For four years, I proudly ran a prominent, storied, apolitical organization: The American Jewish Historical Society, the oldest ethnic archive in the United States. The mission of the organization is simple, and deeply in line with Jewish values: To collect, preserve and showcase the history of our people in America.
When I arrived at AJHS in 2013, I had several goals in mind. I wanted to make the archive come alive to the public through program and exhibition. Additionally, I wanted to add to the impressive collections by acquiring high-profile archives of Jewish organizations, families, and people throughout American history. I also vowed to partner with the Center for Jewish History (where AJHS is housed) and all the partners that live under its roof for all of our benefit. Finally, I needed to stabilize the AJHS financially and to increase the public profile. I was looking to build on the august history of the AJHS archive and take the organization to the next levels in all of the aforementioned areas.
During my tenure, I added over 10,000 linear feet to the archive—including the full archives of Hadassah, and HIAS from mid-20th century to the present, the Klinghoffer archive, and several smaller family collections. Our program revenue quadrupled, and we gained a younger and more diverse audience as we connected programming and exhibition to collections. I hired a small but efficient and dedicated administrative staff to support fundraising, programming, and operations. I curated four museum-quality shows, each one receiving national coverage and full feature articles in The New York Times, as well as television and radio exposure. I wrote op-eds publicizing our work that were published in The Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the New York Daily News, and other outlets. I closed the inherited budget-deficit gap for three straight years—and, for the first time in decades, raised the annual budget and finished the years 2014-2016 in the black.
But the facts of my obvious dedication—to the preservation of Jewish memory, as well as to this specific institution—evaporated seemingly overnight, after an honest misstep on my part sparked a blitzkrieg attack by a small group of partisan activists with no previous (or, I’d predict, future) ties to the organization. The details and conclusion of my story may be unique, but sadly they reveal broader trends in both Jewish and American civic life—trends that are driven by technology and politics, and which are ahistorical, narrow-minded, and ultimately toxic to us as individuals and as a community. It is, I believe, vital to examine them.
A year ago, I approved the hosting of two programs that included people who were personally affiliated with Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing organization that supports the boycott movement against Israel. Neither program dealt with modern Israel, and neither was politically motivated. Neither had anything to do with boycotts—which, for record, I oppose—or the existence of the State of Israel today, which, for the record, I support as an ardent Zionist.
The first was a musical comedy by a New York writer. I had read drafts of the play, which I found touching and irreverent and funny. It fit perfectly within the conversations about immigration, identity, and history that we as an organization had been exploring all year. I did not know that the playwright was an active member of JVP, nor did I even think to ask—as this sort of personal tzitzis-checking of individual participants had simply never been part of our routine in putting together programs or events.
The second program was designed around the Balfour Declaration—the original handwritten draft is in our current show, “1917: How One Year Changed the World”—and here I did have knowledge of a connection to JVP. One of the panelists, Robert Herbst, sits on its board, but the idea to include him in our event did not come from me or anyone on my staff but rather from two sitting AJHS board members—who had seen Herbst speak at their own synagogue and found him to be an engaging and compelling presenter. Given that the suggestion came from the board itself, I did not at first see anything amiss when Herbst suggested we list JVP as a co-sponsor so that we could get the organization to promote our event to its members. These are people who hold what I believe to be misguided, historically inaccurate opinions about Israel; the idea that they might come into our space, and maybe even possibly find their understanding of history expanded, struck me as precisely the point of a program like this one. No money changed hands; no modern political angle was on the docket.
Nevertheless, as it was soon explained to me, this was a fantasy of an ideal world—whereas, in our real one, co-sponsorship is often seen as a message of acceptance or even support. Moreover, it turned out that one of our staffers, who was involved in programming, had once expressed support for the BDS movement on her personal Facebook page—which some felt led to the distinct impression that an anti-Israel position was being staked out when that could not have been further from the truth.
I quickly understood that a mistake had been made. I did not cancel the events, because, even in the face of mistakes, I think it is wrong for organizations not to honor commitments and contracts that they made in good faith. But I apologized to my board and to my colleagues for my naïveté and misjudgment. I sent out emails, made phone calls, and explained that I had instituted steps to ensure that we wouldn’t make this kind of mistake going forward.
But it was too late. A ragtag group of right-wing activists—the most vocal of which were led by a brash, abrasive New York publicist named Ronn Torossian—caught wind of the error and decided to make an example of me. In the course of my tenure at the Society, I had engaged with hundreds of people invested in our work—supporters, critics, historians, and regular folks. I had never heard of any of these people before, and I got the distinct sense that they had never before heard of me—and, in many cases, had never heard of AJHS.
