Arnold Forster

In Memoriam: Arnold Forster 1912 – 2010

VTR Date: August 14, 2010

GUEST: Arnold Forster


GUEST: Arnold Forster
AIR DATE: 08/14/2010

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind MIND, where occasionally we interrupt our regular weekly schedule of contemporary on-air conversations to present – In Memoriam – a past program with a distinguished guest who has passed.

Today we celebrate attorney Arnold Forster, long time leader of the Anti-Defamation League. This memorial program – recorded in 1988 – itself draws upon an earlier Open Mind with Mr. Forster and others from 1956 … truly history within history.”


I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

Even as we record this program, those who care mark the 50th Anniversary of “Crystal Night”, Kristallnacht in German, 1938, when Nazi leaders ordered a two-day pogrom, an orgy of glass-breaking, the desecration and destruction of synagogues, the ransacking of Jewish homes as a dreadful prelude to even worst things to come.

Still that was Germany, not America. “It can’t happen here”. Perhaps. But anti-Semitism could…did…does. And in 1956 The Open Mind’s young host assured expert guests and his audience that in our early history anti-Semitism had been relatively unimportant:

Excerpt from 1956 program:
“HEFFNER: But World War I, and the complexities of the twentieth century, seemed to change all of this. During the War the loyalty of Jews of German extraction was seriously questioned, and after the War the tensions that accompanied America’s new responsibilities, and that were generated by the enormous social and economic dislocations of the 1920s and 30s, these more and more frequently found an outlet in hate-mongering and in anti-Semitism, in particular. So that Jew-baiting became something less than a laughing matter when a pamphlet put out some years ago seriously and viciously attacked what it called ‘Jewish Jazz’.

And in our own years when a swastika and ‘Down with Jews’ are scrawled on a Jewish community center, when a monthly publication charges amongst other things that ‘organized Jewry gives sanctuary to Red traitors’. And when a throwaway comic strip urges Americans to ‘buy Gentile’, and to boycott Jews’ stores, just as the Nazis did two decades ago. Anti-Semitism isn’t always so open, of course.

There are the subtler restrictions, the gentlemen’s agreement that ‘No Jews are allowed’ in this country club, in that residential district. There are the college or medical school applications that ask for religion, for Mother’s maiden name, for parents’ nationality. And to be sure, there is always the classified ad that says ‘For Gentiles only’ or something of that kind, and these aren’t the only means by which Americans have discriminated against Jews.

There are those letters from hotels that read as these d, one in particular, ‘Our policy of catering exclusively to Christians prevails’. A telegram from one well-known hotel to two Jewish applicants ‘Regret unable to accommodate. And call attention to our restricted policy. Would appreciate entertaining reservations for clients who comply with our policy’. Or a letter from an Inn in a nearby state, ‘In recommending your clients to us, it might be well to mention that we operate exclusively on a restricted basis and do not accept reservations from those of the Hebrew faith and only those of the Italian nationality of the higher caliber who are free from Jewish appearance’ “.

HEFFNER: Open Mind guests then were psychologist Maria Jahoda, educator Harold Taylor, Anti-Defamation League Chief Counsel, Arnold Forster. What I’ve said or on this whole problem generally.

FORSTER: Well, Dick, I might have a comment to begin this, if I may. The political anti-Semitism of Nazis aside, I think you might have leaned just a little bit too heavily on the importance of the gutter bigot, the fellow who gets out the outlandish, fantastic and ugly, venomous anti-Semitism that you see in the cartoons that you showed. These fellows aren’t important, in my judgment. You have to deal with them, you have to cauterize against them, but they don’t create the poison of prejudice that we’re concerned with. I think far more important than the so-called professional gutter-bait is the anti-Semitism that comes from the disability Jews suffer as a result of the discriminations, polite and subtle in the field of education, in the field of housing, in the field of employment, and in the social field, the golf club, and even the business club. I think here we get into the important area of anti-Semitism today in this country”.

