Perhaps the most surprising dimension of the Representative Ilhan Omar controversy is that so many people are surprised. The dual-loyalty accusation – which a Bernie Sanders campaign official joined Omar in spouting last week – obviously predates all of today’s players. What is less obvious, and what many commentators have failed to note, though, is that the issue of dual loyalties predates even the State of Israel. Dual-loyalty charges are part of America’s DNA.
More than a century ago, as immigrants were pouring into America by the millions, president Woodrow Wilson welcomed a group of newly naturalized citizens with a warning. They could be Americans, he said in 1915, only if they were wholly Americans.
“You cannot dedicate yourself to America unless you become in every respect and with every purpose of your will thorough Americans. You cannot become thorough Americans if you think of yourself in groups. America does not consist of groups. A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American, and the man who goes among you to trade upon your nationality is no worthy son to live under the Stars and Stripes.”
Wilson was in no way opposed to immigration. His was no Trumpian xenophobic attempt to deride immigrants, calling them, as Trump has said of Mexicans, “drug dealers, criminals and rapists.” Wilson’s attitude was precisely the opposite of today’s reprehensible verbiage. Immigrants were welcome in America; America wanted them, but it wanted them all-in. They could not be half-immigrants; they could not belong to any other “particular national group.”
In some ways, then, the progress that Zionism was making in Europe was inauspicious for American Jews. Two years after Wilson was declaring that immigrants to America could have no other allegiances, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration. While many European Jews were celebrating the fact that the drive to Jewish statehood was well on its way, American Jews were facing a painful dilemma. Should they ignore Zionism and refuse to take part in the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty? Or should lend their support, knowing that doing so would make them vulnerable to accusations that they were doing precisely what Wilson had warned immigrants not to do?
It was Louis Brandeis (the first Jew appointed to America’s Supreme Court) who, as the face of American Zionism, sought to fashion a form of Zionism that would be palatable to America’s price-laden welcome.
“We should all support the Zionist movement, although you or I do not think of settling in Palestine,” Brandeis said to American Jews. He amplified, “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism,” he insisted, for “a man is a better citizen of the US for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city; for being loyal to his family… every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.”
It was a noble attempt, but also somewhat incomprehensible. How, precisely, would American Jews who abetted Jewish settlement in Palestine thus become better Americans? That, Brandeis never clarified. American Zionism was a strained marriage from the very outset, and for decades, American Jews would insist they were not “really” Zionists, hoping to avert the charge that they were not fully committed to America.
SHORTLY AFTER Israel’s creation, Jacob Blaustein, who was then president of the American Jewish Committee and locked in a nasty battle with David Ben-Gurion, warned the prime minister not to test the patience of American Jews. In fact, Blaustein said, the AJC had supported efforts to get the United States to support the 1947 Partition plan, “in the conviction that [a Jewish state] was the only practicable solution for some hundreds of thousands of the surviving Jews of Europe.” Israel, he essentially said, was a good idea because it would be a home to Jewish refugees who had nowhere else to go. The vision of the rebirth of the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland did not move Blaustein or many of his colleagues
Unlike those European Jews in displaced persons camps, American Jews did have somewhere else to call home, Blaustein reminded Ben-Gurion. American Jews were not in the least bit conflicted about where their real home was.
“American Jews – young and old alike – Zionists and non-Zionists alike – are profoundly attached to this, their country,” Blaustein steamed. “America welcomed our immigrant parents in their need. Under America’s free institutions, they and their children have achieved that freedom and sense of security unknown for long centuries of travail. We have truly become Americans.” There could have been no clearer message to Ben-Gurion: American Jews heard Wilson loud and clear, and they were not going to risk snubbing the invitation that America had extended to them.
What the current crisis in American Judaism demonstrates, sadly, is that that tepid embrace of Zionism was never going to be enough to forestall American antisemitism. Indeed, some leading Zionist thinkers were always much less confident that American Jews would succeed in dodging anti-Jewish sentiment in America if they distanced themselves from Zionism. Deeply immersed in Jewish history, they simply did not believe that the world would or could change that dramatically. Outside the Jews’ homeland, they believed, antipathy would follow the Jews wherever they went.
