is it — given that Jews are such a small percentage of the population — that anti-Semitism has been a historical constant for millennia?

Foxman: If we knew the answer to the question maybe we’d find a way to eliminate it. Anti-Semitism is the mother of all prejudices, if you will, in Western civilization. It starts with the crucifixion of Christ. The Jews sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. That’s 2,000 years of teaching based on faith that took its roots in Western civilization. You don’t have it in Buddhism. You don’t have it in Shintoism. We have it now in Islam. Why?

Mark Twain, in 1894 wrote an essay concerning the Jews. He went on a speaking tour of Europe. He had some debts to pay off, and one way to make quick money was to give speeches. He went to Europe. And for some odd reason, wherever he went he found anti-Semitism. He found it in people who were religious and people who were atheist, people who were smart and people who were stupid, people who were rich and people who were poor.

And he came to the conclusion that it’s jealousy. That Jews succeed and because of their success are hated, despised. So we have served as a scapegoat in politics for princes, for kings, for dictators. We’ve served as a religious scapegoat. We’ve served as individuals’ scapegoats.

If you ask the Orthodox, the Orthodox would say it’s because we brought the Torah. We brought the laws. We forced the world to live by a code of civil behavior. And so it’s never forgiven us. I’m not sure, but I guess it helps explain it to them. But this hatred has served so many masters in so many times.

To go back to the question: “Are you worried?” I’m still flabbergasted to some extent how these conspiracy theories continue to live today with all openness. Now you’ve got fake news. So who knows what is and what isn’t. But the blood libel is still out there. It still has vibrancy. The Jews gather organs to sell. Every catastrophe in the world is caused by Jews. These ideas have currency.

Is it this need that people have to blame somebody? Maybe. But after Auschwitz was laid bare to the world a lot of people said, “We didn’t know, we didn’t know.” Which we know is a lot of nonsense.

But, if after the handiwork of hate was laid bare to the world when they saw Auschwitz, and all the scientists, and all the engineers, and all the philosophers didn’t come together and say, “We need to develop an antidote” — if it didn’t happen then, it’s not going to happen now.

OR: Do you think the world could ever see a Holocaust again?

Foxman: I wrote a book in 2011 called Never Again? I wrote an op-ed in this last year called “Never Again — Probably.” You’re asking a Holocaust survivor. No Holocaust survivor will say to you categorically, “It will never happen again.” I’ve always lived with the thought, with the fear,  with the anxiety that it could happen because it’s still there.

In the United States today, you’ve got candidates running for office who are neo-Nazis, who are anti-Semites. They’re not acceptable, but they’re still tolerated. So the answer is yes, it could happen. As someone who studied the Holocaust, I tried to figure out what it is that I survived. I had difficulty understanding why the world didn’t care. I understand it a little better now when I look at what’s happening in Syria. 600,000 butchered, 700,000; millions of refugees. People don’t care. It’s one thing not to care, it’s another thing not to care and to be infected with bigotry and prejudice. Genocides are happening around the world. And so yes, unfortunately, sadly, it could happen.

OR: Is there any reason should people who aren’t Jewish should be concerned about the phenomenon you’ve described?

Foxman: If you want to measure the democracy of a country, ask the question: how do they treat the Jews? How did they, and how do they? And 99 percent of the time if there’s anti-Semitism in that society there is a lack of democracy.

It starts with us, but it doesn’t finish with us. Martin Niemoller left us that quote to remember him by and as a lesson. “First they came for the Jews, and I wasn’t a Jew. So I didn’t stand up. Then, they came for the trade unionists, and I wasn’t a trade unionist. So I didn’t stand up. Then they came for the communists, and I wasn’t a communist. So I didn’t stand up. And then they came for me and there was nobody else to stand up.”

Why should they care? They should care not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because the nature of prejudice is, in the end, not to discriminate. Today, it’s Jews, tomorrow it’s Mexicans, then it’s Muslims.

And if you permit it in your society, you don’t know where it’s going to go. So, sure, we care because we have been on the receiving end for all of these years in some of these societies and religions, and we paid such a heavy price. But it’s not only about us. It’s about society. It’s about our other people. They should care for themselves, if not for us.

OR: What should people be doing to counteract these forces?

Foxman: In the long range something that is very laborious and painstaking: education, education, education, education. There’s no other antidote. As you can be infected very quickly in a matter of minutes by prejudice, by anti-Semitism, by bigotry. Whether it’s by your family, or friends, or your government.

So educate. What does that mean? To stand up. And that is not to permit words of prejudice, to be unanswered. To stand up. Don’t be a bystander. When you see or when you hear prejudice directed against anybody within your environment, stand up and say, “No.” If it’s an ethnic joke, then stand up and say, “It isn’t funny.”

Bullying is prejudice. Bullying is, “I don’t like you because you’re fat. I don’t like you because you’re tall. I don’t like you because of your color. I don’t like you because of your religion. I don’t like you because of whatever.” It separates the person. He becomes the other. And that’s prejudice. That’s the basis of prejudice. What do we want people to do? Stand up to bullying. The problem with bullying is that people don’t stand up, don’t say no, don’t embrace the person that’s being bullied.

Then there is the element of public opinion. This starts with government. Many of us continue to be concerned that the President, after Charlottesville, set up a moral equivalency between Nazis and people who stood up against Nazis. That sends a horrific message. There are no good Nazis. And so to this day if you ask me, I’m still after the President. I hope that he gets up one morning and says, “I had a dream, and the dream was we sacrificed tens of thousands of our people to fight Nazism.”

Whether its religious leadership, whether its political leadership, whether its moral leadership, it has to be a full-time job not letting events like this go by unchallenged. The Holocaust happened because people let it happen. Hitler got elected to office.

I’m talking to you today because there was a woman 60, 70 years ago who said, “No.” I was Jewish. I had a death sentence on me. She wasn’t that educated. I’m not sure she weighed all the odds because if she had weighed the odds, maybe somebody else would be talking to you. But she knew enough. I was a human being. I was being threatened because I was Jewish. And she stood up, to embrace me, to protect me, to hide me. And she risked her life to do it.

Now, it’s a little bit too much to say to people, “We want you to risk your life in standing up to prejudice.” I don’t think they have to. But, in our environment standing up and saying “No” when you see, or hear, or experience prejudice can make a difference. The more of us do it, the more frequently we do it, the more we change the morals. We change what’s acceptable in our society. And it’s a full-time job because bigots are out there 24/7.