End 1956 Excerpt

HEFFNER: Arnold Forster actually will never retire. He’s still a consultant to the ADL. But I want to ask if he were to add to that formulation of his of 32 years ago. After all the title of his intriguing new memoir Square One suggests that as far as anti-Semitism is concerned, we may be back to where we began. Arnold, are we?

FORSTER: No. Not with respect to the overt practices of discrimination, Dick, as we knew them thirty and thirty-five years ago. There’s been vast improvement in that area. Discrimination as we knew it then is non-existent, virtually, today. Little of it in employment, in education, in housing, most of it by virtue of law, in addition to education. The last bastion of discrimination overtly is the social area, the golf club is still restricted, the yacht club is still restricted, the country club is still restricted. And it seems that after a day of Christians and Jews mixing in their business lives, when they go home in the evening, we call it the “five o’clock shadow” then, and it still exists. We go back to our own little communities, the Catholics to theirs, the Protestants to theirs, the Blacks to theirs and the Jews to theirs. Most unfortunate.

HEFFNER: But that…that…go ahead, Arnold. Well, I’ll ask you my question in a moment.

FORSTER: But, you see, Square One did not refer to the overt practice of discrimination. When I wrote the book, I came to the conclusion after studying what I wrote, fifty years of what we were confronting, that attitudes have remained virtually unchanged, while practices have changed. There’s been a great change, too, with respect to the problem of organized anti-Semitism, but let’s deal first, if you will, because you raised it, with the question of discrimination.

HEFFNER: Well, I raised it, but I’d rather, if you will, to go to this question directly of anti-Semitism which does not have only to do with the discriminatory tactics that I referred to back, when the world was young, and that you’ve referred to now. What about anti-Semitism? As much? As great? Why do you call something the “new” anti-Semitism?

FORSTER: Well, we’ve changed the definition of anti-Semitism. Silence by the observer of blatant anti-Semitism, with no action, we regard today as a kind of anti-Semitism. We think it’s necessary to speak up against it. We think it’s necessary to speak up against, always, against any kind of bigotry, whether it’s sexist, anti-Black, anti-Polish, whatever. And silence in the face of bigotry is participation in the bigotry. That’s a change for us.

But I was referring, Dick, to organized anti-Semitism. When last we met, you will well remember we were just over a period where the Anti-Defamation League counted hundreds of anti-Jewish organizations, some small and some large, operating in the United States.

That isn’t the circumstance today. Today you can count on the fingers of one hand the meaningful anti-Jewish organizations that operate in the United States. One of the most notorious, although very small in numbers is the so-called Skinhead group. The boys who wear Nazi uniforms, are prone to violence, are training for revolution, have been guilty of murder. Many of their leaders in prison, yet they are growing. Six months ago they were fifteen hundred, today they’re two thousand. They’re in many cities, and they’re in five or six foreign countries. They’re on twenty public access cable stations today. There’s an acceptance of them on the public media, that indicates the kind of attitude to which I refer in Square One.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, Arnold, an acceptance? Are you talking about something that comes close to an embrace, or are you talking about an involvement with our traditional free speech notions, “Let them speak, we can’t stop them”?

FORSTER: Free speech notions can get out of bounds, and can get kooky. I read last week of a Federal grant that was denied to an organization in the South because it failed to present the Ku Klux Klan point of view in a program about bigotry. I don’t think that’s a legitimate point of view, the Ku Klux Klan. I don’t think to talk about cancer that you put a man with cancer, necessarily, on the camera. You put experts on the camera, physicians who understand cancer, and so when you say, for the sake of free speech, in my judgment, that it’s necessary to put a member of the Klan on, or a member of the Skinheads, or in those years the German –American Bund, I don’t think that that’s fulfilling the meaning of the First Amendment.

