David Myers, the Jewish history center executive who was targeted by hawkish Zionist activists last fall, is stepping down after just a year at his post, saying he wanted to return to his academic life in Los Angeles.
Shortly after his appointment, activists attacked Myers, the president and CEO of Manhattan’s Center for Jewish History, calling for his firing over his links to dovish pro-Israel groups, particularly the New Israel Fund.
Myers, who informed staff about his resignation on June 28, said that he is not leaving the CJH because of the campaign against him, which peaked last November.
“They’re nuisances, they’re gnats, they’re bothersome gnats like you find in the summer and swat away,” Myers said of the activists who attacked him. “They’re not people who compel life decisions.”
One of the instigators of the campaign, Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, called Myers an “enemy of the Jewish state” last year. The other, Ronn Torossian, who leads the public relations firm 5WPR, sent Myers a barrage of bullying emails demanding that he resign.
Myers told the Forward that he was quitting the CJH to return to Los Angeles, where he teaches at UCLA and where his wife lives. “After a long and tortured deliberation, [I] realized that my home is Los Angeles,” Myers said. “This is the beginning of the final stage of my professional career, and a I had a very difficult choice between two things that I love.”
After beginning his job at the CJH last July, Myers had continued teaching at UCLA, where he had worked for years a professor of American Jewish history. During portions of his tenure at the CJH, he flew back and forth weekly between New York and Los Angeles, a lifestyle he found difficult. “I would advise your readers not to do it,” he said.
Myers will remain at the CJH until the end of August before returning to UCLA. “This is the result of months of deliberation spent on planes going back and forth and really asking myself, Where do I want to be in life?” he said.
Despite support from mainstream Jewish leaders and academics, the campaign against Myers appears to have shaken the CJH, an umbrella group for five Jewish history organizations that it houses in its downtown Manhattan building.
Myers is the second executive to depart in the past six months, following Rachel Lithgow, the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, who resigned after her board of directors cancelled a play and a panel under pressure.
In the email announcing his departure, Myers told his staff that he had realized that he needed to return to Los Angeles to focus on his academic work.
“The experience of this past year has clarified two things for me,” Myers wrote. “First, Los Angeles is my home. It is where my family, professional, and community roots are deepest. Second, the work I most need to focus on in this chapter of my life is teaching and researching Jewish history at UCLA and directing the Luskin Center for History and Policy,” an institute at UCLA.
Myers is currently completing an academic book about the Satmar village of Kiryas Joel in suburban New York State, a project on which is he is collaborating with his wife, who is also an academic.
The attacks on Myers, who is one of the leading academics studying Jewish history in the United States, began shortly after his appointment was announced. Torossian and Sheinkopf, along with a former chief of staff to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, published a column in various outlets decrying the selection of Myers because of his seat on the board of NIF, among other things. The NIF is a common bogeyman for the Jewish right, and has been frequently targeted by right-wing Israeli politicians for its support of progressive groups in Israel.
Jewish academics and the CJH’s board stood up for Myers. “The writings of David Myers indisputably fall well within the scholarly mainstream of Jewish life and they are unquestionably supportive of Israel’s basic right to exist,” Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna and Brandeis Israel studies professor Rabbi David Ellenson wrote in a joint op-ed in the Forward.
The campaign against Myers included emails to CJH board members, op-eds, and a protest outside the CJH’s building. Torossian himself emailed Myers 70 times over the course of two months.
“You Can [sic] always resign before protests start and donors are targeted,” Torossian wrote on September 6 of last year. “Do you want this to be your legacy? I know a tad about pr and shaping issues.”
“This issue will define your career,” Torossian wrote in another email.
In an interview last fall, Myers told the Forward that the campaign against him had been a “learning experience.”
“It’s been a particularly unique welcome to the Jewish community in New York,” he said. “I’ve discovered the intensity of opinion in the New York Jewish community and the range of expression.”
Now, as his tenure at the CJH comes to an end, Myers said that the campaign hadn’t darkened his time at the organization.
“After the first two unpleasant moths, I had a great time here,” he said.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.