WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump said this week that American Jews who chose to vote for Democrats were being disloyal, he was flirting with a notion that has fueled anti-Semitism for generations and has been at the root of some of the most brutal violence inflicted upon Jews in their history.
The accusation that Jews have a “dual loyalty” — that they are not to be trusted because their true allegiance is to their religion, rather than to the country in which they live — dates back thousands of years. It animated the Nazis in 1930s Germany, when they accused Jewish people of being traitors and used charges of disloyalty to justify their arrests, persecutions and mass killings.
After the founding of Israel, the charge was that Jews were more loyal to Israel, the Jewish state, than to their own countries. The smear persists in various forms to this day: It is a common refrain of white supremacists who claim there is a secret plot orchestrated by Jews to replace white people through mass migration and racial integration.
“The Jews have been a persistent minority for thousands of years, living in exile, living in diasporas, and the Jews have been made convenient scapegoats for various purposes,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League. “That’s why they often call anti-Semitism the oldest hatred.”
On Tuesday, Trump drew a barrage of criticism from Jewish organizations and anti-hate groups when he said, as he assailed a pair of Democratic congresswomen who are harshly critical of Israel, that Jews who vote for Democrats show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” On Wednesday, as he retweeted a conspiracy theorist saying that Jews in Israel loved the president “like he’s the king of Israel,” Trump used the same language, telling reporters that “if you want to vote Democrat, you are being very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel.”
A look at the long and ugly history of the dual loyalty canard helps explain why Jewish leaders and anti-hate groups have reacted so strongly to Trump’s comments.
“This has got a very bad, toxic backstory to it,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator who served in administrations of both political parties. “The words ‘disloyalty’ or ‘dual loyalty’ cannot appear within the same sentence as the words ‘Jews’ or ‘American Jews’ without legitimately raising the question of whether or not what is intended is to level that pernicious charge.”
How the Charge Was Born
As far back as the Middle Ages, Jews were tagged in their communities as inherently untrustworthy and suspect, incapable of being loyal to their ruler because of their ties to other Jews around the world. They were also viewed as a threat to the church because of their religious beliefs.
Christian leaders promoted the idea that Jews crucified Jesus Christ, and several myths took hold about Jewish people, including the so-called blood libel, a myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children in rituals. Those slanders fueled riots against Jews, sometimes referred to as pogroms.
A Stereotype Festers and Flourishes
Later, as Jews settled throughout Europe, their loyalty was often in question. When Napoleon emancipated the Jews in France after the revolution, he said he would grant them full equality if they would reaffirm that they were subject to French law and would no longer consider themselves “a nation within a nation.” Jews agreed.
But the suspicions festered. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a French military captain who was Jewish, was falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Germans and was convicted in a French military court.
“People were willing to believe it, even though the evidence from the very outset was shaky, because it made sense to them,” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University. “They had been so exposed to this stereotype, it had become so much the pivot point and the central element of anti-Semitism that Jews have other loyalties, that it seemed like it must be true, and they were ready to believe the worst.”
Lipstadt said that was why when the Nazis began denigrating Jews, falsely accusing them of having betrayed their country and undermined its security, people were willing to believe it.
“The dual loyalty canard that has plagued Jews is the fertile soil in which centuries of these stereotypes have taken root and grown,” she said.
Stalin played on the same notion in 1946 during a speech in Moscow attacking Jewish writers as “rootless cosmopolitans” who were not fully loyal to the Soviet Union.
Nation vs. Religion
One reason that Jews have struggled to shake accusations of having dual loyalty is rooted in their own history. For centuries, Jews were regarded as a nation with their own distinct culture and laws, rather than merely a religious group.
“The tension within Judaism is, are we a people, a nation, a tribe, a religion?” said Steven R. Weisman, the author of “The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion” and a former New York Times reporter. “Jews have been uncomfortable seeing themselves as a people — even the ‘chosen people’ — and through various episodes throughout history, worked to show that they were just as patriotic and loyal as anyone else.”
During the Civil War, for instance, Weisman said, Jews joined the military in disproportionate numbers on both sides, in part to demonstrate their devotion to their country in the face of stereotypes that their allegiances were suspect.
As recently as 2000, when former Sen. Joe Lieberman became the first Jewish person to run for vice president, he faced questions about how his religion might affect his policy positions and leadership.
Trump Stirs the Pot
This week was not the first time that Trump has appeared to question Jews’ loyalties. This past spring, speaking to American Jews at an event sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, he referred to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as “your prime minister.”
His comments this week were meant to target Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both Democrats and outspoken critics of Israel who have both made their own remarks appearing to question Jews’ loyalty.
Omar apologized in February for saying that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby,” a reference to hundred-dollar bills, but then ignited further controversy when she argued that she was being tagged as anti-Semitic merely for criticizing Israel.
“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar said then.
Tlaib was roundly criticized in January for saying that lawmakers supporting a Republican bill protecting states and cities that sever ties with companies boycotting Israel “forgot what country they represent.”
She later said she was referring to senators, not Jewish people.