Today, the Trump-like Congresswoman from Detroit, Rashida Tlaib, invoked the 2,000 year old anti-Semitic canard of “dual loyalty”. When discussing Israel advocates who she disagrees with, instead of talking policy or substance, she simply accused her opposition of trying to undermine America. In the interest of Jews, oh pardon the typo- Israel.
The conversation is frankly exhausting. Rep. Tlaib has a serious abusive streak. Immediately after being sworn into office, she became known around the world for calling Donald Trump a “motherfucker”. Thankfully, a lot of Americans are capable and willing of expressing their political views without resorting to the profanity of an angry 16 year old. The situation is all the more depressing because Rashida, as the first Palestinian-American in Congress, could’ve done so much more. Rather than trying to become something other than a literal walking and talking caricature of what people think Palestinians are, she just hopped right in. I know Palestinians personally who don’t agree with her- her policy or her rhetoric. And she does an immense disservice to America, to Palestinians, to Jews, to peacemakers, to her own constituents. Shooting from the hip, making policy via Twitter, shouting profanity. Sound like someone in the Oval Office? Well, apparently he’s got a partner in crime now sitting in Congress. Rashida Trump.
It’s sad. America- indeed, every country- could use some more wisdom and less yelling right now. In the face of growing xenophobia, polarization, and economic uncertainty, we need level-headed people to steer the ship. Because as I see it, moderation is not entirely about what positions you take. There are people I know who have a whole variety of views- some I agree with, some I don’t. And my own views have evolved- and evolve- with time. The one thing I hold in common with the people I love is that we don’t think we have exclusive ownership of eternal truth. That even if we disagree, we’re willing to hear out other points of view. That while there are obviously limits, we’re not going to wholesale discredit millions of people simply for thinking differently from us. Or wearing a different label. Which is why I have friends who are devout Muslims, West Bank settlers, Palestinian political activists, and Israeli soldiers. I don’t believe in categorically rejecting an entire group of people because I’m afraid they’re going to hurt me.
This mentality stems from being hurt. People naturally want to protect themselves. And if they’ve been taught, or personally experienced, hurt from a particular type of person, sometimes the response is close yourself off. I can understand to a degree. It’s not as if I’m going to wave a pride flag around Ramallah. There are substantive cultural differences- and prejudices and legitimate fears that come with them.
The problem is when this fear ends up cutting you off from entire segments of society. So that rather than saying I’m afraid of Palestinians who are homophobic, I decide that I simply don’t like Palestinians. That if I don’t talk to them, if I don’t engage with them, I’ll feel safer. Except in the end, you miss out on potentially life-changing friendships and relationships. Not to mention the fact that it’s not entirely effective. There are obviously homophobic people in other cultures too- and people in Palestinian society who aren’t. When taken to its extreme, this kind of black-and-white thinking doesn’t end up effectively protecting you. And it does create a lot more prejudice and hate in the world.
So Rashida Tlaib doesn’t like Jews. If that wasn’t clear until today, accusing us of dual loyalty sealed the deal. I don’t know why she has come to this conclusion, but it’s sad and scary. We need to be vigilant against people who subvert democracy out of a desire to see their inner nightmares fulfilled. People willing to shout profanity and trample on other people’s dignity will continue to do so if left unchecked. Now that Ms. Tlaib has accused Jews of dual loyalty, when she sees Jews defending themselves, it will oddly enough reinforce her prejudice. It’s a demented and deeply disappointing reality that is quite hard to break- and depends mostly on the willpower of the individual to change. Here’s to hoping Rashida has a long talk with her conscience and thinks about what kind of parent, Congresswoman, and human being she’d like to be.
Which brings me to an archive I recently visited.
The American Society of the Cincinnati is an elite organization made up of descendants of Revolutionary War officers. One of their members, Larz Anderson, endowed a spectacular, grandiose mansion in Washington, D.C. to be its headquarters. To say it’s beautiful doesn’t do it justice. If you want to feel rich for a hot minute and enjoy some stunning artwork, go visit. It’s long been a favorite off-the-beaten-path place for me to let my mind wander and my eyes feast.
