Reframing ‘dual loyalty’

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Last week, we were critical of NBC News’ mean-spirited suggestion that Anne Neuberger, President Joe Biden’s pick for deputy national security adviser on the National Security Council, would not be able to judge Israel in a professionally objective manner simply because her family foundation is a major donor to AIPAC. Though NBC News didn’t use the term “dual loyalty,” the thinly veiled accusation was clear.

But why is the assertion of “dual loyalty” so sensitive? And what is the history of the ugly accusation? The notion that Jews are disloyal to whatever country they live in is an age-old calumny put to powerful use in Nazi Germany. But the idea of Jews as untrustworthy, secretive and having multiple agendas can be found as early as the Middle Ages. This long history, which has often resulted in violence, explains why, when the charge of dual loyalty is invoked against Jews, even obliquely, the Jewish community and its member organizations respond quickly and emphatically, as they should.

But maybe it’s time to reexamine the notion of dual loyalty, and to acknowledge how it is regularly celebrated in the context of the great American experiment.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Our cherished land of opportunity has a larger percentage of immigrants than any other country in the world. Most proudly become U.S. citizens. Yet they often retain a connection to the countries they’ve come from, whether that’s represented as an Italian flag keychain, a shamrock button on a backpack or a map of Africa sewn onto a jacket. And we regularly celebrate those historical connections through heritage parades, music festivals, food and drink carnivals — as joyful reminders that one can be an American, love this country, be loyal to it, and still pay tribute to historical origins.

Our Jewish community understands this mix of influences and identities. We encourage the sharing of traditions, whether through a Russian-Jewish cooking class or a Yemeni Jewish dance recital. And, of course, we have a meaningful connection to Israel, fostered in school curricula, synagogues, family traditions and ventures like Birthright. These strong bonds and connections do not compromise our patriotism. They complement it — giving us a broader appreciation of who we are.

Yet, with the notable historical exceptions of unfair victimizations during World Wars I and II, the Iran Hostage Crisis and following 9/11, the non-Jewish appreciation for a culture or nation of origin is not contextualized as dishonor to the United States or as a threat to one’s patriotism. On the contrary, to be proud of one’s heritage and grateful to the country that welcomed immigrants to safety seems entirely natural and expected. But it is consistently viewed with suspicion when Jews do it.

We need to find ways to put Jewish loyalties, which may be multiple, in the same context as other American loyalties. Meaningful connection with one’s history and heritage is a good thing. It amplifies our American experience, which heightens our appreciation for everything this great country provides to us.

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