The David Myers debacle
With disturbing regularity, Jews hate on Jews.
The most recent example is the jaw-dropping case of professor David Myers.
Last June, the UCLA professor of history — and Jewish Journal columnist — was appointed president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History (CJH), a collection of five New York museums that is the nation’s foremost repository and educational center for American Jewish history.
The news initially was greeted with unanimous praise. The pre-eminent historian of American Jewish history, Brandeis University’s Jonathan D. Sarna, said Myers was “the very embodiment of what the center should be.”
But last week, an unsigned “expose” on Myers popped up on numerous Jewish websites. It accused him of being a radical anti-Israel leftist. Myers, the piece concluded, was “unsuitable to head a Jewish institution with the long-term and widespread influence of The Center for Jewish History.”
Such nastiness is not unique to this moment in Jewish history. The comforting myth of “all Jews are friends” is belied by the many times in history when Jews fought viciously against fellow Jews: Maccabees murdering “Hellenized” Jews, Zealots stabbing “collaborationist” priests before the fall of the Second Temple, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. All this violence was the last stop on a long road of verbal assaults.
What’s different now is slandering has never been so fast and easy. The internet has made it so that we can spread our slurs in seconds, under the guise of “breaking news.” Jews are mud wrestling in the same pigpen as the larger culture, where someone with a working email account can slop around gossip, half-truths and lies — which, astonishingly, otherwise sophisticated people accept as fact.
Few people in the world know how to do this better than Ronn Torossian.
The Brooklyn-born founder of a multimillion-dollar New York public relations agency freelances as a one-man, self-appointed defender of Israel against whatever and whomever he determines is “anti-Israel.”
Torossian decided, some four months after Myers’ appointment was announced, that it was time to get dirty. Together with associates Hank Sheinkopf and George Birnbaum, he wrote an attack piece that accused Myers of supporting the boycott of Israel and undermining the Israel Defense Forces.
For Torossian and the current Israeli leadership he is a flack for, any opposition to Israel’s occupation of Judea and Samaria and the settlement movement is hyped as a national threat. Myers — and the New Israel Fund (NIF), where he serves on the board — categorically oppose the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. But both Myers and NIF oppose continued Israeli settlement building, seeing it as a threat to Israel as a Jewish democratic state, and they leave open the possibility that boycotting goods originating from the West Bank could be a legitimate form of nonviolent protest.
I happen to disagree with the latter stand — that’s another column. The bigger problem is that over the past decade this particular Israeli government and its American cheerleaders have moved the goalposts of what is “pro-Israel.” Now, anything short of a warm embrace of a settlement movement and Israel’s 50-year occupation of Judea and Samaria is considered not just anti-Zionist, but anti-Israel.
A week ago, Torossian inserted the Myers hit piece into the ecosystem of right-wing Jewish news sites and, voila, clickbait for well-meaning pro-Israel readers. Arutz Sheva, the Jewish Press and Algemeiner ran the piece as a news article or op-ed. From there, like-minded pro-Israel activists reposted the piece or sent it through email blasts.
Immediately, American-Jewish and Israeli historians, as well as many Los Angeles Jewish leaders, came to Myers’ defense. Even those who sometimes disagree with Myers said there shouldn’t be a litmus test of political correctness for Jewish organizational leaders.
The CJH itself quickly issued a statement backing its president and CEO.
“Various allegations have been made about David Myers,” the statement said. “Professor Myers is an eminent historian. The Board of the Center for Jewish History has full confidence in his ability to lead the Center in the fulfillment of its mission to preserve the treasured sources of the Jewish past and advance public knowledge of the Jewish historical experience.”
But 36 hours after a handful of “news” websites ran Torossian’s hit piece without vetting, fact checking or publishing opposing viewpoints, the echo had entered the chamber.
Some supporters of the American Sephardi Federation, one of the five institutions that make up the CJH, got sucked into the one-sided “news” and sided with Torossian. A couple of far-right Israeli Knesset members demanded Myers’ head — because, you know, Israel has no more pressing problems than a Zionist historian taking over an American Jewish museum.
Myers has yet to speak out, other than to say he appreciates the many people who have come to his defense. In an email to me, he said he refused Torossian’s offer to “answer questions” before the piece went out, because he was unwilling to place his words in the hands of a nonjournalist who by reputation he simply didn’t trust.
The lessons? Just as in the larger media world, there is responsible and irresponsible Jewish media. The good ones don’t print opinion as news articles and don’t allow op-ed writers to create their own facts. The more you believe a story, the more you must seek out the other side to it.
Remember: At the end of a long road of verbal assault, nothing but division awaits. Any great Jewish historian can tell you that. Just ask David Myers.