A rightwing campaign has begun against a prestigious Jewish organization, the Center for Jewish History, to fire a new executive who has called for discussions of the Nakba and against demonizing the BDS campaign (boycott, divestment and sanctions). And happily, it appears that this campaign will fail.
David N. Myers is a former professor of Jewish history at UCLA who was named last June to head the Center on 16th Street in New York (which houses five scholarly and archival Jewish entities, including Yivo). Myers appears to be a cultural Zionist or non-Zionist. He believes that Israel should become a democratic society, he is on the board of the New Israel Fund, and he once issued a moving fundraising appeal on behalf of his daughters for the non-Zionist group IfNotNow.
The campaign against Myers is being waged by very non-scholarly rightwing activists, notably Ronn Torossian, who are appealing to major donors to the Center. Torossian launched the effort just three days ago in several rightwing Jewish publications. “New CEO of Center for Jewish History Holds Radical Viewpoints,” he, Hank Sheinkopf, and George Birnbaum wrote at Algemeiner.
Their account highlights “radical” positions that Myers should be very proud of:
The new CEO of the Center for Jewish History (CJH), David N. Myers, is a leader of the New Israel Fund, and holds leadership positions at IfNotNow and J Street. Myers also has extreme viewpoints — including supporting “some forms” of boycotts against Israel.
Myers’ writings (which are available for perusal at Nakbaeducation.com) include claiming “that the deep wound of the Nakba must finally be exposed to the light of day.”[in a review of the landmark Israeli Nakba novel Khirbet Khizeh]
He has also written of “…the essential step of acknowledging Israel’s role in the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs,” and quotes Uri Avinery’s wartime memoir, which alleges “cruelty, indifference and violence by Israeli soldiers towards Palestinian Arabs.”
IfNotNow — a group that Myers made an impassioned December 2016 fundraising appeal for — is an organization dedicated to “stopping the occupation,” and “wants mainstream American Jewish organizations to publicly oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.” According to Haaretz, the organization holds “…sit-ins in the lobbies of buildings housing Jewish groups” to protest them for not condemning Israel’s West Bank “occupation.” The group’s members have been arrested while holding sit-ins at the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel International, AIPAC and the Jewish Federation — and they refuse to meet with the leaders of these organizations.
Myers — who was honored by Peace Now in 2014 — has regularly cowritten op-eds with the head of the New Israel Fund, where he calls for Arabs in the settlements to be made Israeli citizens (which would end the Jewish character of Israel). And while Myers writes of mostly opposing the “boycott of Israel,” he also says that the BDS movement should not be “demonized.”
In a May 2016 op-ed in The Forward, Myers observed that “…Israeli democracy is under threat. Incitement against human rights organizations proceeds with little trace of official censure; cabinet ministers aim to impose new ideological litmus tests in the realm of education and culture; government-sponsored bills place Jews on a higher plane than other citizens, and the State’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi declares that ‘Israel is first and foremost Jewish, and only then democratic.’”
Myers also recently described himself as a “fierce critic of Netanyahu and the immoral and destructive policies of his government.”…
According to Campus Watch, Myers “employed all the usual clichés — ‘cycle of violence,” ‘disproportionately harsh’ — to single Israel out as ‘the most responsible party’ for the ‘escalating violence’ in a July 2006 Los Angeles Times op-ed. In a piece titled ‘Rethinking the Jewish Nation,‘ which was published in the Winter 2011 edition of the Havruta Journal, Myers argued that ‘Statist Zionism’ should give way to a ‘global Jewish collective.’”
Torossian has been calling donors to try to cut the Center for Jewish History off at its knees. Reports the LA Times:
“We are absolutely persuading donors, speaking actively to donors, and if this man remains there, I am confident they will see a rapid decline in donations,” Torossian said.
The amazing thing is that once again such a disgraceful attack is getting traction. Because calling for democracy in Israel really is “radical.” That’s the way the Jewish community works: the most rightwing supporters of Israel are granted authority, because Jewish lives are at risk over there. And leftwingers and peaceniks are shown the door (witness Breira 31 years ago, brought down by the establishment offices of Wolf Blitzer et al).
