Abe Foxman and Rabbi Shragie Myers in dialogue

Former national ADL director Abe Foxman spoke at the Berman Center about the fight against anti-Semitism in the 21st century.

Featured photo courtesy of Mike Smith

Abe Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), drew a large audience Nov. 20 to the Berman Theater to hear his talk on a timely topic: “How to Deal with Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century.”

Foxman is a well-known and respected activist. Leaving the ADL in 2015 after nearly three decades of leadership, he helped create in 2016 the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, which he leads, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

The presentation was sponsored by Partners Detroit, the ADL and the Jewish Community Center and hosted by Carolyn and Aaron Frankel, who introduced Foxman, his longtime friend. The format was a fire-side chat between Foxman and Rabbi Shragie Myers, executive director of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Southfield.

Myers begin by asking Foxman about his remarkable personal history and path to ADL. Foxman was born in 1940, shortly after the Soviet Union took the eastern part of Poland and the Holocaust began to take shape. Before his parents were sent to a ghetto in 1941, they sent Foxman to live with a Catholic nanny in Vilnius, Lithuania. He was reunited with his parents in 1944, and the family moved to the U.S. in 1950.

Foxman earned a bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York, a law degree from New York University, and joined the ADL in 1965. He suggested this advice when seeking a career: “You have to know what you want to do, and you have to be lucky.”

The remainder of Foxman’s chat was a wide-ranging perspective on anti-Semitism, both historical and modern, regarding the ideas he developed during his more than 50 years working with ADL. He told the crowd to always keep two main lessons in mind. First, the study of anti-Semitism is not an exact science; and second, there is no one single cause for anti-Semitism.

“It is a virus without an antidote or a vaccine,” he said. “It serves so many masters for so many reasons.”

Foxman did not declare the fight to be futile. He said anti-Semitism can and must be attacked through organizations, social programs, education and politics. Foxman said he was an optimist, that there has been progress despite the ebb and flow of the fight, and that he believes in the future.

He acknowledged anti-Semitism is resurgent in America, that the “covers are off the sewers.” The pervasive social media and online world and the current political atmosphere have encouraged anti-Semitism, “identity politics,” anti-immigration and other extreme positions.

What can we do? Foxman believes we have to avoid the tendency to look to the “good old days.” There were none, he said. In the modern era, “we need to be creative in building a new firewall [against anti-Semitism]; we have to be imaginative; and we have to be proud.”

The lesson he has learned is that after facing a serious threat, “Jews stand-up, brush themselves off and continue to be proud of being Jewish.”

The audience was appreciative. Don Cohen, a former director of ADL’s Michigan Region, said, “I agree that, unfortunately, anti-Semitism is a problem to be handled rather than solved. His focus on constraining and deterring anti-Semitic acts rather than changing all attitudes was spot-on.”

Allan Gale, who had a 40-year career at the JCRC/AJC in Detroit, thought the chat was “very insightful.”

But, he said, “I have a concern anti-Semitism has moved to gun violence,” he said, underscoring the importance of constraining anti-Semites from acting on their beliefs.

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