Dual Loyalty and the Israel Lobby

A historical perspective of American Jewish allegiance.

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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.

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Gabriel Schoenfeld

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