Arnold Forster, 97; B’nai B’rith official fought bigotry six decades

By Margalit Fox
New York Times / March 28, 2010

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NEW YORK — Arnold Forster, an American Jewish leader, lawyer, and writer who was a longtime executive of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, died March 7 in the Bronx. He was 97 and lived in New Rochelle, N.Y.

His death, at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, was confirmed by his daughter, Janie Forster Berman.

Associated with the Anti-Defamation League for nearly six decades, Mr. Forster was its general counsel from 1946 to 2003. In that capacity he helped document, publicize, and combat myriad forms of anti-Semitism in the United States and overseas.

He was widely quoted in the news media over the years on a range of Jewish issues, including Zionism, a cause he defended ardently and about which he wrote frequently.

His books, many of which began life as league reports, include “The Trouble-Makers,’’ “ ‘Some of My Best Friends . . .,’ ’’ and “The New Anti-Semitism,’’ all written with Benjamin R. Epstein.

Mr. Forster was also the author of a memoir, “Square One,’’ which has a foreword by Elie Wiesel.

Arnold Fastenberg was born in New York City on June 25, 1912. To earn money for his education — he received undergraduate and law degrees from St. John’s University, then in Brooklyn — he worked as a lifeguard and actor. While performing at the Provincetown Playhouse, he Anglicized his last name at the suggestion of a director.

Mr. Forster began his work with the Anti-Defamation League in the 1930s. In 1938, he convened a group of lawyers to serve pro bono as the league’s legal arm. He formally joined the league in 1940 and later became its associate national director, presiding over an expansion of its law department and civil rights programs.

In 1965, Mr. Forster hired a young law school graduate named Abraham H. Foxman as an assistant to the director of the league’s law department. Foxman is now the league’s national director.

After retiring from the league in 1979, Mr. Forster was associated with two New York law firms, Shea & Gould and Baer Marks & Upham.

Besides writing books, Mr. Forster wrote the screenplays of several documentary films. Among them are “The Avenue of the Just,’’ about Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, and “Zubin and the IPO,’’ about Zubin Mehta, the music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Mr. Forster’s wife, the former May Kasner, whom he married in 1940, died in 2005; a son, Stuart, died in 1991. He leaves his daughter and four grandchildren.

In “Square One,’’ Mr. Forster recounted his decades-long campaign against bigotry. Reviewing the memoir in The New York Times Book Review, Marlene Sanders called it “an earnest chronicle of the useful life of a dedicated man.’’