February 28, 2020
Adar 3, 5780
It was recently reported that two players from a Brooklyn College received harsh criticism for kneeling during the playing of the Israeli national anthem "Hatikvah" before a game against Yeshiva University. In a subsequent statement, the President of Yeshiva U angrily claimed that the players "disrespected Israel's national anthem." StopAntisemitism.org claimed (falsely) that the players also refused to shake hands with members of the opposing team, tweeting angrily: "antisemitism at it's finest!" In somewhat grudging support of its players, Brooklyn College released a statement condemning "all forms of Anti-Semitism and hatred," but pointed out that their kneeling was "protected by the First Amendment."
Acts of protests such as these have long attracted withering backlash, from the Black Power fists raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics or the Colin Kaepernick's kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games. Like the recent actions of the Brooklyn College volleyball players (who, I assume, intended their act as protest against Israel's human rights abuses against Palestinians), athletes who take brave public stands such as these are often accused of "disrespect." And invariably, these athletes almost always end up paying a significant personal price for their courage.
While it is heartening to know the Brooklyn College administration understands how this kind of protest is, in fact, a protected form of free speech, there was something else I found striking about this episode: why was the Israeli national anthem being played at a sporting event between two American college teams in the first place?
In his statement, the president of Yeshiva University addressed this question, claiming it was an issue of religious freedom:
We are proud to be the only university who sings both the American and Israeli national anthems before every athletic competition and major event. Nothing makes me prouder to be an American than living in a country where our religious freedom, our Zionism and our commitment to our people will never be impeded and always be prized.
I'm struck by the way this statement so easily conflates the Jewish religion with Zionism - and how it frames the issue as one of "commitment to (the Jewish) people." In an era of resurgent antisemitism, it is particularly troubling to me that Yeshiva University would so unabashedly proclaim its commitment to another nation-state, opening up American Jews to the time-honored canard of Jewish "dual-loyalty."
Ironically, while Zionism has always purported to be a movement that seeks the safety and security of the Jewish people, it has historically aided and abetted the antisemitic trope of dual Jewish loyalty. Many Jewish opponents of Zionism have in fact pointed this out. For instance, in the wake of the 1917 Balfour Declaration (that pledged the British Foreign Office's support of a "Jewish home" in Palestine), the only Jewish member of Parliament, Edwin Montagu, fiercely opposed the statement, claiming it would "makes aliens and foreigners by implication, if not at once by law, of all their Jewish fellow-citizens."
Indeed, more than a century later, the "dual loyalty" canard is now being fanned by none other than the President of the United States who referred to Benjamin Netanyahu as "your Prime Minister" when speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition and has suggested that American Jews who chose to vote for Democrats were being "disloyal." In light of the current political moment, I'm not really sure we need to be exacerbating the most toxic antisemitic assumptions about American Jewish loyalties.
Personally speaking, I'm not particularly fond of national anthems, no matter where they might originate from. I've long felt that loyalty to nation-states is a very short step away from chauvinism and xenophobia. Rather than argue over what nation we are truly loyal to, I'd say it would be far more productive to lift up the importance of loyalty to the ideals of human rights and dignity for all, regardless of the national border we happen to live within.
Rabbi Brant Rosen