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McCarthy and the critics of David Myers

Accusations that a leading US Jewish scholar is anti-Israel hark back to a dark chapter in America

Witch hunts are afoot in the Jewish community, and they follow a known precedent.

After the Second World War, many people in the United States legitimately feared communist infiltration and the subversion of our government. As a result, a mass hysteria broke out for nearly five years in which Senator Joseph McCarthy – and parallel to him, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) – led a witch hunt against left-wing “loyalty risks” in the US government, as well as liberals in Hollywood and elsewhere. Insinuations of disloyalty – a mixture of facts, semi-facts, lies, vague associations, or outright political attacks – were enough to destroy the lives of countless men and women, and to silence critics who would dare to oppose them.

The evil of McCarthyism was that it libeled people through insinuation based on (some) true associations by adding adjectives and assumptions that were either misleading or outright lies designed to ruin people’s reputations, careers and lives for political gain. In other words, they engaged in character assassination of good people through statements only true via circular reasoning, with assumptions that were only self-evident if you believed in the political dogma of the Right.

This toxic practice has become a rage, literally, in the contemporary Jewish world. Indeed, Yehuda Kurtzer – head of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and today one of the most respected and articulate defenders of Jewish people and peoplehood – has grown inundated with calls from Jewish leaders seeking support after suffering campaigns of character assassination based on objections to their politics, real or assumed. “Why the Witch Hunts?” he asked in a Times of Israel piece almost exactly a year ago. The attacks are eviscerating the ranks of passionate, committed leaders, and the communities will feel the loss. Like the hunters in the Red Scare, these vigilantes are accomplishing precisely what they pretend to be fighting: the weakening of the Jewish community and of American Jewry’s connections to Israel. (Kurtzer’s organization is dedicated, in part, to strengthening those ties.)

The latest victim is Professor David Myers, one of the most respected scholars of modern Jewish history in the world, whom self-appointed umpires of legitimacy seek to unseat from his recent appointment as Chair and CEO of the Center for Jewish History (CJH) in New York. The CJH is the repository of several vital archives of Jewish history. Its chair is charged with developing those archives and their use, including through educational programming of many types, so that the history of the Jewish people can be transmitted faithfully into the future, with the highest professional standards.

Myers was effectively accused of treasonous beliefs against Israel and the Jewish people based on his organizational affiliations and on his support for those who boycott the West Bank, which he explained in an important article he wrote against the BDS movement. Like McCarthy, these legitimate affiliations are mixed with false ones, such as his supposed support of Jewish Voice for Peace. (JVP’s claim to him was invented; a reminder of why journalists writing stories, unlike vigilante McCarthyists engaged in assault, do research and contact subjects for interviews.)

Within two days, nearly 500 leading scholars in the US and Israel – representing a broad array of political views – signed a letter to the board of CJH assuring them of our “unwavering support” for Professor Myers. Myers, they write, “has a stellar reputation of academic leadership in North America, Israel, and throughout the world … and is the ideal person to direct the Center for Jewish History.” This was joined by an impassioned editorial by Jonathan Sarna, perhaps the most famous scholar of American Jewish history in the world, and David Ellenson, Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. Sharing all of our embarrassment for the necessity of doing so, they reaffirmed what all of us already knew. “There should be no ideological litmus test whatsoever,” they write of this job, “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 full letter should be read by all.

The danger of this vigilante discourse is posed by its very questions, which mimic McCarthy himself almost verbatim: “Are you or are you not a supporter of the New Israel Fund? Of J-street? Of If Not Now?” To answer the question affirmatively implies that admission equals a political view that is traitorous, or that it should disqualify one for a major academic post in Jewish studies. But this is flawed on countless levels, not the least of which is its assumption that a normative political position in Israel itself – for example, that the occupation is wrong and dangerous to Israel – is fundamentally “anti-Israel,” and thus even anti-Semitic.

As was the case with McCarthy, here, criticism of the (Israeli) government – even when brought with brilliant nuance, erudition and love – is defined as unpatriotic, even traitorous. This is all aside from the politicization of an academic position based on scholarly and leadership credentials – one vigilante (like McCarthy) even attacked Myers for the choice of some of his scholarly research! If defenders answer that Myers is not anti-Israel – which he most certainly is not – one elevates the McCarthyist attack and suggests that there should be political litmus tests for academic positions. Let us not forget that, ultimately, he is an academic appointed to an academic position, and that there is a broader movement to slander and shut down academics based on their political beliefs.

To be sure, the temptation not to dignify or elevate such slander with any response certainly presents itself. But history suggests that Eisenhower’s well-intentioned response to McCarthy, that he “would not get into the gutter with that guy,” allowed the hysteria to fester, grow and corrode the fabric of American society. It was only McCarthy’s decision to televise his hearings, which allowed the public to see for themselves the intimidation and abuse of witnesses spewing from his mouth, that eventually turned the tide. In particular, when the senator moved to attack members of the armed forces, public support collapsed under the pushback he received. “Have you no sense of decency, sir,” Joseph Welch famously uttered, ending McCarthy’s reign of terror. “At long last, have you left no sense of decency.”

This week, Jewish vigilantes seeking political purity attacked one of the most accomplished and beloved scholars and teachers alive today, a mensch who supports colleagues at all stages of their careers to pursue their own projects, a leader committed to Jewish history, Jewish peoplehood, and Israel, and a man almost universally accepted by the scholarly community as the most qualified person in America to lead its most important academic institution. We can only hope that the unprecedented outpouring of support suggests this movement may finally have gone too far. “At long last, have you left no sense of decency.”

Joshua Shanes is Associate Director of the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program at College of Charleston.

About the Author
Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, and Director of the Arnold Center for Israel Studies, at the College of Charleston. He has published widely on modern Jewish politics and religion, as well as antisemitism and contemporary politics, in academic and popular outlets including Washington Post, Slate, Haaretz and Tablet.
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