Op-Ed

The Israel litmus-test and scholarly freedom

It might seem an insignificant dispute, a tiny ship in a small bottle floating on a far-off sea. Who cares if a UCLA history professor keeps his job as president of the Center for Jewish History in New York City?

But the fight over David N. Myers, who was tapped to head the Center in June, and whom right-wing adversaries are now trying to get fired, is about America, and Jews, and intellectual freedom. And it’s about the intrusion of politics and money into the world of scholarship.

The Center for Jewish History houses five scholarly organizations, including the American Jewish Historical Society. Among scholars, the appointment of the UCLA historian was the opposite of controversial. Brandeis University historian Jonathan D. Sarna called Myers “the very embodiment of what the center should be.” But this week, an opinion piece appeared in three politically conservative Jewish publications, assailing Myers as an extremist who, according to one of the headlines, “must be fired for radical viewpoints.”

The short piece — appearing on the websites of the Jewish Press, the Algemeiner and the Israeli network Arutz Sheva — carries three bylines: Ronn Torossian, Hank Sheinkopf and George Birnbaum. It attacks Myers for serving on the board of the liberal New Israel Fund; for having helped raise money online for If Not Now, which opposes the occupation of the West Bank; and for advising J Street, a lobby that supports a two-state solution.

The op-ed also links to several essays and reviews written by Myers, including one from the New Republic magazine, in 2008, in which he writes that “the deep wound of the Nakba” — “catastrophe,” how Palestinians refer to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 — “must finally be exposed to the light of day, and in some way be healed.”

Torossian, Sheinkopf and Birnbaum are not scholars. A man Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg once called “the most disreputable flack in New York,” Torossian has done public relations for rapper Lil’ Kim and the late televangelist Paul Crouch. He’s the PR man of choice for (in Goldberg’s words) the “lunatic fringe” of Israeli politics (but also, Torossian pointed out, for mayors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv). Sheinkopf does PR for companies including Home Depot and runs political campaigns, mostly for Democrats, mostly in New York. Birnbaum, a former chief of staff for Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, advised the presidential campaign of Ben Carson.

Torossian et al. have company. 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. By imposing litmus tests from the right, Torossian and his co-writers repeat a mistake of the far left, which has become inhospitable to supporters of Israel.

“The campaign against Myers reflects a growing inability to respond appropriately to divergent ideas," said Aaron Lerner, the Hillel rabbi at UCLA who is Orthodox and a Zionist. "If you disagree with someone — debate him! Win the war of ideas. But let's stop trying to get people fired because we disagree with their politics.”

Torossian doesn’t see it that way. “PETA would probably not appoint somebody who is a great hunter to a position there,” he said. But the Center for Jewish History is a scholarly center, not a pro-Israel group.

The Zionist hope was for a country where Jews could be free of loyalty oaths, free to flourish as whomever we wanted to be. In saying which Jews deserve to work in the community, Torossian and the others are constricting possibilities for Jewish life — by using threats to try to get a man fired.

“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. (When I asked if he was a donor to the center, he said, “I’m not going to answer that.”)

Nearly 500 Jewish scholars, rabbis and writers, including Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt — and, I should add, me — signed a petition defending Myers; it was posted online Thursday.

So far, the Center for Jewish History has stood by its man, saying in a statement that the board has “full confidence in his ability to lead the Center in the fulfillment of its mission.” Is this enough to defeat the man who represented Lil’ Kim? For the sake of good scholarship, I hope so.

Mark Oppenheimer, a contributing writer to Opinion, is the host of the podcast Unorthodox, the podcast of Tablet magazine.

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This article originally stated that Myers was a former UCLA professor. He remains a member of the faculty.
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