Today, as I did several years ago, I visited the Anderson House library. As a not-so-minor side note, I encourage you to click that link above. You can see some of my blogs from before my move to Israel. And you’ll notice that while many of my values are the same, my political perspective and capacity for nuance has grown tremendously. So that rather than drifting further towards the self-righteousness of folks like Rep. Tlaib or Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, I decided to pursue the more difficult if more rewarding journey towards nuance and empathy. While certain systemic factors are out of our control, every individual has a certain capacity to make choices. And those choices have ramifications for the thousands of people we meet in our life, for our own lives, and for society as a whole. I’m proud to have overcome the one-dimensional thinking that these extremist political actors savor.
Now, let’s return to the comfort of the archives.
Archives are soothing. They offer you a chance to explore without paying any money. Without the sometimes interesting but ultimately tedious travel logistics. They give you insight into things you don’t know- and things you don’t know you don’t know. They are just the kind of place to find an unexpected twist to make you think differently.
And I had that pleasure today.
As a Jew growing up in America, I learned a lot about Judaism. I learned about the Torah, some Talmud, Pirke Avot, tikkun olam, Israel, Ellis Island, Hebrew, holidays, and more. I can remember lessons on the Holocaust, on tolerance, and of course a lot of Jewish music.
What I didn’t learn was about our own American Jewish history. Let alone Yiddish, a language I came later to in life, but was actually the mother tongue of almost every great-grandparent of mine.
There’s something odd, indeed disturbing, that I can tell you much, much, much more about Haifa than I can about American Judaism. By that, I don’t mean Debbie Friedman melodies or marching for Soviet Jewry, although those are undoubtedly part of our rich story too.
What I mean is I can’t tell you much about how our community actually developed here.
And that’s something I learned about today.
How many of you know who David Salisbury Franks was?
Probably not many. Before today, I can’t say the name was at the tip of my tongue.
But Mr. Franks was a Jewish officer in George Washington’s Continental Army. And, to the best of my knowledge, the only Jewish member of the Society of the Cincinnati. Whose building I sat in.
His story is riveting and filled with mystery. After several hours of reading, it appears there’s no clear narrative on where he was from. Some sources claim he was born in Philadelphia, others in Boston. He also had a cousin (although some say the relationship is not clear) with the same name in New York. Who unlike this David Franks, was a loyalist to the British Crown. Which as you’ll see, a resemblance that did Mr. Franks no service later in life.
Mr. Franks spent part of his life in Montreal, at the time recently conquered by Britain. One of the first Jews to settle there, as French colonists had forbidden Jews from moving there.
Mr. Franks is sometimes referred to as a German Jew. In other places, it seems his family was Sephardic- the descendants of Jews forced out of Portugal by the Catholic Inquisition. His own surname potentially an anglicization of “de Franco”. A reminder that Jews have often had to shed parts of our identity to Americanize, whether in 1700s Philadelphia or Hollywood.
I have to admit his Portuguese connection intrigued me. Having just been in Portugal, I figured I wouldn’t find much to connect me to the place from America. But I not only found a connection- I found a Jewish one! Indeed many early Jews in America were Portuguese. Just like the Jews who I met in Lisbon who after 400 years of hiding, are returning to our people and our faith. The twists and turns of history can offer hope in the most unexpected times and places.
Mr. Franks was a proud American. He was even arrested by British authorities for defending freedom of speech and protest. He helped finance revolutionary troops. And he put his own life on the line as a soldier. And he did it in a Colonial America that, while substantially better than Europe, was at best ambivalent about Jews. Through the 1680s, even in relatively tolerant Rhode Island, Jews couldn’t become naturalized citizens. We were largely tolerated, but considered “others”. Something a bit too different to be “all American”.
There are a ton of fascinating aspects of David’s story. He was a Sephardic Jew, with potentially German Ashkenazi ancestry. His family likely kicked out of Portugal by Catholic monarchs, only to be appointed an American diplomat to the Spanish king whose country founded the Inquisition. He was sent to France to represent the new Republic because he spoke French- because of his family’s move to Montreal. Significant not only because of the roaming, international nature of Jewish existence (one source of our “dual loyalty” accusation), but also because of the very long relationship between Canadian and American Jewry. It’s one of the reasons I love going to Montreal. You might be surprised to see they have the *best* Jewish food tour I’ve ever been on. Twice.
Mr. Franks served as the Parnas, or synagogue president, of the Sephardic and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal. The city’s oldest. And at the time, a community only ten years old. A reminder that what starts today may become deeply significant for years to come. To remember we are still writers of history. And that if in fact Mr. Franks was part or entirely Ashkenazi, his acceptance as a leader of the (at the time) elitist Sephardic community is a poignant reminder of the human capacity for crossing cultures. For empathy and heterodox thinking. The kind we could use more of today.
