January 19, 2019

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.”

Will dueling op-eds turn into dueling lawsuits?

A war of words between one of the country’s leading Israel-related organizations, the New Israel Fund (NIF), and Ronn Torossian, a scrappy public relations man who has been campaigning against the organization for the better part of a year, is now on the cusp of becoming a legal battle that will drag in the Jerusalem Post, as well.

Since last November, Torossian has penned — sometimes alone, other times with co-authors — a steady stream of opinion articles alleging that the NIF is “an enemy of the State of Israel,” “systematically encourages boycotts of Israel” and “a partner of Fatah and Hamas,” publishing them in Orthodox and right-wing publications including the Algemeiner Journal, The Jewish Press and Arutz Sheva. In some, Torossian has named top NIF donors, among whom are leaders of prominent mainstream Jewish organizations, including UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Communal Fund.

The NIF says that his articles are “outrageously false” and “defamatory.”

Now the battle that had been going on for months in a variety of online and print venues has escalated into threats of lawsuits. The latest chapter began on Aug.18 when Torossian, with two co-authors, published an opinion piece attacking the NIF in the Jerusalem Post. 

“NIF raises $30 million annually from American Jews – to pursue an agenda which involves advocating and working on a boycott against Israel, weakening the Israel Defense Forces, both on the ground and via ‘lawfare,’ and through various other mechanisms, including advocating for terrorists’ families and collaborating with the United Nations to attack Israel. If it harms Israel, count on the NIF to be part of it,” Torossian wrote in August, in the op-ed co-authored with Hank Sheinkopf, another New York public relations professional, and George Birnbaum, a political consultant who was previously Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff and has since helped Israeli politicians Nir Barkat and Avigdor Lieberman get elected. 

The New Israel Fund objected, pointing out in emails with Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde and Opinions Editor Seth Frantzman that they had promised not to publish another article by Torossian about the organization after running one in April. NIF VP for Public Affairs Naomi Paiss asked the editors to pull Torossian’s new piece. The editors refused, but offered to let the NIF respond with an op-ed of its own.

“Will you help me when they sue us?” Linde wrote in an email to Paiss. “Which they’re going to do, because they’re nuts.”

NIF’s response article, written by Paiss and published on Aug. 20, was titled “Scraping the bottom of the barrel.” 

“Frequently teamed up with Pamela Geller, an Islamophobe so extreme that she has been described as something of a one woman hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Torossian and his cronies purvey outright falsehoods on extremist websites and blogs. Now, although the editors assure us they will not run such screeds again, we must respond to the recent attack.

“The motives of those who attack us aren’t hard to discern. The NIF opposes the occupation and West Bank settlements and favors the two­state solution. The human rights groups we support hold a mirror up to that occupation, and the results are not positive PR for the settlement enterprise.”

Torossian’s lawyer immediately sent a letter to the Jerusalem Post demanding that it delete Paiss’ article and warning it to “cease and desist all defamation of Ronn Torossian’s character and reputation.” 

Torossian wrote in one email that the claim that he had “teamed up” with Pamela Geller was false, and damaging to his reputation.

Linde then wrote to Torossian and his lawyer, “Ronn, you are so quick to threaten legal action. Please stop bullying and threatening us.
You bashed the NIF, so I gave them the right of response. That’s called freedom of speech in a democratic country.

If you sue us, we’ll never use your op-eds again. Why spoil a good friendship?”

A few minutes later, in an apparent shift, Linde wrote in another email to Torossian regarding the NIF’s op-ed, “I only deleted it out of deference to you. Don’t expect me to be so polite in the future.”

The Jerusalem Post published an “apology” to Torossian, under duress of the threatened lawsuit, as the emails shared by the NIF with the Jewish Journal show. 

It said: “On Friday, August 21, The Jerusalem Post published an op-ed by the New Israel Fund which was factually inaccurate and slanderous. The said article has been removed from our archives. We apologize to Ronn Torossian for the factual errors, as well as for the hurtful tone. Mr. Torossian has asked to clarify that he stands behind his claim that the New Israel Fund remains a proponent of a boycott of Israel. The Jerusalem Post apologizes to our readers.”

