A few days ago, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth published an article by Simon Schiffer reporting that several of Obama's advisors were "demanding that Prime Minister Netanyahu dissociate himself from the venomous slurs that his aides have been disseminating against them." Presumably the slurs in question refer to the story that Netanyahu and his aides referred to Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod as "self-hating Jews." Quoting unnamed "sources in the administration," Schiffer reports that the Obama aides responded to the Israelis by saying "We don’t need a certificate of approval from anyone on your side about our devotion to the State of Israel."
Obama's advisors were right to complain about these ugly calumnies, but isn't there something odd about this whole controversy? Just plug the name of any other country into the sentence quoted above and see how strange it sounds. Can you imagine a top U.S. advisor telling a foreign leader from Italy or Costa Rica or Canada or Belgium that they "didn't need a certificate of approval from anyone on your side about our devotion to [insert country name here]?"
Two features of this incident are particularly striking. The first is the assumption by people in the Netanyahu government (and apparently the PM himself) that top U.S. officials should agree with the Israeli government's policies simply because they are Jewish. If you don't agree with Bibi, it seems, then you must be a "self-hating Jew." (Of course, this is also the view of some hardline pundits here in the United States, who have made similar accusations about Jewish writers who are critical of some of Israel’s current policies). This statement is absurd, of course, given that plenty of Israelis don’t agree with Netanyahu's policies, and there is a wide range of opinion among Jews all over the world about many aspects of foreign policy, including the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Why Netanyahu expects blind fidelity from U.S. officials who happen to be Jewish is a bit of a mystery, unless he and his aides were just trying to guilt-trip Obama’s aides into backing down on the current issues in dispute.
The second striking feature is the nature of the defense. Assuming Schiffer quoted them accurately, U.S. officials are defending their position by stressing their devotion to a foreign country whose government happens to be mad at them, simply because the United States currently has a serious policy difference with that government. But why didn't Emanuel or Axelrod do what Henry Kissinger reportedly did when Golda Meir accused him of being insufficiently devoted to Israel? He reminded her that he was firstly an American, secondly secretary of state, and thirdly, Jewish, and he made it clear that this particular ordering of identities would guide his conduct.
Obama’s aides might have responded as they did for domestic political reasons, or to try to win over sympathetic Israelis, but there's no reason to doubt the sincerity of their statement. Emanuel, Axelrod, and other key figures in the administration clearly feel a strong personal attachment to Israel -- and there's no reason why they shouldn't. At the same time, they disagree with Netanyahu about what policies are in America and Israel's long-term interest. Given the amount of backing that the U.S. still provides to Israel, it's entirely appropriate for them to make those disagreements clear, and to try to convince Israel to alter its behavior.
This discussion is naturally tied to the delicate subject of what is sometimes termed "dual loyalty," a topic that tends to provoke conspiracy theories from some and angry denunciations from others. But given that the United States is a "melting-pot" society that has drawn its citizens from all over the world, and given the undeniable fact that Americans of various backgrounds feel strong attachments to a variety of foreign countries (and for various reasons), it is also one of those subjects that we ought to be able to talk about in a calm and rational way. An excellent place to start, by the way, would be Israeli political scientist Gabriel Sheffer's book Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad, which analyzes the issue in a clear and sensible fashion and avoids the hysteria that often infuses such discussions in the United States.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.