Dual Loyalty and the Israel Lobby

A historical perspective of American Jewish allegiance.

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Reprinted with permission of the author from Commentary.

This article is excerpted from a longer piece by the author in response a 2006 Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) event, "The Israel Lobby and the U.S. Response to the War in Lebanon." The event featured two political scientists, John J. Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, and Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard and former academic dean of the university's Kennedy School of Government. Prior that year they published a working paper on the Kennedy's school's website "The Israel Lobby," in which they argue that "the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel."

American Jewry and Israel

As a pluralistic society, the United States has long wrestled with the issue posed by the foreign ties of its citizens--the issue, in short, of dual or divided loyalty. In the realm of foreign policy in particular, there has been a perennial fear that domestic interest groups will distort American priorities. In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned against "[s]ympathy for the favorite [foreign] nation facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest where no real common interest exists."

Even though the United States has proved over two centuries to be a great engine of assimilation, such fears are not ipso facto illegitimate. Today, the political scientist Samuel Huntington has again worried about a weakening of America’s national identity through an upsurge of seemingly unassimilable elements. Latin American immigrants, particularly from Mexico, may be leading us, Huntington writes, toward a "demographic 'reconquista' of areas Americans took from Mexico by force in the 1830's and 1840's." He points to data suggesting that Muslims, too, particularly Arab Muslims, “seem slow to assimilate compared to earlier groups" and, in one study of attitudes in Los Angeles, "do not have close ties or loyalty to the United States."

Where do American Jews, an assimilated ethnic group par excellence, fit in this picture? It is undeniable that a considerable number--the proportion in polls hovers around 75 percent--feel a strong or very strong emotional pull toward Israel. Some are drawn by the significance, after millennia of exile, of a great return to the heartland of the Jewish religion and nation; others by gratitude for the existence of a secure refuge in the wake of the Nazi cataclysm; others by simple kinship with relatives living in the Jewish state; still others by the historical-religious-cultural bond that links all Jews everywhere into a single community.

Does this pull differ in kind from that which Armenian-Americans feel toward Armenia, or Filipino-Americans toward the Philippines? Does it differ from the pull--if that is the right word--that Catholics feel toward the Vatican or Muslims toward Mecca and Medina and their co-religionists abroad? It would hardly seem so. Virtually all American citizens carry bundles of loyalties, some of them sometimes in conflict with each other, others not. The Chinese-American novelist Lan Samantha Chang, writing in the middle of the Wen Ho Lee espionage affair, quoted her father: "I love China. . . . But I am a citizen of the United States." Funeraria Latina, an American subsidiary of Service Corporation International, ships 80 percent of its Hispanic cadavers out of the United States for burial abroad. When Jerold S. Auerbach, a professor at Wellesley College, says that "my body is in the United States; my heart and soul are in Jerusalem," he is thus giving voice to a wholly American sentiment.

Of course, what bothers Mearsheimer and Walt is something more specific and much graver than sentiment--namely, the possibility (which they call a fact) that Jewish Americans have turned Israel into a "favorite nation" at the expense of the general good. In saying this, they claim to be courageously breaking a taboo. In truth, they are plowing ground that has long been finely tilled by others--some with honest intent, many out of frankly malevolent motive. Among those preoccupied with the issue have been, significantly, American Jews themselves.

Emergence of Zionism Affects Jewish Identity

At the beginning of the 20th century, with the growth of the Zionist movement, American Jews argued bitterly over the implications of a prospective Jewish state for Jews living in the Diaspora. Some Jewish anti-Zionists were concerned that support for a re-born Israel, even if it did not constitute treason in and of itself, would inevitably lead to allegations of dual loyalty--already well understood as a barometer of deeper anti-Jewish hostilities. Jacob Schiff, one of the wealthiest American Jews, warned that Zionist activity in the U.S. would cause Jews to be regarded "as an entirely separate class, whose interests are different than those of the American people."

On the other side stood vigorous defenders of the idea that Zionism and Americanism were not in conflict at all. One of them was the philanthropist Cyrus L. Sulzberger, whose 1904 essay on the subject would be reissued posthumously in the middle of World War II under the title Patriotism and Zionism: A Father's Reply To His Son. (The son in question was the then-publisher of the New York Times.) In 1915, Louis D. Brandeis, not yet on the Supreme Court but already a rising star in the country’s intellectual and legal firmament, added his own defense: "Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with Patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent."

Theoretical for decades, the issue became truly joined with the birth of the Jewish state in 1948. Consider a March 1950 article in Commentary, which bore the provocative title "Israeli Ties and U.S. Citizenship: America Demands A Single Loyalty." Its author was Dorothy Thompson, a non-Jew and one of America’s preeminent journalists. Her position was unequivocal.

"Each immigrant to these shores," wrote Thompson, "came as an individual, prepared to cast off his former nationhood and enter with good faith into a new nationhood, as well as a new statehood." Maintaining loyalty to this new collectivity, and extinguishing loyalties to previous ones, were the essence of assimilation. But now the perennial danger posed by the recrudescence of such old loyalties applied with particular force to American Jews:

The American of Jewish religion has always been, and as long as this nation holds to its basic and Constitutional principles will always be, accepted as a full and equal citizen. But sooner or later the Jewish nationalist, which today means the Israeli nationalist, will have to choose allegiances. "One cannot," says an old Jewish proverb, "sit on one chair at two weddings." There is no room in American nationality for two citizenships or two nationalities. To say it extremely brutally: no one can be a member of the American nation and of the Jewish nation--in Palestine or out of it--any more than he can be a member of the American nation and the British or German nation.

A Different View

This starkly-posed perspective was, however, only one side of the discussion. The historian Oscar Handlin, responding to Thompson in the same issue of Commentary, found her argument perilously misleading. True, the xenophobia stirred by World War I had made something of a bogeyman out of the notion of a "hyphenated-American" identity. But a different American tradition was far better and more deeply established. "We never pretended," Handlin wrote, "that any group of Americans would lack special sympathy for the country of its antecedents, that emigration would dissolve the ties of home and kin and ancient aspirations." In this context, he continued, the fact that "Israel shares with the United States the loyalty of American Zionists is not a departure from the American pattern."

As for American foreign policy, Handlin insisted that neither the founding fathers nor the American people ever expected it to be “significantly free of democratic control.” Quite the opposite: "the main line of American thought has recognized that foreign, like domestic, policy could produce legitimate differences of opinion, and that the most effective way of resolving those differences is through open debate" (emphasis in the original). Political advocacy by American Jewry in this sphere was thus fundamentally no different from similar advocacy by Italian and Irish Americans.

In all these cases particular groups of Americans sustained and supported a country with which they had hereditary ties of some sort. But they did so in terms of standards that had universal currency among all their fellow citizens--the spread of democracy through the world, the self-determination of nations, international action for peace, the desirability of aiding small peoples against great oppressors. One did not have to be a Jew or an Irishman or an Italian to find justice in these arguments.

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Gabriel Schoenfeld

Gabriel Schoenfeld is the senior editor of Commentary and a regular contributor to the magazine's blog, Contentions.