I wasn’t surprised that Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, got involved in Romney’s overseas campaign. Romney, after all, is visiting Poland at the behest of anti-communist leader Lech Walesa, who won Poland’s presidency in 1990 in part by calling on Polish Jews to out themselves and asking why his opponents “conceal their origins.” And though he apologized for Polish anti-Semitism in 1991, first to prominent Jews and then to the Israeli Knesset, it was a pretty lousy apology: In his speech to World Jewish Congress leader Edgar Bronfman, Walesa insisted “there never was any genuine racially based anti-Semitism in Poland” just “discrimination and differences of interests between… Poles and Jews.” Little surprise that, in a presidential 2000 election, Walesa returned to Jew-baiting his opponent, and to saying he wished he had been born Jewish, since “I would probably be richer.” Lots for Foxman to talk about.
Wait, what? That’s not what Foxman thought was worthy of comment in Romney’s tour? Crazy. Apparently, though Foxman doesn’t think the Romney-Walesa love-in deserved a press release, he had to weigh in on Romney’s blaming Palestinian economic woes on their “culture.” Which he blessed. While Jews have “a real emphasis on education, on hard work and self-reliance,” he said, “part of the problem” with the Arab world, he said, “is culture.”
Bernard Avishai and Hussein Ibish have already pointed out why Romney’s remark is nonsense. Suffice it to say that attributing Palestinian poverty to culture—ignoring, say, the occupation’s basic inequities in resources like water or its harsh restrictions on freedom of movement—takes some chutzpah. Imagine what the ADL would say if someone blamed Jewish suffering on Jewish culture. But here’s what I want to know. Under what definition of “anti-defamation” work is defending Romney’s, well, defamation a good fit, but condemning Romney’s meeting with Walesa not worth the time?
The truth is that the ADL has two jobs: fighting bigotry, and defending Israel. There’s plenty of overlap, but sometimes the two missions conflict. Most famously, in 2007, ADL opposed congressional resolution recognizing, “The Armenian Genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923,” because it might threaten relations between Israel and Turkey. Foxman finally agreed to himself use the word “genocide,” but wouldn’t support the resolution. For an Israeli ambassador or even a single-mindedly pro-Israel group like AIPAC, it would be sensible (if sad) Realpolitik, but this made no sense for an organization that claims to fight “all forms of bigotry.”
And you cannot have both. In the long-term, the ADL and Foxman have to choose between anti-hate work and Israel politics. When Muslims picked for your anti-Islamaphobia task force have to write defensive op-eds about joining you and Fareed Zakaria returns your award because you opposed a Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center, you should start asking whether you’re losing your mandate as an anti-bigotry group. When you’re downplaying the Armenian genocide for diplomatic reasons, you should do some soul-searching. And when your words show up in the hard-right Emergency Committee on Israel’s attacks on Obama, well, maybe it’s better you stay out of politics completely.