ADL At 100

Abe Foxman Rationalizes Blanket Spying On American Muslims

To celebrate 100 years of the Anti-Defamation League, its leader gives an interview rationalizing bigotry against Muslims, writes Ali Gharib.

The Anti-Defamation League turned 100 this week. Renowned for its early anti-racism efforts, the group can, and should, boast of its role in American Jewry's unabashed and unqualified rise into the nation's establishment. There's still, to be sure, remnants of American anti-Semitism; those strains of thought are worthy of a wary eye and vigilant marginalization. The ADL, with its vaunted anti-racist history, ought to be at the forefront of this work. But it just can't be taken seriously in this task with Abraham Foxman at its helm, not when he uses the occasion of the group's centennial to rationalize discrimination, that against Muslims. A man with this record—and it's a growing record—can't be responsible for fighting anti-Semitism as part and parcel of "all forms of bigotry," as the ADL claims it does.

Foxman's seeming tonedeafness to any group other than his co-religionists was on full display in a recent interview with Haaretz. Asked about Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands, he said, "If there is a clear violation of human rights, we will speak out." Then immediately queried about one such violation—the disenfranchisement of millions of Palestinians under Israeli military rule—he replied, "That’s not our decision to make," passing the buck to the Israeli government. In other departments, Foxman pointed to Latinos and American blacks as lingering bastions of anti-Semitism; of the latter, he said, "The only leadership that now exists in that community is Louis Farrakhan." Leave aside that Farrakhan is fingered as American blacks' only leader, what astounds is that, by his own lights, Farrakhan can only put 20,000 people in the street. Yet, according to Foxman, fully one third of Americans blame Jews for Jesus's death—a well-worn anti-Semitic trope. That doesn't sound like a black problem or a Latino problem, but a Christian problem. Yet, as a group, Christians go unmentioned in the interview.The most staggering ambivalence about bigotry in Foxman's Haaretz interview, though, wasn't about Christians or even Palestinians; it was about American Muslims. Asked by his interviewer, Chemi Shalev, about anti-Muslim discimination, Foxman sought to rationalize it. First, he argued that incidents of anti-Semitism occur more frequently than those related to anti-Muslim bigotry, as if tracking bigotry is a game in which scores are kept. But then Foxman digs deeper. The shameful exchange is worth printing in full (with my emphasis):

Shalev: You don’t think that “Muslim-baiting” is much more acceptable in the mainstream media than, say, “Jew-baiting”? There is a Congressman now who is calling for the authorities to keep track of the entire Muslim community.Foxman: I don’t think that’s Muslim-baiting. It’s a natural response. It may be wise or unwise. But I think America’s got an issue now, and not only America. You look at France, you look at London, you look at Amsterdam—most of these incidents have come from Muslim communities that have been brought in and are not assimilating. Just like after 9/11, America is now questioning where the balance is between security and freedom of expression: Should we follow the ethnic communities? Should we be monitoring mosques? This isn’t Muslim-baiting—it’s driven by fear, by a desire for safety and security.

That Foxman doesn't balk at the premise of the question—politicians calling for all Muslims to be tracked—might be less galling if not for the fact that there are already programs for blanket spying on the basis of religion by the New York Police Department's Intel Division. The efforts were revealed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Associated Press. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg maintained that only direct leads were followed, but that's impossible to reconcile with an AP report that the NYPD recommended its investigators spy on Shia mosques for no reason other than the fact that most Iranians are Shia. Another investigative report last year by the New York Review of Books chronicled the work of NYPD Intel Division, and found cases of likely entrapment (that is, actual laying bait for Muslims). After much of the AP series had already been published, the ADL gave the head Intel Division an award for—this will sound familiar—"dedication to the safety and security of one of the nation's largest metropolitan populations."

Bigotry, of course, can be "driven by fear, by a desire for safety and security." A desire for security is beyond a shadow of a doubt the very animating force behind Pamela Geller's anti-Muslim activism. To be fair, Foxman has clashed with and blasted Geller, but has nonetheless sided with her on specific issues. In 2010, when Foxman hitched himself to Geller's anti-Muslim wagon when he came out in favor of a campaign she'd spearheaded to halt construction of a downtown New York Islamic center two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. In that case, too, Foxman explicitly excused bigotry: referring to survivors of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Foxman said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted."

Foxman's become synonymous with the ADL since he took over 26 years ago. His drift from principled anti-bigotry into apology for discimination against Muslims—even by government authorities and in the halls of power—has brought the group ill repute. America may need the ADL for another 100 years, as Foxman suggests in Haaretz. But under his stewardship, the group's unlikely to deliver. (H/T @ZaidJilani)