December 17, 2018

The American Jewish Historical Society caved under pressure. Good or Bad?

Consider the two following headlines:

Caving To Pressure, Jewish Group Cancels Play By Critic Of Israel

Two anti-Israel programs canceled at CJH and AJHS

The first headline is from the left-leaning Jewish Forward. The second headline is from the right-leaning Arutz Sheva. Both headlines are accurate. The issue here is not one of accuracy — it is one of viewpoint. The American Jewish Historical Society has canceled a play that is probably anti-Israel, and it canceled a panel sponsored by a group that is also anti-Israel. The American Jewish Historical Society caved under pressure. The question is: does one mourn such an occurrence, or does one celebrate it? Does one see this occurrence as a defeat (for freedom) or as a victory (for Jewish sanity)?

These events were not canceled in a vacuum — another reason for consternation or glee. They were canceled amid harsh criticism from right-wing groups over the appointment of a new executive director for the Center for Jewish History. David Myers is seen by these groups as unfit for the job because of his involvement with groups such as the New Israel Fund and because of his past criticisms of Israel.

The appointment of Myers prompted a debate between two factions with strong views and little tolerance for the worldview of the other side. Myers was smeared by his opponents as if he were the worst possible choice for any job — as if he were the worst enemy of the Jewish people. Myers was defended by his supporters as if his appointment were the ultimate test of the Jewish people — do or die. A simple question was often lost in the debate: Are Myers’ views on Israel relevant to the position he will be holding? Lost in this debate was another simple question: Would Myers, as head of such an organization, accept the need for him to refrain from activities and statements that would make him and his institution impossibly controversial? (His answers to both of these questions seems reasonably reassuring.)

The two canceled events came at the worst time for Myers and his organization, and the board of directors was wise to cancel them. Yes, it was caving under pressure. But caving under pressure is not always bad. The pressure came for a reason, and this reason is that many Jews — admittedly, myself included — are uncomfortable with mainstream Jewish institutions becoming a fashionable hub for anti-Israel propaganda. In fact, I see no reason for the Center for Jewish History to be a hub for any propaganda, except for propaganda whose aim is preserving the traditions and vitality of the Jewish people.

Freedom of expression is not the question here. The Center for Jewish History is under no obligation to be the home for plays and panels of the canceled type. It is under obligation to be — or at least to try to be — a place with which as many Jews as possible feel comfortable. And yes, this means a little less edginess, a little less controversy. It means putting more effort at becoming a place for Jews to unite, and not yet another place for them to bicker over Israel or other issues.

Can consensus be fashionable? Maybe the Center for Jewish History can conduct itself in a way that makes it fashionable. Maybe David Myers can conduct himself in a way that makes it fashionable. That would be a great contribution to the Jewish people.