A Question of Loyalty

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Israeli Passport
19 Feb 2009

This essay may seem strange, coming as it does from an ex-pat American living in Israel who holds dual citizenship. In fact, there are many who make the assumption that Jews – even those who view Israel only as a tourist destination – hold dual loyalties (at best), or are outright disloyal citizens (at worst).

Years ago when I was serving in the US Navy, a shipmate asked me which side I would I fight on if the U.S. and Israel ever went to war against each other (I know… incredibly stupid question, but you had to have met the questioner to understand)?

To answer him, I pulled down a book I had just finished on the life of (Confederate General) Robert E. Lee. Apparently, when Lee was a Colonel in the U.S. Army and was asked by one of his junior officers if he planned to resign his commission and fight for the Confederacy, he had responded:

“I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.”

As expected, the contradiction in that quote made my shipmate tilt his head like a dog watching television. But it occurs to me that this issue of perceived dual loyalty is fairly widespread, and as such is something that most Jews living in the Diaspora have had to address on one level or another.

I don’t know if [then Colonel] Lee was in denial at the time he uttered the statement I quoted above, or if he was simply trying to compartmentalize his loyalties in such a way as to side-step the question altogether. But as a Jew I found (and still find) his statement fascinating.

By his own statement, Lee seemed to feel more loyalty to the reality of his home state than he did to the idea of the Union. In fact, before resigning his commission he had privately ridiculed the Confederacy as ‘revolution’ and “a betrayal of the efforts of the Founders”. Yet history tells us he ultimately went with his heart rather than his head.

Even though I vote in, and pay taxes to, the United States of America and the State of Connecticut… Israel is, and always has been my ‘native state‘.

Even before there was a modern state of Israel, the idea of our own land was far more important to the survival of Jews as a distinct people than whatever citizenship or residency they may have been privileged to hold. In fact, words like ‘Diaspora’ and ‘Gentile’ wouldn’t exist without our firm and unwavering belief that our loyalties and hearts were in some way set apart from the nations among which we sojourned (there’s another telling word often associated with Jews as temporary residents).

Dual loyalty? Perhaps. But disloyal? I don’t know that I would go that far. Here’s a story that expresses how these loyalties have coexisted… at least in my own heart:

The day I got out of the navy my ship was scheduled to depart on a six month deployment to the western Pacific. I was due in Israel the following week to start my university studies, but I delayed my departure by a day in order to be able to stand along the channel and see my ship – and my shipmates – off.

It was common knowledge among the officers and crew that I was leaving to study in Israel, and since I wanted to be visible from the opposite shore, I’d brought along a big Israeli flag to wave at the ship as it passed… knowing that my shipmates ‘manning the rails’ would know it was me… even from across the channel.

However, as I stood there wearing my dress white uniform (for what would turn out to be the last time) watching the sea & anchor detail cast off her lines, I heard the Chief Bosun’s Mate’s familiar voice over the 1MC (the ship’s announcement system) call out “Underway… shift colors“… and I watched as the American flag was ‘shifted’ from the sleek frigate’s fantail, and up the halyard on the mast.

Without thinking, I instinctively came to attention, furled the Israeli flag against my heart and saluted the U.S. flag with my right hand. It wasn’t a matter of showing allegiance for one country over another. For me, the American flag waving from the ships halyard as she sailed out of Pearl Harbor, stirred up feelings that were somewhere in that uncharted triangular territory between gratitude, pride and reverence… while the Israeli flag I held against my chest felt more like ‘love’.

Looking back on that moment, I hear echoes of Robert E. Lee’s somewhat strange differentiation between his love for his home state and his loyalty to the Union. But even as I see no particular conflict about the two passports I hold… most people would say my decision to live here and not there is not unlike Lee’s.

Yet still the question is asked: By assuming some level of dual loyalty, aren’t Jews ultimately disloyal citizens of any country but their own?’

I suppose that is a question that each Jew must wrestle with in much the same way as Lee (and I) did. Personally, just as I didn’t feel a conflict between the flag I was saluting and the one I clutched to my heart… I still don’t now.

David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003 David has been working in Israel’s defense industry on International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog (www.treppenwitz.com) and is an amateur beekeeper.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.