“The architecture in Minsk is impressive,” said the old man.
“On my visit last year,” he went on,” I traveled through the countryside. “The fields were lush and green. I am telling you this because you said your family came from Belarus, and I wanted to share with you my pride in the beauty of our country.”
Our country. Sure.
My ancestors lived in Belarus because the Czar would not let them move anywhere else in Russia. One of my grandfathers got out in 1905 and came to America. The Jews who waited for the Russian Revolution got permission to move to Moscow and St. Petersburg, which seemed like a good idea at the time.
Jews lived in Belarus for 1,200 years. The deep spiritual connection Jews developed with their neighbors can be gauged by all the mass graves of the former dug and filled by the latter during the Holocaust, that Father Patrick Desbois keeps finding all over Belarus. The beauty of “our country” indeed.
I was polite to the old man, who meant well. If he didn’t get it, what was I going to tell him?
What prompts these reflections is the recent testimony before the US Congress of Alexander Vindman, a Jew who came to the US from Ukraine when he and his brother were three. Both served in the US military as decorated officers. His testimony was greeted by assertions that he “seems to care a lot about Ukrainian security,” that he may in fact be a closet Ukrainian patriot, if not a spy. Oh sure he is. He has photographs of Symon Petliura in his parlor, of Bogdan Chmelnitsky in his bedroom, and of the Great Gate of Kiev in his kitchen. (Sorry, Ukrainian patriots, I meant Kyiv.)
What difference does it make that he has American medals on his chest and Iraqi shrapnel in his body? He is a Jew, after all, and who knows whom Jews are loyal to, really?
For those too young to remember the charge of Jewish “dual loyalty,” please welcome the past to the present. This is a very old story, one we didn’t think we’d be hearing anymore.
German Jews fought for the Kaiser with valor in Word War I. After the war, Jews were naturally charged with being insufficiently patriotic. So they cited statistics: Look how many Iron Crosses we won! Disproportionate to the population!
It didn’t matter. Where prejudice is involved, evidence generally doesn’t.
Why suggest that Vindman is a foreign agent, at least by congenital affinity? He seems like a nice guy. He fought on our side.
But did he really? Perhaps he has Ukrainian false consciousness, as the old Marxists might have said. Maybe he doesn’t even realize his biases that make him betray the country to which he is ostensibly loyal.
Calling Vindman a Ukrainian patriot is as preposterous, and contemptible, as calling an African-American who left Alabama at age three a secret fan of the Confederacy.
It certainly is interesting to watch history come alive. Skeletons that people of my generation thought were long buried turned out to be rattling around right in our front-hall closet, whose door has now creaked wide open: Dual loyalty charges. Open anti-semitism by racist bigots on the right and woke progressives on the left. We weren’t supposed to see old stuff like that anymore, were we?
My generation took it as an article of faith that America is different. I still think it is, but I would be less than honest if I did not confess that I am no longer quite so sure.
I think of this every Shabbat morning when I walk into shul past a phalanx of security personnel, volunteer and professional. Right here, in my leafy suburb? Really?
But still I do not pine for mayn shtetele Belarus. They say that Gomel and Vitebsk are lovely this time of year. I have no intention of going there to check.