Opinion

How We’re Distancing American Jews

The very Jews who were crucial to Israel's founding would be condemned in today's American Jewish community; the attempt to oust Prof. David Myers must be stopped

File: Henrietta Szold speaks during the opening of the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem; she would be attacked in today's political climate
Zoltan Kluger/GPO

One of the most fascinating, important battles in the American Jewish community has been conducted in recent weeks far from the public eye and most of the media in Israel. The battle concerns the appointment of UCLA Prof. David Myers as director of the Center for Jewish History.

The center, which is located in Manhattan, includes the archives of five American Jewish organizations, or archives that were transferred to the United States after the Holocaust. This is one of the most important archival collections in the Jewish world, the kind that American Jews visit to search for information about their family history.

But the importance of the Center for Jewish History goes beyond archival research. This is one of the most important institutions shaping the ethnic and cultural identity of the American Jewish community, and Myers’ appointment has aroused angry reactions among right-wing U.S. Jewish organizations.

The right-wing Israeli Arutz 7 website has joined the attackers. Nobody has questioned Myers’ academic credentials. He is one of the most important historians studying Jews and Judaism in modern times, and until recently he headed UCLA’s history department, one of the most prestigious in American academia. The demand to oust him stems from his consistent criticism of Israeli policy.

The campaign against his appointment, including demonstrations, letters of criticism, manifestos and articles in the American Jewish press is the result of the long-standing cooperation between right-wing U.S. organizations and the Netanyahu government. In the public arena where they hold sway, criticism is not legitimate. Beyond being an attempt to undermine freedom of expression, the move against Myers is a serious mistake on Israel’s part.

To explain: The support of U.S. Jewry for the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, the yishuv, and then for the State of Israel was among the main factors that made the Zionist enterprise possible. American Jews sent huge sums of money, provided political support and professional skill. But this support was often accompanied by criticism and attempts to influence Israel.

Henrietta Szold, founder of the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America, immigrated to the yishuv on her own at age 60. She developed the healthcare system, headed the Youth Aliyah project and raised the money for its activity, and at the same time supported a binational state. Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court justice, who made an important contribution to the adoption of the Balfour Declaration, leveled penetrating criticism against the Zionist movement’s policy vis-a-vis the Arabs in the Land of Israel.

Abba Hillel Silver, one of the most important American Zionist leaders, supported the division of Jerusalem, but worked tirelessly with David Ben-Gurion to gain approval for the 1947 UN Partition Plan.

In today’s political climate Szold, Brandeis and Silver would be attacked and condemned at a miminum, and more likely ousted from their positions in the Zionist organizations. If the present policy had been Israel’s policy in the 1940s and 1950s, the marvelous cooperation between Israel and U.S. Jewry, which made the success of the Zionist enterprise possible, would not have existed.

The vast majority of American Jews reject the right-wing U.S. Jewish organizations cooperation with the Netanyahu government in trying to silence any criticism of Israel and sanction the critics. The gap between these organizations and large sectors of the American Jewish public, who don’t accept the Israeli government’s Palestinian policy, is steadily growing.

The highly-respected Pew Research Center finds that the harsh opposition to any criticism has caused a decline in Israel’s standing among U.S. Jews, to the point of rejection and the adoption of alternative symbols of Jewish identity. Netanyahu’s open support for U.S. President Donald Trump, even though most U.S. Jews are disgusted by him, only strengthens these trends.

The attack on Myers is particularly infuriating because his criticism of Israeli policy comes from love. He, as opposed to many of his critics, speaks, reads and writes Hebrew, is involved in what’s going on here and for many years has supported Israeli academia.

A perusal of the U.S. Jewish press and websites shows that the Zionist Organization of America is one of Myers’ most outspoken enemies. It’s shocking that an organization whose past leaders were unafraid to criticize the Zionist movement now supports the most benighted trends in the American Jewish community.

A thread connects the infuriating attempt to impose a code of ethics on Israel’s universities and the effort to oust Myers. Israeli academics and proponents of freedom of expression in this country must forcefully condemn the attempt to oust him from his position.

Prof. Zohar Segev teaches in the Department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa. His principal field of research is American Jewish history.