September 16, 2019

Right-wing activists target David Myers

Historian David Myers’ honeymoon period as president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History (CJH) has not lasted long.

Three months after his appointment, several right-wing Jewish activists are now publicly demanding his removal from the New York-based institution over his ties to organizations critical of Israel.

[Rob Eshman: The David Myers Debacle]

But amid the right-wing criticism, a growing number of supporters have come to Myers’ defense. Among the supporters is former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who collected 100 signatures on a letter to CJH, calling the attacks against Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA, “scurrilous.”

Leading the campaign against Myers are two New York public relations specialists, Ronn Torossian and Hank Sheinkopf, and political campaign consultant George Birnbaum. They penned a blistering opinion piece calling for Myers  to be fired that was posted on like-minded, right-leaning Jewish websites, including The Jewish Press, The Algemeiner and the Israeli network Arutz Sheva.

Torossian has an eclectic list of clients that includes rapper Lil’ Kim and former mayors of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Sheinkopf does PR for companies such as Home Depot and runs political campaigns. Birnbaum is a former chief of staff for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and served as an adviser for Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.

The opinion piece contends that CJH, a coalition of five partnership organizations that houses the largest archive of the modern Jewish experience outside of Israel, “has made an unfit choice” in Myers, due to his being on the board of the New Israel Fund (NIF), a U.S.-based organization dedicated to advancing liberal democracy in Israel; his fundraising efforts on behalf of If Not Now, an organization that vehemently opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank; and his adviser role with J Street, an organization proposing a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The opinion piece also condemns Myers for being a “fierce critic” of Netanyahu and his policies.

“Individuals who hold views such as Myers’ should not hold positions of leadership in the Jewish community,” the piece concludes.

The opinion piece has won support from right-wing figures in Israeli politics such as the Knesset’s Bezezel Smotrich, a member of the Orthodox far-right Tkuma party. Smotrich reposted a link to the piece on his Facebook page, adding in his own words, “Naming him as CEO of the Center for Jewish History is gross malfeasance.”

The piece also refers to Myers’ support for “some forms” of boycotts against Israel but doesn’t give specifics. It links to an essay written by Myers in 2014 titled “Why I Oppose a Boycott Mostly.” Myers wrote, “I can’t support a global boycott against Israel,” and also chided Israeli academic boycotts. Later in that article, Myers wrote that, if necessary steps weren’t taken toward Palestinian sovereignty by the end of 2015, “then a boycott of Israel’s settlements and commercial activity in the West Bank may have to be the necessary next step.”

In an email to the Journal, Torossian said, “The purpose of our op-eds was to ensure that his viewpoints are widely exposed and known. … We do not disqualify his academic credentials in the least.”

Myers has contributed to various academic journals and is a Jewish Journal columnist. He has written numerous well-reviewed books on Israel and Jewish history.

Myers is no longer involved with J Street but does remain on the NIF board.

In an email to the Journal regarding the controversy, he wrote, “I’m deeply gratified by the breadth and depth of support demonstrated so far from colleagues, students, and friends in the United States and Israel, especially the Historical Society of Israel.”

Yaroslavsky’s letter includes the signatures of UCLA administrators, heads of Jewish organizations, academics, current and former elected officials, and numerous local rabbis, including David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, Sharon Brous of IKAR and Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple.

The letter calls the attack on Myers “scurrilous,” and compares it to “the worst kind of McCarthyism” and a bullying campaign.

“This is a test for the CJH and the Jewish community,” Yaroslavsky said in an email to the Journal. “Can a small, fringe group of right-wing extremists succeed in intimidating a communal institution into firing a respected and more-than-qualified scholar based on ad hominem and fundamentally false attacks? This is not only about Professor Myers, a lover of Zion and the Jewish people. If this fringe succeeds in its insidious effort, it will undermine the independence of every institution in our community. We must put a stop to this here and now.”

Many others have come forward in Myers’ defense. Some 500 Jewish historians signed a letter of support, and other similar letters have circulated among academics, rabbis and Jewish leaders.

The board of the Historical Society of Israel, the profressional organization of historians teaching history in Israel, issued a statement saying it plans to publish a defense of Myers on various media, with renowned Israeli scholars signing it.

“The Board of the Historical Society of Israel thus calls for an immediate end to the defamation campaign, which presents all critical opinion as ‘anti-Zionist’ and as ‘treason,’ ” it said.

Jonathan Sarna, perhaps the pre-eminent American Jewish historian and a professor at Brandeis University, wrote a letter of support to CJH, now posted on the American Jewish Historical Society’s Facebook page. While Sarna acknowledged that he sometimes strongly disagreed with Myers’ political views on Israel, he said those views should have no bearing on whether Myers is fit to lead CJH.

“It is unthinkable that the Center’s president should be obligated to espouse a particular view, or that there should be any ideological litmus test whatsoever beyond an ability to articulate and celebrate the ideals of the Center itself,” Sarna wrote.

The CJH also released a statement, reiterating its support for Myers: “The Board of the Center for Jewish History has full confidence in his ability to lead the Center in the fulfillment of its mission.”