Everyone has dual loyalties

Surely one can have multiple loyalties. In my case, I am both an Australian and an Israeli, and a Jew.

January 14, 2019 22:19
3 minute read.
REP. RASHIDA Tlaib (D-Michigan, far right) poses with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

REP. RASHIDA Tlaib (D-Michigan, far right) poses with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) for a ceremonial swearing-in picture on Capitol Hill on January 3. (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)


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Rashida Tlaib has started her US Congress career by using the old antisemitic stereotype of dual loyalties, except this time the accusation is not directed so much at Jews, but at non-Jewish Americans who happen to have positive views about Israel.

According to Tlaib, American supporters of Israel have forgotten what country they represent. Actually, they are well aware that their first loyalty is to the United States, as are Americans who have an opinion about Russia, North Korea, Mexico, Britain, Iran and any other part of the world which figures in American policy considerations.

I suspect that in her terms, Tlaib herself has a bad case of dual loyalties. She dislikes other people’s support for Israel. But what about her own support for the Palestinians?

Maybe she doesn’t realize that she is shooting herself in the foot. Maybe she also doesn’t see that by using Congress to attack supporters of Israel and advocate for the Palestinians, she is doing precisely what she objects to: introducing prejudice onto the floor of Congress.

Many Americans are Roman Catholics. A sizeable number are of Irish Catholic extraction. Does that mean that their loyalties are divided between the United States and the Vatican, or between the United States and the Republic of Ireland?

There are different types of nations, different types of loyalties and different types of identities. The word “nation” is sometimes political, sometimes geographic, sometimes cultural, often even culinary. If an American has a taste for French potatoes, Swiss chocolate, Swedish turnips, Brussel(s) sprouts, German beer or English tea, does that create an unacceptable dual loyalty? If they have an interest in Greek or Italian literature, Indian films or Chinese philosophy, does that indicate a forbidden cultural dichotomy?

It always bothered me to know that Ludwig Lewisohn said, “There is no such thing as a man: only a Frenchman, an Englishman, an American, a Spaniard, a German, a Greek, a Jew.” If he was being simplistic and denying one’s right to a range of identities on a range of levels, I don’t think he was right.

Surely one can have multiple loyalties. In my case, I am both an Australian and an Israeli, and a Jew. Since I lived in London for 15 years and was brought up in Australia in a British environment, I also claim to be a Londoner and an Englishman.

ON OCCASIONS when I have visited Britain in recent years, I felt at home (though it felt strange to see how different the streets look and how expensive life in London has become).

I knew someone (actually a rabbinic colleague) who was even more complex than me because he was an Irishman, an Englishman, an Australian and a Jew. He was living proof that it is possible to have more than two, three or four loyalties, all expressing a dimension of one’s being.

Everyone has a multi-faceted identity regardless of whether their heart displays it and whether or not they wear it on their sleeve.

Apart from what one might call public loyalties, there are personal identities. I am simultaneously a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. I am a voter, a pedestrian, a client and a consumer. I am a synagogue member, a historian, a non-meat eater and a geriatric. Over the years I have played many roles in society, not only as a rabbi, writer and teacher, but in other areas too. (I am even a cook, though I haven’t yet worked out how to make cakes.). I try to combine all my identities in a constructive fashion. I can’t – or won’t - analyze myself. But that’s not the main thing. I am me.

The crucial problem with multi-faceted loyalties of any kind is whether they create conflict, and if so how to handle it. There are many situations in which conflict is highly unlikely but others where the possibility of conflict is very real. Examples are in the medical, military and business arenas. In Jewish ethics there is considerable debate about the tensions between the three major values of truth, justice and peace. There is a pragmatic urgency about finding solutions, or at least approaches to a solution.

In Jewish theology, God Himself has a similar problem on a cosmic scale. He is both strict and compassionate, both immanent and transcendent. In the words of the liturgy, He is both Father and King. In the Book of Exodus, when He is asked what He is, He simply replies, Ehyeh asher ehyeh – “I am what I am.”

The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.

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