The forests of the Amazon are burning. The lungs of the planet will collapse and take the rest of us with them. The United States government is detaining large numbers of immigrants, separating children from their families, deporting parents who work in this country, and planning to lift the limit on how long people can be detained. Americans are dying because they cannot afford their prescription medications, and mass shootings are on the rise while the government does nothing about gun control. But the current resident of the White House made some outrageous remark. Another outrageous remark, just one of several on any given day. And so, all the major news outlets shifted their focus from the enormity of climate change, the precarity of the human race, and our cruelty to each other. This time, the comment was about Jews in America. It was a troubling remark and one that recalls a long history of antisemitism. This kind of talk is dangerous. So, we are swept up by the news cycle and shift our attention to the agenda set by racism—again.
The current resident of the White House, a symptom of larger processes, proclaimed that Jewish Americans who do not vote for the Republican party are disloyal. Not disloyal to their country of citizenship. No, they are traitors to the state of Israel. By the time this post is published many readers will already have seen countless responses to the antisemitism inherent in the idea of Jews as disloyal. So, rather than focus on that specific comment, I want to point to a broader process underway: a shift in antisemitic rhetoric that might make it harder to recognize and therefore all the more dangerous.
In addition to his remarks about disloyal Jews, the same man has also denigrated three junior members of Congress by weaponizing the accusation of antisemitism. He says that Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are antisemitic. These three junior congresswomen, women of color, include one Muslim woman of Palestinian descent, one Somali Muslim woman in hijab, and one Latina. They are outspoken in their opposition to Israeli policy. They call for the end of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories and for human rights for Palestinians. The man in the White House calls them antisemites. He says that they hate Israel and that they also hate all Jews.
These accusations—one of disloyalty and the other of antisemitism—are themselves forms of antisemitism. This weaponized antisemitism is dangerous for all minorities and people of color. It calls out migrants, and Muslims in particular. It also participates in a much longer historical process of making Jews and Muslims enemies of Europe and of each other, while conflating Muslim with Arab in ways that continue to have serious consequences in Israel/Palestine. But it is especially dangerous for Jews. American Jews have long felt themselves relatively comfortable in their country, and relatively safe from antisemitic rhetoric or acts of violence. The current focus on Jews and the questioning of their loyalty reminds Jews of a long history of similar accusations.
The claim of disloyalty resonates profoundly with older antisemitic tropes. The Jews were accused of disloyalty in medieval Christian times, during the Inquisition, and, more recently, in pre-WWII Europe. Throughout history, Jews have been accused of disloyalty to the crown, the country, the Pope, or to Christ. But how can American Jews be accused of disloyalty to a foreign country? The idea is bizarre unless one presumes that all Jews should support Israel first and at all times because of some kind of tribal, ethnic, or religious affiliation. Should American Catholics be loyal to Rome? Should American Muslims support the governments of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia?
Beyond the absurdity lies the age-old accusation leveled against Jews everywhere: they are disloyal to their country of residence because they are Jewish. In part, this idea results from an inherent problem in the modern identity categories through which we generally navigate our social lives. These categories suggest that national belonging and religious affiliation are separate aspects of identity. A person can be French and Catholic, or Dutch and Buddhist at the same time. Scholars such as Charles Taylor contend that not only are these categories separable, but that in our modern, supposedly secular age, “religion” is a matter of personal choice. That means a French citizen can choose to be Catholic or Protestant or join some other faith group. And, a person can even choose not to be affiliated with any religion. The idea that such distinctions can be made is often considered a specifically Protestant understanding of the term “religion.” Whether or not one agrees with that analysis, it seem clear that such is not the case for the Jews. In the figure of the Jew, the categories of national and religious belonging are at once both separate and conflated. While a Jewish person might be non-observant, or practice another faith, the racialization of Jewishness has meant that no matter what they do, a Jew will always be Jewish. Importantly, Jewishness is understood as a national and religious category. Thus, regardless of their country of residence or their citizenship state, Jews are always and forever foreigners who cannot be trusted as patriotic citizens. They might be granted citizen’s rights, might completely assimilate to the local culture, and might even convert to Christianity. However, they will always be suspect.
Hannah Arendt discussed this conundrum in a piece called “We Refugees.” In that 1943 article, Arendt wrote about the uselessness of attempts at assimilation. She spoke of a character she called Mr. Cohen who, when he lived in Germany was 150% German. When forced to leave Germany, he moved to Prague and became 150% Czech, and then 150% French and so on interminably attempting to demonstrate that he was forever everywhere and anywhere a loyal citizen; anything but a Jew.
Now, in the United States of 2019, we hear people opposing the current Republican administration by quoting another Republican, Ronald Reagan who once fondly quoted a letter he received that said, “You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.… Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.” It is impossible to repeat this quote without pointing out its erasure of the settler colonial past of the United States, its ongoing genocide of Native Americans, and the fact that the U.S. is a society that was built on the backs of slave labor, that is, people who did not just “come to live in America.” Beyond that, it seems clear that if Jewish Americans are called upon by their government to be loyal to the state of Israel, this picture of becoming American is nothing more than a myth, no different from Arendt’s assessment of the impossibility of assimilation.
But what does it mean to demand “loyalty” in the first place? Loyalty to whom? For what? Is loyalty the same as patriotism? Is it central to democratic living? Should we encourage unquestioning support of state policies? Or would we do better to encourage engagement and critique? The danger underlying this call to loyalty lies in its promotion of an ethno-nationalism that undermines the possibility of equal rights for all citizens in a multicultural society and the impossibility of achieving such rights based on our common humanity. Instead it reinforces the exclusionary nature of nationalism with all its precarity for those deemed outsiders.
This time, though, the accusation of disloyalty came wrapped in a kind of philo-Semitism. “We care about you,” it said. “We, the Republican party, are staunch supporters of Israel, and therefore, by definition, we are good for you. Good for the Jews. And you—Jewish Americans—would be doing the right thing if you supported our party.” The Republican party, or its leader in the White House, is now proclaiming who is a good Jew and who is not. When powerful gentiles begin deciding who is a good Jew, we should all be worried. The leader of the Republican party not only proclaims what counts as “good” Jewish behavior. He has gone one step further and determined that he, and not the members of the Jewish community themselves, knows what is good for them.
One of the things that is “good for Jews,” he says, is unconditional support for the state of Israel. Therefore, the three junior congresswomen are not good for the Jews. They are enemies of the Jewish people. These proclamations are all intended to garner support for his presidency, to appeal to his constituency, including Evangelical Christians (Christian Zionists), and maybe even to reach out to Jewish Americans. But they do something else, too, something more insidious. These comments say that all Jews are, or should be, of one mind. They should all share the same political opinions. In particular, they should all unconditionally grant their loyalty to a foreign country and oppose their own fellow citizens—in this case the representatives for which some American Jews voted—who dare to criticize that foreign country’s policies. In other words, because of who they are, Jews cannot and should not be allowed to identify primarily with their fellow Americans. They must be marked, themselves, as foreigners; their racial and national identity must be conflated again, still.
This notion of “all Jews,” of course, presumes a homogeneity that is very far from the truth. No religious or cultural group is homogenous, certainly not the Jews. To suggest otherwise encourages stereotypical ideas and is fundamentally racist. This notion of Jews as permanent foreigners, and inherently suspect, feeds into larger tropes of global Jewish conspiracies, of their worldwide power, and of their fealty first and foremost to eachother. Suggesting that Jews are disloyal to the modern state of Israel is a form of antisemitism, thinly veiled in terms of caring about Jews. This notion, together with accusations of antisemitism aimed at people of color and those who are critical of Israeli policy, combine to form a toxic antisemitism that stigmatizes some people while producing enemies of groups who might otherwise find shared interests.
When Republicans tell Jewish Americans, “we care about you, we know what is good for you,” they are not only infantilizing the entire Jewish population. They are repeating the two-millennium old tale of Christians having replaced Jews as the chosen people of G-d, the focus of His covenant with humankind. When they say, “we are looking out for you by pointing out antisemitism among others,” they are weaponizing antisemitism, promoting divisions, fear and hatred, that in the end are dangerous to the Jews. Thus the historical Jewish Question, which many expected would end with the establishment of the state of Israel, instead re-emerges and is transformed.We hear in this rhetoric of care echoes of the idea that Christians or Gentiles know better what is “good for the Jews” than do Jews themselves, as the promises and protections of citizenship are, once more, undermined by a toxic ethno-nationalism based in an idea of immutable difference.
*Department of Defense endorsement of the claims made in this essay is not intended in posting this image