HEFFNER: Okay, but whether one agrees with you on that point or not, the question I ask is whether this proliferation of the group you call the, the Skinheads, on cable for instance, whether this is a manifestation of a new embracing of anti-Semitism, or either through indifference, or an active embracing, or mistakenly, as you believe, a statement of free speech concerns?

FORSTER: I think it’s a failure on the part of the responsible people in the media, of communications to understand that the way to fight organized hatred is not to give them a platform, but to expose them for what they are. Let them use their own platforms. Free speech, Dick, does not require me to give you my platform to spout anti-Semitism, or anti-Blackism, or any other kind of bigotry.

HEFFNER: Yes, but …

FORSTER: It requires only that I don’t hinder you from the use of your platform.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you see we’re talking about two different things now. I hear what you’re saying, we could argue that out. What I’ve asked you is whether the proliferation of these groups and their use, as you suggest, of cable is an indication that anti-Semitism itself is on the rise in this country? Forget about whether they should use cable or not.

FORSTER: The many…

HEFFNER: Go ahead.

FORSTER: The many manifestations of these organized groups indicate there is a rise in anti-Semitism, but I do not believe that the use of cable stations means that the owner or controller of the station itself is agreeing. I think he’s mis-using because he foolishly believes that that’s the way to fight bigotry. I don’t blame the cable owner at all for bigotry. I condemn…I condemn him for failing to understand, holding his position, how to fight bigotry. There’s a responsible way to do it, and an irresponsible way. So that the use of the cable station may indicate a rise in hatred, it does not indicate at all that those who are allowing the use of their platform are participating in it. Now I’m talking about those who remain silent in the face of it. The cable station that gives these people time, normally also presents the other side of that.

HEFFNER: So the matter of even-handedness is, you feel, not a sufficient answer to the presentation at all of anti-Semitism.

FORSTER: I don’t limit myself to anti-Semitism, Dick. I’m talking about all kinds of bigotry.


FORSTER: You cannot be even-handed with a bigot. He’s irrational, he’s violent, he means t destroy you, and even-handedness means that you treat him with that kind of contempt that makes him whither in the sunlight of a democracy. It does not mean that you invite him into your home, and let him present his point of view. You say to him “you stay in your own home, on your own grounds, and you present your point of view because in a free democracy you’re entitled to do that, short of inciting violence, short of disorderly conduct, short of causing breaches of the peace”.

HEFFNER: I assume then that at the time of Skokie you were very much against the ACLU position?

FORSTER: Yes and no. I took a somewhat guarded position.


FORSTER: Yes. I took a somewhat guarded position. I took the position that these people had deliberately chosen the main street of Skokie, which was inhabited primarily by refugees from Germany, and their purpose was to torture and taunt them. Their purpose was to cause all kinds of grief to people who’ve had all the grief they needed in their lifetime. So that my position, and I argued then, that while they might have the right to parade down a street, or while they might have the right to utilize a park in Skokie, they should not be permitted to deliberately select those areas where there were high concentrations of Jewish refugees to sell their bigotry.

HEFFNER: Arnold, over the years I’ve accumulated a whole raft of transcripts of programs that you and Ben Epstein and others have done, that we’ve done together. I think it may have been this 1956 program, the one that we excerpted a moment ago, in which, again, I think it was one of the other two guests who estimated that if you scratched fifty percent of Americans, you would find anti-Semitism. You objected to that.


HEFFNER: Then. What do you say now?

FORSTER: Well, I would say now that a study of all the polls that have been done since they began to do polls in this country on anti-Semitism, shows that the percentage of anti-Semitism ranged between fifteen and thirty percent. It rarely went below fifteen, and only once, I think, went above thirty. So that the fifty percent figure, for me then, and now, is an exaggeration.

And then you have to define anti-Semitism. Are we talking about how people think? Are we talking about how people act? You know, in this country we have a right to think as we please, but don’t act out that which is anti-democratic, invilotive of our Constitutional Rights.

