David Myers is an outstanding scholar of Jewish history.
A 1982 graduate of Yale University, Myers undertook graduate studies at Tel Aviv and Harvard universities before receiving his Ph.D. with distinction in Jewish history from Columbia University in 1991. He has written widely in the fields of Jewish intellectual and cultural history. A respected academic, he also is an experienced and effective administrator; he was the director of UCLA’s Center for Jewish History from 1996 to 2000, and again from 2004 to 2010. From 2010 to 2015, he held the Robert N. Burr Chair at UCLA’s history department, and now he is the inaugural director of UCLA’s Luskin Center for History and Policy. He has held a number of visiting faculty positions in the United States and abroad; he is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research and a fellow of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities; and since 2002 he has been the co-editor of the Jewish Quarterly.
It therefore seemed a natural choice when the Center for Jewish History, which needed a new executive, announced last June that Myers would become its president and CEO. The center is a Manhattan-based partnership among five prominent Jewish cultural and scholarly groups: The American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute of New York, Yeshiva University Museum, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. These organizations are committed to preserving the records of the Jewish past while promoting Jewish culture in the present.
The center provides a physical home for the groups, and it allows them to organize and coordinate research, exhibitions, events, and performances. Its mission is to collect, preserve, and document the history of the Jewish people so the Jewish legacy can be transmitted to our community and the world, now and in the future. It is the foremost archival repository of Jewish records in North America.
In June, when the center announced that Myers would head it, the academic community overwhelmingly was excited about his appointment. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, who many see as one of the most prominent historians of American Judaism, said that Myers is “the very embodiment of what the center should be.” The chancellor of Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi David Ellenson, described Myers as “a pre-eminent scholar, teacher, writer and editor of the modern Jewish experience.”
Seems like this should have been a slam-dunk hire.
Almost overnight however, a concerted campaign developed to push for Myers’ removal. Two New York public relations specialists, Ronn Torossian and Hank Sheinkopf, and political campaign consultant George Birnbaum are leading the campaign. They wrote a blistering opinion piece calling for Myers to be fired. That piece was picked up either as an op-ed, or an unvetted, un-fact-checked news article, by Arutz Sheva, the Jewish Press, and the Algemeiner
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 he runs political campaigns. Birnbaum is a former chief of staff for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was an adviser for Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.
The opinion piece alleges that the Center for Jewish History “has made an unfit choice,” saying that Myers supports a boycott of Israel. That would be a cause for concern if it was true. It is not.
Opponents also charged that Myers is on the board of the New Israel Fund (true), an organization that opponents claim supports a boycott of Israel (not true). The opinion piece also condemns Myers for being a “fierce critic” of Netanyahu and his policies, which, while true, is entirely irrelevant with respect to Myers’ responsibilities at the center.
“Individuals who hold views such as Myers’ should not hold positions of leadership in the Jewish community,” the piece concluded. But the conclusion remains unclear. Many of America’s Jews largely share Myers’ views about religious pluralism and West Bank settlements and consequently are critical of Netanyahu and his administration’s policies.
Time for some fact checking here. Myers is on record. In a 2014 essay, “Why I Oppose a Boycott Mostly,” he wrote “I can’t support a global boycott against Israel,” and he chided Israeli academic boycotts. Later in that article, Myers wrote, “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.” This withholding of financial and political support for the settlement enterprise is radically different than the Palestinian BDS movement.
Why were these opponents targeting Myers with false claims? To unravel the truth requires understanding the bigger picture.
Twelve years ago, 172 Palestinian organizations and international support groups announced a call for Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions against Israel; Israeli companies; international companies connected with Israel; and Israeli cultural, sporting, and academic institutions. Proposed sanctions include the expulsion of Israel from the United Nations and the soccer federation, FIFA.
The campaign is guided by the BDS National Committee, which first met in Ramallah in 2007. The committee is comprised of 29 Palestinian organizations. The 2005 action had been preceded by calls for an academic boycott of Israel in 2002 and 2003. BDS proponents are said to be inspired and guided by the anti-apartheid movement, but in many ways, BDS is little different from previous boycott campaigns against Israel, indeed reaching back to pre-state efforts. The primary difference is that previous campaigns primarily were led by Arab states, while BDS mainly is led by Palestinian NGOs.
The proclaimed goal of BDS is to fight against the Israeli occupation, but there is a lot to dislike about BDS even for those opposed to Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza. BDS targets Israel and Israelis generally. Its sanctions are thinly disguised efforts to delegitimize Israel. This establishes a defensive political dynamic within Israel rather than one that opens Israelis to the moral, political, economic, demographic, and social problems connected with the ongoing policies of West Bank settlement and occupation.
