What’s wrong with dual loyalty?

Synagogue flagpole, Western MA, D. Seidenberg, 2019

Trump and I finally agree on something, sort of.

It’s not anything Trump said of course, but rather what Trump implied. He said, “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” That left a lot of folks not only in an uproar but also scratching their heads – disloyal to what, or whom? But there was never any real confusion. Clearly he meant Democratic Jews are disloyal to everything they should be loyal to. For Trump, that means to Israel and America, and by extension, to himself (as in “Les deux états, c’est moi”).

Is that a charge of dual loyalty? Obviously not. Since Trump thinks the “best Jews” have dual loyalty, it’s not a charge but an affirmation.

Anyway, shouldn’t everyone have loyalty to more than one place? There are so many reasons to love another country – heritage, family, food, politics, etc. Anyone who can’t imagine loving more than the country of their citizenship is a nationalist bigot.

Dual loyalty, given its honor and due, would cut every person free from the straightjacket of nationalism.

Almost every person in the United States who is not cut off from their ancestors has dual loyalty to the nation and to the peoples and places they come from. That includes every member of Congress. That double measure of loyalty makes each person a potential conduit between nations and between worlds, and a voice for people who have no official place at the table.

There is only one loyalty that could ever be exclusive of all other loyalties, loyalty to God. That’s a main subject of this week’s Torah portion of Re’eh. Even that’s more complicated though, since loyalty to the Creator includes every other loyalty anyone could have – and trumps any other loyalty the moment it comes into conflict with it.

So I’m not bothered by accusations of dual loyalty. In fact, our best hope for peace, for intelligence, for wisdom, is in the multiple and sometimes conflicting loyalties any sane person feels. To be loyal to more than one place means to see things from more than one perspective. To be loyal to more than one’s own nation can include being loyal to humanity over any segment of humanity, or being loyal to justice over entrenched powers, or being loyal to the Earth over the ravages of both capitalism and communism.

Of course, to my way of thinking, anyone who is loyal to Trump is radically disloyal to the purpose and ideals of both Israel and America. And to democracy and freedom, and to telling the truth.

But whatever you think about that, the bottom line is that a vast majority of Jews have dual, or more-than-dual, loyalty, which includes a measure of loyalty to the state of Israel or the place we call Israel.

It is a strange thing then for so many Jews to be shocked when the subject of dual loyalty comes up, and even stranger for Jews to make the same charge against Muslims. More strange still is when Jews reject Palestinians who show loyalty to their own people. We need to come to terms with the fact that Muslim and Palestinian Americans will be part of Congress from here on, bringing with them their loyalties and aspirations, just as Jews have since 1845.

Rashida Tlaib, official portrait, Wikimedia

Take Rashida Tlaib for example. The rough and tumble political process in Congress almost guarantees she will have to come to terms with Jewish anxieties and aspirations. I would ardently wish for her to hold onto loyalty to her people even as she does that. We need allies among the Palestinians who are loyal to their people and who understand our loyalties, and they need the same from us.

The greater truth is that multi-dimensional loyalty fits in perfectly with the U.S. political system, much better than patriotic “monogamy”. America’s greatness lies in its embrace of the stranger and the immigrant, and of what they bring with them from so many places and peoples. Whenever Americans express loyalty to who and where they came from, they are giving life to this principle. Whenever they encounter another person expressing their own multi-dimensional loyalties, they have an opportunity to affirm that person along with that principle.

Here’s why this also fits with Judaism. The Jewish tradition doesn’t call on us to be loyal to a Jewish state. Rather, it calls on us to be loyal to compassion toward the stranger, love of one’s neighbor, justice for the poor. Since when was any prophet loyal to the state? In fact, the Torah and prophets tell us that the only way to be loyal to the state is to be loyal to the poor and the stranger (and the unlanded Levite — see this week’s parshah, Deut. 14:29); the only way to be loyal to the land is to be loyal to justice. Our covenant further teaches that if we are disloyal to justice, we will not merit to live in the land.

But if that’s true, then any Jew who is a thoughtful (as opposed to knee-jerk) critic of Israel is more loyal to Israel and to the Jewish people than someone like Morton Klein ever could be. Depending on how seriously you take that teaching, you could even see Rashida Tlaib as being more loyal to the Jewish people, or at least more aligned with their highest interests, than Bibi Netanyahu. So yeah, I guess Trump is right: we are, or should aspire to be, disloyal.

Justice is not the only Jewish calling that trumps loyalty to the state. Judaism also calls on Jews to be loyal to the holiness and rightness of Creation, and to the holiness of life. We show both in many ways, including observing the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year (discussed in the parshah, Deut. 15).

Of course, the actual charge of dual loyalty is not that one is loyal to two nations, but rather that one’s true loyalty is to the other nation in the love triangle, and not to the nation of one’s citizenship. But that’s not Trump. Trump believes with unbridled passion in the positive value of Jews having dual loyalty. He just narcissistically believes the way to do that is to support Trump.

I too believe with unbridled passion in everyone having not just dual loyalty but triple and quadruple and other multiples of loyalty. For me, those loyalties extend to human rights, justice, the Earth and its biodiversity, and the Jewish people, as well as to the United States, the Bill of Rights, and Israel (and, more personally, to dogs).

But it is our loyalty to God that is the measure of any other loyalty, for it is God that has the capacity to be unerringly loyal back. That is what is evoked in rabbinic Hebrew when we call God “the place”, Hamakom, the unmovable ground that holds all places and peoples, along with all their loyalties, and that holds Creation itself.

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and the translation of Laments. David also teaches nigunim and is an avid dancer. He was ordained by both JTS and Reb Zalman.
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