He has stood up to Mel Gibson, Jimmy Carter, Louis Farrakhan, and the president of Iran. But Abraham H. Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, backed down yesterday after a standoff with Armenian-Americans in Watertown drew the attention of some of the nation's most prominent Jewish leaders.
Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, reversed course and acknowledged that the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks was genocide. The change stunned those who have followed Foxman's 42-year career at the ADL, where he has rarely bowed to critics.
Jewish leaders said Foxman, who has made it his life's mission to fight anti-Semitism and injustice, had little choice but to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Elie Wiesel, the famous Jewish author, had already endorsed the position, and this week counseled Foxman to follow his lead.
"This issue resonated so deeply with the Jewish community that he simply could not resist the pressures from below," said Harvard Law School Professor Alan M. Dershowitz, a self-described Foxman fan. "He had to listen to the people, and the people spoke in a loud and clear voice. The people said: 'Truth first. Politics second.' "
Last week, Foxman fired Andrew H. Tarsy, the ADL's New England director, after Tarsy defied the national group's policy and agreed to call the Armenian massacre genocide. Foxman said he worried that using the term genocide could alienate Turkey, a rare Muslim ally of Israel. In a letter, Foxman wrote, "No organization can or should tolerate such an act of open defiance."
The firing only fueled a perception of Foxman as unbending.
"He has ruled essentially by fiat," said David A. Lehrer, former head of the ADL's Los Angeles office, whom Foxman fired in 2001.
Lehrer said the conflict arose after he criticized the ADL for focusing more on persecution of Jews and less on their strength as a community.
"A new generation of Jews isn't afraid America might turn to an Inquisition because of a Mel Gibson film, a silly joke on TV, or an anti-Israel comment by a college professor," Lehrer wrote in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in 2006.
A Catholic nanny raised Foxman as a Catholic, to conceal his identity in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. In 1965, Foxman became a staff member of the ADL, which was founded in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism. He became national director in 1987. He gained a reputation as a forceful voice against anti-Semitism, though not everyone agreed with his targets.
In 2003, after a private screening, he expressed concern that Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ," could fuel anti-Semitism by reinforcing the notion of collective Jewish guilt in the death of Jesus.
For years, he has denounced what he says have been anti-Semitic comments by Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader. He has excoriated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran for his anti-Israeli rhetoric. And he has criticized Carter for what he said were biases in his book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid."
"Abe has never suffered for a lack of ego strength," said Newton businessman Steve Grossman, a former regional ADL board member. "He's somebody who's always held strong positions and defended them fiercely."
His style has also molded the ADL. Foxman's approach was to use the kind of discipline more often seen in the military than in a nonprofit organization, said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University. But Foxman could not maintain his hold on the ADL's position as pressure mounted.
"He was blindsided and did not realize how the Armenian community, influenced in many ways by the Jewish community, has seen the Armenian genocide as a symbolic issue akin to what the Holocaust has been for the Jews," Sarna said.
The controversy started last week when the Watertown Town Council pulled out of an ADL program called No Place for Hate to protest the group's refusal to call the massacre genocide.
After Foxman fired Tarsy, an outcry followed from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston and Foxman allies, such as Alan D. Solomont, a Boston philanthropist who urged Foxman to reconsider.
"It takes a real leader to recognize that and not hold a position that's both outmoded and morally unacceptable," Grossman said.
"I've got to thank Abe for having that kind of humility, for being able to say, 'I was wrong.' "
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.