Theodor Herzl didn’t want a Jewish state in Palestine. Or at least, not at first. The Austrian journalist, who later became the father of political Zionism, was thoroughly assimilated into Viennese society and saw virtue in Jews being in a similar relationship with their home countries. However, European society continued to view the Jewish community with deep suspicion. How could a Jew be a loyal German or Frenchman, many asked, if he harbored an overarching allegiance to Judaism? A hundred years later, that toxic question still echoes in the West – as seen in the controversy over statements by US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. And it profits anyone who seeks to understand the politics – and conflicts – of modern Israel to see why that is so.
The overwhelming reaction by Jews to turn of the 20th century anti-Semitism was to deepen their integration into European society. They averred that no tension existed between being Jewish and a proud citizen. Herzl, however, had another idea. Instead of fighting to join European societies as citizens, he advocated the creation of a Jewish state that would be the equal to European nations. The issue of dual loyalty and allegiance would dissolve as the Zionist state would be the home for global Jewry.
While the idea was clever, it unwittingly embraced the anti-Semitic notion that Jews should not, or even cannot, be citizens of Western secular states. Instead of rejecting European nationalism, Herzl embraced it in order to create a modern Jewish version. For this reason, among others, the majority of global Jewry rejected Zionism in the early 20th century. Despite the Zionist movement managing to create a state in 1948, the charges of dual loyalty haven’t gone away, as evident in debates unfolding in Washington.
The comments this month from freshman US congresswoman Omar questioning the allegiance of supporters of the Israel lobby in Washington have a direct connection to the ugly history of the dual loyalty charge. They conjure up the grotesque image of the Dreyfus Affair, in which the loyalty of a French Jewish army officer was questioned in a show trial that gripped Europe and help mold Herzl’s thoughts.
Far from creating a new strain of debate, Omar has reminded us of this unresolved issue in contemporary Jewish nationalism in a rather obtuse manner. American Jews have long been accused of harboring dual loyalty, due to their support for Israel. Israel has encouraged this charge by claiming to represent all Jews regardless of their nationality. The danger today is not that politicians like Omar will continue to make crude statements, but rather the role that the Israeli government and Zionist ideology play in these debates and in propagating dangerous forms of nationalism. It is a role that is misunderstood and seldom discussed.
The core tenet of Zionism is that the place for Jews is in Israel, not the West. Just as Western anti-Semites see no place for Jews in gentile societies, Zionists believe that the only place for Jews is in the so-called Jewish state. It is no wonder that so many right-wing populists support Israel and are welcomed so warmly in Tel Aviv.
There are other threads that convolute the dual loyalty debate. By claiming to represent the Jewish people, Israel has been able to deflect criticism of its political actions as anti-Semitic. In this manner has it sought to defend its policy against Palestinians.
Israel regularly equates its actions with Jewish people worldwide regardless of whether they have Israeli citizenship. This perpetuates a dangerous image of dual loyalty that in recent years American Jews, for example, have worked hard to distance themselves from.
For American Jews, the United States is the only homeland they have ever wanted and so the debate about dual loyalty cuts deep while raising questions about their safety and security. Since the Jewish people never elected Israel to represent them, nor have the Jewish people ever claimed that the state of Israel is their national homeland, it is safe to say that Zionism is propagating a dangerous version of dual loyalty for Jews everywhere.
That brings us back to Omar’s comments. Many have been quick to decry her statements as making impossible a nuanced debate about Israel. But blaming Omar for the impasse lends far too much weight to her understanding of the issue. The roadblock that stands in the way of a nuanced debate about Israel is Israel itself. Omar’s comments and the subsequent fallout have brought the issue to the front of the media cycle and given fodder to notions of Democratic party disunity on key policy issues ahead of the next presidential election (an issue that has nothing to do with dual loyalty). That is all.
An honest, and rather more difficult, debate hinges on how Zionism embraced the logic of contemporary anti-Semitism that saw no future for Jews in European society: Jews, as a people apart, should be confined to their own state. This thinking lies at the heart of Zionism and few are debating the corrosive effect this has on the safety of Jewish communities throughout the world outside Israel.
The difficulty in debating Israel is due to the conflation of all things Jewish with Israel, and the Israeli government’s hysterical reaction to just about any form of valid critique. Omar is a small blip in a much larger conversation. Moreover, the intense focus on Omar has actually drawn attention away from Zionism’s problematic relationship with dual loyalty. As the storm around Omar’s comments settles, it seems nothing fundamental has changed. Those eager to debate the corrosive effects of Zionism will just have to wait for a real opportunity to wrestle with these difficult issues.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.