When U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted that Americans’ support for the state of Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” many Jews took offense, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a rebuttal criticizing Omar’s perpetuation of the stereotype that Jewish money runs the world. When Rep. Omar, having deleted that tweet, went on to suggest that support for Israel is an improper “allegiance to a foreign country,” the Twittersphere exploded with an unproductive back-and-forth about the Israel-Palestine conflict, merits of Israeli foreign policy, and the substantial influence wielded by the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). Whether or not Omar intended to play into a centuries-old, anti-Semitic canard – I suspect not – the ADL was completely justified in its harsh response. To fully understand the intensity of the Jewish community’s reaction, let’s turn back the page to the very first time that Jews were accused of divided loyalty in modern politics.
In 1789, during the throes of the French Revolution, the burgeoning First Republic was struggling to define the emerging French nation, negotiate differences among its population, and decide what rights, if any, should be extended to minorities.
After centuries of state and church-sanctioned persecution, inquisition, and multiple expulsions, the surviving Jewish community was a minority population of only 50,000 in a country numbering 25 million. Historically ghettoized, restricted to such low-status professions as moneylending, and excluded from the majority Catholic society, Jews formed insular communities in Bordeaux and Mentz – places where Rabbinical authority oftentimes replaced the traditional justice system, and community organizations filled the roles of a neglectful monarchy.
This attachment to Jewish identity and the resulting “divided loyalty” presented a conundrum for revolutionaries’ conceptions of universal citizenship and allegiance to the French nation.
Stanislas Marie Adelaide, Count of Clermont-Tonnerre, in his now-canonical “Speech on Religious Minorities and Questionable Professions” (1789), grappled with how, if at all, Jews ought to be included in the new, nationalistic France. Revolutionary France was eager to distinguish itself from the nation’s feudal past and affirm its commitment to republican values, but this was easier said than done.
“We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation,” he wrote, “and accord everything to the Jews as individuals.” Clermont-Tonnerre further suggested that those Jews who “do not want to be citizens” and surrender their autonomous political and judicial institutions should be banished. “It is repugnant to have in the state an association of non-citizens, and a nation within the nation.”
One sees how quickly the so-called tolerance of some revolutionaries disappeared once the Jewish Question arose. Even though the French nation-state was eager to advertise its progressive commitment to liberty, egality, and fraternity, there were those who were more than willing to reenact the medieval expulsion of the very monarchy they had overthrown if Jewish communities – which had out of necessity responded to persecution by looking inwards – did not comply with full assimilation.
Fortunately, the National Assembly rejected this all-or-nothing approach to the Jewish Question, in large part due to successful lobbying efforts by Jewish communities. The practice of Judaism was legalized in 1790 and, in response, large numbers of Jews enlisted in the French army and donated valuables to support the war effort against neighboring monarchies. Napoleon’s empire would designate Judaism an official religion in 1807.
These concessions, however, did not mark total emancipation for French Jewry. For one, although Napoleon abolished Jewish ghettos in lands he conquered, he subsequently issued the 1808 décret infâme (infamous decree). The decree declared all debts owed to Jews cancelled – a decision which caused the financial collapse of an entire population restricted to the moneylending profession – and reinstituted limits on where Jews were allowed to settle.
Today, anti-Semitic attacks in France are a persistent and rising problem. Jewish cemeteries have been repeatedly vandalized, philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was heckled on video by Yellow Vest protesters calling him a “dirty Zionist shit” who should “go back to Tel Aviv,” and violent crimes against Jews are on the rise. In response, President Macron declared that anti-Zionism was in effect a form of anti-Semitism, sparking controversy and re-opening the age-old argument about the relationship between the two tendencies.
Note the continuity between the anti-Semitism of 1789 and that of 2019, a full three centuries later. Whether or not a Jew looks like a Jew, lives in a Jewish community, practices Judaism, or has any particular set of political positions, it is seemingly inevitable that they will be seen as an unpatriotic Other who hold divided loyalties. The key to understanding the development of this phenomenon is the transformation of the Jewish nation, from the internal to the external.
Before, the Jewish nation was the “nation within a nation”; a fragmented, diasporic web of ghettos whose inhabitants, living within the territory of unfriendly countries, were compelled by necessity or law to look inwards, create their own institutions, and govern themselves. French Jews in the Revolutionary period were accused of owing allegiance to their own insular Judaic courts and politics and, as a result, failing to be full French citizens.
Today, the Jewish nation is global, connected, and more cohesive than ever. Still, Jews are accused of supporting the state of Israel, the living, breathing symbol of the international Jewish nation and home of 44% of all Jews, above and outside of the countries in which they reside.
So, the next time a politician – perhaps a U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District – alludes to divided loyalties, be mindful. The notion that Jews are disloyal citizens who “pledge support to a foreign country” isn’t new; in fact, it’s positively antique.