In defense of Rashida Tlaib on charges of raising the ‘dual loyalty canard’

Joseph Levine – January 13, 2019
I recently watched all four episodes of “The Lobby – USA”, the Al Jazeera documentary that was prevented from being aired by the government in Qatar, after intensive lobbying by pro-Israel groups and individuals from the US.

The fact that Qatar has been under serious pressure from Saudi Arabia, and was looking for powerful friends in Washington to counter this pressure, undoubtedly explains their refusing to release it. Fortunately, the Electronic Intifada got a hold of it and made it available here). In fact, I sat through this very long documentary (far too long in fact) right at the time that Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American new House representative from Michigan, became embroiled in a controversy over the “dual-loyalty” charge. The juxtaposition of these two events was particularly interesting.

It all started with S1, the first bill the new Senate was to consider, a bill introduced by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. It dealt with a number of issues related to the Middle East, but the most controversial element was language that would strengthen states’ abilities to pass anti-BDS legislation, of the kind that has already passed in 26 states. Because of the government shutdown the Democrats have not allowed the bill to proceed to a vote, but what happens when (or should I say “if”?) the shutdown ends is unclear. Bernie Sanders tweeted about what a ridiculous idea it was to push legislation that is both undemocratic and also so totally divorced from what legislators should be attending to now, specifically the shutdown. In a tweet in response to Sanders’s, and supportive of it, Tlaib said:
“They forgot what country they represent. This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality. Maybe a refresher on our U.S. Constitution is in order, then get back to opening up our government instead of taking our rights away.”
Immediately Rubio tweeted back:
“This “dual loyalty” canard is a typical anti-Semitic line#BDS isn’t about freedom & equality, it’s about destroying #Israel”
Many other pro-Israel commentators then got on the “dual loyalty” bandwagon. Howard Lovy put it like this:
“Not a week into it and @RashidaTlaib is already invoking the old anti-Semitic “dual loyalty” garbage. There are many things wrong with anti-BDS legislation, but when the first thing she raises is the ancient specter of Jewish disloyalty, you know this is going to be a rough ride.” (my emphasis)
There are two points about this “dual loyalty” charge I want to make. (By the way, note the interesting discussion about the charge here). First, it’s particularly ironic that Zionists should be making this charge. When Lovy (along with many others, see the article cited above) refers to the “ancient specter of Jewish disloyalty”, I take it he means in particular the standard anti-Semitic charge during the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe over the Emancipation of Jews from the ghettoes and their integration into civil European society as full citizens with full rights. Anti-Semites considered Jews a nationality, a people, a race, and as such they could never be truly assimilated into European society. The liberal democratic argument in response was to say that Jews can just as much be English, French, German, etc. as members of any other religious community. French Jews, on this view, are as legitimately considered full French citizens as French Catholics and Protestants. Judaism is a religion, not a nationality.
But of course Zionism was founded on the Romantic nationalist idea that Jews really are a people apart from other peoples, and so historically shared a general outlook on the question of the relations between collectives and individuals with the right-wing and anti-Semitic camps. Yes, we are a people apart, argued the Zionists, and that’s why we deserve to have a homeland and state of our own. That this position leads inexorably to worries about “dual loyalty” is evident from the response to Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from leaders of the Jewish community throughout Europe and the US that the doctrine of Jewish nationhood is extremely dangerous for the position of Jews in these countries. They flat out rejected the Zionist-nationalist framework largely because it did rationalize the charge of dual loyalty. So, for Zionists and their supporters to now trot out this charge of anti-Semitism in the guise of “dual loyalty” is hypocritical and cynical.
My second point relates directly to “The Lobby – USA”. What comes through this documentary so clearly is how direct and seamless is the Israeli government’s control and guidance of the political activity of Zionist-Jewish institutions in the US. AIPAC, The Israel Project, Stand With Us, the Israel American Council – and a host of other such organizations – have direct connections with the Israeli government, particularly its Ministry of Strategic Affairs. The main thing they do now is target American citizens who criticize Israel – particularly those who support BDS – on behalf of the interests of the State of Israel. When Rubio, Cardin, and the others in the anti-BDS camp introduce legislation like this recent bill, it is obviously being done at the behest of “the Lobby”, and the Lobby essentially works for Israel. So when Tlaib reminds these senators who they are supposed to represent, it makes perfect sense.
Of course Tlaib, as her response above indicates, need not have meant that these guys are representing Israel, or the Lobby, when they should be representing their constituents. She might really have just meant that they forgot who they are representing in the sense of forgetting the essential constitutional principles of the nation they represent. Interpreting her as saying anything about dual loyalty is just another instance of smearing anyone opposing them as anti-Semitic. But my point is that even if she did mean it that way, they themselves, in the behavior documented in “The Lobby – USA” and countless other places, clearly legitimate the charge.
So is it anti-Semitic to make this charge, even if it has the basis I say it has? Well, for one thing, I hold the philosophical principle that the truth cannot be racist. If it’s true, then it can’t be anti-Semitic to believe it. But in fact, I think we can dispel even the smell of anti-Semitism by noting the inevitable and illegitimate slide made in Hovy’s remark above. When he referred to “the ancient specter of Jewish disloyalty” he took a remark about these senators’ fealty to certain political organizations, with deep ties to the State of Israel, and slyly transferred them onto Jews in general. Notice, the word “Jews” was not mentioned by Tlaib. She has no problem with Jews. She has a problem with Zionist organizations that are attempting to steer our domestic policy in a way that supports Israel’s interests. What would indeed be anti-Semitic would be to conflate the interests and activities of the Lobby with that of Jewish Americans in general. But it isn’t the left, or the BDS movement, that’s doing that. It’s the Zionists themselves, which gets back to my first point above. Only if you see all Jewish Americans as basically members of the worldwide Jewish nation that is represented by the State of Israel would one connect the Lobby with Jews in general. So what Hovy’s remark reveals is who the real anti-Semites are.