Center field: Boycotting the boycotters?

In 2009 a leading historian described the academic Simon Rawidowicz as “a probing critic of Zionism without being anti-Zionist.”

THE CENTER for Jewish History. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE CENTER for Jewish History.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish scholars are in a tizzy. Again. The Center for Jewish History’s new president, UCLA professor David Myers, is being attacked as “an anti-Israel academic,” a “hostile-to-Israel propagandist” who “could very well turn CJH into an institution that uses its vast resources and extensive public programming to join the defamatory assault against Israel and pro-Israel Jews.” In response, 500 Jewish studies professors charged that a “small group of self-appointed vigilantes has mounted a scurrilous campaign... claiming without any basis, that [Myers] holds anti-Israel views. These detractors are engaging in the worst kind of McCarthyism.”
This is what passes for American Jewish intellectual debate today. Right-wingers yell “Anti-Israel.” Lefties yells “McCarthy.” The lines get drawn. The accusations fly. Truth – and our community – suffer. No wonder many students are sucking their thumbs and clutching security blankets.
David Myers is eminently qualified to head the CJH, a Jewish mega-archive in Manhattan. Nevertheless, the criticisms, while somewhat shrill and unfair, are not completely unreasonable. It’s legitimate – not McCarthyite – to assess the impact of any community leader’s activism.
Actually, I thank Myers’ critics. They assembled some thought-provoking articles about Israel and Jewish history Myers wrote – and motivated me to read them. Reading Myers is exciting. He’s thoughtful, unpredictable, seductive and stimulating. Unlike many academic critics of Israel, his positions are nuanced, substantive. Even when I disagree with him, I learn from him.
Just as light varies in intensity and directionality to achieve focus, it’s fair to judge a critic’s Intensity, Directionality and Focus. If critics target Israel obsessively – and can only point in one direction, against Israel, never toward the Palestinians – the criticism will be distorted. Myers passes this IDF test. Regarding the Israel boycott, he asks: “Can one really single Israel out in a region with so many suitable contenders for censure?” And he recognizes “the unsavory nature of Palestinian politics.”
Simply typing these lines feels demeaning. Because I abhor PC – Politically Correct – totalitarianism, I don’t wish to assess whether Myers is ZC – Zionistically Correct. I detest these hit-and-run Google clashes, defining thinkers by the harshest – and sometimes dumbest – lines they ever wrote.
And yet, a critic’s overall effect is relevant too. Amid the barrage, two assessments stood out. One UCLA professor reported – unfortunately anonymously – that “[t] he damage that Myers caused to Jewish life at UCLA will take many years to erase. He undermined systematically any attempt to bring students closer to Israel, and created two bastions of anti-Israel culture: 1. the Center for Jewish Studies, and 2. The history department.”
One alum, brave enough to identify himself, Allan Kandel, charged: “You have no idea how many kids he has turned off to Israel and how he espoused his anti-Israel rhetoric at any opportunity.”
Myers hates Israel’s “occupation.” He freely uses the historically problematic term “Nakba,” whereby Palestinians deem Israel’s founding “catastrophic.” He has resisted some formal attempts to fight the antisemitism that buoys some campus anti-Zionism. He supports the extremist group “Not in My Name.”
All of us privileged with a platform – as writers, teachers, or leaders – should assess our words’ impact, not just our intentions. I hope my denunciations of Palestinian terrorism don’t feed the Jewish communal instinct to negate Palestinian nationalism. Similarly, Myers should ask himself: “have I shouted ‘fire’ in an already over-crowded theater? Have I rabble-roused or dog-whistled, or somehow fueled the postmodernist assault on Zionism or the antisemitic dimensions of the attack on Israel?” But because he doesn’t cross the communal red lines of supporting the boycott, or rejecting Israel’s existence, I leave the question as a post-midnight or pre-Yom Kippur gut check for him to process.
Finally, some historical perspective. Twenty years ago, someone with Myers’ politics would not have been hired. As Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg observed in 1976, “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today. Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.” That scholars consider Myers “centrist” shows this mainstreaming of harsh critiques – especially among professors and liberal rabbis. My job as an historian is to note the shift; red lines are being redrawn. Our job as a community is to debate it, weighing when support becomes too blind and when judgments become too toxic – for the community’s sake; Israel will survive.
This war of words is just the latest example of liberal American Jews’ confused, conflicted relationship to Israel. Many feel caught: they love Israel, hate some Israeli policies, and fear the hateful movement to delegitimize Israel.
In 2009 a leading historian described the academic Simon Rawidowicz as “a probing critic of Zionism without being anti-Zionist.” His prophetic chiding was born “of love and moral indignation.”
The historian was David Myers – perhaps describing himself too.
I wish Myers agreed with me more. I wish everyone agreed with me more – but would particularly appreciate his mind and pen backing me. Nevertheless, I cannot support those who wish to, er, boycott him.
I wish Myers well in his new job – and wish us all well as we try debating issues honestly, fairly, proportionately but sensitively – knowing that any Israel criticisms we make in this age of delegitimization can and will be used against us and our people.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.