As an American Jew, it is more than distressing to watch the congressional gymnastics surrounding US Rep. Ilhan Omar’s charge that those who support Israel are disloyal to the United States.
She’s not the first member of Congress to make such a charge this year. It didn’t take long into her first term for Rep. Rashida Tlaib to launch her own classic anti-Semitic canard, only four days after being sworn in. Said Tlaib, “They forgot what country they represent.”
Questioning the loyalty of American Jews is indeed an old tactic of anti-Semites, but the chutzpah of Tlaib and Omar, with their message amplification through social media, is a deep cause for concern. That these words tumbled out from members of Congress only serves to legitimize the use of such language not only by confirmed anti-Semites, but by others who will be drawn in by their slightly-veiled dog-whistle rhetoric.
Make no mistake. This is not about criticism of Israel. The worst thing you can say to us, after our experience in this land over three centuries, is that we have no attachment to it.
As a youngster, I remember my parents discussing the charge, being made in the 1960 presidential campaign, that John F. Kennedy should not be elected because he would owe his loyalty to the Vatican. What Kennedy was subject to resonated loudly in our community because of our own experience of being on the receiving end of such tropes.
I never thought, nearly two decades into the 21st century, and after the presence of Jews in North America for 365 years, that we would have to remind the likes of Omar and Tlaib and those in their corner, of the great contributions that the Jewish community has made to this country. Jews have fought in every one of this country’s wars; indeed, more than 250,000 did so in World War I (of whom 45,000 were immigrants) and 500,000 in World War II, a proportion far above our numbers in the population.
In science, medicine, law, academia, entertainment and so many other fields, you will find Jewish names amongst those who have given so much to their fellow citizens. And, yes, we actively participate in our political process, an opportunity denied those who came before us from some of the darker recesses of Europe and elsewhere.
These recent remarks from members of Congress are not uninformed comment, or a slip-of-the-tongue. I have personally heard foreign diplomats, some government officials and even some clergymen refer, in conversation about Israel, to “your country.” Oftentimes, a tactful reminder that “America is my country, but we are strong supporters of Israel” is enough to clarify the situation. We are identified with Israel, and it is possible that among some, there is confusion, since most of these folks do know we are Americans. But Tlaib’s and Omar’s intention was not only to injure Israel’s standing in Congress, and in the country, but to castigate Jewish loyalty as well.
The eminent jurist Louis D. Brandeis understood this issue early on. In a speech delivered in 1915, Brandeis said, “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with Patriotism, Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent. A man is a better citizen of the United States for also being a loyal citizen of his state…every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine…will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so. There is no inconsistency between loyalty to America and loyalty to Jewry.”
Two years before that, in 1913, my mother — then a 12-year-old immigrant from Lithuania — was asked to speak at a celebration for the new building of Bangor, Maine’s Congregation Beth Israel, representing the young people of the community. In her remarks, quoted in the Bangor Daily Commercial, she said: “Our purpose is to help once more uplift the Hebrew flag, without wishing in any way, to detract from the greatness of, or letting it in any way, affect our allegiance to, the Stars and Stripes.”
Indeed, that is the American way. Ethnic Americans — Irish, Greeks, Italians and so many others — hold strong ties to ancestral homelands. Those connections are not just cultural; in support of close bilateral ties with the United States, these communities often lobby Congress, take out advertisements online and in print, mount demonstrations and sponsor parades and celebrations marking annual national days and other important dates on the calendar. That they can openly and actively engage in such activity is what has separated the United States from the rest of the international community.
The good news is that most Americans understand this, and see it as not only normal, but a valued part of our lives as Americans. The not-so-good news is that, to borrow a line from the Passover Haggadah, “in every generation there are those who rise against us.” By bringing the bilge of dual loyalty to the surface, Omar and Tlaib and their backers have already signaled an interest in doing all they can to demonize Israel and those who support it, and especially to mark those supporters as disloyal to our country.
To say that with regard to anti-Semitism, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” would be to minimize what is happening. That more than 350 years since Jews arrived on these shores, we still must deal with a dual loyalty charge, and nearly 75 years after the Holocaust, we are seeing a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism in the continent which saw the greatest tragedy to befall our people, clearly demonstrates how important it is that we substantially increase our efforts to beat back the virus of hatred in the 21st century
That it took days to formulate what should have been a simple resolution condemning such egregious language speaks to how little those who should know better have learned about us — and about the story of America as a nation of immigrants, which has given all of us the right to love our country and to celebrate our own unique origins.