NEW YORK – For most New Yorkers, the demonstration that took place on Wednesday between a pair of police barricades on 16th Street was nothing special. But, for the Jewish world, it was a protest with wide-ranging significance that threatened the reputation and career of a leading Jewish historian who was recently appointed head of the prestigious Center for Jewish History.
UCLA Professor David Myers was appointed CEO of the center over the summer and has since come under a fierce attack with accusations that he is a supporter of far-left ‘anti-Israel’ organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, though, Myers, declared that he is a “lover of Israel.”
“I feel almost like I am in an out-of-body experience,” he said. “The person who bears my name about whom people are speaking has no resemblance to the person I know.”
Myers is fluent in Hebrew and we spoke the language during the small talk before the interview, and through parts of it as well. He is well versed in Israeli politics and culture, and maintains regular contact with Israeli academic colleagues. In his eyes, this itself is proof of a deep partnership with Israel.
“I go to bed every night thinking about the place, I wake up every morning thinking about the place. It’s in my soul in the deepest and most profound way, simply like that,” he said. “How others want to caricature me is up to them, I can only tell me who I am, what I feel.”
A group of right-wing Jewish organizations, including the Zionist Organization of America, says that Myers is a far-left activist who denies the right of the State of Israel to exist and supports “selective boycotts” of the Jewish state. Two well-known Jewish PR executives published a column on Arutz Sheva last month alleging that Myers held leadership roles in IfNotNow and J Street. In response, Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich called for Myers’s dismissal, writing on Facebook that naming Myers as head of the Center for Jewish History “is gross malfeasance.”
The Center for Jewish History in New York is a well-known institution throughout the Jewish world, and with about 100,000 documents, it has the largest archive of Jewish documents outside of Israel. It also sponsors five leading Jewish research institutions. Myers, a historian at UCLA, was invited to head the institute in June.
“As someone who has devoted the entirety of his adult life to thinking about and nurturing the Jewish commonwealth, it’s strange to be characterized as a hater of Israel, it’s strange to be characterized as in some fashion someone who’s seeking to cause injury to the Jewish people,” Myers said. “I am and always have been a very proud lover of my people, something which actually very few of my colleagues could actually say.”
After he took the job as the head of the center, he decided to stop writing his monthly political column in the LA Jewish Journal, where he frequently criticized Israel, although he remained a member of the board of directors of the New Israel Fund.
In the interview, Myers refused to discuss his political positions, but his views are no secret. He opposes the BDS movement and the overall boycott of the State of Israel, but in 2014 he wrote that under certain future circumstances, “a boycott of Israel’s settlements and commercial activity in the West Bank may have to be the necessary next step.”
When asked about BDS, Myers told the Post that he is “mystified by the selectivity of focus, why davka in the Middle East, the one country that is the subject of this attention is Israel,” when anywhere else one looks int he region, they will find a graver offense being committed.
On the other hand, his views are far from the Israeli mainstream, and the current debate, even if it wanes, shows how divided the discourse around Israel is in the US Jewish community.
For now, Meyers wants to make sure that the protests do not harm the center.
“The Center for Jewish history will not be a center of partisan politics in any way shape or form,” he said. “I have no political agenda to promote here. I do have an agenda, and that is of building upon the center’s excellence and assuring it remains a world-class facility and [with] a commitment to disseminating historical knowledge as widely as possible, and in doing so I believe that our center can and must be a place open to a diverse, wide range of views and approaches and methodologies. I don’t believe we can thrive if we impose a protocol litmus test” on whoever appears in our institutions.
“We are not a partisan institution, we don’t identify with any partisan organization as our partner,” Myers said.