Abraham Foxman joined the Anti-Defamation League, one of America’s most visible Jewish advocacy organizations, in 1965, the year the Second Vatican Council ended. Among its other accomplishments, that gathering of Catholic bishops from around the world attempted to set a new course for Catholic-Jewish relations in a groundbreaking document called Nostra Aetate.
Foxman, who took over as the ADL’s national director in 1987, has seen a lot of water under the bridge in the years since Vatican II in the relationship between Catholicism and what Pope John Paul II called the church’s “elder brothers.”
Foxman is still going strong, among other things leading an annual delegation to Rome for talks with Vatican officials. During a break from Friday’s ADL meeting in Palm Beach, the 73-year-old spoke briefly about his impressions of Pope Francis and the pontiff’s looming trip in May to Israel.
What do you think of the new pope?
We couldn’t have wished or hoped for a better pope for the Jewish people. Of course, first and foremost he’ll serve the Catholic world and the Christian world.
Why is he good for Jews?
We were concerned after the death of John Paul II that the Vatican might feel he was an aberration, that his interest in Jews was because he came from Poland, because he’d experienced the war, and so on. Then came the successor, Benedict XVI, who actually institutionalized the changes vis-à-vis the Jewish community that John Paul had initiated. Our concern was, now what? How ongoing will it really be?
Then we woke up to a pope who didn’t wait to become pope before going to a synagogue, because he went to the synagogue as the cardinal of Buenos Aires and had a great relationship with the Jewish community. Here’s a pope who even went to synagogue on slichot [a festival that marks the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur] . . . most Jews don’t even know what slichot is! That’s how close he felt, so I think we’re comfortable that he understands us, that he has a sensitivity to the issues, and that he’ll be a voice to continue to make the relationship more open.
Why should Jews care who the pope is or what the Catholic Church thinks?
Unfortunately, because of history. What the pope said, what Christianity said, had a great impact on the persecution of the Jews. Whether it was the Inquisition, or the expulsion of Jews, or even the level of anti-Semitism, the popes and Christianity set the tone as to whether the Jews had vitality and even viability. Today more than a billion people listen to what the pope says, what the Vatican says, and they still set the tone in terms of respect or disrespect. It’s very, very important.
The pope is going to Israel in May. If he calls you on the phone and says, “Abe, give me some advice,” what do you tell him?
I would walk in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II. He understood the sensitive emotional issues. Yad Vashem is important, the Western Wall is important, the message of forgiveness is important.
John Paul had a comfort level walking the Holy Land, not just as the ‘Holy Land’ but he also communicated to Israel and the Israeli people. On one level, the pope goes because it’s the Holy Land, it’s where Jesus walked, and we value and understand that. At the same time, it’s the place where Jews live. He needs to communicate that just as he goes to a synagogue to help ensure that the Jews have vitality, that [Israel] is the natural place of the Jewish people.
That’s a very important message not just for Jews, in my opinion, but for the Arab world. If the Holy Father understands that Israel is here to stay, that there is a Jewish state and there’s a value to it, it makes a statement. It’s important for him to recognize that Jesus was Jewish and that Jews have their own path to salvation, but it’s also important for him to recognize that the Jews have a right to their own homeland and to a Jewish state. Any way he communicates that will be very, very important.
Is it true that you had a chance to publish a book written by the future pope with a rabbi in Argentina, and passed it up?
I had the chance to publish the book with [Jorge Mario] Bergoglio because the rabbi [Rabbi Abraham Skorka] called me and said. “I’ve just done this book in Spanish, why don’t you do it in English?” I passed, and boy am I sorry! I was thinking at the time that if I did it for this cardinal, I’d have to do it for everybody, and we’re not really in the publishing business. Looking back, I obviously wish I’d said yes.