Panned over Israel views, Center for Jewish History head denies partisan agenda

NEW YORK — In June David Myers assumed his post as the new president and CEO of the New York-based Center for Jewish History. Only a few weeks after he was named to the position, the 56-year-old history professor became embroiled in controversy.

Dedicated to collecting, preserving and documenting history of the Jewish people, the center houses five organizations: the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute, the Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO Institute for Jewish Leadership. It’s not a place usually considered as a hotbed of dissent.

However, several conservative and right leaning Jewish people and organizations, including the Zionist Organization of America, JCC Watch, and Americans for a Safe Israel demanded he be fired for what they called extreme anti-Israel views. Additionally, there is concern over his political associations, including sitting on the board of the progressive New Israel Fund and serving on the advisory council of J Street.

Among other things, they said Myers supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and that he claimed Israel should no longer exist as a Jewish state.

Hundreds of Jewish historians petitioned CJH in a show of support for Myers, including Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, Steven Cohen of HUC-JIR, and Susannah Heschel of Dartmouth College.  In an opinionpiece for The Forward, David Ellenson and Jonathan D. Sarna, both of Brandeis University, decried the idea that Myers is an enemy of Israel. Additionally, the CJH board received several letters in support of Myers.

The Times of Israel spoke with David Myers, who also holds the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History at UCLA, about his vision for the center, the role of history and historians in the current political and cultural climate, and how he’s become a lightning rod.

What is the function of the historian and how wary must we be of how we use history and its lessons?

I’m familiar with the prominent role historians have played in helping shape the contours of national societies, and therefore don’t shy away from historians taking a more public role in society. That isn’t to say, and I want to be very careful of making this clear, that history can’t become anything more than propaganda or crass ideology. No, there’s a line to be drawn between propagandizing and adding historical perspective and depth to deliberations on the present and future course. I think one can distinguish clearly from the two. I shy away from the first and value the second.

Are we in a period where there is less tolerance for different views?

I think we’re in a moment in American society, in Israeli society and certainly in the American Jewish community where there’s limited tolerance for hearing the other — the “other” being someone with whom you are inclined to disagree or with whom you disagree. It’s been years in the making. It’s not simply a function of the Trump era. In that sense Trump is more of a symptom than a cause of a culture of vilification and demonization. It’s very present and very deleterious to comity and civility and to productive conversation. It only makes more important the efforts to bring different perspectives to bear, to model serious but civil discussion and even disagreement.

While increasingly acceptable to demonize the other, it is ultimately tearing the fabric of a rich sense of community. It is enormously destructive and we have to redouble our efforts to push back against it.

As a place of scholarship, history and culture the Center isn’t supposed to be on the political front lines. Yet, events happened this summer that put you and CJH in a political firestorm.

The Center is nonpartisan and apolitical to the extent that anyone can be. Each of us comes with his or her own political perspectives. That’s unavoidable and it adds to the richness of life. But in terms of the mission of the Center, our task is to conduct first class research.

I should say our task is also to be open to a diversity of perspectives, approaches and methods. Sometimes that means people bring very different political perspectives into the conversation because their scholarship is inflected by the way they see the world. We’re not going to exclude someone because they failed to meet a political a litmus test. We are interested in first class scholars who range from the right to the left, who are open to serious rigorous debate over historical issues. We’re not interested in promoting a single partisan agenda. Frankly, I would find that boring. I have always found it more interesting to hear perspectives that challenge my own fixed ideas.

We’re not going to exclude someone because they failed to meet a political a litmus test

Give readers a sense of what your goals are for the center, and how you foresee increasing its accessibility.

The necessary condition for success, at least as I understand it, is to continue to burnish the reputation of the center and provide it with resources so it can continue to be one of the greatest repositories of Jewish archival sources. I am struck by the extraordinary riches contained in this building.

