Controversial Speaker Sticks to History

Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish history at New York University, discusses Jewish immigration at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation on Monday. (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 Congregation, despite concern by event  organizer the Foundation for Jewish Studies about potential disruption from a group opposed to Diner’s opinions about Israel.

Last week, the right-wing 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, who stayed for all four hours of lecture. “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for Jewish Studies, said he’d received angry and threatening emails from people who wanted to see Diner’s platform withdrawn in the lead-up to Monday.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 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  immigration. 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 Trefa 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 right-wing 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 of 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.”

Jared Foretek is a reporter at Washington Jewish Week, a sister publication of the  Baltimore Jewish Times.

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