Jewish historian renounces Zionism, but at least she’s being honest


By Rafael Medoff/

American Jewish historian Hasia Diner is facing widespread criticism over her public renunciation of Israel and Zionism.

I say: Thanks, Hasia, for your honesty.

New York University (NYU) banners. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Diner is the Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg professor of American Jewish history at New York University (NYU), and director of NYU's Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History. In an August 1 op-ed in Haaretz, she described how she was raised in the Labor Zionist youth movement Habonim, but by 2010 no longer considered herself a Zionist. She wrote that she now "abhors" visiting Israel, "will not buy" Israeli-made products and feels "a sense of repulsion" when entering a synagogue that publicly affirms its support of Israel. Zionism itself is a "naive delusion," she asserted.

If Diner acts on her principles, the consequences will not be insignificant. For example, she will no longer be able to accept speaking engagements at the vast majority of synagogues in the United States, since these are vocally pro-Israel.

Ironically, among the synagogues she would not visit is Chicago's North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (its mission statement declares: "We are committed to supporting Israel"), where there is a children's school named after the same Paul S. and Sylva Steinberg who underwrite Diner's own position at NYU.

I do not know exactly how the Steinbergs feel about Israel, although their decision to sponsor a school that is part of a pro-Israel synagogue may provide some indication. But there's no doubt how the sponsors of Diner's Goldstein-Goren Center feel about Israel: the Cukier, Goldstein-Goren Foundation was established by three European Jews whose lives were saved by the very same Zionism that Hasia Diner abhors, and who made their fortune – the fortune that supports that center at NYU – in the State of Israel that Prof. Diner now boycotts.

Mordechai (Max) Cukier and his family – including his son in law Avram "Dolphi" Goldstein and Dolphi's young son Alex – fled from Romania in the midst of the raging Holocaust. Those were the years when, as Chaim Weizmann famously remarked, the world was "divided into places where Jews cannot live and places where they cannot enter."

One of the very few places where they could go was Eretz Yisrael (land of Israel in Hebrew), which was known as British Mandatory Palestine at the time. Of course, the 1939 British White Paper severely limited Jewish immigration. But for those who qualified for British visas – or who were smuggled into the country by Zionist activists – their haven was made possible by the Zionist movement. During the previous three decades, Zionist pioneers drained swamps and built cities, developing a thriving Jewish community that grew from barely 50,000 to more than 500,000 people.

Zionism was no "naive delusion" for the Cukier, Goldstein-Goren family. It sheltered them from the Nazis, and provided a community where they could rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Max and Dolphi built an enormously successful international textile business based in Israel. They also established a charitable foundation that became a significant source of support for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beersheba, and whose current supported projects are primarily located in Israel, according to its website. Dolphi's son Alex has served as president of the foundation and president of the American Associates of Ben-Gurion University. I wonder how Diner felt about attending the BGU ceremony last year at which he was awarded an honorary degree.

Who will be most affected by Diner's confession of her true feelings about Israel? Parents of Jewish college students, and donors to the Goldstein Goren Center at NYU.

The spread of anti-Israel boycott activity on campuses has become a major source of anxiety within the American Jewish community, especially among parents of college students. Before parents plunk down $48,000 each year for tuition to NYU, they have a right to know if the professors who will be teaching their sons and daughters are pro-Israel, anti-Israel or somewhere in between.

Diner now says she discarded her old Zionist sentiments in 2010. However, she did not publicly disclose her views until last week. Which means that for the past six years, parents of potential students had no way of knowing her real views – and thus no way to make an informed decision on whether to send their children to be taught by her.

Rafael Medoff

The same is true for members of the Jewish community who donate to the Goldstein-Goren Center. According to its website, part of the Center's mission under Diner is "to train the next generation of scholars" of Jewish history. Can she convince donors that her views on Israel play no role in her training of young Jewish historians? Or, will donors feel uneasy about entrusting that training to someone who is so hostile to the Jewish state that she will not even purchase a container of Israeli-made hummus?

Thank you, Hasia Diner, for being frank about your feelings, and thereby giving parents and donors the ability to make a genuinely informed choice.

Dr. Medoff is the author or editor of 16 books about Jewish history, including The Historical Dictionary of Zionism [with Chaim I. Waxman].

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Posted on August 4, 2016 and filed under Opinion, U.S., Israel.