The topic of loyalty as it relates to the Jewish people has come up recently in the news, on account of statements made by the current occupant of the White House. Any questioning of Jewish loyalty raises red flags, because the accusation of divided loyalties is a longstanding anti-Semitic trope. Of course you don’t have to be Jewish to suffer from this sort of suspicion, but it represents a concern of particular import for us, on account of our long history as a diaspora people. In fact, it goes back almost to the very beginning. After all, it is the pharaoh’s unfounded fear of disloyalty that led him to enslave the Israelites and order the death of every firstborn Hebrew son.
The president’s statements reflect an odd kind of reversal, as he accused American Jews of being disloyal for voting Democratic. He left open and ambiguous the question disloyal to whom, later clarifying that he meant disloyal to Israel, as opposed to the typical charge of disloyalty to our native land. But this carries the unstated assumption that divided loyalties would be the norm for us, and that it’s expected that we would place our loyalty to Israel first.
There is an even more troubling logic implied by these statements. It is based on the claim that the current administration has been especially supportive of the State of Israel. The reasoning that follows begins with the premise that our primary and perhaps only priority is Israel, then that the Republicans have done more for Israel than the Democrats, and therefore American Jews should vote Republican. It follows that you cannot be loyal to Israel unless you also are loyal to the Republican Party.
As disturbing as this may be, what the current president and head of the Republican Party seems really to be saying here is that American Jews ought to be loyal to him specifically, and the vast majority of us who favor Democratic candidates are disloyal. Disloyal to Israel, to the Jewish people, and to him.
Above all, we are disloyal to him, and therefore, by his tortured logic, we are disloyal to the United States.
We know that this president seems mainly to be concerned with personal loyalty. For example, former FBI director James Comey relates that in a one-on-one meeting back in 2017, the president told him that he needed and expected loyalty from Comey. As Comey observed, such demands for loyalty are characteristic of organized crime bosses, not government officials.
And in another recent news item, CNN’s Chris Cuomo was caught on video losing his temper after a heckler called him Fredo, a taunt that he took as a slur against Italian-Americans. Our president repeated that taunt in one of his tweets. The reference is to the younger son of mob boss Vito Corleone from the film The Godfather. (Chris Cuomo is the younger son of former New York State governor Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, and the younger brother of its current governor, Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat.) Fredo is also a weak and feckless character. Bullied by Las Vegas mobster Moe Greene—a character based on Bugsy Siege —Fredo still defends his abuser when Greene is confronted by Fredo’s older brother, Michael, who has taken over as head of the Corleone family. Afterward, Michael scolds Fredo in private, saying, “Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” (In the sequel, Fredo fails to heed this advice. It is a fatal error.)
In this instance, the relationship actually is familial, but it is also true that criminal gangs or mobs often are referred to as crime families. The family metaphor for loyalty to the group is used quite frequently. Military units are referred to as a “band of brothers.” Christianity has its fathers, brothers, and sisters. King James I of England, in arguing for the divine rights of hereditary rulers, declared that the monarch is parens patriae, the parent of the people. Even in our republic we have our founding fathers, with George Washington referred to as father of our country (memorialized in the city that bears his name with a
suitably phallic monument).
Family loyalty is the most basic form of loyalty, which is why it forms the basis of personal loyalty. A friend is like a brother or sister, marriage and adoption extend family loyalty beyond blood relations, and the naming of a godfather and godmother establishes additional forms of family ties.
Family loyalty is fundamental to our survival as a species. And while we tend to emphasize the importance of the nuclear family unit, this represents a fairly recent departure from (and in many ways an amputation of) the extended family or clan that has been the dominant social group throughout human history. When the extended family is itself extended, we have the tribe, and extended even further, we have a nation. This is the story of the family of Jacob, whose progeny become the 12 tribes that in turn form a single people, the Jewish nation.
