History has been curling back lately in the most uncomfortable ways. Nearly 125 years ago, a French military court convicted the artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason for handing military secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus, who was Jewish, would eventually be exonerated, but not before his case was turned into a national referendum on the nature of loyalty to the state and the place of Jews in French society. Leading the charge against Dreyfus was the journalist Édouard Drumont, founder of the Anti-Semitic League of France and author of the best-selling Jewish France, a lengthy and largely incoherent screed against immigrants and Jews. Among its many spurious claims was that Jews were “perpetual nomads,” incapable of loyalty to any existing state.
This charge would reappear with disastrous consequences in the century that followed. It resonated both with ancient slanders against Jews and with new forms of xenophobia that arose alongside modern nationalism. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American nativists also accused Catholics of maintaining a sinister loyalty to Rome, just as far-right pundits in France and the U.S. alike currently allege that Muslims are incapable of living in a liberal democracy, that allegiance to Islamic law conflicts with the obligations of citizenship.
Now, in a twist equally painful and absurd, Ilhan Omar, America’s first black, Muslim congresswoman, stands accused by both political opponents and her Democratic peers of employing the old, anti-Semitic canard of dual loyalty. Few have stopped to consider that Omar, who has been the subject of constant assaults from Drumont’s ideological heirs, looks a lot more like Dreyfus than any of his accusers. [Continue reading…]