The Jewish Al Sharpton


I was going to write about Reform Judaism magazine’s impressive package of articles on outreach, but I felt the need to respond to the latest instance of Abe Foxman-related controversy.

In the most recent issue of The (Boston) Jewish Advocate, Raphael Kohan reports on Boston Jewish leaders’ reaction to Abe Foxman’s Oct. 24 Q&A with JTA’s Ami Eden. In that Q&A Foxman discusses, among other issues, his position on the pending Congressional resolution calling the Turkish expulsion of Armenians in 1915-17 a genocide, and the Boston Jewish community’s reaction to his position. In the Q&A, Foxman is critical of Boston Jewish leaders’ support of the resolution, saying “What I didn’t realize was to what extent the American Jewish community has reversed Hillel [referring to Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote, “If I am only for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”], or at least in Boston and Massachusetts.” He directly calls out Combined Jewish Philanthropies President Barry Shrage and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston Executive Director Nancy K. Kaufman: “The last thing we need now is for Barry Shrage and Nancy Kaufman to be fighting us.”

From just reading Kohan’s article, one gets the impression that Foxman directly blames intermarriage and assimilation in Boston for Shrage’s, Kaufman’s and other local Jewish leaders’ position:

Foxman attributed the Boston Jewish community’s diminished sense of self-preservation to the high instance of intermarriage and assimilation in the Boston area.

But, loth as I am to defend Foxman–who the New York Times wittily referred to as “the Jewish Al Sharpton”–this is a significant misrepresentation of Foxman’s actual quote. Here’s everything he says about Boston and intermarriage:

What I didn’t realize was to what extent the American Jewish community has reversed Hillel, or at least in Boston and Massachusetts. That comes out of a changed demography, sociology. When we talk about assimilation, when we talk about intermarriage–you know what, that’s what it is.

First off, there is no reference to the “high rate” of intermarriage and assimilation. As Foxman probably knows, the intermarriage and assimilation rates in Boston are lower than the country as a whole. It seems to me that Foxman is making a general statement about a diminished sense of attachment to the Jewish peoplehood and Israel because of assimilation and intermarriage. The critique, it seems to me, is not specific to Boston. For Kohan to suggest that it is–and even further, to say explicitly that Foxman refers to “high rates” of intermarriage and assimilation–is irresponsible.

BUT. It is nonetheless a cheap shot on Foxman’s part. He’s not wrong that intermarried people have a lower sense of attachment to Jewish peoplehood and Israel–this has been documented by numerous demographic studies. And highly assimilated Jews, by very definition, have a lower level of attachment to the Jewish community than less assimilated Jews. But it’s a cheap shot to suggest that his critics only took the position they did because they’re motivated by some sort of negative force in Jewish life. While in other parts of the Q&A, he appears to accept that there are two sides of the Armenian issue (which can most easily be called the moral view and the pragmatic view), he never accepts that his critics in Boston come from any perspective other than a short-sighted desire to keep their Armenian neighbors happy.

He also makes no mention of the fact that the ADL fired Andrew Tarsy, the local ADL president, and only after that incident did folks like Shrage and Kaufman get involved. When he says he was “shocked, upset, frightened by the fact that this was an issue where Jews were attacking us,” he’s either out of touch or disingenuous. If he truly was “shocked, upset, frightened” that there would be a resistance to the firing of a popular local community leader for disagreeing with a controversial party line, then he’s out of touch. If he wasn’t, then he’s being disingenuous.

By making no mention of the firing of Tarsy, Foxman makes it appear that Jewish leaders in Boston came out of the blue to attack him. He frames the issue in such a way that he comes out looking like the last remaining champion of American Jewry–and that his critics are against the best interests of American Jewry.

For a man who continually harps on the need for free speech, he’s mighty intolerant of anyone who disagrees with him.

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