Foxman, an only son, was born in Baranovichi, just months after the USSR took the town from Poland in the Nazi-Soviet Pact and incorporated it into the BSSR. The town is now in Belarus. Foxman had Polish-Jewish parents: Helen and Joseph Foxman.
Foxman's parents left him with his Polish Catholic nanny Bronislawa Kurpi in 1940 when they were ordered by Germans|This was the USSR in 1940, what say did the Nazis have?|date=July 2010}} to enter a ghetto. Foxman was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church as Henryk Stanislas Kurpi, and raised as a Catholic in Vilnius, Lithuania between 1940 and 1944 when (after several legal custody battles) he was returned to his parents.
Foxman immigrated to the United States in 1950 with his parents. He graduated from Yeshivah of Flatbush, in Brooklyn, New York. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the City College of New York and graduated with honors in history. Foxman also holds a law degree from the New York University School of Law. He did graduate work in Jewish studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and in international economics at New School University.
Abraham Foxman joined the Anti-Defamation League in 1965 in its international affairs division. In 1987, he was the consensus choice of the Board to become its new National Director, replacing long-time director Nathan Perlmutter.
Foxman has been awarded several honors from non-profit groups, religious figures and statesmen. In 1998 Foxman received the Interfaith Committee of Remembrance Lifetime Achievement Award "as a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism, bigotry and discrimination." Foxman won the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Leadership Award on April 18, 2002 from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
On October 16, 2006 Foxman was awarded as Knight of the Legion of Honor by Jacques Chirac, the President of France at the time. This award is France's highest civilian honor.
On a May 22, 2008 ceremony, Foxman was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Yeshiva University by Richard Joel, the presiding president of Yeshiva University.
Additionally, President George W. Bush appointed Foxman to serve on the Honorary Delegation to accompany him to Jerusalem for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel in May 2008.
Several critics have criticized Foxman's opposition to the Park51 Islamic community center near Ground Zero citing hypocrisy since ADL's mission statement says it seeks "to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens." Fareed Zakaria, a recipient of ADL's Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize, has returned the prize and the $10,000 honorarium saying that he "cannot in good conscience hold onto the award or the honorarium that came with it" and is returning both to ADL. Fareed Zakaria has "urged the ADL to reverse its decision."
Foxman's support for gay rights in America placed him at odds with many Orthodox Jews. Concerning the former, which involved his protest in 2000–2001 of a case (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale) in which "the Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America could exclude a gay scoutmaster because of his sexual orientation"; it was reported that "For many Jewish groups that work with the Boy Scouts – mainly Reform temples and Jewish community centers – the ensuing year has been marked by soul-searching, as they grappled with whether they should end their ties to the organization because of the organization's stance on gays," and that "Within the Jewish community, Orthodox groups supported the ruling, saying civic organizations should be empowered to determine their own message – but most Jewish organizations condemned it as endorsing discrimination." According to that report published a year later, in 2001, "the Anti-Defamation League's national director, Abraham Foxman, and its national chairman, Howard Berkowitz, said in a statement at the time: "We are stunned that in the year 2000 the Supreme Court could issue such a decision.... This decision effectively states that as long as an organization avows an anti-homosexual position, it is free to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans."
Criticism of Jimmy Carter
In October 2006, representing the ADL, Foxman protested former President Jimmy Carter's book Peace Not Apartheid, saying that in the book Carter is "engaging in anti-Semitism. As quoted a month later, in interview remarks cited for an article by James Traub published in The New York Times Magazine, Foxman says that he is, nevertheless, not calling the former president an "anti-Semite".
Israel Lobby position
Foxman wrote a book in response to Professor's John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walts book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, entitled 'The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.'
Criticism of Mel Gibson
Abe Foxman has received criticism from Jewish and non-Jewish quarters for his antagonist approach to the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ and its director Mel Gibson. In September 2003, during the pre-release controversy, Foxman called Gibson "the portrait of an anti-Semite." The next day he said, "I'm not ready to say he's an anti-Semite," but that Gibson "entertains views that can only be described as anti-Semitic.". In November 2003, Foxman said of Gibson, "I think he's infected, seriously infected, with some very, very serious anti-Semitic views." When Diane Sawyer asked him in February 2004 if Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite and whether The Passion of the Christ is an anti-Semitic movie, Foxman said no to both questions. Foxman was also criticized for his initial response to Gibson’s apology for his behavior during his 2006 DUI arrest and for giving second billing to the Seattle Jewish Federation shooting that occurred on the same day. Foxman accepted Gibson’s second apology, although he has continued to censure Gibson publicly; saying in 2008, "In his heyday, he was No. 1 in Hollywood, the most sought-after star, the people’s choice, the icon. Then he revealed himself as an anti-Semite, and look where he is today. That’s the beauty of America."Foxman has continued to condemn Gibson for The Passion of the Christ, saying in 2008, "What he was doing was giving credibility, on film, in our lifetime, to deicide. Where is Mel Gibson today? He did his movie, and one day he revealed himself to the American people. He's no icon anymore."
In July 2007, Foxman's opposition to a congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide drew much criticism. “I don't think congressional action will help reconcile the issue. The resolution takes a position; it comes to a judgment,” said Foxman in a statement issued to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn't be the arbiter of that history, nor should the U.S. Congress." Sharistan Melkonian, chairwoman of the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts, accused Foxman of engaging in "genocide denial" in an interview with the Boston Globe. Various New England communities threatened to sever ties with the ADL-sponsored "No Place for Hate" program in response. In August 2007, Foxman publicly affirmed the position of the Anti-Defamation League, "that the consequences of [the Ottoman government's] actions were indeed tantamount to genocide," but that a United States Congressional recognition of this history was unnecessary and not helpful. He went on to state, "we continue to firmly believe that a Congressional Resolution on such matters is a counterproductive diversion and will not foster reconciliation between Turks and Armenians. We will not hesitate to apply the term 'genocide' in the future." Foxman additionally sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressing regret over the difficulty his position caused for the government of Turkey: "We had no intention to put the Turkish people or its leaders in a difficult position."
Views on the evangelizing of Jews
Foxman said he was not offended that Sarah Palin's church hosted a leader of Jews for Jesus, an Evangelical Christian organization that seek to combine Jewish practice with a belief in the divinity of Jesus. However, Foxman objects to Christians praying for Jewish conversion, and the ADL has protested such activities of the Catholic Church.
Older form of the Roman rite
He was critical of the document Summorum Pontificum on the older form of the Roman rite because of the 1962 text for Good Friday includes the request asking God to "lift the veil" from Jewish hearts and to show mercy "to the Jews also." The ADL called the motu proprio "a theological setback in the religious life of Catholics and a body blow to Catholic—Jewish relations, after 40 years of progress between the Church and the Jewish people." Monsignor Dennis Mikulanis, vicar for inter-religious and ecumenical affairs for the Roman Catholic diocese of San Diego, responded to the ADL saying that "the Church has not restored antisemitic language."