Beyond the scholar circle, I think of those interested in distinct and idiosyncratic chapters in Jewish history that may bolster their own sense of cultural identity. I think of this place as a resource very much for Jews for whom a sense of historical connection has been the connective tissue of their existence. Without a sense of historical connection Jews wouldn’t have sustained themselves for millennia.

We envision many new public programs and series. We don’t want to compromise the intellectual seriousness, but there are people hungry for historical knowledge. I’ve always thought of my job as a historian and an educator is to translate complex ideas into simple language to smart people who lack my professional vocabulary.

Is there a role for the CJH to play beyond the Jewish community?

[The center] is important and relevant to Jews, but not only Jews. We believe Jewish history is instructive to all people. It reveals the remarkable journey of a dispersed and scattered and small people as not only surviving but also flourishing in a variety of different settings. In that sense it tells us how a minority group can function, adapt and thrive in a majority setting. That’s a lesson of value to many people, many groups — Jewish or otherwise.

We believe Jewish history is instructive to all people

We want to bring in students from the Archdiocese schools. We’re always interested in history of interfaith relations, Christian and Muslim groups. With upcoming programs on migration in 2018, we’re interested in joining forces with African American cultural institutes.

CJH is launching a new series called “History Matters,” in which you invite five prominent Jewish historians to talk about how their specific scholarship impacts the present. Tell us about the impetus for this program and its potential impact.

It’s my core belief that knowledge of the past is an essential precondition to an informed understanding of the present. What’s important about this program is we have a range of perspectives. That’s part of who we are and want to be. A place that is open to serious and rigorous discourse that reflects the richness of outlooks in the Jewish scholarly community.

The other catalyst is my own sense — given the ever-accelerating speed of social media that condenses the news cycle from 24 hours to 60 seconds — we’re really in need of a healthy dose of historical perspective. In a certain sense, I think this is a moment of history where history has much to tell us, to caution us, to instruct us. Careful and meticulous conducted historical research can be the vital ingredient in informed participation in society and policy making. It can foster a rich and vibrant sense of collectivity. I believe the moment is now for history.

Given a sense of an increasing divide among the Jewish community, were you surprised when the calls came for you to be fired? Was there any part of you that thought your previous writings about Israel, BDS, the West Bank and Gaza, might be called into question?

I am a deeply committed scholar and Jew. I care passionately about the well being of the Jewish people and have written about it both from the perspective of a historian and as an observer of contemporary affairs. That’s who I am. I try to live the credo I articulated to you, which is I believe that a) knowledge of the past can and should have an impact on the present, and b) as a historian I am not required to only remain in the archive. I can have a broader platform from which to speak. At the same time, I am an engaged Jew and have weighed in on issues of concern to me and to others. I’ve been criticized vigorously every time I publish. This welcome has been a little unexpected.

Your critics also raised the issue of hate speech and what they said was your unwillingness to call out anti-Semitism on campus. In 2002, 15 years ago, you wrote that “the number of voices tinged with hatred of Jews is small, I suspect, compared to the amount of anti-Muslim or anti-Arab sentiment on campus and beyond… more importantly those few voices do not herald an anti-Semitic tidal wave.” Do you still agree with that view?

You can look at what I wrote in the wake of the Rachel Beyda affair in the Daily Bruin. I wrote that something is awry here. When that went down I wrote about that and said we’ve got a problem with our friends here.

Let me tell you something, it’s astonishing and almost embarrassing. I’m 56 years old. I’ve devoted the overwhelming majority of my waking hours in life to advancing the Jewish condition, to living a full rich and Jewish life. For me that critical perspective that I often adopt is one of the great gifts of the Jewish interpretative tradition, the Jewish intellectual tradition. That’s who I am.

When I see an instance of anti-Semitism it pains me to the core and I will call it out. If I don’t see it, then I’m not going to call it out because I don’t see it. I find it almost impossible to counter the charge that I’m not sufficiently attentive to anti-Semitism. I believe that my commitment to Jewish communal life stands as evidence of my deep passion and concern for the well being of the Jewish people. It is the animating principal of my life.

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