Dueling Loyalties

The public uproar about the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the Mavi Marmora has created a new crop of discussion of “dual loyalties.” Curious, I did some searches for the phrase. It turns up almost entirely in three contexts: the relationship of American Jews to Israel, the relationship of Barack Obama to Indonesia and/or Kenya, and the relationship of Hispanic Americans to Mexico, in roughly that order of frequency.

I also occasionally get invited to participate in various Zogby polls, on which one of the routine questions is whether I consider myself primarily a citizen of my town, state, country, or the planet Earth. I always answer “the planet Earth,” not because I am a diehard environmentalist or a world federalist, but because it’s the closest answer to “God’s creation,” which is what I really do consider myself a citizen of.

The standard and expected answer (judging from the “dual loyalties” results) is apparently “the United States.” I’m not even going to get into the “right or wrong” stuff that often accompanies this discussion. Even Zogby seems to assume that one’s first loyalty should be to a governmental body of some sort (“planet Earth” is obviously an afterthought.)

More to the point, there seems to be a universal assumption that everyone should have a single, primary loyalty.

I have known a couple of people with a single, primary loyalty. I have heard of a few others. They were all dangerous monomaniacs, whom I would not entrust with the care of my worst enemy’s dog. No morally competent human being reared outside a box, a cage, or a desert island can have a single, primary loyalty. Multiple loyalties are a part of the human, social condition. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” says E.M. Forster, “I hope I would have the guts to betray my country.”

On the other hand, compulsory clerical celibacy is one way organizations reduce the possibility of conflicting loyalties. There is something to be said for it. Arguably, Gandhi should have chosen a celibate life, judging from the difficulties endured by his wife. In fact, probably a lot of Great Men, and some Great Women, would have done better to eschew matrimony and, even more so, parenthood. There are some careers, mostly undertaken by males, BTW, which really do not combine well with parenthood.

But even celibates have loyalties to family, friends, and communities which can conflict with and sometimes override loyalties to country, ideology, or institution. Celibacy doesn’t solve the problem of conflicting loyalties, it just reduces its scale a bit. To be a human being living in a society more complex than the primordial cave necessarily entails balancing competing loyalties. Adam and Eve became fully human when they chose loyalty to each other over obeying the divine command. We Jews do not necessarily consider this a “Fall.” Arguably, it was a major step up. Abraham got the complete message several generations later: if loyalty to G-d requires sacrificing your child, loyalty to your child comes first.


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