From the Archive: When Abraham Foxman took the ADL’s helm

Abraham Foxman, the longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is retiring. (David Karp)

Abraham Foxman, the longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is retiring. (David Karp)

This past week Abraham Foxman, the top professional at the Anti-Defamation League for more than a quarter-century, announced he will retire next year. So influential has his tenure at the Jewish defense organization been that many jokingly refer to him as “the Jewish pope,” while others wonder if anyone can replace him.

In July 1987, when Foxman became the national director of the ADL (then still known as the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith), he was 47 and had been rising within the ADL ranks for 22 years, joining the organization soon after earning his law degree from New York University.

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JTA’s profile of Foxman as he entered his new post focused on how his early history as a hidden child during the Holocaust who was saved by his Polish Catholic nursemaid shaped his life trajectory:

This duality of backgrounds — a profound understanding of two different religions and cultures and an overwhelming gratitude to a Christian woman who had risked her own life to allow him his — never left Foxman. Rather, he has made use of this depth of feelings and compassion in his everyday life.

In an interview with JTA shortly after his appointment was announced, Foxman, who immigrated to the United States in 1950 and attended Brooklyn’s Yeshivah of Flatbush, described anti-Semitism as “a disease.”

“We’ve conquered time and space. We’ve reached the moon. We’ve developed a vaccine for smallpox. And yet, unfortunately, we have not yet come up with a vaccine against this disease,” he said.

Not surprisingly, for those who have followed his national directorship, in which he has become known for his outspokenness in confronting manifestations of anti-Semitism, Foxman in 1987 emphasized the importance of words as a tool:

We’ve learned that words have the power to kill, that words unchallenged, left in silence, words of bigotry, are part of our tradition. But words also have the ability to bring about good. And in those places where people spoke out and challenged, they offset the evil.

We’ve also learned that the power of the word to speak out has brought about the freedom of 270,000 Soviet Jews. That the power to speak out can dampen anti-Semitism, bigotry and prejudice when the powers that be, those who set the moral standard, speak out. When they’re silent, that only encourages.

Daniel Treiman Daniel Treiman is JTA’s online editor.