Saturday, September 26, 2009

On plural loyalties

Given the brouhaha over Antonia Zerbisias' recent Tweet about Irwin Cotler, combed over at length in a recent post of mine and pursued in an enormous thread there, I found myself wondering about the notion of "divided" or "dual" loyalty per se--and how the notion supposedly became yet another instance of allegedly anti-Semitic discourse.

What is the etiology of this supposed slur? When did it first arise? Does it apply only when Israel is one of the objects of loyalty?

There's a surprisingly good overview of the "dual loyalty" problematic here. One of the first things to note is that it is a general notion,
not specific to Jews in North America or anywhere else. It has applied to minorities from hostile countries during wartime, for example--the Japanese internment camps come to mind, but there are many other examples. And it has even wider application, going back centuries, if not millennia.

The question really is one of interests. There is nothing wrong, one assumes, with plural (a word I prefer to "divided") loyalties in cases where the interests of the objects of one's loyalty are aligned. Difficulties arise when those interests are misaligned, or considered to be so.

Hence, during the English Reformation, when the interests of the Papacy and the King of England were clearly divergent, one could not be loyal at once to the Crown and the Pope--as Thomas More and Mary Stuart learned the hard way. There are many other examples provided at the link.

But these days in the global village, I find it hard to believe that plural loyalties are confined to only two, or that they are uncommon, and I don't believe they are inherently wrong, either. Many of us are loyal to our families, to our country, to a higher being (in some cases, anyway), to humanity all at once, and no one would dream of making an adverse moral judgement about any of that. The latter comes in when one's national loyalties are at issue.

So we saw not long ago the banshee Right attacking Michaëlle Jean and later Stéphane Dion for alleged dual loyalties, based upon their dual citizenship. Yet I never saw a reasoned case set out as to why French citizenship (in this instance), even if it did command a loyalty, was something to worry about. It seemed to me then, and still does today, that the attacks were politically motivated, and had no other conceivable rationale.

Earlier there was Ezra Levant, questioning the loyalty to Canada of then-MP Omar Alghabra in the most revolting terms.

But a connection to Israel, as always, is different, and we need, as ever, to walk on eggshells. Of course many Jews--most--feel an affinity for Israel. But to say so for some reason is considered a slur, at least when we are discussing the construction of Canadian or American foreign policy. Canadian and American citizens who happen to be Jewish often do have a divided loyalty--or, far better stated, more than one loyalty. So what? I'd make the same observation about the many other ethnic groups that make their homes in this country.

So does this sort of thing bother me? Not in the least--why should it?

But when it comes to shaping foreign policy, allow me my concerns.

How might we feel about a Russian national in charge of the Communications Security Establishment? Or a Chinese-Canadian dual citizen as a senior CSIS staff member? All hypothetical, of course: neither would never be permitted to happen.

Obviously, however, the odour that would be emitted by screening out Jews (as opposed to Israeli nationals) from any occupation whatsoever would be horrendous. And--because every syllable uttered by a critic of Israeli state policy is relentlessly parsed by the "Israel right or wrong" crowd to "prove" anti-Semitism--let me here state, unequivocally, that I would find such a measure odious in the extreme.

But that doesn't mean we are out of the woods. Here's Glenn Greenwald on neoconservative Norman Podhoretz, who explicitly calls for American Jews to invoke their loyalty to Israel at election time:

Apparently, The Godfather of Neoconservatism believes that American Jews do -- and should -- base their political beliefs not on what is best for their own country, but on what is best for a foreign country (Israel). According to him, even though Obama shares most of their views on political matters ("on abortion, gay rights, school prayer, gun control and assisted suicide, the survey data show that Jews are by far the most liberal of any group in America"), American Jews should have nonetheless voted for McCain because of McCain's alleged "long history of sympathy with Israel." Isn't this the "dual loyalty" argument that nobody is allowed to make upon pain of being accused of all sorts of bad things -- that the political beliefs of some American Jews are shaped primarily or even exclusively by loyalty to Israel? Yet here we find not Walt and Mearshimer [sic] or Chas Freeman making this claim, but Norman Podhoretz.*

This extreme and flagrant double standard has been permitted for a long time now. Neocons arrogate unto themselves the right to make appeals to what they believe is the "dual loyalty" of American Jews -- most of whom, in fact, reject their radical ideology -- when trying to coerce support for their agenda. Podhoretz's Commentary Magazine convened a "symposium" of some of the nation's most typical war-loving neocons to discuss his new book, and virtually everyone of them argued that American Jews should shift their political loyalties to the Right because the Right is "better for Israel" -- as though considerations of what's best for a foreign country is how most American Jews (rather than just neocons) decide how they vote in American elections. Neocons have long gotten away with this manipulative game: simultaneously demanding that American Jews support the Right on the ground that the Right is allegedly better for Israel (i.e., a "dual loyalty" appeal) while branding as "bigots" and "anti-Semites" anyone and everyone who points out that neocons think this way.

Greenwald rejects the notion that most American Jews are swayed by this appeal to dual loyalty, and backs this up with statistics. But his point--that what is "anti-Semitic" in the hands of progressives is just plain common sense in the hands of conservatives--stands.

Which, by a circuitous route, brings us back to the Zerb, still being defamed by Jonathan Kay in the National Post in the context of a column about Manuel Zelaya. (Hey, Jon, come a-visiting again--you might learn something.) She talked about loyalty in the non-reflective manner that Tweeting encourages ("MP Irwin Cotler's children join IDF. Which country are you loyal to, sir?"), and admits that she could have phrased things better. There's no
choice of loyalty involved here, of course, and no one should be forced to make such a choice in any case. It's never one or the other in the case of dual loyalties: it's both, occasionally in tension.

Plural loyalty is neither suspect in itself nor even very remarkable. It's not specific to supporters of the state of Israel. It's not news, to echo what Global anchor Peter Trueman used to say--but it is reality. So why should we not be able to discuss the question openly in all cases without having the inevitable "A" branded on our foreheads if we choose the wrong one?

*I added the last two links. The Walt and Mearsheimer one is rather long, but a must-read. Needless to say, their critics preferred silencing them to debating them.

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