Chaim Nachman Bialik, who by 1926 was without question the poet-laureate of the Jewish people and possibly its most important spokesman, warned American Jews that their complacency was ill-advised.
“The day will come,” Bialik wrote in 1926, that “economic structures in America will shift, and the Jews there will find themselves aside the broken trough. They will be cast out from all the high positions they have achieved, and without doubt, there will come terrible days that no one desires.” America, Bialik was certain, was not as different from Europe as American Jews wanted to believe.
The “terrible days that no one desires” have thankfully not (yet?) come to America. But it is nonetheless stunning that almost a century ago, Bialik intuited that if economic malaise were to strike America, the Jews would find themselves marginalized. And lo and behold. At precisely the same moment that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are in a full-scale attack on American capitalism, Ilhan Omar makes a reference to “the Benjamins” (i.e. the money that American Jews expend) as she tries to explain American support for Israel. Ilhan’s tweets have nothing to do with criticizing Israel’s policies, though. They are all about Jews. Jews and money. Jews and wealth. Jews and economics. Is it possible that Bialik understood America better than did Brandeis?
Nor was Bialik alone. Six years after Bialik’s warning, in 1932, Haim Arlosoroff (who would be murdered on a Tel Aviv beach the following year, a killing still unsolved) foresaw a revival of European antisemitism in America. He urged his readers to consider “the obvious fact that we are seeing in our own days, in the United States (which 50 years ago was the very symbol of freedom and inter-ethnic friendship), the rebirth of European antisemitism.” He pointed to several dimensions of America’s distaste for Jews and said, “Add these all together and I fear you will see much less cause for optimism.”
NEITHER BIALIK nor Arlosoroff thought that American antisemitism would stem from the charge of dual loyalty. They simply did not believe that America was as welcoming as many American Jews chose to believe it was. Some things, they assumed, were constants in human history – and the erosion of Jews’ welcome in the various lands of their dispersion was one of them. Perhaps more chilling than Omar or Sanders (all the more inexplicable and reprehensible because he is Jewish) is the fact that in the aftermath of Omar’s recent antisemitic barrage, the House of Representatives could not pass a resolution against antisemitism. Talk to people who work on the Hill and they will tell you quietly that the reason the bill was broadened to include multiple forms of hatred was that had it been solely about antisemitism, dozens of Democrats in the House were going to vote against it. Rather than expose that bitter divide in the Democratic Party as the 2020 campaign is beginning to heat up, it made better sense for them to broaden the bill, and in order to get a wide consensus, avoid any explicit defense of America’s Jews.
The critical question for both American Jews and Israelis is how to respond. The leaders of some national American Jewish organizations were hesitant to critique Omar or to take aim at the Democrats for their cowardice, for fear of appearing to support Donald Trump. That’s an understandable worry. But odious as Trump is, Jews have never been served well by ignoring bubbling antisemitism in the countries in which they reside. American Jews need to fight this resurgence at every turn – lest Corbynism takes over their party of choice, and then perhaps America. If American Jews fail to fight antisemitism for fear of appearing to appease Trump, history will long record their shortsightedness.
At the same time, though, when I met with a group of Israeli university students last week, not a single one of them had even heard of Omar. That is a bit shocking, but also not entirely their fault. The crisis facing American Jews is garnering almost no headlines in the Israeli Hebrew press. That is, to an extent, a direct outgrowth of Bialik and Arlosoroff – and of the Zionists’ longstanding belief that it was Zionism that would ensure the future of the Jews.
But if Bialik and Arlosoroff were dubious about America because of their knowledge of Jewish history, those versed in the history of our people also know that which Jewish communities survive and which do not has never, ever been predictable. Fundamental Jewish allegiance means that Israelis should be watching this drama unfold with no less worry than should American Jews. There may be little that Israelis can do to shape the outcome of this American crisis, but at the very minimum, this is the moment for Israelis to remind themselves that one thing all the world’s Jewish communities have in common – whether in Israel or abroad – is that we all have bitter enemies simply because we are Jews.
The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 “Book of the Year.” Portions of this column are based on his forthcoming book, We Stand Divided: The Rift between American Jews and Israel (September 2019).
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>