A few weeks ago, Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar misattributed American politicians’ support for Israel to money from AIPAC. (AIPAC sponsors all-expenses paid educational trips to Israel, but does not donate to candidates.) “It’s all about the Benjamins!” She wrote in a now deleted tweet.
And yet, last Friday, she seemed to double down. “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” she said at a town hall meeting, invoking another anti-Semitic trope, in which Jews are accused of having dual loyalties.
Our democracy is built on debate, Congresswoman! I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee. The people of the 5th elected me to serve their interest. I am sure we agree on that! https://t.co/gglAS4FVJW— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) March 3, 2019
What these repeated exchanges reveal is that Omar’s first controversial statements were not anomalous, nor were they the result of careless phrasing. Despite the existence of bad-faith critics motivated by animus to Muslims, her good-faith critics did indeed have a point.
In these statements and others, Omar has repeatedly made clear that her framework for understanding the U.S.-Israel relationship is deeply embedded in notions of allegiance and even dual loyalties, rather than shared interests, and she views herself as speaking truth to power, despite Jews repeatedly protesting the dangers of framing support for Israel as a form of “allegiance.”
Opinion | For Jews, Ilhan Omar’s Attack On ‘Allegiances’ To Israel Is All Too Familiar
Representative Omar as well as many of her supporters are likely unaware of the violent history behind the dual-loyalty canard she invokes when she discusses “allegiance” to Israel. But whether it is intended or not, the rhetoric and the ideas underlying it — that Jews are untrustworthy and have foreign loyalties superseding their domestic ones — are all too familiar to Jews. Throughout Jewish history, the belief that Jews harbor a dual-loyalty has resulted in state-sanctioned oppression and produced deadly violence against Jews.
Gentiles fearing the loyalty of Jews has been deadly for Jews since the beginning of the Jewish tradition. Already in the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh tells the Egyptians to enslave the Jews, for “in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”
It wasn’t limited to Egypt. Later this March, Jews will be celebrating the holiday of Purim, which commemorates how Jews in ancient Persia, led by Esther and Mordechai, successfully thwarted a genocidal plot against them. There, too, Jewish difference was cast as a threat to the King.
The idea used to incite against Jews by Pharaoh and Haman — that Jews are inherently untrustworthy — endured in both Jewish consciousness and in European societies where the Hebrew bible became a part of the Christian social fabric over the course of the Middle Ages.
Through over a millennium of anti-Semitic riots, ethnic cleansing, and forced conversions, the notion of Jewish dual-loyalty became an ingrained belief in Christian societies, fueled by the idea that Jews’ trans-national loyalty to each other threatened the Christian countries they lived in.
As a result, the Enlightenment era, with its ideas of liberty and representative government, was a curious time for Jews, many of whom were either banned from cities entirely or lived in segregated parts of cities known as ghettos. As Enlightenment reforms took root, the question of how those reforms would apply to Jews played out in spirited public debates.
The most influential argument in favor of Jewish emancipation was made by Prussian historian and civil servant Christian Wilhelm Dohm. But not everyone was in favor, and the trope of dual loyalties played a role in the delay of Jewish emancipation. Unlike today, its opponents were quite conscious of the historical parallels of their argument. Johann David Michaelis, a Prussian Biblical scholar, opposed Jewish emancipation on the grounds that Jewish longing for Zion “casts doubt on the full and steadfast loyalty of the Jews to the state and the possibility of their full integration.” “The Jews will always see the state as a temporary home, which they will leave in the hour of their greatest happiness to return to Palestine. For similar reasons their forefathers were suspect in the eyes of the Egyptians,” he wrote in a public letter.
Despite these arguments centering on Jewish dual-loyalty, the French were the first to emancipate their Jews after the French revolution. As Napoleon conquered Europe, he brought French law with him, leading Jews across the continent to exit the ghetto for the first time, though in many places it only lasted as long as French troops were present.
In fits and spurts, emancipation reached most of the Jews of Western and Central Europe by the 1870s; their co-religionists in Eastern Europe were not as lucky.