HEFFNER: Well, 1958…two years after this first show…you defined anti-Semitism, and this was a program with Will Maslow and Ed Lukas, as “an attitude which impels non-Jews to treat Jews differently, in a hostile way, of course, from the way they treat all other people”. Treat.

FORSTER: And I would regard that as a good definition even today, but you see we’re not there referring to attitude, we’re referring to the overt act, to which I take exception. I take exception to bigotry in the mind, too…but a person has a right to think as he pleases in this country, as I say, so long as he does not act it out to my Constitutional protection.

HEFFNER: And if we were talking just about the range of thinking, not thinking about doing anything about someone else’s thoughts, but relating ourselves to an estimate that you would take as to how many Americans think, feel, forget act, in an anti-Semitic mode, what would you say then?

FORSTER: I would say I’m too long in this field to have an opinion without scientific data. I don’t think any effort has ever been made to find out just what people think in a vacuum, in this field. Maybe there are such studies. If there are, Dick, I’m not familiar with them. We…the surveys that have been used, usually gauge what people would do in the face of…So, for example, the survey would ask “Would you live next door to a Jew?”, “Would you mind working alongside of a Jew?”, “Would you marry a Jew?”. Those questions relate to actions. Questions which say “do you like Jews?” don’t necessarily reveal truth. If in a community it’s recognized that hatred of the Jew is anathema, in democracy you tend to conceal. You are not quite as self-protected when you ask the other question about marrying a Jew, or marrying anyone else of a different faith or religion. There may be studies about attitudes. I don’t know how valid and accurate they are.

HEFFNER: You know this is the first time in thirty-two years of knowing you in which I didn’t find you willing to say “This is it, and this is the percentage.”

FORSTER: I would be less than a competent expert, in my own judgment, if I were to choose out of thin air, a number, and say “this is how the American people think, in these percentages”.

HEFFNER: Okay. Let’s drop the question of percentages. It really gets us no place, but I wondered what your response would be. In the introduction to your new book, Square One, Elie Wiesel writes “The unknown element remains…” in asking himself what is this, what is this thing anti-Semitism. There is, there always will be, an inexplicable aspect of anti-Semitism that resists comprehension”. What do you think lies behind it? How can we explain it?

FORSTER: It’s multi-faceted, Dick. It’s complex. It comes out of many things, psychological, experiential. It comes out of background, family, teaching, the faith to which you belong and what you were taught there, the difficulties you’ve had in life. People who are frustrated need scapegoats. Those who are different are easy scapegoats. The crucifixion story was distorted for so long that it was a basis for hating Jews.

The Roman Catholic Church made a large turn, a hundred degree change, back in 1964, when they adopted Schema IV, which chastised those who were distorting the crucifixion story to go on to say “You do not blame contemporary Jewry for what happened two thousand years ago”.

So religion is a reason. Poverty is a reason, if you need a scapegoat. Your own personal family background and teaching at the knees of your parents is a reason. There are all kinds of reasons. I say it’s complex. It’s multi-faceted, and tragically, it’s been with us, Dick, for two thousand years. And there has been great progress in the last half-century and I spell it out.

At the same time, I spell out that we’ve never been rid of it, and that in terms of underlying thinking there seems to be a very serious, continuing malignancy, and so long as there’s a malignancy in thought, with respect to Jews, there’s no margin for safety. I don’t think we’re facing a Holocaust, nothing like it, but I do think so long as the infection remains, it can always blow up.

HEFFNER: “So long as the infection remains…”. You’re a smart man. You’ve been around a long time, as I have. Do you think, do you see a time when that infection has been eradicated, or are you always going to have to be on the defensive?