His story, and rise to prominence, is also part of the American Dream. It’s the idea that in this country, you can grow and you can achieve regardless of where you come from. And while it’s a dream that’s not without its detractors nor faults, it is a part of our history. Which is why so many Jews have made America their home. At the time of David’s service in the military, Jews weren’t even citizens of European countries. The idea that he could lead so prominently is evidence that something is a bit different here. Even if we should remember that our history as American Jews is not just American. David’s family came from elsewhere- and appears to have maintained trade and familial ties to far-flung places such as Halifax, New York, England, Philadelphia, Montreal, and beyond. Jews are from everywhere- and nowhere. Which is precisely how anti-Semites like Rep. Tlaib are so successful in painting us as “rootless cosmopolitans” who can’t be trusted. Without considering why we’ve had to move so much- precisely because of people like her.
The very mystery around his origins, his family connections, his own biography is part of what makes him interesting. Perhaps there are scholars more versed in his life than I am, but what’s clear from my research is that there’s at least some confusion. Even searching in the Mormon genealogical records on FamilySearch.org shows some varying hypotheses of his own lineage. We know he was here, we know he was a Jew. The details, at least from my internet searching, seem partially up for debate.
What’s not up for debate is Mr. Franks’s patriotism.
Or is it?
Mr. Franks has the misfortune of being the aide-de-camp of Benedict Arnold, the notorious loyalist traitor. While several inquiries, including one called by Mr. Franks himself, exonerated David from any responsibility, a lot of Americans weren’t so sure. Some shunned Mr. Franks and yes, questioned his loyalty. While George Washington himself had no problem commissioning Mr. Franks afterwards and trusted him, not a small number of people dissociated themselves from the officer. And left him so socially undesirable he was apparently interred by a friend in hazy circumstances in a Christian cemetery in Philadelphia. Potentially carrying the body himself. An undignified end to someone who put his life on the line for his country.
What’s so interesting about this story is how utterly resonant it is today. And how it shows the deep relevance of knowing American Jewish history at least as well as we know about the Western Wall or Tel Aviv.
Because accusing Jews of dual loyalty is as American as pumpkin pie. And to this day, just as pernicious as it was centuries ago. Perhaps even worse.
The saving grace of this country, though, is that some people have a different vision.
The Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island is the oldest in the United States.
The congregation, nervous on the eve of American independence, wrote to George Washington in the hopes of receiving some reassurance. Reassurance that their fates were safe here- unlike their European relatives regularly butchered by ignorant masses of anti-Semites. I’d suggest it’s hard to imagine such a need here- but the past few years have put that to rest. Anti-Semitism, sadly, is alive and well. And American Jews should remember that for all the special things that make this country infinitely better for us than most places in the world, we are in the end Jews. And Jews have always been scapegoated in Western societies when things start looking uncertain.
What’s so remarkable about the letter, besides the deep sincerity and hopefulness of the congregation, is also Mr. Washington’s reply:
It’s a stunning, beautiful, and heartfelt sentiment that has driven Jews to these shores ever since.
Because besides the joy of letting my mind expand and wander, what ultimately motivates me to research this era is a desire to understand the present as much as the past. And to discover if America has the potential to be different than Europe or North Africa, areas rendered largely Jew-free over the past 100 years.
And there is a difference. The difference is not that there isn’t anti-Semitism. That has been- and always will be- here. You can just look up the case of Aaron Lopez in 18th century Rhode Island. A colony that refused to recognize his very citizenship precisely because he was Jewish. Or take a look at Linda Sarsour three hundred years later claiming anti-Semitism “isn’t systemic“.
The difference is that from its very founding, America decided that Jews were to be treated as equals under the law. That while other Western countries have, at various stages, offered opportunity to Jewish communities, this country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, of separation of Church and State, of liberty. And while it hasn’t always lived up to that promise, George Washington’s decision has impacted our civic life for hundreds of years. It’s why my family ended up alive in New York and Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. and not as ashes in German ovens.
The problem is that this tolerance, this willingness to forgo the outdated sectarian hatreds of Europe, is fragile. We’re seeing this today. And its fragility is only tempered by people’s willingness to defend difference.
