The ADL boss is the best kind of pest.
Abe Foxman had the right idea at the right time for exactly the wrong person. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, revealed in March that it was he who had the inspired notion of enlisting Denise Rich to ask President Clinton to pardon her ex-husband Marc Rich. Foxman, who barely knew Denise Rich, made the suggestion to a Marc Rich aide who had asked for advice on winning his boss a free pass. Foxman also wrote a letter to President Clinton on ADL stationery in support of the Rich application. The (formerly) fugitive financier had given $250,000 to the ADL over the past 15 years, and Foxman was chummy with him.
Foxman has been lashed in the media for his effort on Rich's behalf. New York Times columnist William Safire even suggested that Foxman should resign as ADL honcho. (Safire all but recanted in his next column, a classic of the "fuck you, let's have Seder" genre, in which he delineated Foxman's sins then excused them.)
Foxman did indeed do a favor for a big donor. (That he helped a major contributor will shock only those who have never worked for a nonprofit. Such back-scratching is the rule, not the exception.) And Foxman certainly didn't do enough to investigate the merits of the Rich application, feeling that Rich's good deeds were enough to make the case. Foxman's lapses were real, if hardly capital crimes.
Even so, what has gone unappreciated in the whole fiasco is that Foxman—unlike President Clinton or Jack Quinn or Beth Dozoretz or Denise Rich or Eric Holder or anyone else associated with the pardon—has had the decency to admit he screwed up. Foxman came clean to reporters. He concedes he made a mistake endorsing Rich, because supporting Rich had nothing to do with the essential business of the ADL. Though Rich's benefaction represents only a tiny fraction of the ADL's $50 million annual budget, Foxman acknowledges that Rich's fat checks got his attention in a way that $100 donations wouldn't have.
Foxman's apology, like Foxman himself, was simultaneously honest and self-serving. It was the standup thing to do. It also affirmed his reputation as a mensch—a reputation that has been very useful to him. ("I was in an executive dining room yesterday," Foxman says. "The CEO came over and said, 'You made a mistake. I make mistakes. Whatever I gave you last year, double it.' ")
Most activists, Jewish or otherwise, choose between two methods: defend my group at all costs, or tell it the truth at all costs. Foxman has become the most important activist in Jewish America—and one of the most admirable—because he tries to do both.
Foxman is a case study in biographical determinism. Born in 1940 in Poland, he survived the Holocaust because his parents entrusted him to their Catholic nursemaid, who baptized him and kept him as her own son. Foxman's parents miraculously survived the war, then had to sue to regain custody of him. "So two elements in my life formed me: I escaped the cauldrons of anti-Semitism, and I survived because someone had a passion to care for me and did not care that I was Jewish." This duality—he calls himself the "pessimistic optimist," seeing danger to Jews everywhere and opportunities for them everywhere—has guided his life.
Foxman's family immigrated to New York City, where he spent his childhood in young Zionist organizations, polishing his Jewish pride. He graduated City College and New York University law school, then immediately signed on with the ADL. He arrived at the ADL in 1965 and never left, graduating to national director in 1987.
The ADL's charge is to defend Jews from anti-Semitic slights, harassment, and violence, and to oppose discrimination and prejudice generally. Foxman has been extremely aggressive at both tasks. The ADL trolls for evidence of disrespect to Jews, and when Foxman perceives a slight, he pounces with press releases, demands for apology, proposed diversity training: No mau-mauer could do it better. Michael Jackson (anti-Semitic lyrics), Jesse Jackson ("Hymietown," etc.), and George W. Bush (no Jews in heaven) have all been Foxmaned. Did the pope's statement on Catholic anti-Semitism pass muster, and should Nelson Mandela be excused for sympathizing with the PLO? American Jews look to Foxman for the answers. The ADL maintains the best file on hate groups in the country, compiling dossiers and sometimes spying on white supremacists, neo-Nazis, militia members, and others. Foxman brought America's attention to the more repellent aspects of Louis Farrakhan and educated reporters and cops about the dangers of Matthew Hale and other extremists. The ADL also publishes an annual accounting of the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the 50 states.
The ADL has been an important force in Jewish activism since it began in 1913, but Foxman's media savvy and sense of the Jewish gut made it the pre-eminent Jewish group. "Foxman has a very canny instinct, a very Jewish everyman sensibility," says J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward. It also helps that he enjoys the public attention. The ADL's basic philosophy seems to be: Kill a bug with a machine gun. The ADL aims withering fire on any target. Foxman's rhetoric is always overwrought. When anyone criticizes Foxman for hand-wringing over minor insults, he answers that "the crematoriums of Auschwitz did not begin with bricks. They began with words." Foxman always refers to anti-Semitism as "the disease of anti-Semitism."
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.