The Forward’s Gal Beckerman reported this week on new concerns about “dual loyalties” among American Jews, and talked about it in a podcast with colleagues (listen here). “So totally aligned have the United States and Israeli governments been for most of the past 20 years,” he writes, “that American Jews have not been forced to seriously consider that these two identities could be in conflict.” In other words, he feels the charge of dual loyalties becomes an issue to the extent that the foreign policy of the United States differs from Israel’s.
That’s a peculiarly myopic view of an accusation that has dogged the Jewish people (and others) for centuries. The charge of dual loyalty has historically been existential: that Jews are by nature inclined to put their own interests ahead of allegiance to their country. It is seen as a devotion that transcends momentary policy debates. When Jonathan Pollard was accused of espionage in 1985, fears of the dual-loyalty charge had nothing to do with disagreements about foreign relations. Jews were afraid that they would be seen, like Pollard, as willing on principle to breach the security of the United States for the sake of Israel.
In the 1930s, before the State of Israel existed, fears of the dual-loyalty charge centered on the fate of Europe’s Jews. The American Jewish community was fearful that it would be denounced for placing the welfare of fellow Jews above the best interests of the United States. When war broke out in 1939 the U.S. was officially neutral, and Jews were afraid to advocate entering the war for the same reason. It was not a question of loyalty to another country, but rather to one’s own people.
German Jews had the same trepidation. After World War I conspiracy theories circulated, saying the Jews had disloyally “stabbed Germany in the back.” It is no coincidence that the representative body of liberal Jews in Germany, founded in 1893, was called the Central-Verein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens, the Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, pointedly stressing that its members were Germans first. Even three generations before, as David Myers has written, the “anti-Jewish agitators of the illiberal, post-Napoleonic era…continually raised the specter of Jewish clannishness and disloyalty.”
And it’s not just Jews who stand accused. When John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the Presidency in 1960, he spoke out in West Virginia against recent, widespread allegations of his “divided loyalty” as a Catholic. He declared he believed in an America where “no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope.” In 1928, when the Democratic Party nominated another Catholic, Alfred E. Smith, as its presidential candidate, Smith was similarly accused of being “totally subservient to the Vatican,” again not because of any particular stance but as a matter of identity.
It’s understandable that 21st-century American Jews would want to believe that the question of dual loyalties comes down whether they agree or disagree with Israel’s policies rather than their identity as Jews. After all, that’s how many Jewish Americans experience it: they think of themselves as citizens of the United States who are entitled to different opinions about Israel. Some take special pride in holding Israel to American values rather than working to maintain America’s support for Israel.
But as Jews in Europe and Latin America know especially well, Jews still are widely seen as a distinct people who not entirely integrated into the countries where they live. The Germans never believed that Jews were “German citizens of the Jewish faith”; they saw Jews as an alien people with their own agenda. There have been similar sentiments in the United States for a long time, leading to the long-held prejudice that Jews are not entirely loyal to America first. It’s possible that those feelings have suddenly dissipated. It is also possible that that’s wishful thinking.
Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. His Twitter feed of news about Jewish culture can be found at http://twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.
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