The Multiple Loyalties of American Jews

Being a patriotic American and a supporter of Israel.

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"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. 

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Yehudah Mirsky

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