The Jewish people just can’t get away from the accusations of dual loyalty. A few months ago it was a Democratic congresswoman implying that Jews were more interested in serving Israel’s interests than America’s. Today it is the right accusing a decorated Army officer of allegiance to his homeland. Except this time the homeland is not the Jewish state, but rather, implausibly, Ukraine.
The disparaging of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman is not only baseless; it also betrays a complete ignorance of the Soviet Jewish émigré community in America. The ridiculous charge is that Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s, is somehow serving the interests of Ukraine against the president.
As Alex Zeldin, whose family also emigrated from the Soviet Union, explains in an article in the Washington Post, Vindman’s father came to the US in order to flee the a society that that treated Jews as second class citizens whose loyalty to the state must always be in question.
Zeldin sketches the history of the Soviet Jewish community, which was much more assimilated than the community before the 1917 Revolution. American Jews whose ancestors can from Russia think of shtetl life and Yiddish when they think of the old country, but as the 20th century progressed, Soviet Jews moved to the cities and abandoned the mamaloshen.
These Soviet Jews tried to integrate as much as possible into the wider society, just like their coreligionists in America, but while anti-Semitism decreased over time in the US, it became semi-official policy in the USSR. Vindman’s father brought his children to this country so they could have a better life and pursue any opportunity, even one like a national security career normally closed to Soviet Jews.
The irony is that the people in the country opening its doors to Jewish refugees often don’t understand the complexities of identity in Europe. Lt. Col. Vindman may have come from Ukraine, but it would be more accurate to describe him as Jewish than Ukrainian in the same way that it was odd when the Bernie Sanders campaign emphasized his “Polish” background.
My maternal grandfather was a refugee from Vienna, having been arrested during Kristallnacht and imprisoned in Dachau. When he came to the Kitchener Camp for Refugees in England in 1939 he was told to limit his use of the German language when outside the facility. The camp authorities knew that anti-German sentiment was high and locals might not realize that two people speaking German on the street are actually refugees fleeing the Nazis rather than enemy spies.
Unfortunately then, as now, ignorance and deliberate deception fuels our politics, and Jews are often an easy scapegoat. When you can’t refute the substance of someone’s argument it’s simpler to smear their reputation and identity, even if the line of attack is absurd.