Dual Allegiance

At the recent World Congress of Jewish Studies, held in Jerusalem in August, Israeli philosopher Eliezer Schweid gave an impassioned response to a panel on Judaism, Zionism, and the Diaspora. He began by claiming that the election of Barak Obama … Read More

By / September 9, 2009

At the recent World Congress of Jewish Studies, held in Jerusalem in August, Israeli philosopher Eliezer Schweid gave an impassioned response to a panel on Judaism, Zionism, and the Diaspora. He began by claiming that the election of Barak Obama forever changed America. He did not weigh-in on what he thought of Obama’s policies but implied that whatever happens – to Obama – to his administration, America is now, and forever, a different place. He then extended this jeremiad to Israel, suggesting that the consequences of globalization to Israeli identity and culture require a radical re-thinking of Zionism’s role in the construction of Israeli/Jewish identity in the twenty-first century. While Schweid did not overtly link his assessment of these two civilizations, such linkage is reasonable. And while he did not mention Obama’s June 4th Cairo speech in his remarks, I suggest it fits into his declaration.

Jews have been accused of dual-allegiance, or been suspected of it, at least since Napoleon’s Count Mole questioned a Jewish council of elders on July 29, 1806. (“Napoleon’s Instructions to the Assembly of Jewish Notables”). Mole asked how the Jews, who openly consider themselves members of a separate people with a separate culture and identity, could be trusted to be loyal citizens of the French Republic. The elders assured the council that while they considered themselves members of the Jewish people, their allegiance to Jewish collectivity was religious and not nationalistic and thus does not in any way infringe upon their patriotism to the French Republic. The Jews of France were granted citizenship soon after. The French motto of emancipation “for the Jew, everything, for the Jewish people, nothing,” became the pact of the French Republic and its Jews to this day.

As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, and as the Jews steadily shifted from Europe to America, the Jews never quite liberated themselves of the suspicion of dual-allegiance even as they largely remained loyal citizens of European nation-states, and perhaps the most well-integrated minority in the United States. Zionism created new challenges for Jews in America who now had to face the potential conflict between their American citizenship and their religious or ethnic allegiance as Jews that had now become politicized in a “Jewish” nation-state in which they were all, according to the Right of Return, virtual citizens. But even here, for most of Israel’s history, Israeli and U.S. interests were so aligned that dual-allegiance rarely surfaced as a topic of examination and discussion outside the university seminar room. But it is there, always there, especially as American Zionism morphed into a purely statist movement. As one historian suggested “there is no longer any Zionism in America, Zionism has become pro-Israelism.”


The following is a true story. I have changed the names and places to protect those involved. Jason just graduated from college in Los Angeles. He grew up in a Modern Orthodox home, went to a Modern Orthodox day school and spent his post high-school year in Israel as is the custom among many Modern Orthodox youth. He is smart, talented, and well-educated. He talked about applying to law school. One day he approached his parents and revealed something he had been hiding for some time: he wants to join the army. The US Army. His reasons were clear enough. He was raised in an upper middle-class American home and received all the benefits America had to offer. He felt the need to do service in thanks for that gift. He did not want to be a combat solider; he had no visions of heroism. With a college degree he could go straight to officer training. He wanted to work in intelligence. He also believed the military would be a worthwhile experience. All noble reasons. He parents were perplexed. They couldn’t understand; why would an American Jew raised Modern Orthodox and a Zionist want to join the U.S. military? They could accept, reluctantly, or at least understand if he chose to become non-religious. But joining the US armed forces? In many segments of American society, that is an honor. But it is not common among upper-middle class Jews from Los Angeles.

More interesting than his parent’s bewilderment was his community’s reaction. Many asked him, “Why don’t you join the Israeli army?” His response was blunt and to the point. “Because I am not an Israeli!” That is, his desire for doing service was to pay back the gifts he had received growing up in America. While he defined himself as a Zionist, Israel had given him nothing like that –  how could it? His questioners nodded but did not really understand. If he had said he was joining the Israeli army he would have been viewed with pride, perhaps even been honored at his local synagogue before his departure. With his present aspirations, he was at best a curiosity, at worst, an anomaly. This was not always the case. Jews of all stripes served courageously in the U.S. in all of its wars. And it was considered an honor in the Jewish community to have served. But as our questioners have shown, this no longer seems to be the case.

What exactly did his American Jewish questioners not understand? This is where things become interesting, and troubling. His questioners were, of course, American citizens. They may have relatives in Israel, they may not. They may have spent time there, or not. All support Israel. Some are probably wealthy enough to live there (albeit they would have to downsize considerably) but choose to live here. They choose the Diaspora where they benefit from living in the most prosperous country in the world. And yet they ask Jason, with little or no reflection, why not fight and risk your life for a foreign army instead of the country in which you are a citizen, the country whose embassy you would take refuge if you were in danger on foreign soil.

