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
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
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
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.