The ADL boss is the best kind of pest.
Foxman's work is a paradox: All survey evidence shows that attitudinal anti-Semitism has plunged in the last generation. According to the survey Foxman cites, the percentage of Americans holding anti-Semitic views has dropped from 30 percent to 12 percent. Official anti-Semitism has vanished.
Yet any news is bad news for the ADL. If the number of incidents in the ADL anti-Semitism audit increases, the ADL worries about rising bigotry. If it decreases, Foxman says the disease is "latent, but the danger is still out there." He is right: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, etc. If we don't squash the cockroach now, it may well breed and breed. But the dangers have been oversold. According to a recent survey, more than 60 percent of American Jews view anti-Semitism as the greatest danger to American Jews—a preposterous number. Foxman agrees that figure is too high. Even so, the ADL and Foxman depend on that anxiety: "Jews are part of the mainstream of America, but there is a feeling of insecurity, always a need to fight the bigots."
This paradox is a headache for Jews like me who believe we have essentially assimilated into America. I sometimes find myself embarrassed by Foxman's perceptions of anti-Semitic slights. But I also recognize that it is the ADL's very vigor that has helped make America so tolerant to Jews. Foxman and colleagues have worked tirelessly to pass new laws, enroll thousands in diversity workshops, and shine bright lights on bigots. But is it ever too much?
Foxman challenges Jews when they're wrong. He can be as hard on Jews (and himself) as on enemies. Foxman believes that the best way to defend Jews is sometimes to offend them. (Foxman owes his fearlessness partly to temperament and partly to organizational structure. Click for an explanation.) When virtually every Jewish organization in the country petitioned for the release of spy Jonathan Pollard—many claiming that he was persecuted because he was Jewish—Foxman refused to join the mob. He insisted that Pollard's prosecution had nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
In the mid-'90s, right-wing Jews all but accused Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of treason because he negotiated with the Palestinians. Foxman warned that this hate speech would lead to disaster and quit his synagogue to protest his rabbi's anti-Rabin rants. After Rabin was assassinated, Foxman launched a Jewish tolerance initiative and urged Jews to cease their violent rhetoric. Almost alone of Jewish leaders, Foxman condemned right-wing extremist Meir Kahane. Foxman criticized a popular Holocaust book for exaggerating the horrors of the Shoah. Foxman has deplored the McCarthite tendency of some groups to smear any Jew who says a critical word about Israel as an anti-Zionist traitor. And Foxman chastised vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman for his incessant talk about how religion is the foundation of American political life.
Foxman's contrarianism requires courage, but not infinite quantities of it. His instincts are slightly Clintonian. He makes himself a pariah, but only to folks on the far left or far right of the American Jewish community. Foxman never strays too far from the center, which is where both his true heart and his shrewd head tell him to be.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.