Which is why today’s news about Rashida Tlaib is so scary. As a Muslim American woman, she has no doubt faced persecution and hardship in her life for who she is. Yet rather than choosing to become more empathetic in the face of hurt, she has chosen to become like the people who persecuted her. Heaping senseless anger and mean-spirited words into our nation’s political debate. And most specifically, on Jews ourselves. Six million of us that she doesn’t even know.
What’s so sad is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Rep. Tlaib could choose to build bridges with people of different backgrounds. She could acknowledge her family’s pain and challenges as Palestinian-Americans. Like me, she’s a hyphenated American with various cultural connections around the world. In her words, “dual loyalties”, but as I see it, an enriching confluence of identities. She could use this similarity as a way to empathize with Jews and yes, even Israel supporters she might disagree with. Because, in an ironic twist, its bigotry of people like her that propel people like me to believe in the necessity of a Jewish State. That for all its faults (which all countries have), Israel is a safe-haven for us when people like her fail to treat us as human beings. Something that has saved millions of Jewish lives from Tehran to Warsaw. Which is why there are more Moroccan Jews in Beit Shemesh, Israel than in all of Morocco.
So in the spirit of the resilient David Franks, I’m not going to start hating Palestinians just because Rashida Tlaib hates me for being Jewish and Israeli. That’s because I took the time to meet Palestinians, to become friends with them. That I realize that even as she spews conspiracy theories and hatred, I know other Palestinians who don’t see the world as she does. And that even if we have different cultures and sometimes political perspectives, I know my friends and I view each other as human. Not political props or opportunities to get likes on Facebook.
What’s so sad is that Rashida Tlaib has become like her abusers. An abuser herself. Unhinged and attacking foes real and imagined. Even as she’s supposed to be doing practical things to help her constituents. Like re-opening the government. A government whose very archives and museums house so much knowledge that could benefit us today. And whose halls sit empty as employees go without pay or hope for a solution. Indeed, perhaps a visit to these archives would be a wise first step for the Congresswoman rather than pontificating on Twitter.
What I loved about my experience today is how it connected me to myself. I’m an American Jew, a Jewish American, an American and a Jew. And part of my journey is piecing together who I am, where I am, and why I am. And who I want to be.
Knowing more about the history of my people in this country helps me understand the richness of our civilization. And offers insight into how we got here- and where we might be headed. What’s unique about America, and what might be a bit uncomfortable to recognize. That perhaps some things aren’t as unique as we hoped.
But either way, I speak from a place of increasing knowledge- and searching for it.
I’m proud of David Salisbury Franks, even if some of his companions were too cowardly to see his bravery. I’m proud he put his life on the line for an uncertainty- for a hope that his country would treat him as an equal. A hope his Portuguese ancestors were brutally denied.
I’m proud to be a Jew and I’m proud of Americans like George Washington who stood up for principles of religious freedom. Principles that have contributed to this country’s development and rich cultural landscape. And yes, freedom.
A freedom that is imperfect and like Mr. Washington himself, complicated. A freedom that is far from guaranteed, but a freedom worth pursuing.
With that, I’d like to suggest a redefinition. The word moderate these days is often used to suggest someone who splits the difference. Someone who’s not too Democratic or not too Republican. Someone in the middle.
What I’d like to suggest is moderation is a demeanor. That while yes, certain patterns of political thinking can suggest black-and-white thinking, the most important indicator of moderation is how you treat others. Your tolerance for difference.
If there’s one thing David Franks teaches us, it’s that it’s time for moderates to step forward. It’s time we figure out a way to mobilize before the patients run the ward and we find ourselves spiraling into an inescapable and even deeper chaos. A chaos that might start with the brutality of anti-Semitism but absolutely never ends with it.
Jews are a bellwether. Society should be concerned when people start picking on us. Yes, even other minorities. Something even sadder.
But Jews- we’re also people. And as George Washington made clear, we’re entitled to our rights beyond just being symbolic of waves of intolerance for the rest of the populace.
That as he said, we “merit the goodwill of the other inhabitants” and that “none shall make us afraid”.
I, for one, am afraid of people like Ms. Tlaib. But I am not afraid to stand up for myself.
Jews have been walking the pine forests and city streets of this country since before it was a country. And I’m not going to bow down before bigotry.
If you want to see our resilience, just go to the archives of the Society of the Cincinnati. And learn about the brave members of our tribe who helped build one of the most fabulous countries on the planet.
American. Jewish. Israeli. Proud.
I suppose that’s four loyalties, but who’s counting? 😉
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