Dual loyalty? Canadian ambassador discusses her 'two homes'

Since the founding of the Jewish state, of course, our paramount collective loyalty is often presumed to park with Israel, no matter where we live or what we do.

Since the founding of the Jewish state, of course, our paramount collective loyalty is often presumed to park with Israel, no matter where we live or what we do (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Since the founding of the Jewish state, of course, our paramount collective loyalty is often presumed to park with Israel, no matter where we live or what we do
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Like many Israelis, I am of two homes, one here, another there.
Unlike most Israelis, I chose to live here. I was not forced to flee by war, famine or dictatorship. Whenever I like, I can return to Canada, for a visit, forever. I belong to a very privileged class of immigrant.
Come summer, we North Americans participate in an annual reverse exodus, returning home to visit family, friends, jump in cool, freshwater lakes and revel in the bounty of everything.
This year, sitting dockside, the Rashida Tlaib-Ilhan Omar fiasco interrupted our bliss. There had been murmurings in July, which became hot news in early August: The Congresswomen would travel to Israel, sort of, intending only to visit the West Bank and east Jerusalem. A month earlier, Israel – through its ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer (a super-close confidante of the PM) – had indicated that the visit would be allowed, out of an abiding respect for the US Congress, in spite of the duo’s support of BDS, they boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Then, two days before the visit was set to begin, in early August, President Trump roared, as he does, tweeting that any American Jew who supports the Democratic Party is disloyal to their country.
And then, as it does, all hell broke loose.
American Jews – Right, Left and centrist – were understandably alarmed. The president of the United States of America, who tends to boast of his steadfast support of Israel and affection for the Jewish people (“After all, my grandchildren are Jewish”), just belted out one of the most enduring, vicious Jew-hating, Jew-baiting comments imaginable.
Now, in fairness, I am inclined to think that the president actually failed to grasp the historical significance of his comment. I am not being charitable, but rather, realistic, based on his demonstrated appreciation for anything requiring focused, sustained, disciplined thought.
But American Jews really should not be so alarmed, because Jews being smeared thusly is nothing new. Those of us who live elsewhere in the Diaspora are quite regularly reminded of the fact that we are, um, different; that our loyalty is always questioned and questionable.
Trump, however, made the jab with a singular twist: Jewish loyalty, in his expression, turned on partisan support. Usually, we are just cast aside, just because. Usually, we are all knocked out with one punch, no matter where we might park our partisan loyalties.
The core issue – is it possible for a Jewish person to be loyal to a country other than Israel? – is the modern iteration of a slander that has hounded Jews for millennia. Before the creation of the State of Israel, Jews were often believed to belong to a secret, sinister cabal; often accused of spreading disease, controlling finances, and a range of other epic accomplishments. Such vicious libels were deployed with particular determination in Central and Eastern Europe for centuries, justifying waves of murderous pogroms. Fueling the fury further was the widespread church dogma, not rescinded by the Vatican until 1961, that the Jews had crucified Jesus Christ.
The assumption that Jews are by nature disloyal is promoted across the political spectrum; by right-wing populists, left-leaning socialists and everything in between. Since the founding of the Jewish state, of course, our paramount collective loyalty is often presumed to park with Israel, no matter where we live or what we do.
IN EARLY 2014, I was appointed to serve as Canada’s ambassador to Israel by then-prime minister Stephen Harper. From the moment my appointment was announced, I was accused openly in the media and subjected to ongoing whisper campaigns that I was more loyal to Israel than Canada; that my appointment was inappropriate because I was Jewish; that I was racist, “Islamophobic” and utterly unsuited to represent Canada In Israel.
The disloyal Jew is an antisemitic trope that has beleaguered us throughout millennia. There are those who believe, with an almost religious fervor, that we in the post-Holocaust era are blessed to live in an era of exceptionalism. American Jews, in particular, believe their country is founded on a unique political philosophy that celebrates diversity in a truly post-national/national way; it obliterates tribal associations in favor of a supreme, newfangled national identity that is a melding of all into one.
In grade school, we were taught in Canada that we lived in a “cultural mosaic.” Apparently, that meant that we lived with common values (read “Christian”) but were free to maintain our particular ways, privately.
American society, we learned, was a “melting pot” in which everyone blended to become the whole, and any secondary affiliation or identity was sublimated for the greater good.
Canada is a nation of hyphenated nationals; a country built on repeated waves of immigration. Of the many Canadians who have served their country at home and abroad, I cannot recall a single instance where an individual was denounced as categorically as I was, and reflexively for being, well, what they are. Many dual nationals represent Canada abroad and have done so in the past. Not one of these individuals has been smeared with treason nor should they be.
But, with a Jew, it seems, it’s different.
We are reminded, constantly, that our identity is, well, problematic. University campuses in Canada are cesspools of antisemitic activity. If anyone dares to express support of any degree for Israel, they are harassed and isolated. Examples are legion. It is not an isolated or anomalous occurrence; rather, it is endemic. Statistics don’t lie. In fact, they understate the gravity of the problem.
These trends correspond generally with developments in America and the UK. A significant difference is that while most American Jews are refusing to see and concede that the unthinkable is stirring in their utopia, those in other Diaspora communities are less shocked.
Yet, recent events in America are shaking even the most strident: Pittsburgh and Poway; a rash of violent assaults on Jews in Brooklyn and Queens; and President Trump lashing out at Jews who support Democrats for being disloyal to America.
When in Israel, I am reminded constantly that I come from away, but I am never maligned for being treasonous, disloyal or of suspect character because I am Jewish.
In Canada, I am reminded that I am not like the rest, precisely because I am Jewish, thereby rendering me disloyal, suspect. Truth is, the venomous attacks on my core integrity, because I am Jewish, rocked my world, and, not in a good way
We Jews are constantly told we’re OK, it’s just Israel that is the problem. If we renounce or distance ourselves from Israel, well then, problem solved.
Not once have I read about a Canadian diplomat or other professional with a dual identity disparaged for being disloyal; not once have I heard about Chinese students or others being threatened, assaulted or ostracized in Canada for the actions of the Chinese government. Or Russians. Or Ukrainians. Or Saudis. Or anyone, for that matter.
And it behooves us all to ask: Why?
The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.