The topic of Jewish dual loyalty is in the news once again. As an educator, I recognize that the connections among loyalty, allegiance, and identity are inextricably linked. And as someone who recently became an American citizen and needed to renounce all allegiances to foreign states, this topic is also extremely personal. But while many have lamented that this concept of dual loyalty charged at Jews is laced with anti-Semitism, the reality is, regardless of one’s politics, the notion is deeply rooted within all Jewish education outside of Israel.
One can’t consider the modern Jewish experience without an historical appreciation of the emancipation of Western European Jews that began in the 19th century. In 1806, in a public ceremony of great pomp and circumstance, Napoleon publicly reconstituted the ancient assembly of Jewish sages known as the Sanhedrin. The glaring difference between the Sanhedrin of old and the new “Grand Sanhedrin”: the latter was to convene exclusively in France, not the land of Israel. Another difference: it was convened largely to address 12 questions on Napoleon’s mind, essentially meant to resolve whether his Jewish subjects harbored dual loyalties. Among these questions:
1. In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or as strangers?
2. What conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion?
3. Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?
When teaching this episode of Jewish history, students should be asked: “How would you respond to these questions if the leader of your country asked them of you today?”
In contemporary Jewish educational experiences, the question is often asked, “Are you a Jewish American or an American Jew?” Although not an overt push toward choosing one loyalty over another, at the very least this question raises for the learner the possibility that one part of their identity ought to have more salience than the other.
I think I was around 11 or 12 years old when I was first asked the question — if Israel and Australia were playing a game of soccer, which team would you be supporting? It’s a classic question, one that appears in almost every Jewish youth organization, especially the Zionist youth movements. (I was quite proud of myself for having developed an answer to this question in my teen years which had me supporting Israel when they played in Australia and supporting Australia when they played in Israel — which happened to be a fairly common scenario in the 1980s and 1990s).
For some educators, this question lent itself to a more challenging follow-up prompt: If Australia went to war with Israel, which army would you be fighting for? This question knows no borders and has been asked of tens of thousands of Jewish teens for decades and continues to be on a regular basis.
Juxtapose these types of discussions with Israeli flags, singing in Hebrew, shlichim and a Zionist narrative that describes Israel as a home for refugees just in case anything goes wrong in the country you’re living, and it’s no wonder that our youth who receive a Jewish education feel a sense of connection, and yes, loyalty, to the Jewish homeland.
All of these scenarios, and many more, should be regarded as major successes for Jewish education. What we as Jewish educators might need to confront is that inherently, we actually like questions about dual loyalty. These questions about identity are challenging and push learners to ask difficult questions about who they are as Jews and how they relate to the world around them. These questions highlight in real and clear ways the very essence of particularism and universalism, key features of the Jewish quest for identity today. None of these challenges make us less American. These are the essence of a country made up of immigrants reflecting the cultural, ethnic and religious ties that bring us all together in these United States of America. So, in fact, the question of dual loyalty is actually a fundamental question about Jewish identity outside of Israel, and one that cannot and should not be avoided.
To be sure, some charges of dual loyalty posed by others are thinly veiled anti-Semitic tropes, designed to stoke fear of Jews. But for Jewish educators who ought to be operating within safe and brave spaces, it’s our obligation to challenge our learners with the most difficult questions of our time. And in fact, as educators, I would argue it’s also on us to prepare our learners to be able to confront these issues in spaces that are “less safe” (the public square) so they can own their multiple loyalties, not as a liability or threat, but as a very central piece of our reality in a country and at a moment when identity politics permeates our national discourse.
David Bryfman is chief innovation officer of The Jewish Education Project in New York.