There’s nothing that offends contemporary American Jewry more than a demand to draw a line that will define who is in and who is outside of the community. But if there is anything that we can learn from the series of controversies involving the Center for Jewish History and the American Jewish Historical Society it is that try as we might to avoid doing it, sometimes lines must be drawn.
The problems began with criticism of the appointment of UCLA historian David Myers as the president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Myers is a man of the left, a supporter of J Street and the New Israel Fund, and that prompted a furious response from the Zionist right. As Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt noted in a column, some of the accusations were inaccurate. For example, Myers denies any connection to the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace group. I have little sympathy for his politics and question the judgment of anyone who would, as he did, publicly endorse a group like IfNotNow, which was organized to protest Israel’s campaign of self-defense against Hamas attacks from Gaza in 2014, opposes AIPAC and which makes it clear “resisting” the Trump administration is more important than support for Israel. But setting up political tests for academic posts is a slippery slope that can be employed against those on the right as easily as against those on the left. So long as Myers, a respected academic, sticks to his job of promoting the study and understanding of Jewish history, there is no reason to take issue with his appointment.
But to table the kerfuffle over Myers is not the same thing as declaring that lines should never be drawn. The American Jewish Historical Society, which operates out of the Center’s Chelsea building, illustrated this by co-sponsoring a panel to commemorate next month’s centennial of the Balfour Declaration organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, where the featured speakers would be a Palestinian critic of Zionism alongside a Jewish one.
When the egregious nature of this program was pointed out to the Society, it promptly canceled the event as well as an upcoming reading of a play by a JVP supporter.
Predictably, this prompted a new wave of criticism, this time from the left, which accused the AJHS of silencing Jewish dissent and overreacting to the Myers controversy. These critics claim a band of noisy right-wing extremists were exercising undue influence on mainstream organizations, and that a largely liberal Jewish community should be listening to a group like JVP.
That sounds reasonable to Jews who see the drawing of lines — especially with respect to debate about Israel — as unacceptable in 21st-century American life.
But as much as I believe liberals and conservatives must listen and learn from each other — something I model in a series of public debates around the country with my friend and sparring partner, Forward columnist J.J. Goldberg — I also think it is a dangerous mistake to think Jewish institutions should welcome or sponsor those who effectively advocate waging war on Israel and the Jewish people.
For me the line of demarcation is easy to define. Those who may oppose the policies of Israel’s government but support Zionism — be they liberal Zionists or right-wingers — deserve a hearing even if we disagree with their views. Those — like JVP — who deny the right of the Jewish people to a state and its right of self-defense are on the wrong side of the line.
In the last year, JVP has branched out from its previous support of BDS to opposing Birthright trips to Israel and endorsing the Palestinian “right of return,” which effectively aligns them with Hamas. It also promoted a new version of the blood libel by claiming Israel’s American supporters were responsible for police killings of African-Americans because they back Israeli training programs for U.S. law enforcement officials. In doing so, they are illustrating that anti-Zionism invariably degenerates into anti-Semitism. Such a group has every right to say what it likes but not on the dime of any Jewish community with a moral core or a remnant of self-respect.
A community that believes inclusion is the only value is one that ultimately stands for nothing. A community or an institution that promotes Jewish history that treats a group that promotes anti-Semitism as just another point of view as deserving of respect as any other is one that has lost its moral compass.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a Contributing Writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.