Rashida Tlaib and ‘Dual Loyalty’ Charges — Then and Now
Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has suggested that certain US senators may be more loyal to Israel than the US. A newly-minted wunderkind in national politics, Tlaib has been criticized for further debasing our national discourse in declaring her displeasure with Donald Trump, and rightly castigated for her views on Palestinian terrorism. But my focus here is the historical background of the “dual loyalty” controversy that impugns American Jewish patriotism.
When I was a child, I once came home from elementary school and turned on our new 11-inch television. Lo and behold, I saw images not of Howdy Doody or Captain Kangaroo, but of the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954 with Irish-American Senator Joe McCarthy and his young Jewish chief counsel, Roy Cohn, grilling witnesses of diverse ethnic-racial backgrounds about their American loyalties.
Some were Jewish, with concerns boiling over whether or not these Jews, most politically left-wing, were more loyal to the US or the USSR. But there was a lurking subtext — that Jews may also have been more loyal to Israel than the US. Needless to say, all this ugliness went over my young head at the time.
But the aroma of the McCarthy era left a lingering impact on American Jewish children. The most tragic victims were the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Both their parents were executed for treason and, in the minds of many, dual loyalties to Stalin’s Russia.
Next, as a graduate student at UCLA in the late 1960s, I encountered echoes of McCarthyism in an academic context, when I heard and read stories about professors being blackballed over their objections to taking loyalty oaths. At the same time, I learned that, historically, these ugly controversies were nothing new. In fact, in the Roman Empire, both Jews and Christians earned enmity for not slavishly worshiping the emperor.
In the fledgling American republic in the 1790s, French immigrants were deported after being accused of being more loyal to Robespierre than George Washington. In the 1870s, Irish immigrants were branded as Fenian firebrands attempting to liberate Ireland from bases in Canada and the US. After World War I, it was the Jews’ turn in relation to Lenin’s and Stalin’s Russia, and sometimes also in connection with the Balfour Declaration’s promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Italian-Americans were accused of being more loyal to an international Sicilian Mafia conspiracy.
After World War II, the great Harvard historian Oscar Handlin (born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents) devoted space in his influential histories of the American Jewish experience to convincing readers that there was no contradiction in patriotic American Jews, some of whom had fought with Patton’s Third Army in Europe, loving the country of their birth and also loving Israel — the land of their ancient forefathers, as well as a staunch democratic US ally in the Cold War.
Since the 1960s, Americans concerned about this country’s “national security” — and perhaps with underlying, less savory motives — have expressed anxieties about Cuban refugees who were suspect despite the fact that they had fled Castro, Vietnamese “boat people” somehow tainted by association with Ho Chi Minh, and now Latino immigrants lumped with rapists, drug dealers, and terrorists.
And, of course, there are Arab and Muslim Americans, sometimes scapegoated since the 9/11 attacks as “un-American.”
How ironic that Congresswoman Tlaib of all people should accuse American Jews who love Israel of dual loyalty. The proper way to debate Israeli-Palestinian issues is on their merits — not by raising the specter of disloyalty the way Congresswomen Tlaib has.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Africans, African Americans, and Jews (Africa World Press, 2015).