Are American Jews weirder than we think we are, or more normal than others allow us to be?
Let’s start with weird, or at least unusual. I don’t know if the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel is sui generis, but don’t assume non-Jews always get it. According to the 2013 Pew study, 69 percent of Jews said they feel attached or very attached to Israel. I don’t know the depth of that attachment, but let’s just say for a sizable and vocal subset of engaged Jews, ahavat Yisrael — love of Israel — is a primary value. This is the group that travels to Israel frequently, whose kids vacation and study there, and for whom Israel often feels less like a foreign country than a Jewish neighborhood where many of your friends and relatives happen to live.
I never assume that others understand this intimacy, or how it manifests itself politically or emotionally. Some people overcorrect and assume that “Jewish” and “Israeli” are somehow synonymous, and that either your average American Jew bleeds blue and white or that Israel’s Law of Return makes all Jews Israeli expats.
I sensed some of that confusion — and perhaps prejudice — in NPR talk show host Diane Rehm’s grilling of Bernie Sanders over his nonexistent “dual citizenship.” The controversy was first and foremost a case of journalistic malpractice — in suggesting Sanders held American and Israeli passports, Rehm said her producer consulted a “list” that, as far as I know, could only have been compiled by the web’s anti-Israel sites.
If indeed a candidate for president was a citizen of two countries, asking about the implications would have been fair game. Plenty of people hold dual nationality, and all have their own answers about how they negotiate these dual identities. (“Dual nationals owe allegiance to both the United States and the foreign country,” according to the U.S. State Department.)
Rehm rejects accusations that she was “dignifying hate speech” — and, if in fact Sanders was a dual-citizen, there’d be nothing hateful about her asking about it. Rejecting for lack of evidence that Rehm was influenced by her own Christian Arab background, I wonder if her gullibility in accepting her producer’s thinly sourced information suggests something else: that many non-Jews are quick to assume that Jews’ attachment to Israel goes deeper than mere affection. I’m guessing Rehm would have been surprised if she was handed a backgrounder asserting that Jeb Bush has dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship. But Bernie Sanders and Israel? Makes sense.
The truth is, many of us are deeply entangled with Israel. However, we feel it as a delicate balancing act between our love of and loyalty to our country and our affection for the Jewish homeland. We reject the notion of dual loyalty, however.
Some of us muddy this distinction by insisting our political priorities must rest with Israel, like the pundits who excoriate liberal Jews for voting their domestic concerns. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision last week on Jerusalem passports — a wholly American case about the constitutional boundaries of executive power — more than one pro-Israel troll accused the Jewish justices who voted with the majority of being “self-hating” Jews. The vast majority of Jews would never go this far, but the community as a whole pays a price for the agitators who bluster and cry “anti-Semitism” whenever American officials put their own perceived interests over those of Israel.
On the other hand, many people prefer to willfully distort the American Jews’ relationship with Israel, either out of animus to the Jewish state or good old-fashioned anti-Semitism. Often, those who would turn Israel into a pariah state are happy to delegitimize Jews and their history. The Nation ran an odious article last week by their “sports and politics” correspondent, Dave Zirin, who calls on sports journalists to shame Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt for his, wait for it, “proud Zionism.”
To Zirin, just the idea that the American-born Blatt served in the IDF, is on a first-name basis with Netanyahu (as the former coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Blatt is sports royalty in Israel), and once tweeted favorably about Israeli actions in Gaza suggests that his politics should be scrutinized on Sports Center. Never mind that the league has players from 37 countries — it only gets interesting when one of those countries is Israel.
I’m happy to engage with someone who doesn’t understand the various religious, national, tribal, and/or familial relationships between Jews and Israel. I can explain why a secular American Jew feels an affinity for a country she wasn’t born in and may visit only a few times in her lifetime. I’m happy to defend why a Jew from New Jersey has the right to settle in Israel and become a citizen. And I’ll fess up when some of my fellow Jews cross the line from affection to infidelity.
But it is impossible to engage with someone who thinks the fact of this attachment is an original sin, and that anyone who has lived in Israel, served in its army, advocates on its behalf, or cares deeply about its survival must be placed under a moral microscope. Like so many other phenomena among the anti-Israel Left, it turns the fact of Israel and Jewish history into the “idea” of Zionism — because ideas, unlike facts, are easier to wish away.
The dilemma of the Jewish community is that we must simultaneously defend ahavat Yisrael while denying dual loyalty. The distinction may be obvious to us, but not to the uninformed, and definitely not to the haters. We need to declare our “proud Zionism” while saying, a la Seinfeld, “not that there is anything wrong with that.”