All nations traditionally were based on the notion of kinship, the idea that the people all were cousins, many times removed. The monarch, as parent, embodied the nation, so that personal loyalties to kings and queens was identified with loyalty to the nation. Famously, Louis XIV of France declared, “l’etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”). This is not supposed to be the case when it comes to a republic, but there is cause to wonder whether the current president agrees.
It is important to understand that the Jewish nation survived the Roman destruction of the Second Temple and the diaspora. In the centuries that followed, in the words of Rabbi Jacob Neusner, “Jews knew who they were. They were a nation in exile.” As foreigners who were at best mildly tolerated, often oppressed and persecuted, our loyalty was never in question—it was understood that our loyalty was to our own Jewish nation, not to our hosts. As guests, we would not take sides against the nation, but we were, by definition, disloyal.
The American Revolution resulted in the birth of the first nation to be founded not on some notion of shared ancestry, but rather on a rational argument. The establishment of freedom of religion early in the history of the new republic was significant, but so was the fact that its citizens came from a number of different nations, so that citizenship was divorced from conceptions of kinship, and therefore was available to Jew as well as Gentile.
By way of contrast, following the French Revolution, Jews were able to become citizens of France, but only by reducing their identity down to one of religious affiliation. To become French, they had to renounce all ties to being a part of the Jewish nation. This set the stage for increasing ambiguity and confusion about the nature of Jewish identity in the West that remains with us to this day. It did not, however, put an end to discrimination and persecution, whether it was on the basis of religious prejudice, or ideas about racial purity and ethnic cleansing on the part of Nazis and white supremacists (race, ethnicity, and nationality being synonymous).
Citizenship was liberating, but required loyalty to the nation-state, which opened up questions of dual and divided loyalties for many groups, not the least being our own. This was intensified by the establishment of the State of Israel. And it is worth noting that Israel does not officially recognize an Israeli nationality, but rather is a multinational state in which citizens are identified as Jews, Arabs, Druze, and many other nationalities.
Of course, in its Basic Laws or constitution, Israel declares itself to be “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” Not surprisingly, diaspora Jews have, for the most part, demonstrated a significant degree of support for Israel; it’s lessened somewhat over the years, but still it is fairly strong. But loyalty is a two-way street, something that our president doesn’t seem to recognize. For that matter, how much loyalty does the State of Israel show towards that portion of the Jewish nation that lives outside of its borders? Mainly, it’s through the right of return, and I don’t mean to downplay its importance. But after all, the right of return is about immigrating to Israel, not about loyalty to diaspora communities.
Is Israel loyal to the rest of the Jewish nation when it questions our very identity as Jews? When it fails to grant equal status to Reform and Conservative Judaism, to our rituals and rabbis? When it fails to grant equal access to the Western Wall to those of us who want to engage in egalitarian prayer?
Is Israel loyal to the rest of the Jewish nation when it disregards our warnings about the danger of the current president to American Jews, to the United States, to Israel as well, and to the rest of the world? Is this, then, a case of unrequited loyalty?
For us, to be loyal American citizens, we are required to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States, and to pledge our allegiance to the American republic rather than to any foreign ruler or state. This does not preclude us from membership in the Jewish nation, or support for the State of Israel. The great American experiment in democracy, to which we most certainly are loyal, is one that allows for additional loyalties, religious, ethnic, cultural, occupational, and political, as long as they do not conflict with the rule of law and democratic government.
And that is why it is a mistake to refer to divided loyalties. It’s the wrong mathematical metaphor. Let us instead refer to multiplied loyalties, loyalties that can be shared, enhanced, and expanded. Loyalties that are not divisive, but inclusive. Loyalties that are, or ought to be, in harmony with one another. Loyalties to our family, our people, and our country, to all of humanity, and to all forms of life that inhabit this planet, to all of creation. Loyalties that are not part of some zero-sum game, but rather, loyalties that are made stronger by their multiplication, and that make us and our world a better place.
In sum, dual loyalties do not have to be dueling loyalties.