There are, of course, many answers. For example, Israel’s law of return makes all Diaspora Jews virtual citizens. All a Jew has to do is arrive at Ben Gurion airport or enter an Israeli embassy anywhere in the world and state one’s desire for citizenship. But coming under the protectorate of the Israeli state requires an act, without which a Diaspora Jew is not the responsibility of Israeli authorities. Or, perhaps, according to one strain of Zionism, Israel’s very reason for existence was to provide a haven for Jews under persecution. Fighting in the IDF is fighting to protect that. Fair enough. But the Jews in the U.S. are not being persecuted. And more than ninety-five percent of the world’s Jews now live in democratic countries where they are free to practice their religion and culture. And if this is all about anti-Semitism, we all know that Israel has not solved that problem. Quite the opposite. Israel may want them to immigrate, even need them to immigrate, and they may choose to immigrate, but Israel’s existence is not saving them from anything, at least not now. 

Perhaps it is the case that their Zionism is stronger than their American patriotism. In principle, this is not troubling. Multiethnic American does not deny dual-allegiance in principle. It has diplomatic agreements with numerous countries – Israel included – enabling its citizens to be dual-citizens. But when this Zionism is expressed as something more than religion or culture, more than identity, when it is expressed as choosing the country one wishes to serve regardless of whether one chooses to live there, this is another matter entirely. Here, I suggest, the specter of dual-allegiance raises its head in a new way.

The question of dual-allegiance has a long history for Jews. Its latest instantiation in the US was not Obama’s Cairo speech but a few years prior with the publication of John Mersheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby in early 2007. The book itself, good or bad, right or wrong, is more important for what it generated than what it argued. It generated three distinct but related responses:

First, a vociferous American Jewish defense of AIPAC including the precipitous growth of Israel advocacy organizations and Pro-Israel watchdog groups around the country; second, the emergence of J-Street, a progressive Israel lobby in Washington that seeks to re-define the very contours and parameters of “Pro-Israel” that were the exclusive property of AIPAC and its supporters; and third, a more serious review of American policy in regards to Israel and the Middle East outside the doctrinal precept coined by Louis Brandeis that “to be a good Zionist is to be a good American.”

This is perhaps better formulated by the cultural theorist Randolph Bourne in his essay “The Jew and Trans-National America” published in the Menorah Journal in December 1916. “The Zionist does not believe that there is a necessary conflict between the cultural allegiance to a Jewish centre and political allegiance to a State…[he can be a complete Jew] and at the same time..a complete citizen of any modern political State where he happened to live and where he work and interest lay…The Jew is proving every day the possibility of a dual life.” Bourne, of course, was writing long before the establishment of the State of Israel and a year before the Balfour declaration. His remarks were aimed at the idea of the melting pot that was sweeping America immediately following the mass immigrations from Europe (1880-1920) and the Great War. Both Bourne and Brandeis express a largely unspoken theme of American Zionism that extends to the present day, a theme that may be experiencing new resistance.

The fact that Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League, published a book-length refutation of The Israel Lobby in The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control that same year (September 2007) only strengthens my point. The claims in The Israel Lobby were significant enough to merit an immediate and full-throttled response. I find Foxman’s title quite suggestive. By using “Lies,” “Israel Lobby,” and “myth of Jewish control” in the title he draws a subliminal connection between the book’s approach and anti-Semitism, “Jewish control” gesturing to the claims made in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the fabricated vicious anti-Semitic tract that has caused so much damage to Jewry. I do not think Foxman intended to openly accuse Mersheimer and Walt of anti-Semitism. That would have been both unfounded and irresponsible.  Rather, it was to suggest that the whole notion of disproportionate Jewish influence in Washington is different only in degree and not in kind from the anti-Semitic rhetoric of The Protocols. The irony of all this is that Mersheimer and Walt are claiming – critically – that AIPAC has been too successful as a lobbying group whose job it is (like any lobbying group) to influence government officials in Washington. In defense of AIPAC, Foxman and others had to claim that AIPAC is actually less influential, and thus less successful as a lobbying organization, than The Israel Lobby suggests.

Setting aside the claims and counter-claims, the question of dual-allegiance stands as the center of The Israel Lobby’s thesis. Even if one discounts The Israel Lobby’s analysis and conclusions, this should be taken seriously. The recent accusation by a Netanyahu aide that Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod were “self-hating Jews” feeds frighteningly into the (anti-Semitic) dual-allegiance myth. That is, to question the Jewish allegiance of Jews influential in the US government for advocating the interests of their country when they counter the policies of the Israel state is invoking the rhetoric of The Protocols.

But perhaps the first tangible indication that dual-allegiance may once again be an issue for American Jewry was Obama’s  Cairo speech, probably the most important speech by a US president in a generation. Obama’s speech changed the rules of a game that has been played in the Middle East since the 1960s. From another angle, Obama’s Cairo speech showed us all that some of the claims made in The Israel Lobby could actually become a reality. I say this non-judgmentally. Perhaps this is good, perhaps not, that all depends on one’s political perspective. In any case, after the Cairo speech, The Israel Lobby no longer mattered. The move had already been made. U.S. policy had changed in practice if not also in principle.

