Disputed speaker sticks to history

Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish history at New York University, discussed Jewish immigration at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue on Monday. Photo by Jared Foretek.

In the end, it was all immigration, no Israel.

Historian Hasia Diner’s lecture on Jewish immigration to the United States from 1820 to 1920 went off without a hitch Monday at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue, despite concern by the event organizer, the Foundation for Jewish Studies, about potential disruption from a group opposed to Diner’s opinions about Israel.

Last week, the rightwing Coalition of Pro-Israel Activists (COPIA) pressured the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington to renege on an agreement to host the event after COPIA publicized a 2016 Haaretz opinion piece in which Diner wrote that due to Israel’s rightward turn, she “abhors” visiting there and will not buy Israeli products or contribute financially to the Jewish state. Adat Shalom then agreed to host the daylong event,
On Monday, Israel was not on the docket. In her four-part lecture, Diner stuck to her scholarship, largely centered on Jewish immigration to the United States and the Jewish experience in America.

Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, told stories of immigrant families coming over from the Russian empire, discussed the American industries that served as magnets for Eastern and Central European Jews and debunked the narrative that pogroms were the driving force of Jewish immigration around the turn of the 20th century.


“I think she’s wonderful,” said Marsha Gold of Washington. “It was an incredible presentation and, at least from my perspective, I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to host that. It was a really well-done academic lecture on the history of Jewish immigration. And I’m Jewish, my parents came over from Europe and so I wanted to hear it.”

Rabbi Gordon Fuller, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Studies, said he received angry and threatening emails from people who wanted to see Diner’s platform withdrawn in the lead-up to Monday. He said for the first time in 35 years, his organization brought in two security guards, but released them early when it was clear there was no danger.

And Elaine Amir, the organization’s president, said a number of attendees — some first-timers at a Foundation for Jewish Studies event — had pledged to donate to the organization in support.

Diner also discussed the impact Jews made on American life once they arrived. She talked about how Jews were often on the front-lines of unionization pushes, like those waged at New York City textile factories after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911.

Unlike most other immigrant communities, “the majority of [Jewish] newcomers came and worked for people like themselves,” Diner said. “Jews came and worked for other Jews.” This, she said, gave labor a common bond to appeal to in ownership.

She also spent time dismantling what she described as a common misconception about Jewish immigration, particularly from parts of the Russian empire. Outbreaks of organized anti-Jewish violence, or pogroms, were not a major driving force of emigration. Most Jews who sought to leave, she said, were drawn by the economic opportunities of the United States, even though Canada, the United Kingdom and even Cuba would have provided a reprieve from the danger.

“What we see is a broader motivation than a flight from violence,” Diner said.

Diner also covered the growth of the American Reform movement, and the founding of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

The Treifa Banquet — a meal for the first graduating class that featured a number of non-kosher foods — certainly repulsed some more traditional Jews, Diner said. But it was not, as some believe, the primary motivation for the beginnings of the Conservative movement in America.

That was largely a way to provide newcomers from Europe in the late-1800s a more familiar Jewish tradition once they arrived.

John Spiegel of Silver Spring said he was familiar with Diner’s work — her 11th and most recent book won the National Jewish Book Award — and planned to make a donation to the foundation.

“I was outraged by the effort of this small rightwing group that forced the program out of the JCC and I just felt real appreciation for the foundation not buckling,” Spiegel said. “It made me even more determined to be here.”
Spiegel said Diner’s comments on Israel were “of great interest,” but he was particularly disappointed in the Bender JCC.

“I think it was cowardly. That’s not the majority voice of the Jewish people and it was not the right thing to do. It was just cowardly,” Spiegel said.

Others in attendance, like George Rothstein of Columbia, hadn’t heard anything about Diner’s views on Israel. He said he came because he’s done a lot of genealogical research on his own family, which emigrated during the period covered in Diner’s lecture.

Asked if he thought Diner’s opinions about Israel would have changed his mind about coming, Rothstein said no.
“I’m pretty used to two Jews, three opinions.”

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  1. I am delighted that the Foundation for Jewish Studies has stood by Professor Hasia Diner when she was viciously attacked by the right-wing organizations COPIA/.COPMA. Those organizations had charged that Prof. Diner was an antisemite and anti-Israel activist who should not speak at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. The JCC, which was hosting the lecture sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Studies, immediately caved in to the demands of COPIA/COPMA, arguing that it’s policy was not to host organizations that supported the campaign to boycott Israel (BDS). I am ashamed that they acted in that way, and I will not speak there if ever invited. Fortunately, the Foundation for Jewish Studies found an alternate venue, Congregation Adat Shalom, for Prof. Diner’s lecture. The congregation too is to be commended for not caving in to scurrilous demands.

    Prof. Hasia Diner is one of the leading experts in the world in American Jewish history. She is the author of numerous books in the field, all of them ground breaking, thoroughly researched, and compelling, in which she has thoroughly changed the way we view the American Jewish experience. She has written authoritatively on the Jews from German-speaking Central Europe in the 19th century, on the ways Jewish immigrants understood civil rights for African American in the early 20th century, on Jewish foodways in the age of immigration, on how Jews remembered and commemorated the Holocaust in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, and on Jewish peddlers. She is also the author of a magisterial synthetic history of the Jews in the United States from 1654 to 2000, and several books on the significance of the Lower East Side to American Jews. In short, she is the very best possible speaker for a symposium on Jewish immigration to the United States. I might add that she is a wonderful and engaging lecturer who gives thoughtful and well-prepared lectures.

    The attack on Hasia Diner is appalling. Her critics claim that she is an antisemite, which is blatantly untrue. She is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, raised in a Labor Zionist home, who participated in Habonim, the Zionist youth group, when was young. She belongs to a synagogue and sent her children to Jewish day schools. She has a strong Jewish identity as well as a strong moral conscience. Her critics also claim that she is anti-Israel. While Diner opposes many of the policies of the current right-wing government in Israel, especially in the occupied territories, so too do many Jews, including many Israeli Jews. To insist that scholarly speakers uphold a certain political stance–one held by people on the far right of the political spectrum– is shocking, and assumes that absolute immorality of a perfectly legitimate political stance. To live in a democracy means that we must tolerate the views of people with whom we might disagree and honor their right to hold opposing political views. It is morally wrong to demand a political litmus test to talk in a Jewish institution. As a Jew and as an American, Diner has the right to her political views. Moreover, Diner was not invited to speak about Israel. She will speak about American Jews, her area of expertise, and she will give an interesting talk on that subject.

    The Foundation for Jewish Studies and Congregation Adat Shalom have taken an appropriate moral position. They will host Prof. Diner and they will benefit greatly from hearing a fabulous scholar speak about an important topic. They have also shown that they will not cave in to political pressure from extremists who know nothing at all about the meaning of democracy and freedom of speech.


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