After Abe Foxman

Abe Foxman’s announcement last week that he was planning to retire as national director of the Anti-Defamation League was inevitable. Yet, it somehow came as a surprise. For years, Foxman watchers suggested that he needed to groom a successor and, with that heir in place, step down. The fact that Mr. Foxman seemed to take no interest in being succeeded by anybody helped make his retirement announcement seem like it was something other than just an orderly transition. Perhaps for this reason, the resulting coverage had the quality of a eulogy.

But Mr. Foxman isn’t planning to fade away. The 73-year-old said he will remain at the helm of the Jewish defense organization until July 2015. His successor, whoever he or she turns out to be, is in for an interesting and challenging time.

Rising through the ADL’s ranks for 22 years before becoming its national director in 1987, Mr. Foxman has become synonymous with the ADL and its fight against anti-Semitism. His stature makes his pronouncements on what is or isn’t anti-Semitic authoritative among Jews and in the U.S. political system. Want the last word on what is good or bad for the Jews? Get Abe Foxman on the line.

The successor will have to build his or her brand, just as Mr. Foxman did. As his star rose, Mr. Foxman elevated the ADL brand through a unique combination of leadership, advocacy chutzpah and personality. But his successor won’t have that cache and will have to earn his or her own stripes. Thus, neither the Jewish community nor the media will be so quick to defer to the head of the ADL as they were with Mr. Foxman. Rather, whoever occupies the national director chair of ADL will have to earn and develop the trust and backing of the organized Jewish and political worlds.

That’s quite a testament to Mr. Foxman. Love him or hate him, agree with him or not, he has been a presence on the world scene and a force that cannot be ignored. Sometimes controversial, sometimes right on the mark, Abe Foxman will unquestionably be “replaced,”  but his replacement is going to have to earn that position.

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