On Aug. 23, Linde wrote in an email to Paiss, “I issued the apology in response to the threat of a lawsuit.”

That action prompted a threat of a lawsuit from NIF.

“We certainly could accept an ‘apology’ that would short-circuit the crowing going on in right-wing circles,” NIF’s Paiss e-mailed to Linde on Aug. 23, “but it would mean that you would have to say that our op-ed was NOT slanderous or factually inaccurate and that, in fact, the NIF does NOT support boycott of Israel. That would be fine by us.”

On August 24, the Jerusalem Post published and tweeted a “clarification,” this to assuage the NIF. 

“The Jerusalem Post wishes to clarify to its readers that it is not taking sides in the ongoing dispute between Ron [sic] Torossian and the New Israel Fund. 

As a newspaper, we are open to publishing both points of view, whether we agree or not. Our apology on Sunday, August 23, regarding the publication of “Scraping the bottom of the barrel” (Observations, August 21) by Naomi Paiss, vice president of public affairs for the NIF, was issued in response to an immediate legal threat over the weekend. We have no evidence that the op-ed was slanderous or inaccurate, and the NIF has clarified to us that its policy is to oppose a boycott of Israel. The Jerusalem Post apologizes to the NIF for any offense caused.”

Not long after publishing this, Linde wrote to Paiss, along with Torossian’s lawyer, that he had been advised by higher-ups that he needed to take down the clarification. 

“I cannot tell you how sorry I am,” Linde wrote Paiss. “I really tried to do this by myself, but my attorney says I did the wrong thing. Don’t think this hasn’t stopped Torossian from suing us. So now you can both sue us.”

Indeed, Torossian fired an email off to Linde in response to the clarification. “Am tempted to sue you folks with [NIF].”

On Aug. 28, NIF’s attorney sent the Jerusalem Post a letter by both email and Federal Express, saying that the paper has published “outrageously false and defamatory statements” about the organization and its spokesperson, Naomi Paiss, demanding that the apologies and links to the relevant Torossian article be removed from its website and Twitter feed.

If they are not, then the NIF may pursue lawsuits against the Jerusalem Post, in the United States, Israel and elsewhere, the lawyer’s letter says.

“The behavior of the Jerusalem Post in this matter has been both bizarre and outrageous from the get-go,” NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch said in an interview with the Jewish Journal. “For a newspaper to publish what it knew to be wrong because of threatened legal pressure crosses the line, and we felt we had no choice but to respond in this manner.”

Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Linde responded to a request for an interview with an email saying, “no comment.”

Torossian asked that questions be sent to him by email. Over the next three days, the 50 emails he sent to this reporter started out with a professional tone, but turned threatening. On Sunday, he said he was writing articles about the reporter for the Algemeiner and Jewish Press, in which he said he had been seeking comments about her from members of her synagogue. “Will mention your progressive synagogue and quote two members from there,” Torossian wrote.

Torossian initially ignored a question, which was asked three times, about who his client on the anti-NIF campaign is, though he later wrote that he “is not being paid.”

When asked again if he was working on behalf of a client against NIF, he responded, “My client is Israel’s High Court of Justice, who denied NIF petition to allow them to boycott Israel a few months ago. My client is the ruling Likud Party, who refused to stand with NIF at an event, calling them an Anti-Zionist organization. We stand with Republican Sheldon Adelson and Democrat Haim Saban, who said that all must stand united against boycotts of Israel. We stand with Birthright, who will not work with the NIF. This is not a personal issue, and NIF attacks on me will not stop the fact that a boycott of Israel, and slandering of the IDF must be stopped.”

Torossian, who has a reputation as aggressive, runs a $20 million public relations agency, 5WPR, with 120 employees and offices in multiple cities. Its roster of clients has included leading consumer brands ranging from Anheuser-Busch to U-Haul to L’Oreal and Lifestyle Condoms, according to his website. He has represented hip-hop artists Lil’ Kim and P-Diddy’s Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group, as well as the Christian Coalition, Trinity Broadcasting Network and ardently pro-Israel, conservative Evangelical pastors Benny Hinn and John Hagee. His Israeli clients, past and present, tend to be on the right end of the political spectrum. He has represented Israel’s newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, though Torossian refused to confirm whether he still represents Danon, or to characterize their relationship.

