A View from the Bleachers: What is meant when speaking of dual loyalty?
By Rabbi Steven Garten
On August 20, the Republican president of the United States stated that Jews who support Democrats are “disloyal.”
The response was predictable. Those who support the president noted that what he was doing was calling out Jews who vote Democratic as disloyal to their own people. Not to the United States. Those who are less enamored with the 45th U.S. president charged that this was a classic antisemitic canard.
It is never simple to unpack the musings of the president. He is not given to precision, even when speaking from a prepared text. If, as some suggested, he was calling upon Jews to be loyal to Israel, it is not really the point. We Jews have an obligation to protect and defend Israel because it is the ingathering of the exiles after two millennia. We Jews are not disloyal when we offer alternative opinions about the political path chosen by Israeli political leaders. We are not disloyal if we disagree with those who call themselves friends of Israel, but whose politics do not jibe with our personal values.
Yet, we have always been anxious about the charge of disloyalty. In 1806, when Napoleon convened an assembly of Jewish notables to respond to 11 questions designed to clarify the Jewish community’s relationship to France, he specifically asked if “Jews acknowledge France as their country.”
In 1841, when Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina dedicated its first permanent home (it was founded in 1749), the president of the congregation proclaimed, “This city is our Jerusalem. This country is our Palestine.” There was to be no ambiguity about loyalty.
In 1917, when Lord Balfour was struggling to craft a document that would appease both Zionists in the British cabinet and those opposed to agitating Arab leaders who might support British war efforts, a third voice was noticeable. Anglo Jews pressured Balfour and Churchill to write nothing that could be construed as hinting at dual loyalty among British Jewry.
That is why the phrase, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country,” became part of the Balfour Declaration.
We are a people whose loyalty is often challenged and somewhat tenuous at times. But, in spite of our history and our discomfort when the issue is raised, few serious political leaders in the post-Second World War era have given us much cause for concern.
What should be more concerning to us is where our loyalties lie within the Jewish community. There was a time when we galvanized around the slogan “We are one.” However, some thought the slogan was too narrow and not reflective of our growing diversity. There was a time when our loyalties were to religious institutions: synagogues and temples. Individuals not only prayed within the four walls, they found community and friendship.
Alas, synagogues and temples no longer are the focus of our individual loyalties. We see fewer and fewer seats filled on Shabbat and chagim. Friendship groups are easily formed outside the synagogues.
While some direct their loyalties to individual institutions and Jewish charities, it is interesting that many who do so are responding to the perceived needs that the institutions fulfil in their personal lives, such as supporting an old age home because a parent needs a secure, warm, friendly, kosher venue, or fundraising for a program that supports emotionally and educationally challenged adults because their own child fits the profile.
These are all worthy causes deserving of our commitment, but there can never be enough individuals with direct needs to support these places eternally.
Loyalty is more than just an acknowledgement of individual needs. Loyalty sees beyond the immediate. Loyalty is faithfulness in the face of adversity. Loyalty requires honesty about thoughts and emotions. Loyalty demands an everlasting commitment to something and or someone beyond ourselves. Loyalty demands strong feelings of support and allegiance.
The loyalty which supersedes our personal proclivities and opinions is loyalty to the Jewish community. It is through that loyalty that many of our personal causes and interests are made real. As individuals, we cannot insure the survival of our people, community and institutions. As a united community we can.
This year divide your loyalties if you must, but commit to your community, who will preserve all our divided loyalties.