Abe Foxman and dependence on 'quote machines' in the journalistic process

Is there a working religion journalist in America who's ever done a story concerning anti-Semitism who did not seek a quick quote from Abraham H. Foxman, the newly retired national director of the Anti-Defamation League?

If so, please contact me. You're unique.

After almost three decades as the ADL's main man and a half-century with the organization itself, Foxman -- a veritable quote machine who, for many journalists, functioned as the unofficial voice of mainstream, organized American Jewry -- has finally, at 75, handed in his badge. Characteristically, he did not go quietly.

"Today is the last day of my long tenure as national director of the Anti-Defamation League," he began an oped distributed July 20 by JTA, the international Jewish wire service. 

"So why am I choosing to write an article on my last day? It is the same imperative that has motivated me all these years: If I see something troubling to the Jewish people, I cannot be still.

"And I am deeply troubled at this time by the agreement between the P5+1 nations and Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear program."

His outgoing issue may be a nuclear Iran, but a look at the vast library of  background information on the ADL website is testimony to the many concerns that Foxman -- who as a child was baptized Roman Catholic by his Polish nanny with whom his parents hid him during the Holocaust -- has been involved in during his tenure.

Note that some of them go beyond narrowly parochial Jewish concerns, such as anti-Semitism and Israel, to include same-sex marriage (with which ADL is onboard) and support for racial and ethnic minority voting rights. Note also that Foxman's replacement is Jonathan Greenblatt, a 43-year-old former Obama White House assistant for social innovation -- defined as  steering private-public partnerships, innovative finance, and such to devise creative policy options.

The above paragraph is my way of saying that the ADL, under Foxman and now going forward, sits squarely in the middle of liberal American Jewry's political sweet spot. (ADL is not a religious organization per se; it's a self-described defense group that strives to support all Jews as a people and culture without aligning with a particular Jewish religious movement.)

Naturally, Jewish critics to his political left often criticized him as too conservative on Israel and a scaremonger who saw anti-Semitism lurking where ever he looked. Much worse criticism came, predictably enough, from Arab American and American Muslim quarters, where Foxman's considerable influence with politicians and in interfaith circles was regularly denounced as harmful to what his critics perceived as U.S. Middle East interests.

Not that this dampened Foxman's appeal or slowed the 102-year-old ADL's growth. The organization has a $60-million annual budget, a staff of 300, and 27 offices across the United States and another in Jerusalem. Perhaps, as I believe, that in today's hyper-argumentative media world, critics only serve to elevate the brand they rail against (witness the Trump political circus).

But it takes more than vocal opponents to become a go-to spokesman.

As with other sought-after quote machines working the religion journalism landscape -- say Martin Marty on Protestant America (an old formula for an A1 religion story: You need three local anecdotes, a poll and a quote from Martin Marty), Tony Perkins and Al Mohler for evangelical concerns, Father Tom Reese or George Weigel on Catholic concerns -- it takes virtually instant availability via phone, Twitter or Facebook and, perhaps most importantly, the trust of top journalists who feel you're not leading them astray, to achieve go-to, round up the "usual suspects," status.

Foxman has excelled at this.

Here's what Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publish of the Jewish Week of New York (who I worked under at the Baltimore Jewish Times more than 20 years ago) and one of this nation's top journalists concentrating on Jewish themes, recently wrote about Foxman:

Praised by presidents, a hero to countless Jews and a lightning rod for critics, Abe Foxman has forged his reputation as one of the most influential Jews in the world. He is often the first call for journalists looking for a Jewish response to the crisis of the moment because he is frank, outspoken, accessible, and speaks from his kishkes (Yiddish for "guts").
Contrary to the corporate model of some Jewish organizations, he is passionate, emotional and he wears his deep commitment to Judaism on his sleeve, often sprinkling his remarks with Yiddishisms.

In a New York Times piece on Foxman's retirement, Joseph Berger (a former religion beat reporter) noted that the ADL leader has often been called upon when someone who crossed the Jewish community in some manner sought to make amends.

Berger wrote in part:

When a public figure feels unjustly criticized for a position on Israel or Jews, Mr. Foxman may be asked to step in, as he did when Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser, was attacked in a newspaper advertisement for a “pattern of callous disregard for genocide.” Mr. Foxman called the ad “incendiary” and “reckless.” Ms. Rice thanked him publicly at a retirement tribute on June 17 at the Waldorf Astoria.
Sometimes he is asked to provide virtual absolution, what he wryly called a kosher certification, guiding a celebrity who stereotyped Jews through a process that includes a public apology and some study of Jewish history. Such a ritualistic cleansing was sought by John Galliano, former chief designer for Christian Dior, Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor, and Rick Sanchez, the former CNN anchor.
“Some of my most satisfying moments as director of A.D.L. were in witnessing people who did bad things and said vile things turn around and become better people,’ Mr. Foxman said in his remarks at the Waldorf.

I personally interacted with Foxman countless times when I was a full-time religion reporter. I cannot recall a time when he did not help my story of the moment, offering context quickly and concisely, on or off the record, directing me to another source who could be more helpful, or simply providing the quote I needed to construct my story.

Foxman was not a source who slipped me major scoops. Rather, he was the kind of dependable and well-informed source without which reporters cannot easily function. He personified the critical relationship between journalists and the experts (and communications/pr officials) upon whom we rely for critical and timely information, like it or not.

One last thing. Count on Foxman to remain a vital source. Quote machines do not go quietly into the night upon their so-called retirement. So if you have his personal cell number, don't discard it just yet.

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