What was so troubling about Obama’s speech for the “Israel Lobby”? His comments on Israel and Palestine essentially leveled the playing field. Israelis and Palestinians each have a tragic narrative that solidifies both their national aspirations. On the Jews he said, “the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” Of the Palestinians he said, “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation.” The locution “on the other hand” was hotly contested by Jews in the weeks following the speech because of its implication of moral equivalency. But this was precisely the point. As long as the hierarchy of suffering remains part of each people’s discourse, nothing just can be achieved. The dissolution of hierarchy, even as one may continue to maintain its validity as a matter of principle, history, or theology, is the pre-requisite for any just settlement. It is not as much a statement of moral equivalency as a claim that the whole notion of hierarchy and equivalency is unproductive.

Obama addressed the discomfort of the Jews by acknowledging that the sustained tragic history of the Jewish people, explicitly mentioning the Holocaust by name, is unassailable. This was then followed by a three-pronged tragic history of the Palestinians: dislocation, humiliation, and occupation. The mention of the Holocaust was, of course, as much directed at Muslims as Jews. Not said, but implied, is that the Jews suffered primarily under Christendom, and the Palestinians suffered under the Jews (represented by Israel, Christianity as “colonialism” perhaps implicated here as well). And the Palestinians (representing themselves and the larger Arab world) have victimized both Christendom (Europe and the U.S.) and the Jews (Israel) through the violence of terrorism (a word he intentionally avoided). All three are perpetrators. All three are victims.

The speech acknowledges by implication that on every scale imaginable, the Holocaust outweighs the suffering of the Palestinians, in scope and breadth, in numbers and in structure, but Obama claims this is, and must be, politically irrelevant. To a mother holding her dead son it does not matter if there are 1,000 like her or 1,000,000 like her, if her ancestors held their dead children for four generations or four thousand.

In addition, Obama remarked quite significantly that while formal occupation of the Palestinians may have begun in 1967, their “dislocation” (the first prong of their tragic history) began in 1948, legitimizing, or at least acknowledging, the Palestinian commemoration of the Nakhba (Catastrophe) as a day marking the establishment of the State of Israel. He said, “It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding…”. This is significant in part because the Israeli Knesset is now debating contentious legislation that would make open commemoration of the Nakhba illegal. Implied here, without any indication it can be fully rectified, is that Palestinian “dislocation” was not solely the result of the Six-Day war. The “tragic history” of the Palestinians did not begin in 1967 but in 1948. Obama simultaneously acknowledged the viability and justness of Israel’s existence and the Palestinian narrative about Israel’s founding.

Many Jews who support present-day Israeli policies were deeply, and understandably, troubled by this speech. By extension, the speech also raised the specter of dual-allegiance. Dual-allegiance becomes manifest as a political matter only when the interests of two countries to which an individual is aligned are in conflict, “unbreakable historical and cultural ties” notwithstanding.

Today this dual-allegiance has a twin origin. On the one hand, Obama’s speech made it quite clear what he envisions for Israel/Palestine. Many of the settlements must go. Israel must relinquish significant territory on which a Palestinian state will be created. Many American Jews support this. Many do not. My assumption is that the Jason’s Modern Orthodox questioners largely do not.  Obama’s approval rating among Modern Orthodox Jews is quite low. To disagree, even vociferously, with American policy is part of our democracy. But for an American Jew to suggest another American citizen enlist in a foreign army (I use this term intentionally as the IDF is, for any American, a foreign army) instead of the army of his own country, this merits investigation.

Let me be clear. Every Diaspora Jew has the right to choose to enlist in the IDF, even if he or she does not use it as a path toward Israeli citizenship and absorption (kelita). There are numerous programs where American Jews volunteer in the IDF for a period of time. This is not the issue. The issue here is the logic underlying Jason’s questioners, the inability, or unwillingness, to understand that a young man would feel the obligation to give back to his country and yet encourage him to risk his life for another country.  In my mind, Jason had the correct response, “I am not an Israeli.” Jason lives as a Jew, even a Zionist, and an American, in a way Randolph Bourne had hoped. But his questioners did not seem to comprehend “Israeliness” as an operative category. They felt he should serve in the IDF as a Jew, not as an Israeli.

This is where dual-allegiance becomes problematic. Israel is country, a nation-state, even if defined as a “Jewish” state. It must act according to its best national interest even if they conflict with the interests of its largest supporters, even, I might add, at the risk of losing some of that support. But “Jew” is not an identity linked to a nation-state. Twenty percent of Israelis are not Jewish and close to fifty percent of Jews are not Israelis. To collapse the category of “Jew” and “Israeli” in a way that makes serving in the Israeli (not “Jewish”) army an honor and serving in the U.S. army an anomaly points to a troubling dimension of Zionism in America.

The Israel Lobby, right or wrong in its analysis, brought to the surface the specter of something that always challenged American Jews. Obama raised the stakes. The popular bumper sticker “I Love New York but Jerusalem is my Home,” is not innocent. It points to a problem American Jewry has yet to face head on.

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