Sadly, it is all too fitting that on the eve of the first Yom Kippur in the new Age of Trump, several Jewish groups are to hold a protest outside — and against — the Center for Jewish History in New York, the pre-eminent educational center for American Jewish history in the country. They are calling for the resignation of its recently appointed president and CEO, historian David Myers, whom they consider to be anti-Israel for his leftist views.
The protest will be small, but it raises an important issue, not only because the center is a vitally important institution and Myers is a widely admired scholar. The battle is really about what happens when academic freedom clashes with Israel-related politics, raising all kinds of questions about who’s in and who’s out of the communal tent, and who gets to decide.
Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, which supports the protest, told me that Myers, a longtime professor at UCLA and leading scholar of American Jewish history, is “an outrage,” as is the board of the Center. On the ZOA website, Klein has written a lengthy analysis of Myers’ “anti-Israel, agenda-driven ‘history scholarship,’ other writings, affiliations with anti-Israel organizations and his anti-Israel activities at UCLA.”
The affiliations include J Street, the New Israel Fund and, according to Klein and other critics, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a leader of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel that the ADL considers one of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in the U.S.
Myers told me he proudly identifies with the left on Israeli policies but has “not now or ever been associated with JVP, and I don’t subscribe to their views.” And he described Klein’s analysis of his writings as “spectacularly out of context.”
Myers has plenty of worthy defenders, including his board and the boards of the Center’s five partner organizations: American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, hailed Myers as “the very embodiment of what the center should be,” and in response to criticism of Myers from the right, nearly 500 scholars in the field of Jewish studies signed a letter expressing their “unwavering support” for him in his new position. Praising his “stellar reputation of academic leadership in North America, Israel, and throughout the world,” the signees said that Myers is “the ideal person to direct” the Center, adding that “calls for his ouster based on ad hominem charges on purely political grounds must be rejected.”
They asserted that “a small group of self-appointed vigilantes has mounted a scurrilous campaign demanding Myers’ ouster, claiming without any basis, that he holds anti-Israel views. These detractors are engaging in the worst kind of McCarthyism.”
Those detractors include Richard Allen of JCC Watch, a website that sees itself as “holding Jewish communal groups accountable” to ensure they are sufficiently pro-Israel. Its list of “notorious offenders” includes UJA-Federation, the JCRC, the Jewish Communal Fund and the JCC Manhattan. (Though not on the “notorious offenders” list, The Jewish Week, and I personally, have been criticized for “promoting disinformation.”)
Another prime force behind the call for Myers’ resignation is Ronn Torossian, who heads a large public relations firm based in New York and is known for his brash, aggressive style in verbally attacking those he considers anti-Israel. Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg called him “the most disreputable flack in New York,” chiefly for his association with what Goldberg described as “the lunatic fringe” of the Israeli political right.
If one were to apply Torossian’s guilt-by-association tactics to Torossian himself, one could conclude that since one of his clients, Wolfgang’s Vault, a private music-focused company, includes among the many artists it promotes Roger Waters, an outspoken BDS leader, then Torossian is anti-Israel.
He has harassed prominent leaders of the Jewish community, and has been known to contact board members of synagogues or groups he does battle with and suggest their businesses and reputations will be endangered if they don’t change their ways. Few are willing to call him out for fear of exacerbating his wrath and litigious practice.
I visited Myers to discussChis ambitious plans for the center, but the ongoing controversy could not be ignored. Though reluctant to discuss the situation in detail, he noted that the extraordinary polarization in our society, both Jewish and general, has left little or no room for disagreement, and emphasized that his mandate is to focus on the Center’s work, which is not about Israeli politics.
He said he won’t be writing on “controversial issues,” but rather on “the nexus between past and present, not just on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“I’m a grown-up, and as a public scholar, I will have to modulate my views,” he said, aware of his chief mandate as historian “with an ethical imperative to provide perspective, not to engage in political advocacy.”
Why did he take the new post after 25 years at UCLA (where he continues to teach this year)?
“I’m a Jewish historian and this is the center for Jewish history,” he said. “Historical knowledge is vital to the preservation of the Jewish people, to public discourse and to civic engagement, which is our broader mission. That’s what attracted me.
“I am a proud lover of my people, and I am of the left,” he added, but he recognizes that his primary goal is to “fortify and expand” the Center’s research capacities and collections, whose more than 100 million discrete historical documents make it the largest archive of the modern Jewish experience outside of Israel.
“We will continue to be a world-class leader for preservation and research” for scholars and students, Myers said, while seeking to make the center an “accessible and meaningful center” for all.
Describing the West 16th Street site as a “secret jewel” and “the Library of Congress of the Jewish people,” Myers said his plans include a series of conversations with prominent historians about their research and the impact on their understanding of the present. Entitled “History Matters,” the series will begin this winter and include Emory University professor and best-selling author Deborah Lipstadt.
Future plans call for a program titled “My Jewish Story” that will have well-known figures speak of their Jewish experiences; a seminar for New York scholars on the nexus between past and present; and an ambitious online introduction to Jewish history course designed to reach Jews and non-Jews around the world.
A Time For Humility
Myers and his supporters are hoping the controversy over his political views will die down so he can focus on helping New Yorkers recognize and appreciate that one of the world’s great depositories for Jewish history is in their midst. Unfortunately, in the current toxic political climate, when divisiveness is a White House goal and distorting the news is a favored technique, it is normative behavior for those who disagree on an issue — in this case, what it means to be “pro-Israel” — to seek to marginalize, demonize and defeat those with a different point of view, and use whatever means necessary to do so.
But we should be better than that. The Jewish tradition reminds us that we are above all a people of community, and Yom Kippur’s liturgy and themes underscore the lethal quality of lashon hara, the importance of reaching out to those we have offended and the need for true humility in maintaining a sense of peoplehood. Will those who are quick to accuse take these lessons to heart?
It’s clear that if we can’t love each other, we should at least do a better job of fighting with each other — understanding that our disagreements are, as the Talmud described countless disputes, “for the sake of heaven.”
One can only pray that Yom Kippur will wipe our collective slate clean of past finger-pointing and allow us to face each other in 5778 with renewed respect.