Disloyalty: The deep roots of an anti-Semitic accusation

Our American Jewish community has been much agitated in 2019 by accusations of disloyalty. These charges have come from different quarters of the political spectrum, and they carry various nuances. But what do they have in common? For this, we need to understand the deep history of this anti-Jewish trope.

The permanent and salient fact of Jewish history is that we choose, in important ways, to be different from the peoples constituting the majorities of the societies with which we interact. That choice has kept us Jewish. But at the same time, that choice has, all too often, been treated as a problem by our neighbors.

By the end of biblical times, our ancestors were living under the rule of a pagan empire, Persia. Persia fell to Greece, and Greece to Rome, but still, Jews were under pagan rule. Pagans often thought that Jews were anti-social, in that we venerated only one God, but with a few prominent exceptions, provided that we paid our taxes and kept the peace, Jews did not suffer religious persecution at the hands of pagans.

The rise of Christianity and Islam ushered in new and harder times for Jews. Now, our ancestors were living under the rule not only of people of different religions, but of rival monotheistic faiths. Christians said we were wrong to reject Jesus. Muslims said that both the Christians and the Jews were wrong to reject Muhammad. Each of those overlords, in their own way, relegated the Jews to second-class status—not all the time, and not in every way, but being regarded as a problem in the eyes of the majority was a basic fact of medieval Jewish life.

The nature of the political state changed radically in the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Starting with France and the United States, modern countries began to define themselves as associations of citizens, rather than as a collection of different corporate groups under the rule of some monarch. It was at this time that the issue of loyalty came to the fore.

A generation after the French Revolution, French traditionalists—peasants from Alsace—complained to Napoleon that the Jews ought not be citizens of France. Napoleon used that complaint to secure a pledge of loyalty to French law from the representatives of French Jewry. Notice that there was no presumption that French Catholics would be disloyal, simply by virtue of their religion. But Jews did not have this presumption of loyalty. In France, the Jews had to take extraordinary steps to reassure the state that they were loyal. Only thus would they be confirmed as citizens.

Napoleon extended the status of Jews as citizens to the German states he conquered. When he was defeated, in 1815, the victorious German states stripped the Jews of their citizenship. To earn it again, the Jews would have to prove themselves “worthy.” That would mean initiating a wholesale series of religious reforms, to make Judaism stand out less from the Christian norm in the various German states.

That also explains why classic Reform Judaism was officially opposed to Zionism until the 1930’s. Pressured to prove themselves loyal to their various states, including the United States, Jews did not feel free to espouse the cause of an independent Jewish state. Here in Norfolk, the anti-Zionist “American Council for Judaism” remained a bastion of that mind-set even after 1948.

Throughout the past 75 years, American opponents of Israel have too often charged Jewish Zionists with “dual loyalty.”. This is certainly tainted with anti-Semitism. One heard no comparable charge of dual loyalty against Irish Americans, for example, when they lobbied their American representatives to espouse policies regarding the quest for (Catholic) Irish independence from Protestant Great Britain, or when they sought for the USA to show understanding for the plight of Catholics in Northern Ireland during the time of troubles there.

Jews have frequently been given an added burden of proving loyalty despite Jewishness. As a matter of Jewish self-respect, we ought to challenge that, from whatever quarter it emanates, and however it may be dressed up in secondary rhetoric.

Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel