Last month at a Washington Jewish forum, a liberal Zionist rabbi said that the Iran issue raised the question of “dual loyalty” for American Jews, and all hell broke loose. Other Israel supporters on the panel expressed outrage that a Jew would dignify the charge. One said it was the fare of anti-Semites, racists, and David Duke. Rabbi Melissa Weintraub stood by her statement: Some Jews have a “real sense of being torn,” they “experience a competing pull,” and it’s important for American Jews to talk about it.
The forum at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center was called, “Embracing Democracy: The American Jewish Community’s Evolving Relationship with Israel.” Weintraub said of the Iran deal (at 31:00, in the video):
Are Israeli interests and American interests actually aligned here? If our American interests do diverge from Israeli interests, what then for us as American Jews, how do we navigate that?… There are several positions that have been articulated in the American Jewish community around this agreement, one of which is that this was the ultimate dual loyalty test actually because what arose here was actually a divergence between American and Israeli interests, in which the agreement helped America avert a war and did place Israel in existential danger.
Robert Wexler, a former Florida congressman who now heads a pro-Israel organization, flinched as Weintraub spoke.
Moderator Jane Eisner of the Forward stepped in.
I saw Robert wince, and I know why, and that was using the phrase dual loyalty. This is a really tough one. This is the kind of thing that makes a lot of us squirm. On the one hand we’d like to believe that there is this alignment, that America’s interest are Israel’s interests. And Israel’s interest are America’s interests, and as Americans Jew with the descriptor of American to being Jews, we want to see this both happen, and yet at the same time we know as Americans, unlike most other hyphenated Americans we have this other country that we care about– a real lot.
Eisner said her children went to Jewish day school and they sing two national anthems, the Hatkivah and the Star Spangled Banner, at assemblies. “Both flags flying.”
Wexler was unmollified. He said that “the whole notion of dual loyalty introduced to this conversation, I find completely unwarranted.”
“We’re the only community in a certain respect…that takes the most heinous of tactics that the worst people have employed against the Jewish people and in innocuous way we somehow continue that discussion. I think we should just wipe it away, because it’s really not relevant.”
One of two neoconservatives on the Jewish community panel, Michael Makovsky, who served in the Bush administration as an Iraq hawk, took the issue personally. He said raising the issue was equivalent to calling him a “traitor–I never felt anything so repugnant in my whole life.” He then linked it with the “idea of Israel Firster” that has been taken up by the antiwar left. “I’ve never seen anything so disgusting.”
Makovsky then brought up Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of The Israel Lobby.
“I find it unbelievable that people do this kind of thing…. I personally would never be on a panel with Stephen Walt or John Mearsheimer.”
Makovsky said he’d refused to go on a show on PBS or NPR a year or so back because Walt was on the panel. “I told them I wouldn’t do it. Then they replaced Stephen Walt.” He said this was “a minor victory,” and he’d only shared it with his brother— David Makovsky, who serves now on the Middle East negotiating team for the State Department.
Makovsky added of Walt, “How come that guy still has a job at Harvard?” And Mearsheimer was a “nut,” he said. Eisner, the moderator, said nothing in defense of the scholars.
Weintraub did not back down. She said there was a tension between American interests and Israel’s interests, and it had to be addressed, even if you don’t like the words dual loyalty.
“I think it’s a very important question whether the phrase itself is repugnant because it brings up anti-Semitic slurs around our loyalty… The importance of the phrase is that it gets at something that has been articulated in those terms by many Jews whether we use those terms or not, which is a sense of real competing interests….a real sense of being torn. Because there are those who think that American and Israeli interests don’t align here.”
And while all the other panelists think that American and Israeli interests did align here,
“there are many people who don’t think that is the case and therefore experience a competing pull. And that’s what has been called in some op-eds dual loyalty and we can call it whatever we want, but I think that it’s important to articulate.”
Weintraub is not alone. The Netanyahu government put out a poll and then withdrew it last year that asked American Jews where their allegiances would lie if there were a crisis in American-Israel relations. Both Peter Beinart and MJ Rosenberg have raised the issue of dual loyalty in order to support Obama’s deal: Beinart reminding Jews that the American Jewish leader is Obama, and Rosenberg suggesting that supporters of the Iran deal lean harder on the dual loyalty issue to scare off AIPAC (I believe he’s taken that tweet down). The term has a long pedigree inside the Jewish community. John Judis of the New Republic has said that Jewish organizations demand dual loyalty of Jews, Eric Alterman has said proudly that he feels dual loyalty to Israel, Doug Rushkoff has written that all the Israeli flags in his Hebrew school gave him a sense of dual loyalty, MJ Rosenberg coined the term Israel Firster, Rabbi Elmer Berger raised the issue in the 40s, and London Jews threw dual loyalty at Herzl when he tried to recruit them at the turn of 1900s.
But Makovsky continued to harp on Walt and Mearsheimer. He said the Jewish community should never grant a platform to the scholars, and that Theater J’s Ari Roth was wrong to say that he would stage a play about Walt and Mearsheimer, because “the dual loyalty issue…. is out of bounds…. Why should the Jewish community give any credibility to what I think are racist views, certainly anti-Semitic.” He then compared Walt and Mearsheimer to David Duke.
Again, no rejoinder from Jane Eisner, moderator.
For the record, Walt and Mearsheimer’s book makes the following points about Michael Makovsky: that he worked for Richard Perle’s Office of Special Plans in Bush’s Defense Department, which made the case for war with Iraq, and that he had worked for Israeli PM Shimon Peres after graduating from college in 1989. In the footnotes, Walt and Mearsheimer quote an article in the St Louis Post-Dispatch about Makovsky when he went to work for Peres:
“I have strong feelings about helping to build a Jewish state… It’s like returning to your roots.”
Don’t such statements raise a question about whether someone should be working on war plans in the Middle East for the Pentagon?
Also, while their book implicitly raised the question of whose national interest the neocons were supporting in pushing the Iraq war, Walt and Mearsheimer said they were not raising the issue of conflicted loyalty: we all have lots of loyalties in this modern world, and that’s alright, they said.
But let’s be clear about the forum the Forward published on video, above: the Jewish community provides a platform to Melissa Weintraub when she raises the issue of dual loyalty. Weintraub is Jewish. Walt and Mearsheimer are not; and they can be smeared with impunity.
The panel was thoroughly dispiriting. It featured a lot of talk about what donors will tolerate, and rabbis being afraid to criticize Israel, and the panel ranged from liberal Zionist to two neoconservatives. This passes for a robust conversation about Israel… This is the Jewish community? And so that self-designated community is now married to apartheid, a moral crisis in the eyes of young Jews; but there’s no crisis at the JCC!
I’m at a loss why Jane Eisner presides over this cooked panel. She’s a journalist, of some accomplishment, and she thinks a panel weighted by neoconservatives represents diversity. Weintraub said that we have lots of diversity in the Jewish community and none of these groups are talking to each other; and Eisner said, “Except for here– yay!” Weintraub disagreed. Suggesting that the JCC’s redlines were a result of financial pressure, she said that by excluding discussion of BDS and dual loyalty, the Jewish community is excluding a lot of young people who want to talk about this stuff, and these people aren’t going away. No, their energy will just get intensified by being marginalized, on “the fringe.”
I would urge Eisner to reflect that diversity: to have a panel in New York that represents the Jewish insurgency, people like Rebecca Vilkomerson and Max Blumenthal.
P.S. Vilkomerson wrote this in a thank-you note to donors:
“In the struggle to stop the displacement of Bedouins from their ancestral homes, the launch of SodaStream boycotts coast-to-coast, and the exciting new conversations we’re seeding in living rooms and synagogues, we can tell that people are grappling with the myths they’ve been taught about Israel and Palestine.”
Social justice and opposition to apartheid– in living rooms. With people. Vilkomerson is describing a conversation among Jews and non-Jews (including two-staters like Walt and Mearsheimer). That is Jewish leadership.
Update: MJ Rosenberg explains why he took down that tweet:
I now take all old tweets down (automatically) b/c they are just tweets and I don’t need them out there as if they are well thought out statements. I most certainly do believe that dual loyalty is a valid consideration when any group knowingly chooses the interests of a foreign country over their own. Like Israel Firster, it describes reality. The good news for me is that this is not a Jewish community problem but rather the problem with a small group of Jewish organizational hacks, neocons, and rank-and-file true believers (mostly old), etc.
The reason Makovsky and Wexler go nuts about “dual loyalty” and “Israel Firster” is because they know how valid the charge is when, as with Iran, people knowingly put the interest of Israel’s Likud government above America’s. Walt and Mearsheimer terrify this gang because, simply put, the truth hurts. And, in this case, shines an unhelpful flashlight on their motives.
Thanks to Annie Robbins for help on this post, and Krauss for directing attention to this video.