Nearly sixty Hong Kong Jewish community leaders gathered at the JCC on Monday night, 26 March, to meet a delegation from the Anti-Defamation League and hear its charismatic president, Abe Foxman.
From its inception in 1913 – a year of infamy for American Jews, when Leo Frank was lynched outside Atlanta, Georgia for a murder he did not commit – the Anti-Defamation League has worked “to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience, and if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people.”
It has also taken up the cause of other oppressed citizens, working on behalf of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and speaking out against the anti-Catholicism that blossomed during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
The delegation visiting Hong Kong in March had just spent two weeks in China, visiting Shanghai, Beijing, Harbin and Xian.
The delegation included Mrs. Foxman and about fifteen active members from cities around the United States, including Seattle, New York and Atlanta.
In his address to the Hong Kong audience, Foxman described the mission to China as one of many trips the League makes around the world to reach out to governments on behalf of the Jewish people, and by extension, Israel.
Foxman mentioned that China has been important to Jews, not only by providing the world’s most unusual example of Jewish life in an atmosphere devoid of anti-Semitism (the ancient Kaifeng community), but also by showing friendship and openness to Jewish refugees during World War II, when Shanghai accommodated around 30,000 fleeing the Nazis, and thousands more came through that city en route to safety elsewhere.
Foxman said that Jews have never had as good a life anywhere as they have had in the United States in this century, and “five or ten years ago, we thought anti-Semitism had been defeated.”
“But then came 9-11,” and the anti-Semitism that has arisen since that event has been a new kind, with “new characteristics and a more threatening dimension.”
Once more, he remarked, Jews are murdered because they are Jews: referencing Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan, and Ilan Halimi, who was recently murdered in France.
While recognising the threat posed by Iran, Foxman rejoiced at the presence of Israel consuls-general in Hong Kong and Shanghai and an Ambassador in Beijing.
He mentioned cases in which the outrage of the Jewish people was able to effect change: with Soviet Jewry and with the communities in Syria, Yemen, and Ethiopia.
Foxman said that while Europe is still in denial about its anti-Semitism, the U.S. has changed from what it was during the 1940’s and is a strong and vocal supporter of Israel.
He went on to say that religious fundamentalism in the U.S. is a threat to democracy, and that when democracy is in trouble, Jews are in trouble. He stressed that the strength of the U.S. Jews is the basis of the strength of the world’s Jews.
In closing, Foxman said that our generation is unique – our parents survived Auschwitz and were privileged to see a Jewish Jerusalem – and we have written an 11th “commandment”: “never again” to be silent.
Our responsibility is not only to each other, as our brothers’ keepers, but to oppressed people all over the world. “If ever Hong Kong needs the Anti-Defamation League, we’ll be here, because we know that if we ever need you, you’ll be there for us.”
Foxman was born in Poland in 1940 and baptised by his Catholic nursemaid. He was hidden during the war, subsequently recovered by his survivor parents, and brought to the United States.
He is a graduate of the Yeshiva of Flatbush (Brooklyn), City University of New York, New York University Law School, and the New School of Social Research.
The Anti-Defamation League has about 40 offices in the U.S.
Following the speech, Foxman took questions. He was asked whether his organisation raised the issue of anti-Israel policies on the part of the Chinese government.
In answer, Foxman said that they had not done so. He said he had been asked twice if the U.S. would like China better if its political structure were different, a question he had diplomatically evaded.
Foxman mentioned that one university professor had told him that today, “Communism equals tradition” in China.
He said he had praised the leaders with whom he had met (including the Foreign Minister and the ministers of culture and information) for not inviting representatives of Hamas to come to China.
Another question involved the Anti-Defamation League’s activity in France – had they been active in the aftermath of the Ilan Halimi murder?
Foxman responded that the Anti-Defamation League, when visiting Jewish communities outside the U.S., tries to respect the wishes of those communities, and prefers to engage them in dialogue and strategising rather than dictating or imposing their own policy.
He stressed that “Jews don’t boycott; Jews have been too many times on the other end of boycotts,” and that he felt that when French President Jacques Chirac had said that “an attack on a few in France is an attack on France,” the picture for Jews in France had changed.
Nonetheless, he noted, he would still not walk down a Lyon or Marseilles street in a kippah.
Finally, Mr. Foxman was asked about the recent flap about anti-Islamic cartoons as a freedom of the press issue. His response was to note that there is a philosophical problem in the U.S. Constitution.
While freedom of speech is absolute under the Constitution, there must be an appropriate response to what is now termed “hate” speech. He stated that the Anti-Defamation League’s position has always been to defer to free speech.
Mr. Foxman remarked that within the context of free speech, the ADL has always tried to show that while “you can be anti-Semitic in the U.S., but it will cost you.”
He noted that Mein Kampf can be purchased from Amazon.com openly in the U.S. but not in Europe, and that legislation against Holocaust denial violates free speech. He questioned whether the Jewish community really wants David Irving (recently sentenced to prison in Austria for his denials of the Holocaust) in prison.
The ADL’s approach, then, differs substantially from that of Europe. If governments legislate against hate speech, they leave themselves open to the kind of criticism that accompanied the Danish cartoons.
According to Foxman: “The West lost on the cartoon issue.”