Dual loyalty is back in the headlines.
Taking questions in the Oval Office on Aug. 20, President Donald Trump, while addressing the recent decision by the Israeli government to bar Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering the country, commented more broadly on Jewish support for Democratic politicians.
“Where has the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone when they are defending those two people over the state of Israel?” Trump asked. He continued: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
It was not immediately clear what the president was referring to when he referenced “disloyalty” on the part of Jews who vote Democrat, which has historically been the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish electorate. Did he mean to say that those Jews were disloyal to America? Or that they were disloyal to themselves, as the Republican Jewish Coalition claimed later that day?
The following day, Trump clarified that he believed that Jews who vote for Democrats were actually doubly disloyal.
“In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people, and you’re being very disloyal to Israel,” he said, “and only weak people would say anything other than that.”
Both the original statement and the follow-up sparked a flurry of heated statements. Many communual organizations and pundits condemned Trump for having invoked the pernicious trope of “dual loyalty” in reference to American Jews.
American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris said the president’s comments were “shockingly divisive and unbecoming of the occupant of the highest elected office. American Jews — like all Americans — have a range of political views and policy priorities. His assessment of their knowledge or ‘loyalty,’ based on their party preference, is inappropriate, unwelcome and downright dangerous.”
Conversely, the RJC defended the president. Before he clarified that he was specifically referring to disloyalty to Israel and the Jewish people, the organization tweeted that “it shows a great deal of disloyalty to oneself to defend a party that protects/emboldens people that hate you for your religion.” When the president followed up with his clarification, they too clarified: “We take the president seriously, not literally.”
The charge is especially relevant, given that most of 2019 has been spent cyclically debating what many saw as a similar charge from Rep. Omar.
So what is this claim of “dual loyalty”? Why do Jewish people react with such passion to the charge?
Carlos Galindo-Elvira, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, described the accusation of dual loyalty as creating an environment where the allegiance of Jews is questioned, ultimately leading to a suspicion from non-Jews that they cannot trust the Jewish community. As Galindo-Elvira noted, this is not a new charge.
“The disturbing charge of disloyalty by the Jewish people is not new. It has been repeatedly used to downgrade, harass and oppress Jews for centuries upon centuries,” he said via email.
One of the most famous cases informed by dual loyalty was the case of Alfred Dreyfuss, known today as the Dreyfuss Affair. In 1894, the Jewish French Army captain was wrongly convicted of treason based on highly circumspect evidence. Two years later, when incontrovertible evidence of his innocence emerged, the response from large segments of the French press and public was to decry Dreyfuss’ role in a supposed “international Jewish conspiracy.”
Other examples include WWII-era American isolationists like Charles Lindbergh warning about Jewish influence over the decision to enter the war, or Arab governments expelling Jews after 1948 with obviously false charges that they were spies.
The recent surge in interest regarding the charge probably stems from comments made by Omar this past spring.
“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar said. Though Omar says that she did not intend to invoke the sordid history of dual loyalty claims, there were many who saw her comment as indicative of anti-Semitism.
“This is a charge that is centuries old and it’s often weaponized alongside a social or political movement. In modern times, it’s transformed into the accusation that Jews place the interest of Israel before their countries of origin. The dual loyalty insult persists among the most broadly held anti-Semitic smears throughout the world,” Galindo-Elvira said. JN
Jesse Bernstein is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, a JN-affiliated publication. Additional reporting for this story was done by Rich Solomon.