The Multiple Loyalties of American Jews

Being a patriotic American and a supporter of Israel.

“Dual loyalty” is back. Whether Jews are actually disloyal to the United States–in favor of loyalty to Israel– is a matter of debate, but there is no doubting that the pejorative, of “dual loyalty” is in currency and increasingly credible in ways not seen in the last 50 years. This, of course, is a deeply chilling development. But it is also a spur to thinking about the broader issues of Jewish identity in America.

American and Israeli flags

The March 2006 essay written by political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer was both catalyst and bellwether for this trend. In “The Israel Lobby,” Walt and Mearsheimer argued that American supporters of Israel were advocating policies counter to America’s national interest. The fact that genuinely eminent scholars (and Realists no less!) were drawn to these formulations at all is an expression of the dark post-9/11 times in which we live, when the world seems unpredictably unsafe and the United States is less certain of its course in that world.

What Does Loyalty Mean?

The question of “dual loyalty” is, among other things, an interesting point of entry into several dimensions of American-Jewish identity. But first, let’s put some things on the table. 

What does it mean for Jews, some at least, to vote for an American president, first and foremost, based on his policies toward Israel and only secondarily on his views on a range of other issues? What would it mean for an American Jew to advocate a specific policy injurious to the United States but helpful to Israel? 

These are not unreasonable questions, and can and ought to be asked of any discrete group, certainly one with strong ties to a foreign country. Indeed, the American idea of citizenship is based on a shared civic identity binding together disparate groups with other sorts of identities. American political thinkers from the Federalists onward have tried to understand how this essentially liberal and cosmopolitan citizenship can weave together a polity. 

I think it fair to say that any American citizen who advocates a policy that can in no way reasonably be construed as serving America’s interests is no longer making a good faith policy argument and can only justify themselves, if at all, on humanitarian grounds. 

At the same time, what is in America’s national interest is not always self-evident. When I served in the State Department, for instance, we had passionate arguments about whether America should link its economic ties to China based on the country’s human rights practices. I strongly–at times bitterly–fought with those on the other side of the argument, but I never doubted their patriotism. 

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. 

For them Zionism was, in a deep and real sense, Americanism by another name and with a different, though not contradictory, historical inflection. Their commitments to Zionism and to Americanism did not conflict because they sincerely saw each as a reflection of the other. 

Subsequently, of course, the Holocaust deepened the American Jewish commitment to Israel, lending it power, and even terror. However, the ways in which American Jews think about Israel and how their support for it registers with their Americanness still very much resonates along the lines of Kallen and Brandeis.

Interests and Values

At its best, in defending Israel, American Jews are acting out of a sense of interests and values. This sense derives from the belief that Israel guarantees the survival–both physical and cultural–of both American and Israeli Jews. They also give credence to the notion that the Israel they are supporting is a reflection of their own liberal democratic values, or at least not so far-removed, as to make supporting it morally unacceptable (the continuing grief of the Occupied Territories notwithstanding). 

All politics is an amalgam of interests and values, and while the two never can be entirely divorced, it helps to sift them out for the sake of clarity. 

Interests are the imperatives dictated by physical survival. Values are the principles whereby we order our sense of what survival means, and what survival is for. They are the concepts with which we define the terms of meaningful survival and guide our purposive choices towards the kind of world we wish to see. 

The question of the respective roles of interests versus values in foreign policy, though it ought to be a universal dilemma, is in acute fashion a peculiarly American dilemma. The commingling of these two sets of concerns is a hallmark, and to some, a fatal flaw, of American diplomacy and indeed of America’s own sense of itself as a republic. Thus while it is hard to imagine European governments fundamentally supporting Israel in the absence of the staggering and nearly supernatural moral burden of the Holocaust, it is less difficult to understand why America would do such a thing, even when it seems to run counter to some of its bolder geopolitical interests. 

American support for Israel reflects a confluence of both interests and values. What marks the present historical moment is that both those sources of support are beginning to give way to other currents. America’s interests were so badly damaged by the catastrophic mishandling of the Iraq war that for arch-Realists like Walt and Mearsheimer, the only possible explanation can be the malign influence of an ultimately foreign body which does not have those interests at heart. 

On the value-side, we see the increasing illiberalism of the liberal classes, of whom Professor Tony Judt is perhaps the most articulate exponent. For those like him, the Jewish exercise in political sovereignty cannot be anything other than a retrograde chauvinism, for the sake of whose extirpation one may happily throw a flawed, if boisterous, democracy to the dogs. Taken together, the traditional basis for American support for Israel seems to be eroding, and those who persist in such support are more easily depicted as both unconcerned with American lives and suspiciously immoral.

Soul Searching

What, then, is to be done? This writer is a Jew who loves America deeply, loves Israel deeply, and suffers for the sorrows of both. My complex identity is a constant goad, challenging me to understand, judge, and live out the meaning of my commitments to America and Israel and their respective values. The ostensible dilemma of “dual loyalty” is in some ways one of the more wrenching forms of the contemporary identity dilemmas coursing through the world today. 

The questions raised, however clumsily, by Walt and Mearsheimer–and Judt, for that matter–should on the one hand force American Jews to think hard about the very real geopolitical dilemmas facing the United States and Israel. On the other hand, the questions raised, however disturbingly, by my wife, should make American Jews think hard about themselves and their lives, about whether their support for Israel goes deeper than the satisfactions of feel-good advocacy as well as the inevitable limitations in their empathy.

This leaves us once again trying to make sense of our dual inheritance as Jews and as Americans–of these two extraordinary and complicated traditions–and trying to figure out how to bring them together in our lives. That in the end is one of America’s many gifts. It is always pushing the limits of our frontiers.


Discover More

Gittin 62

Shalom shalom.

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.

Your Guide to the Best Elul and High Holidays Classes and Events

Prepare for the Jewish year 5781 with these unique classes from dozens of other Jewish organizations and synagogues.