November 16, 2018

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

The Centre for Jewish History in NYC

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.

 

 

Center for Jewish History board backs new head David Myers against right-wing attacks

David Myers

The board of New York’s Center for Jewish History is defending its recently installed executive director over calls from right-wing groups for his dismissal.

A campaign against David Myers, formerly a prominent academic at UCLA, centers on his urging Israel to end its occupation in the West Bank.

The critics say his service on the international board of the left-wing New Israel Fund and as a member of the advisory council of J Street, the liberal American Jewish Middle East policy group, disqualifies him from the leadership of a Jewish organization.

The attack against Myers began in earnest earlier this month with an op-ed written by Ronn Torossian and Hank Sheinkopf, both public relations executives with clients in Israel, and George Birnbaum, a former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The piece was published on Arutz-7 and other right-wing Jewish news websites.

Two small advocacy groups, JCCWatch.org and the California-based Israel Group, recently joined the attack. The latter has organized an email campaign against Myers.

But the Center for Jewish History said in a statement approved last week and first reported in the Forward that Myers “enjoys the full and unwavering support of the board and staff.”

The board’s statement noted receiving “a stream of vituperative emails” demanding that Myers be dismissed.

Myers, the board said, “is a distinguished scholar who brings enormous energy, intellect and executive talent to the task” of leading the center.

The center is made up of five partner organizations: the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute, the Yeshiva University Museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

According to the center’s website, “The partners’ archives comprise the world’s largest and most comprehensive archive of the modern Jewish experience outside of Israel.”

Myers served for 10 years as director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and, from 2010 to 2015 as the department chair of the university’s history department.

The critics say Myers is unqualified to run the center because he has urged Israel to end its control of the West Bank or offer citizenship to Palestinians living there. He also argued in an essay that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic.

“On one hand, I oppose the global BDS movement,” Myers wrote in a column for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. “On the other, I can’t join in the rising chorus of demonization against it.”

In their op-ed, Torossian and his co-authors wrote, “Those who endorse any form of a boycott of Israel, an end to the Jewish State and sit in positions of leadership for organizations that oppose Israel are free to hold these viewpoints. They should not hold positions of leadership in the Jewish community.”

Richard Allen, founder of the New York-based JCCWatch.org, told the Forward that he is planning a “string of protests” against the center over the Myers hiring. The Israel Group posted the names of the center’s board members on its website last week and urged its supporters to contact the center with their concerns about Myers.

Two prominent Jewish scholars — David Ellenson, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, and Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University — defended the Myers appointment in an essay for the Forward. They wrote that Myers’ views on Israel “fall well within the scholarly mainstream of Jewish life” and that he “unquestionably” supports Israel’s right to exist.

“No one is more qualified than the charismatic and learned Myers” to run the center, they wrote.

“There should be no ideological litmus test whatsoever beyond an ability to articulate, celebrate, and advance the ideals and mission of the Center itself – and this Professor Myers is uniquely qualified to do by dint of personal temperament and superb scholarship.”

The David Myers debacle

David Myers

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.

[MORE: Right-wing activists target David Myers]

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.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Right-wing activists target David Myers

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.”