Still, emancipation did not end the dual loyalty debate. In France, the infamous Dreyfus affair, where a French-Jewish officer was wrongly accused of passing military secrets to the Germans, rocked the country and made the loyalty of Jews a question of public debate once more. As Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards debated in print over the Jewish officer’s innocence, anti-Semitic mobs took to the street.
“The cry, ‘Death to the Jews,’ swept the country,” writes Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. “In Lyon, Rennes, Nantes, Tours, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrant, and Marseille—everywhere, in fact—anti-Semitic riots broke out.”
And it was not just limited to France. In neighboring Germany just two decades later, a generation of German veterans came home from the war to end all wars (WWI) asking themselves how they were defeated. And in their grief, they found the answer: The Jews.
The Stab-In-The-Back myth, as it came to be known, cast Germany’s loss as the result of Jewish traitors working with foreign interests to undermine the war effort.
Despite a German army survey showing that Jews served in disproportionate numbers in combat units, when the Nazis swept into power 15 years after World War I, they did so partly on the appeal of this anti-Semitic myth. Using Stab-In-The-Back, the Nazis set about rewriting German history and further propagating the belief that Jews were inherently disloyal to their own nation because of this dual-loyalty canard.
The result of the Nazis’ radical anti-Semitism, fueled at the beginning by the Stab-In-The-Back myth, was the systematic murder of two out of every three Jews across the continent.
It’s tempting to end there, but unfortunately the dual-loyalty canard continued well after the Holocaust and was not limited to the political right.
The Soviet government was initially supportive of the fledgling Jewish State in 1948, whose leaders were self-proclaimed socialists who had recently led an uprising against British rule in mandate Palestine. The Soviets received their new Israeli ambassador, the Russian and Yiddish-speaking Jew Golda Meir, in Moscow in the same year. Attending [Rosh Hashanah](https://forward.com/schmooze/320610/rosh-hashana/ “Rosh Hashanah”) Jews who had come to welcome her and celebrate the establishment of the then five-month-old Jewish state.
This show of solidarity alarmed Soviet leaders, especially Stalin, who privately regarded Jews as disloyal despite the fact that over half a million Soviet Jews served in the Red Army in WWII and died in combat at higher rates than ethnic Russians.
The display of intra-Jewish solidarity, along with Israel’s growing ties to the United States, triggered a dramatic shift in Soviet policy towards its own Jews and Israel.
Shortly thereafter, the Soviets switched their support in the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Arab side, initially diplomatically, and later by supplying weapons, training, and even personnel to the pan-Arab cause.
Domestically, Stalin began a campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” — predominantly targeting Jews who authorities now claimed had no “roots” in Soviet Russia but did have ties to their brethren in Israel and the United States.
Alongside heightened anti-Semitic propaganda dressed up as anti-Zionism, Stalin’s government rounded up prominent members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, who had helped support the war effort by fundraising for the Soviet cause in the West. Their international ties, like in France and Germany a generation before, were now viewed as a liability and a mark against Jews.
Through pamphlets, inflammatory rhetoric, and the demonization of Israel and Zionists, a campaign of overt anti-Semitism meant to sway public opinion was instituted in the Soviet Union and lasted for over five years. The anti-Semitic frenzy reached a crescendo with the execution of thirteen Soviet Jewish intellectuals in 1952 after a show trial focusing on their alleged treason and international ties. The campaign likely would have expanded to the Soviet Union’s over 1.5 million Jews broadly had Stalin not abruptly died on March 5, 1953.
Opinion | For Jews, Ilhan Omar’s Attack On ‘Allegiances’ To Israel Is All Too Familiar
By responding to criticism of her use of “allegiance” to characterize support for Israel with additional claims that she is being forced to “have allegiance” to Israel, Rep. Omar blurred the line between legitimate criticism of American pro-Israel groups and Israel with the deadly ideas so familiar to Jews, from the time of Esther to the time of Golda.
It is imperative that she be more careful in future. Jews know all too well where careless words can lead.
Alex Zeldin is a New York-based writer. You can find him on Twitter at @Wonko_the_sane.