In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte summoned French Jewish leaders for a conversation about loyalty.
French Jews had gained the status of full citizens 16 years earlier. Napoleon wanted to understand how, as newly empowered civilians, they saw the world. So he asked them if they truly considered France their country, and Frenchmen their countrymen.
In 1894, French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of treason. Two years later, incontrovertible new evidence made his innocence obvious. Even then, the French press, led by the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole, accused Dreyfus of being part of an “international Jewish conspiracy” and disloyal to France. He was retried — and convicted again.
In September 1941, Charles Lindbergh spoke about Jewish Americans’ perceived “agitation for war.” “Their greatest danger to their country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government,” he said. “Their country” — not the same as ours.
In 2017, former State Department official Dennis Ross wrote in The New York Times about a colleague who asked about a peer for whom Ross was a reference. The official asked if that peer was loyal to America, then, after Ross said yes, whether he would put America’s interests before those of Israel. Ross asked why his interlocutor would ask that question. “Because he is Jewish,” he said.
And on Tuesday, President Trump made a statement that set the country aflame: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat — I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” The following day, he clarified what exactly he meant: “If you vote for a Democrat, you’re being disloyal to Jewish people and you’re being very disloyal to Israel.”
“The notion of dual loyalty is a linchpin of the anti-Semitic stereotype,” said Deborah Lipstadt, author of “Antisemitism: Here and Now” (2019). “Whether you use the world ‘cosmopolitan,’ whether you use the words ‘dual loyalty,’ that’s the charge: that Jews are loyal to one another, and they’re not loyal to the country in which they live.”
While Trump’s comments sparked an immediate outcry, opinions were mixed as to whether they were directly anti-Semitic. But, said Anti-Defamation League deputy national director Kenneth Jacobson, while Trump’s intent may be unknowable, his language was clear.
“On the one hand, you could argue the distinction, as opposed to some who accuse Jews in a very negative way of dual loyalty,” Jacobson said. “On the other hand, by picking up this language twice, the term ‘loyalty,’ it again plays into [the trope]. He’s playing into it, and he continues to play into it.”
The charge of dual loyalty has a long history. It dates back, Jacobson said, to the biblical Book of Esther, in which the powerful government official Haman treats Jews “as aliens and outsiders.” It shows up, as well, in the biblical story of the Jews’ time as slaves in Egypt; the Torah explains that the Jews were first enslaved when a new pharaoh, taking the throne, became concerned that the Jews would someday turn against the Egyptians with whom they dwelled as peers.
The dual loyalty charge cropped up periodically through the centuries: “There were always questions about ‘To whom are the Jews loyal,’” said Jerome Chanes, author of “Dark Side of History: Anti-Semitism Through the Ages” (2001) and a former Forward contributor. But that charge’s role in shaping Jewish history between the late 19th century and today has been particularly notable.
After the Dreyfus affair, the trope played a significant role in the Holocaust; as Hitler rose to prominence, he spoke often about the perceived threat of “Jewish Bolshevism,” a conspiracy theory that claimed that Jews, as a people, were working to spread Marxism throughout the world, without care for the wellbeing of the countries in which they lived.
In 1952 and ‘53, Joseph Stalin concocted a so-called “Doctors’ Plot,” accusing a group of Jewish doctors of working to assassinate high-profile figures in the USSR. Pravda, the organ of state propaganda, issued a report claiming that the accused had been recruited by an “international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization.”
In America, the idea of dual loyalty haunted Jews in the years before and after the creation of the state of Israel, as many expressed trepidation that the creation of a Jewish state would jeopardize their security as American citizens. In a 1950 agreement with Jacob Blaustein, then-head of the American Jewish Committee, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, affirmed that “the State of Israel speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no ways presumes to represent or speak in the name of Jews who are citizens of any other country.”
“This means that the allegiance of American Jews is to America and America alone,” Ben-Gurion added, “and should put an end to any idea or allegation that there is such a thing as ‘dual loyalty’ on the part of American Jewry.”
While fears of having loyalty questioned have lessened in America in recent decades, the trope of Jewish dual loyalty has persisted in the world at large. A 2014 ADL survey about global anti-Semitism found “The most widely accepted anti-Semitic stereotype worldwide is: ‘Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country/the countries they live in.’”
“Overall,” the ADL noted in a press release about the survey, “41 percent of those surveyed believe this statement to be ‘probably true.’”
In recent years, as both Lipstadt and Jacobson noted, allegations of Jewish dual loyalty have gained new ground on both sides of the political spectrum.
“[Trump] may not have meant it as [anti-Semitic], but this gives intense comfort and succor to white supremacists,” Lipstadt said.
Jacobson said he still thinks the American Jewish community is “not only the most comfortable and secure Jewish community in the world today, but I would argue in the 2,000-year history of the diaspora.” But, he said, “In a time when white supremacy is raging, those ideas” — allegations of dual loyalty, no matter their source — “have to be taken a lot more seriously.”
“There is a question: What moment are we going through?” he said. “Is it of a cyclical nature, or is something fundamentally changing?”
“And that’s to be determined.”