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by Ron Skolnik
ANDREW CUOMO meant well.
When, in the wake of the Trump inauguration, a disquieting series of bomb threats menaced Jewish community centers and acts of vandalism struck Jewish cemeteries nationwide, Cuomo’s rejection of antisemitism was commendably swift, impassioned and principled. “New York,” declared the state’s Governor, “has zero tolerance for bias or discrimination of any kind.”
“The recent increase in anti-Semitic threats . . . is disturbing, unacceptable, and directly contradicts New York’s core values,” he stated. “[A]nyone who targets and instills fear in our communities will be brought to justice.”
Alongside his words, Cuomo directed State Police to investigate the crimes and announced a set of measures designed to combat antisemitism and hate crimes generally.
Cuomo’s response compared favorably to the defensive, belated, stiff and seemingly half- hearted condemnations of Jew-hatred issued by Donald Trump. But despite the best of intentions, Cuomo did Jewish Americans a tremendous disservice as well: By announcing that, to underscore his solidarity with the Jewish community, he would be making an impromptu “unity trip” to Israel, he inadvertently gave a boost to a narrative, common among neo-Nazis and sundry white nationalists, that questions American Jewish loyalty to the United States.
Take former KKK leader David Duke, for instance. In a November 2013 column rife with misspellings, he wrote that “Jewish Supremacy is not about ‘dual loyalty,’ but rather single loyalty -- to their tribe against everyone else . . . [In the] world of Jewish Supremacys [sic] -- . . . one thing, and one thing only, matters -- Israel’s interests above anyone else’s.”
Or how about the alt-right trolls who, last June, harassed Jewish Congressional candidate Erin Schrode with text messages and emails telling her that as a “Kike,” she should “get out of our country. Get to Israel where you belong or get in the oven”? (You can read an interview with Schrode in our upcoming Spring issue.)
Cuomo, unlike Duke and the Trolls (hey, not a bad name for a white supremacist rock band), had no such malicious intent. But the way in which he has framed his solidarity trip has similarly suggested that Israel is the pinnacle and ultimate expression of American Jewish identity. “With the recent rise of anti-Semitism” in America, Cuomo explained ahead of the visit, “it is more important than ever before to demonstrate the connection between New York and Israel.” Speaking to the New York Times, he noted that he had decided to go to Israel because he needed to “do more” than simply “go down the block to a temple.” Sometimes Cuomo’s remarks have mentioned Israel and the American Jewish community in the same breath, suggesting their essential indistinguishability: “I want to say to the people of Israel and I want to say to the Jewish community,” he told a group of Orthodox students in Albany, "in New York, you are not alone.”
ONCE HE WAS in Jerusalem, the tone of Cuomo’s remarks suggested that he regards the State of Israel as the fundamental overseer of American Jewish interests. Speaking with President Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s ceremonial head of state, for example, Cuomo delivered this solemn promise: “To the people of Israel, I say that these acts of antisemitism will not be tolerated.”
Cuomo, of course, is not alone in this dubious conflation. Two years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that he would be arriving to address a joint session of Congress to oppose the Iran nuclear deal as the “emissary of all the citizens of Israel . . . and the entire Jewish people.” Netanyahu’s pretension angered many Jewish Americans. California’s Jewish Senator Dianne Feinstein, for example, when asked on CNN what she thought about Netanyahu’s claim to represent her, shot back: “No, he doesn’t at all speak for me on this. I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. . . I think that arrogance does not befit Israel.” J Street launched a petition drive, asking supporters to remind the Israeli ambassador in Washington that “Israel's Prime Minister is not the spokesman for all Jews.”
At least one Jewish American group did back Netanyahu’s claim: the Republican Jewish Coalition. Its counter-petition read: “Unlike J-Street [sic], we believe the Prime Minister of Israel speaks for all of the Jewish people around the world as it relates to threats from a nuclear Iran.” Leaving aside the fact that this claim would later be revealed as utterly inaccurate (see the polls of Jewish Americans taken that July), what does such an argument say about the fundamental status of Jews as citizens of the United States? Are they not “already spoken for” by their elected Congresspersons, senators and president?
WHILE NO ONE should deny the cultural, historical, psychological and religious ties maintained by diaspora Jews to Israel and the Jews living there, political representation is another matter entirely. It is the line at which affinity mutates into allegiance, the line whose crossing puts at risk the status of Jews as a full and unquestioned part of the American polity.
Was Cuomo seeking to intimate that American Jews are, at the end of the day, more a part of Israel than of the United States? Most likely not. But words and images are combustible, and political leaders need to handle with care not only the text they use, but also (and perhaps especially) the subtext they might leave behind. Cuomo’s ostensibly innocuous remarks about Jews and Israel are the kind of stuff that anti-Semites seize upon gleefully and recast for their own vile purposes. And the distinct possibility that Cuomo will be a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 only adds to the caution he needs to employ.
This question, of course, is far from new. So the New York governor, if he has not already done so, could and should familiarize himself with the remarks made in August 1950 by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in the context of testy negotiations between the fledgling State of Israel and the American Jewish Committee. Under duress from that organization, which feared that Israel’s existence could undermine the Jews’ place in America, Ben-Gurion agreed to depart from classic Zionist dogma and say the following concerning “the relationship between Israel and the Jews in the other free democracies" —
The Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel. . . . the State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of Jews who are citizens of any other country.
To which Jacob Blaustein, the head of the AJC, readily added: “This means that the allegiance of American Jews is to America and America alone.”
Ron Skolnik is associate editor of Jewish Currents. His writing has been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Report, Tikkun, Palestine-Israel Journal and elsewhere. The product of a left-Zionist youth movement, he previously served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel and as director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA). Follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.