Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman arrived in Israel in mid-October on the heels of several controversial decisions that prompted a hail of criticism in the United States. Foxman may have hoped that while in Israel he would have been able to avoid sensitive issues like his condemnation of the construction of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero; the ADL’s honoring of right-wing media kingpin Rupert Murdoch; or the ADL’s release of a blacklist of “anti-Israel organizations.” And for most of his trip, Foxman was able to propagate his message to the Israeli public and international media without any background noise from the US.
Then the great macher agreed to an on-camera interview with David Sheen, a young writer and videographer who splits time between the center-left Israeli paper Haaretz and independent documentary projects. Sheen, an Israeli citizen who is a friend and colleague of mine, makes no secret of his strong views about issues ranging from the occupation of Palestine to animal rights. He submitted his questions to Foxman days before the interview at the request of the ADL’s press handler. But Foxman did not bother to review the questions. Instead, he walked into the interview expecting to be handled as he was by the rest of the Israeli media: gently and with a degree of deference.
This may explain why Foxman appears so shocked when Sheen confronts him with pointed questions about the ADL’s honoring of Murdoch (Foxman calls him “a media genius”) and his endorsement of the “bigoted” positions of opponents of the Park 51 mosque (Foxman claims the reporter who quoted him defending the anti-mosque crowd’s bigotry “didn’t know history from borscht”). As Sheen presents Foxman with a litany of concerns of his growing legion of detractors, who have accused him of turning the ADL into a smear machine that has nothing to do with its stated mission of promoting civil rights, Foxman furiously lashes out at his interviewer, accusing him of staging a “set up.”
On at least four occasions, Foxman threatens to end the interview, claiming the questions are “not productive” and that he has better things to do. But each time he remains in his seat and berates Sheen. As the interview progresses (or deteriorates), it is clear that Foxman has little interest in promoting the work of the ADL, or even in rebutting his critics. He is far more interested in screaming at Sheen. It is one of the strangest and most embarrassing interview performances I have seen since Sarah Palin campaigned for Vice President.
At around the 28 minute mark of the video, after Sheen has poked and prodded Foxman about the ADL’s denunciation of the animal rights group PETA –- an unusual line of questioning to be sure — Foxman suddenly launches into a forceful condemnation of the “Soup Nazi” character from the TV show Seinfeld. At this point, the interview morphs from a tense exchange into some kind of free association borscht belt comedy routine.
“If you don’t understand [the Holocaust] then you don’t learn the lessons,” Foxman remarks. “So if in New York we have a restaurant where a guy calls himself a Soup Nazi because he decides what kind of soup you’re going to eat, or buy, that’s a trivialization, you’ve learned nothing from history, and yeah, we do care, and we’ll speak out against it.” (No soup for you, Foxman!)
For the rest of the interview, Foxman and Sheen manage not to discuss a single issue of substance. Instead, Foxman rails against Sheen almost uncontrollably, accusing him of setting him up. At around 45 minutes into the video, Foxman launches into a crazed diatribe that ends with him calling Sheen (what else?) a bigot.
“’You don’t like this cup. Why don’t you like this cup? You support this camera! But what about this camera?’ That’s what you’re doing!” Foxman booms, waving his arms at every cup and camera in sight. “That’s the only thing you’re doing. And you’re selecting which cup of coffee, which camera — you’re selecting every example… You only showed your bigotry.” (No cups were harmed in the making of Sheen’s video).
Once again, Foxman declares an end to the interview. He is furious. But instead of leaving he remains in his seat and invites Sheen out for a meal. “First I want to talk to you at dinner. I want to get to know you. Then if you want to play this game before your audience, fine,” Foxman exclaims.
Before Sheen can direct his subject to the nearest TGI Friday’s, Foxman is overcome with regret for ever agreeing to the interview. He compares Sheen to the Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir, whose acclaimed documentary “Defamation” followed Foxman around the globe and ultimately exposed him and his colleagues as a bunch of goofballs hyping the issue of anti-Semitism to increase their influence and paychecks.
“I’ve made mistakes before. I participated in a movie in Israel. I made a judgment,” Foxman reflected. “I trusted him [Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir]. I took him into my heart. He screwed me. And a lot of people said don’t trust media. And in a nice way you basically did the same thing…. This was a set up, David! This was a way to embarrass what we do, to say there’s no consistency. PETA? Who gives a shit about PETA?”
Even after Foxman steps off the set, he continues to berate Sheen for supposedly being unfair. Finally, Sheen lights into Foxman for not being able to handle a few tough questions. “You know what I felt?” Sheen asks him. “You’re a professional. It’s your day job. You think all the time about these questions. You think all the time about the answers. I thought you’d be like 1, 2, 3 – like throwing cards at me. Because you hear them all the time. If you don’t hear them, maybe you’re in groupthink; maybe you’re only with people who think the same way you do.”
Sheen raises a good point here: Why couldn’t Foxman simply respond to his questions with a few punchy soundbites and walk away? Why did he throw an hour-long fit that had little to do with the ADL’s work and everything to do with his persecution complex? And has Foxman always behaved this way with journalists?
If I were a responsible member of the ADL’s board of directors who had watched Foxman’s performance, I would enter the next board meeting with some serious questions about his ability to lead. If he persists in responding to mildly adversarial or unpredictable questions like a cantankerous altecocker, or if he cannot control his temper in interviews long enough to muster a semi-coherent thought, Foxman is an organizational liability who might need to be replaced. Personally, I would prefer to see Foxman stay at the helm of the ADL for a long time, and not only because I enjoy witnessing the slow motion collapse of the sclerotic, reactionary Jewish-American establishment that he represents, but because I am a huge fan of borscht belt comedy, even of the unintentional variety.