FORSTER: I foolishly thought after World War II, and the dreadful experience that civilization had when they saw some twenty-odd million people murdered, six million of whom were Jews, who were not combatants, that we had seen…that the world had learned the lesson of bigotry, and that we had seen for a period of years, at least, until they forgot what had happened, a period of cleanliness of thought. I was wrong then. There never was a change. There was a surfeit of public activity against Jews. It was too evil and too obviously evil during and immediately after Hitler. But as time passed and McCarthyism developed, the radical Right Movement developed, and the basis for hatred for Israel developed. Now the violent groups are on the scene. I’m beginning to think that there was no change at any time. It simply went underground during and immediately after the War, and as people began to forget about World War II, it once again came to the surface, and it’s with us now in many places of the world, Dick.

HEFFNER: You quoted Elie Wiesel as saying “indifference to evil is evil”. D you find that that indifference is growing?

FORSTER: I think indifference and insensitivity are increasing with the passage of each day. There was one incident two years ago in Germany, in West Germany, that made me sick. Fasbinder did a play which the Jews so offended by it because of its anti-Semitism tried to oppose and an editor of a newspaper said “Don’t they understand that the ‘No Hunting’ season on Jews is over?” And that man bespoke an attitude that they’ve forgotten about the lesson of the Holocaust. We celebrate Kristallnacht now, fifty years of it, in an effort to remind the world what happens when you release this kind of dreadful bigotry.

HEFFNER: You write that in one of your visits to Ben Gurion…and we just have a couple of minutes left…he rather indicated that you might be chasing…

FORSTER: A rainbow.

HEFFNER: A rainbow. Ben Gurion …a wise man. Do you think he was right?

FORSTER: Yes, indeed, much wiser than I, and he may be absolutely correct. I must say to you that while he joshed with me about it, that was prompted more by his wish that Jews would come and live in Israel. His attitude was almost a professional one. “You won’t get surcease from sorrow in the outside world. Come home where you belong”, and so he would grin and ask me “Am I still fighting it?”. He once said to me, after spelling out all we had accomplished in the United States, “You wouldn’t have to work so hard and fight it if you’d come home, where you belong”.

HEFFNER: Wrong, or right?

FORSTER: No, I think Jews are like all other people, only more so. They have to live where they want to live. The Frenchman doesn’t necessarily live in France, the Englishman in England. There’s a seven percent migration of the world’s people from free countries, you know, and it’s been that way for many, many years. I don’t know why the Jews in Israel or out, should be any different.

HEFFNER: Arnold, just in the moment left…or minute left…has Israel, the presence of Israel, been a plus or a minus in that indifference to evil that you see growing in this country?

FORSTER: I think in any facet of the question, Israel is a plus. Never mind that the anti-Semites use it as a lever for anti-Semitism. They’ll go down, Israel will remain. I think Israel has given the Jews a sense of dignity, a sense of pride, a sense of belonging that they didn’t have before. You and I both remember the phrase “the wandering Jew”. That phrase had disappeared from our language.

HEFFNER: Except Jews now are leaving Israel. I know what you said a moment ago about seven percent movement from the free countries of the world. Do you believe that Israel can remain that symbol for American Jews, Jews all over the world?

FORSTER: People leave any country where it’s difficult to live, and where you could find a better place. Our country, Dick, is peopled by human beings who found this country far more inviting as a place to live than were they were, whether it was Europe, Latin America, South America, Asia, they all flocked here. I said Jews are the same as all other people, and if Israel is too tough for some of them, they’ll leave Israel and go elsewhere. If they can come here, so be it. I have no problem with those who don’t want to live there. I have more respect and love for those of us who find our way there as permanent inhabitants, as constant visitors, as loyal friends of a beautiful democracy, the only one, incidentally, in the Middle East.

HEFFNER: Arnold Forster, I’m really very grateful to you for coming here, in a sense, coming twice…once on that film when you and I were both so much younger. It’s a fascinating thing that this subject remains of such great importance, though seemingly of much less interest today than it was when we did our first program together in 1956.

FORSTER: Maybe why we’re back in Square One.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining us today…in memoriam.

I hope you’ll be with us again next week. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

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