The Multiple Loyalties of American Jews

Being a patriotic American and a supporter of Israel.

Print this page Print this page

The story of Jonathan Pollard, who will, it seems, be spending the rest of his life in jail for spying on behalf of Israel in the mid-1980s, hangs over all such discussions. Like all officials with access to classified materials, he was sworn to secrecy. He and his defenders say that he did what he had to do in order to protect Israel from dreadful harm. 

I do not know if the damage he did to the United States was as great as his detractors say. I do know that as a committed Jew who served in the United States government, I find it very hard to justify his actions, even if his punishment seems excessive, particularly in light of the sentences meted out to other and worse offenders.

To What are we Being Loyal?

When I told my Israeli-born and ordinarily soft-spoken wife that I was writing an article about the dual loyalty of American Jews, her immediate response was: "Who says these people are loyal to me? Do they even go to ceremonies for Yom Hazikaron [Israel's Memorial Day]? If you don't do that, you're sure not loyal to me." 

At first I was taken aback, but then thought it was worth considering what lies beneath her provocative question and how it gives a bracing jolt to tired and familiar discussions of Israel-Diaspora relations. 

So if indeed American Jews have a dual loyalty, to what are they are being dually loyal? And is a dual loyalty by definition a contradictory or false loyalty or one that merely has the potential for falsehood depending on the uses to which it is put? 

American Jews are, in general, loyal to the survival and security of Israel in more or less its current form. They are driven to this by a deep, even if regularly inchoate, commitment to Israel as the ultimate guarantor of the Jewish people's survival, and to an idea of Israel as well. 

In this respect American Jewry's support for Israel still runs along the tracks laid down in the early decades of the 20th century by the foundational thinkers of American Zionism, the great Justice Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941) and the great, if less-known, social philosopher Horace Kallen (1882-1974), who coined the term "cultural pluralism." These thinkers conceived of Zionism as a facet of the liberal Progressivism that they championed in the United States. They saw American Zionism, indeed robust American Jewishness, not as a dual or contradictory loyalty, but as a complementary feature of a broader loyalty to the liberal ideal as a whole. 

Kallen and Brandeis were making, in a sense, two arguments: American identity, when thought through to its deepest roots and intentions, yielded a much broader harvest of loyalties, aspirations, affiliations, and values than the distinctively Anglo-Saxon heritage of its founders; and Zionism could and ought to be moving along the same basic continuum as Americanism, towards a liberal polity that would enable a range of people and minorities to flourish by the lights of their own historical experiences. 

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.