The boycott of Israeli cultural and academic institutions is particularly pernicious, not only because scholars, artists, and journalists are leading critics of Israeli policies in the territories, but because these institutions often provide vital networks for the intellectual exchanges and personal connections that are so vital for the reshaping of opinions and the resolution of conflicts.
Unlike the Palestinian-driven BDS movement, a West Bank settlement boycott aims its focus not on Israel but on particular activities that occur outside its borders. Rather than seeking to weaken Israel, it reflects the concern that continuing settlement and occupation are damaging to Israeli society, and to the future of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Settlement activity is expensive, and it detracts from resources the country has available to meet enormous internal needs. The occupation requires violent repressive actions that are demoralizing; it imposes an unstable and unsustainable condition in which millions are denied political and civil rights. Yet to include the populations of Gaza and the West Bank within a democratic framework would cause Israel to cease to function as a Jewish nation-state capable of addressing specific Jewish national needs. A two-state solution could address these problems, but settlement activity is inimical to processes that could lead to such a solution.
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 anti-Zionist and anti-Israel.
It is no surprise that advocates of West Bank settlement activity are eager to conflate BDS and anti-settlement campaigns. It is important that the distinction between these two very different approaches be clarified and recognized. Efforts to promote the conflation of these two political propositions abound. It has been promoted in the Knesset and Israeli law. It has been promoted in laws proposed and enacted by states within the United States. It is being promoted in Jewish institutions as an effort to silence American Jews’ opposition to West Bank settlement. Such a position, however, is backfiring, because American Jewry, and Jewish youth in particular, generally do not support the ongoing occupation. This leads to a corrosive dynamic between Jewish organizations, the greater Jewish public, and particularly its youth. Moreover, if fighting BDS in the United States truly is important — and it is — then we should recognize that the effort would be far stronger if Jews opposed to settlement activity are included. Their exclusion raises questions about what truly are the priorities.
It would seem self-evident that the Center for Jewish History would not impose political tests, particularly for posts that are administrative and scholarly and do not involve political advocacy.
You would think that any institution made up of five separate cultural and scholastic organizations would make tolerance of a pluralism of views inevitable. It is unthinkable that the center’s president must walk in lockstep with a particular partisan view on Israel and Zionism to be considered as qualified.
Myers was hired because of his unparalleled ability to articulate and celebrate the ideals of the center itself. The Center for Jewish History has responded to the full court press to dismiss Professor Myers by saying: “Various allegations have been made about David Myers. He 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.”
The campaign against Myers is just the most recent battle as the Zionist right fights to criminalize the Zionist left. The campaign is aimed at ostracizing anti-settlement views, and it is ongoing. It has real victims, and Myers is one of them. The campaign to delegitimize any kind of progressive Zionist thought continues to grow as a network of little known, highly vocal, and well-funded right-wing Jewish groups, some of them with prominent Jewish leaders on their boards of advisors, ramp up attacks on the leading Jewish history expert.
A barrage of emails to the CJH demanding Myers’ removal appears to have been facilitated by a small advocacy organization called the Israel Group. The Israel Group’s board of advisers includes Kenneth Abramowitz, a prominent Republican donor and supporter of President Trump. Abramowitz is the national chairman of American Friends of Likud and also has served on the board of the Zionist Organization of America
Meanwhile, Richard Allen, founder of a New York-based advocacy group called JCCWatch.org, proudly announced that he is planning a “string of protests” against the center. Allen said he would announce the demonstrations through an advertising campaign in the Jewish press and on the radio. Allen has run similar campaigns in the past against the UJA-Federation of New York, the Celebrate Israel Parade, and the Manhattan JCC for allowing leftist Zionist organizations space to speak and be heard.
In response to the ongoing attacks, the CJH board issued a second statement. “After the Board’s recent receipt of a stream of vituperative emails demanding that Professor Myers be dismissed by reason of political opinions …the Board has reaffirmed its complete confidence in Professor Myers and the outstanding leadership he is providing as the Center moves forward to fulfill its mission in promoting the study and understanding of Jewish history. David Myers is a distinguished scholar who brings enormous energy, intellect and executive talent to the task.”
It is ironic that Myers’ political opponents are calling for his removal from an academic and cultural institution on anti-boycott grounds. This contradiction, however, emerges because his opponents do not want to discuss the real political issues, the implications of West Bank settlement activity and the ongoing occupation, but want to bury them.
It is incumbent upon us to shine a light on those issues. The very future of the Jewish state as it was envisioned is dependent on it.