The great Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who died this past December, was born and grew up in Jerusalem but his parents had fled from Germany to what was then Palestine. As Oz showed in his memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (made into a Hebrew-language movie by Natalie Portman), his parents never really adjusted to life in Palestine and continued to feel nostalgic for the life they left behind in Germany.
Recalling what his father had told him about life in Germany before the Shoah, Oz wrote: “Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: 'Yids, go back to Palestine,' so we came back to Palestine, and now the world at large shouts at us: 'Yids, get out of Palestine.’”
I had actually heard Oz tell this story in speeches even before he published his memoir, but this week it resonated with me more deeply than ever before. In pre-war Europe, Jews were condemned for not living in “Palestine” and today we are condemned for doing so. Here in the United States, we have a Member of Congress, Ilhan Omar, who said in a speech in March: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country [Israel].” And then of course earlier this week the President said that Jews who vote for Democrats are either “disloyal” or “ignorant”.
This type of language, whether from a first-term Representative or from the President, needs to concern us. The point is not whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, whether you generally support the President or oppose him. Everyone in the United States has a right to support the party and candidate of their choice without being called "disloyal" or conversely being accused of dual loyalty. This kind of statement is antithetical to American values.
In the wake of these comments, as well as last week’s controversy where the President successfully pressured Israel to deny entry to Representative Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin phoned Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After their conversation he tweeted: "I spoke today with@SpeakerPelosi about the importance of strong US-Israel relations and I thanked her for her commitment," Rivlin tweeted Wednesday. "The link between us is between peoples, based on historical ties, deep, strong friendships and shared values, not dependent on the links with either party."
President Rivlin is absolutely correct. A number of years ago in a previous congregation I served, I organized a discussion between two congregants who explained why they were members of the particular political party they supported. The Republican presenter, one of my closest friends in the congregation, said that one of the reasons he was a Republican is that he recognized that the majority of Jews were Democrats and that it was important that there be Jews in both parties. If not, this would be detrimental to Jewish interests because Republicans could ignore Jewish concerns on the theory that Jews won’t vote for them anyway, whereas Democrats could ignore Jewish concerns on the theory that Jews will vote for them anyway. With Jews in both parties, neither party could ignore our concerns or take our vote for granted. I found, and still find, his point to be very convincing.
Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or an independent, if you consider yourself pro-Israel you should not want Israel to be just another partisan issue. The political pendulum in the United States swings back and forth, and at some point there will once again be a Democratic President guiding foreign policy and a Democratic Congress determining the amount of military assistance Israel receives from the United States. Support of Israel is widespread today among both parties, even if there may be disagreements with specific policies of the Israeli government. Last week 41 Democratic representatives and 31 Republican representatives traveled to Israel with AIPAC. It is not in Israel’s best interests to become too closely identified with one side of the American political divide.
The injection of the “loyalty” of American Jews into public discussion is simply toxic and should be out of bounds, whether it comes from the left side of the spectrum or the right. Many Americans have roots in other countries, celebrate those roots, and support policies favorable to their ancestral homes, and American Jews are no different in this regard. We love and support Israel but our loyalty, which is a legal and political concept, is to the United States.
By all means advocate for the policies you consider to be in the best interests of the United States and in the best interests of Israel. But let’s do so with love and respect and a recognition that despite whatever differences we have, we are one community and one nation.