American Jews, Embrace Your Dual Loyalties

The Iran nuclear agreement has set up American Jews' nightmare scenario: an apparently intractable conflict between their allegiances to the U.S. and to Israel.

Dov Waxman
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An American government achieves a landmark diplomatic agreement with an archenemy of Israel, potentially averting a costly war for the United States but possibly risking Israel’s very survival.

This nightmare scenario for American Jews – forcing them to choose between their loyalty to the U.S. and their loyalty to the Jewish state – is now becoming increasingly real as a result of the interim agreement that the Obama Administration has just signed with Iran over its nuclear program.

According to Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Geneva agreement was “a historic mistake,” and one that has made the world “a much more dangerous place.” In stark contrast, President Obama has hailed the accord, claiming that it “opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure.”

This is not merely a clash between two leaders. What is at stake here goes well beyond the uneasy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. Despite whatever pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington D.C. might say, the U.S. and Israel simply do not have identical national interests when it comes to Iran. To be sure, neither want Iran to have a nuclear weapon and both are determined to prevent this, but the United States could live with something less than this – Iranian nuclear enrichment – if it really had to, whereas Israel, or at least the Netanyahu government, clearly believes that it cannot. As long as Iran retains the technical ability to produce a nuclear weapon, Israel faces an existential threat, however remote that threat may be. The U.S., on the other hand, faces no such threat. It is simply too big, and too far away, to be destroyed by Iranian nukes even if the ruling clerics in Iran were suicidally inclined.

That two different countries should read the strategic map differently should hardly come as a surprise to anyone. But this basic and unavoidable fact is, however, discomforting for many American Jews. For decades, it has been an article of faith within the American Jewish community that America and Israel shared the same interests and values. In synagogues across the country, the flags of both countries are displayed patriotically side by side. Unlike less fortunate Diaspora Jews who often found themselves caught between the demands of their countries of citizenship and their loyalty to the Jewish state, American Jews prided themselves on their difference. America was Israel’s best (sometimes only) friend and Israel was a valuable ally to the U.S., a ‘strategic asset’ as pro-Israel groups like AIPAC so often proclaim.

By insisting on the unity of interests between the United States and Israel, American Jews could avoid the thorny issue of ‘dual loyalties.’ They could comfortably maintain emotional ties and allegiances to both countries, secure in the belief that there was no conflict of interest between them. This was always something of a convenient fiction, even at the height of the Cold War when Israel’s strategic value to the U.S. was greater than it is today. It is now obviously false, at least to honest observers.

When an Israeli prime minister directly appeals to American Jews to oppose a major diplomatic initiative of an American president, as Netanyahu recently did in his address to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish community is confronted with a test of loyalties. Faced with this test, some may be driven, whether consciously or not, by their sense of ethnic solidarity or religious conviction to support Israel, while others will choose to support their president’s foreign policy. Some will also surely argue that Israel’s interests are ultimately best served by the Obama Administration’s policy towards Iran. The American Jewish community will certainly be divided, even if most of the major organizations claiming to represent it align themselves with the Netanyahu government.

Just as American Jews have long disagreed among themselves over the peace process with the Palestinians and the American government’s role in it, they now disagree over American policy towards Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, this disagreement is evident in the latest American Jewish Committee survey of American Jewish opinion. Although an overwhelming majority (84 percent of respondents) are concerned about the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, 46 percent believe that a combination of diplomacy and economic sanctions is either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to prevent this, whereas 52 percent think this is unlikely. Similarly, 45 percent say they will oppose a U.S. military attack against Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail, compared with 52 percent who would support it.

In the coming months, as the interim nuclear deal with Iran is implemented and negotiations for a comprehensive agreement get underway, the Obama Administration and the Netanyahu government are likely to continue to disagree, at times publicly and testily, over the Iranian nuclear program, and this will cause many American Jews to feel deeply conflicted. This is the unavoidable burden of having dual loyalties. It is a burden that should neither be denied nor wished away: Difficult as they are to manage, American Jews should embrace their dual loyalties as an expression of their multifaceted identity.

Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He is also the co-director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development at Northeastern University. He is the co-author of Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and the author of The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).  

U.S. and Israeli flags. (illustrative). Credit: AP