Reflections on Jews and Patriotism
By Larry Nathenson
This article first appeared in G’vanim, January/February 2017 issue.
Rabbi Lisa’s column about praying for the welfare of our government got me to thinking about the often troubled relationship between the Jewish people and the various countries we have inhabited and the governments under which we have lived. As a lifelong student of history, I always try to approach any issue from a historical point of view. Jews are uniquely positioned to examine the question of patriotism because we have lived in so many different countries and have so rarely had a country and government of our own.
My first thought upon reading Rabbi Lisa’s column was to recall my visit to Russia in 1992, six months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I attended a Shabbat morning service in the only synagogue in Moscow that had stayed open throughout the Communist period. On the wall there was a plaque with a prayer for the welfare of the Soviet Union, which the congregation had not yet gotten around to revising. At the time I wondered how these Jews could pray for a system that had suppressed their religion for 75 years, and whether they were sincere or only did it out of fear of being thought disloyal.
Rabbi Lisa quotes Pirke Avot to the effect that we should pray for the government not out of love but out of fear, specifically fear of what would happen to us without the security that the government provides. In the time of the Mishnah the Roman government was a persecutor of Jews but also sometimes their protector against mob violence. This ambivalent relationship between Jews and gentile governments has continued through the ages. In medieval Europe, kings and bishops often protected Jews from Christian mobs because they valued the Jews for their skills and their commercial contacts with other lands (especially Muslim lands, where Christians could not trade). But when times got tough, local authorities often gave in to the temptation to blame the Jews and confiscate their wealth in the process. More recently, in Germany in the 1930s, we saw what can happen when the mob becomes the government.
Although the Romans had brutally crushed the Jewish revolt and had destroyed the Second Temple, they did not try to destroy Judaism itself. We often think of the defeat of the Jewish revolt as the start of the Diaspora, but in fact a majority of Jews already lived outside Palestine, especially in Babylonia (part of the Persian Empire) and in the Roman provinces of Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor. Many of them were converts to Judaism as it spread through trade and proselytizing (yes, we did that in those days). The Romans were actually quite tolerant in matters of religion, allowing subject peoples to keep their own traditions so long as they also worshipped the Roman Emperor as a god. For polytheists this was not a problem; they simply added him to their existing pantheon. Jews of course could not do the same, but the Romans respected Judaism as the traditional religion
of a subject people and allowed Jews to pray “for” the emperor rather than “to” the emperor. Perhaps this is the origin of Jewish prayers for gentile governments. (Christians, by the way, were not given the same dispensation because theirs was a new religion, and this was the main basis for their persecution before the conversion of the Emperor Constantine).
Where Jews have been welcomed in other lands, they have generally responded enthusiastically and maintained that attitude even after the welcome wore off. Jews remember medieval Spain as a “golden age” of the convivencia (living together) of Jews with Muslims and Christians. But neither of the other groups felt the same way; they tolerated the others for a time but always wanted to be dominant and resorted to persecution when times were bad. Maimonides fled from Muslim persecution in his Spanish home some three centuries before the final expulsion by Christian rulers in 1492. In modern times, after the French Revolution, many Jews in Europe eagerly left the ghettos and entered into Christian society and all its professions, businesses, and artistic endeavors. The patriotism of Jews did not prevent them from being scapegoated in France with the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s. Nor did the loyalty and military service of German Jews in World War I carry any weight with the Nazis 20 years later.
The United States has always been an outlier in this respect, though it has certainly not been free of anti-Semitism. In 1790 George Washington wrote his famous letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, in which he said:
For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. Washington’s open-minded attitude has influenced many of his successors. Abraham Lincoln was also known as a friend of the Jews and acted on his principles when he countermanded an order by General Grant to expel all Jews from certain occupied areas of the South based on allegations of profiteering by a few of them. Franklin Roosevelt, despite his unwillingness to take measures to save European Jews from the Nazis, was also known as a friend to Jews in domestic affairs.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the U.S. government has generally been its friend and ally and has resisted accusations of dual loyalty against American Jews by some of our fellow citizens.
This brings me to the present day, when many of us are apprehensive about the intentions of the incoming administration. Although the President-elect has a Jewish daughter and son-in-law and has selected a staunch supporter of Israel as the next U.S. ambassador, he has also appointed alleged anti-Semites to some important advisory positions. The LGBT community also has reason for concern about some of his appointees, even though the campaign was largely free of anti-LGBT bias. In fact, at the Republican convention shortly after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the President-elect promised to protect LGBT citizens from Muslim terrorism, and this was one of the few times the assembled delegates seemed hesitant to cheer him.
Our country and its way of life will outlast this administration, even if it brings some setbacks in our progress toward a more just and equitable society. And we will continue to rely on our government to provide the security and the legal framework on which our prosperity and social progress depend.
So let us join with our fellow Jews and other citizens in praying for the welfare of our government, even if we have disagreements with the leaders of the moment, and let us maintain our hopes that it will one day continue on the path described by the Reconstructionist prayer quoted by Rabbi Lisa. Unlike many of our ancestors, we are privileged to live in a time and place in which our enthusiasm for our country is not unrequited by a majority of our fellow citizens and in which we can live proudly as Jews and as Americans at the same time.