The good news is that Myers’s supporters have pushed back hard. A petition was circulated saying he’s not radical or anti-Israel, and it immediately drew nearly 500 signatures from academics, many of them leading scholars in Jewish Studies (notables include Dov Waxman, Steven Zipperstein, Michael Walzer, Sara Yael Hirschhorn, Stephen Cohen, Aaron Hahn Tapper, Todd Gitlin, Liora Halperin, Shaul Magid, Annette Reed, Derek Penslar). Excerpt:
A small group of self-appointed vigilantes has mounted a scurrilous campaign demanding Myers’ ouster, claiming without any basis, that he holds anti-Israel views. These detractors are engaging in the worst kind of McCarthyism…
With a proven track record of dynamic leadership, institution building, and community outreach, he is the ideal person to direct the Center for Jewish History. Calls for his ouster based on ad hominem charges on purely political grounds must be rejected.
One helpful thing about this discussion is the word radical. That definition is obviously in play, in the 50th year of the permanent Israeli occupation. Mark Oppenheimer has an excellent piece on the battle up at the Los Angeles Times, in which he says, If Myers is an anti-Zionist, well that’s OK. If he thinks founding Israel was a mistake, no problem!
In the divided world of Israel politics, many on the right see even center-left groups such as J Street as hostile to the Jewish state. They see Myers’ vague openness to a possible “partial boycott” of Israel — one that targets companies that make arms used in the occupation of the West Bank — as equivalent to wishing for Israel’s demise. They see the use of the Arab word “nakba” as a provocation. In this reading, a liberal scholar like Myers becomes an enemy of his people.
To defend Myers against charges of anti-Zionism misses the point. What if Myers were an anti-Zionist — somebody who, while loving Jews and Judaism and Jewish history, thought that Israel’s founding was a mistake, or thought that its privileging of Jews in law and immigration policy was wrong? To be clear, there is no evidence that he holds those views. (Reached by email Thursday, Myers declined to comment.) But if he did, would that disqualify him from running a scholarly center?
Not, I should think, if his scholarship were sound, and his management competent.
My impression is that Myers is a non-Zionist. He says Israel should have become a democracy with equal rights for everyone. Or take a look at that fundraising appeal for IfNotNow, “For my daughters, IfNotNow is a place to build community and resistance.”
Some claim that this cohort of young Jews has been lost. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Members of IfNotNow have a deep sense of commitment and ethical clarity. They understand that the Jewish community has hesitated for too long in calling out the moral and political disaster that is the occupation. Like the sage Hillel, they ask: “If not now, when?” They seek not to bring shame for shame’s sake, but rather to answer Hillel’s question by answering: “Now!”
The Forward has published a defense of Myers by two scholars of Jewish history, David Ellenson and Jonathan Sarna: “David Myers is Not a Radical.” They are obviously afraid of the “enemy of the people” charge and seek to de-anathematize his views.
It is also simply not true that Myers believes that “Israel should no longer exist as a Jewish state.” There is no such reference in the article his critics cite to support this claim. On the contrary, Myers goes out of his way in the piece referenced by them to make clear his vigorous support for the existence of the State of Israel. Rather, his article simply echoes such well-known Zionists as Mordecai Kaplan and Simon Rawidowicz in insisting that the diaspora likewise play an important role in Jewish nationhood. This is not a controversial position for an American Jew (indeed, many Israelis agree), and it is disgraceful that the writers of these critiques of Myers distort what he wrote, no doubt hoping that readers will not bother to check the original. Myers is also on record as opposing BDS, contrary to what his critics conclude….
They do say:
it is unthinkable that the Center’s president should be obligated to espouse a particular partisan view on Israel and Zionism.
So some day there will be a conference on the Nakba at the Center for Jewish History. About time!
P.S. A lot of my efforts on this site are devoted to Liberal Zionists in Exodus, and I see Myers as such a figure. These are not Power liberal Zionists, who spend all day fighting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel out of fear that BDS will undermine Israel as a “Jewish state,” tear apart the Democratic Party, and hurt the permanent Hillary Clinton campaign (Think J Street, Josh Marshall, Randi Weingarten). Liberal Zionists in Exodus are thoughtful people who once believed in the Zionist dream or something like it but cannot deny what Israel has become after 50 years of occupation. They are just not sure what to do about it. There are thousands of them out there: people who feel that this website or Jewish Voice for Peace are too radical for them, but something awful is happening in Israel, and they must not be in the position of covering it up or lying about it, because they know that history is not kind to those who see apartheid and fail to witness to it (the J Street position). The main watering holes for Liberal Zionists in Exodus are The New Israel Fund and IfNotNow, both of which avoid the word Zionism. They know it’s become a dirty word for young Jews.
Thanks to Annie Robbins.