Nevertheless, they blindly entered our space and boldly declared themselves to be the experts on it.
They declared me an “enemy of the State of Israel” and told me flatly that they were going to use me to help take down my teacher, colleague, and friend, David N. Myers, whom they had attacked in the previous months. They called for my job, asserted lies in various Jewish press claiming that AJHS hosted “multiple” anti-Israel programs and that we were in “cahoots” with every organization that supported BDS. Torossian threatened to drag my family into the fray, using my father-in-law’s celebrity to gain traction for his story by saying he was somehow pressuring me to not cancel the play.
I spoke to some of them on the phone and tried to reason with them—to no avail. The emails, often dozens a day, were relentless and threatened my reputation, my job, my “legacy,” and ultimately, my safety. More than a few had violent undertones (“I’ve had a good time with this. When I meet you, I’ll give you something to remember me by.”) Within days, I was in the middle of what can only be described as a raging fire of a PR crisis.
Upon arrival to California for a work trip, I discovered that these two events had been canceled without my knowledge, despite the fact that, according to my job description, I had authority over programming. (An AJHS board member confirmed to Tablet that this decision was “no longer for the executive director to make.”) I only discovered what had happened when I turned on my phone after the flight to a series of buzzes and dings that lasted from the runway to baggage claim.
As news of the cancellations got out, some of the right-wing activists who had threatened my safety only days before began sending me congratulatory emails for doing the “right thing.” But the move only meant that I was now a piñata for their comrades on the far left. Friends I had known and respected for years suddenly turned on me, calling me spineless and claiming that I was acting as a censor. My colleagues did not support me publicly—though many reached out privately, telling me they were sympathetic or even outright appalled by my interrogators, but too scared to say so publicly, lest the mob turn against them. I asked two members of my board to issue a statement of support. They refused, clearly spooked: worried about decreased donations, worried about their own reputations and congregations.
When I returned to New York I was told that I could no longer be trusted to run programming for AJHS and that going forward, I needed to “vet” everyone that I came into professional contact with to determine their personal political affiliations, lest they be outside the purview of whichever programming we were sponsoring. It was suggested by the leadership of a partner organization that we no longer do programming at all and that we cease partnerships completely, so as not to give anyone “fuel.”
Instead, I resigned.
I write this not to elicit sympathy or cause damage to an organization I believe in strongly. I have a new job with a wonderful cultural institution—ironically, a historically vital and important Israeli one. Nor am I concerned that the archive itself is in danger. Long after I leave my office chair, the magnificent and important collection of the American Jewish Historical Society—built by the dedication and brilliance of hundreds, over 125 years—will stand as a testament to the great contributions of the Jewish people in the United States.
But I want my story to stand as a cautionary tale about the dangers of this moment in history. The Jewish-American landscape is now littered with talented people too scared or too exhausted to face a landscape controlled by bands of ignorant zealots—whose sole occupation seems to be to move week to week setting fires in places with strapped resources but meaningful and important purposes.
Instead of standing loyally with the individuals who have committed their personal and professional lives to a given Jewish organization, board members and trustees have in recent times too easily come to side with Twitter mobs and those behind them. Partisan politics is replacing all other forms of personal and communal connections, even for Jews—such that it is now common for people to side with utter strangers they know only via Facebook or email over people with whom they’ve worked for years, even decades; over people they know—first-hand—to be committed to Jewish values, because they have devoted years of their life to them. For a community that obsesses so much over how and why a younger generation feels put off at the prospect of engaging with Jewish institutions, it would seem prudent that they might focus on what their capitulation to these internet storms is transmitting to our kids. The lesson, at least in my case, could easily be that it doesn’t matter how devoted one is to Jewish communal life, and for how many years. In an instant, even for a simple mistake or misjudgment, you can be isolated and vilified by the very people who sold you on the idea of the importance of community.
My story also has an additional wrinkle of irony, in that the very mission of the organization involved was the assertion of the importance of maintaining a historical perspective on the Jewish story—as opposed to only valuing the urgent but often ephemeral nature of one’s current moment in time.
Recently, I attended a roundtable discussion with a half-dozen other prominent Jewish New Yorkers who had been subjected to similar attacks and character assassination by these “activists,” and one person at the discussion described us as “collateral damage” in the grand scheme of the American Jewish story. I won’t accept this fate. It is a Faustian bargain for the Jewish community as a whole to trade talent and passion for some mythic notion of ideological purity that we never enjoyed–and which will never placate this new iteration of zealotry anyway.
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Rachel Lithgow served for the last four years as the Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society.