There is evidence that Torossian also, as the NIF asserts, works in some capacity with Geller. Geller, head of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and creator of anti-Islam campaigns on public transit systems around the U.S., in March embarked on a campaign designed to get the NIF thrown out of New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade. It included posters on New York City Transit buses naming individual NIF donors, including Alisa Doctoroff, the president of UJA-Federation of New York. The NIF marched in the parade as planned.

Torossian’s firm sent out a statement on Geller’s behalf on March 1, announcing Geller’s “new campaign to expose leaders who fund BDS.”

Now, however, Torossian ardently denies he has any relationship with Geller. He wrote, in an email to the Jerusalem Post’s Linde on Aug. 20 referring to Paiss’ article, “to link me to Ms. Geller is damaging to my business and reputation — and I demand said references be immediately removed or will take legal action both in the United States and Israel. As you are aware, I own 1 of the 20 largest PR firms in the United States.”

Asked why he has chosen to focus on the NIF, Torossian wrote in an email to the Journal, “An organization which boycotts israel, such as the new israel fund is a danger to the jewish people. An organization which funds breaking the silence, which works all over the world to harm the israel defense forces is an extremist organization. Its simple, as the right and left in israel agree. To boycott israel is to stand against israel. To harm the idf is to stand against israel.” 

NIF CEO Sokatch called Torossian’s attacks part of a disturbing tone in the Jewish community today.

“We see a ratcheting up of vituperativeness from the extreme nationalist hard right wing,” he told the Journal. “All kinds of really hate-filled, un-factual rhetoric has taken the place of any actual critique. That’s because these people feel threatened. Torossian’s vision of Israel is not shared by most American Jews, and probably not by most Israelis. They try to attack and smear the people who stand for the vision of Israel as an open, liberal democratic society,” Sokatch said.

Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist of American Jewish life, said Torossian’s attacks on NIF funders “come in the context of mounting and sharpening polarization of pro-Israel conservatives and pro-Israel liberals. Not too many years ago, the Zionist right would take issue with the positions of the Zionist left. But they never question the loyalty of left-wing Zionists or their right to participate in Israel-related discourse. All that has changed as Mr. Torossian — and some others — question the Israel credentials of some of the most committed and effective pro-Israel philanthropists, leaders, and practitioners,” Cohen wrote in an email from Jerusalem.

In fact, the NIF, which does advocacy work, as well as grant making, has had a policy for the last several years of opposing boycotts of Israel, while permitting a targeted boycott of products from the settlements.

Its policy states: “The NIF does oppose the global (or general) BDS movement, views the use of these tactics as counterproductive, and is concerned that segments of this movement seek to undermine the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland. NIF will not fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organizations that have global BDS programs. However, NIF opposes the occupation and settlement activities. NIF will thus not exclude support for organizations that lawfully discourage the purchase of goods or use of services from settlements.”

“We will theoretically fund an organization that theoretically advocates boycotting settlement products,” Paiss told the Journal. Many Israelis, too, “won’t buy wine from the territories,” she noted.

The view that boycotting settlement products is the same as boycotting those made in Israel proper ironically aligns Torossian with proponents of the global Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement, Paiss said.

“We think this erasure of the Green Line, saying that boycotting an orange from Ariel is the same as saying the State of Israel has no right to exist puts Torossian on the same page as the Global BDS people, because they also see no difference between Tel Aviv and Ariel, and we do.”

But Torossian counters that Israel Supreme Court’s agrees with him. In April it upheld the country’s 2011 “Anti-Boycott Law,” making it a civil offense for people or groups to advocate boycotting Israeli institutions or individuals when the advocacy has a reasonable chance of succeeding. By a 5-4 vote, the justices deemed that the law also applied to the West Bank territories, a decision critics blasted as suppressing political dissent. 

Meanwhile, the Aug. 28 letter from Beverly Hills attorney Douglas Mirell to the Jerusalem Post  demanding remedy in the ongoing dispute between NIF and Torossian has yet to be answered.