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Rep. Omar touches a third rail

Raising the issue of Jewish allegiance to the country puts her in bad company.

Democrat Ilhan Omar speaks after winning in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District race during the election night event held by the Democratic Party on Nov. 6, 2018, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

(RNS) — This year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “A Night at the Garden,” about a massive pro-Nazi rally that took place in New York’s Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 1939, begins with a German-accented voice intoning, “I pledge undivided allegiance to the flag of the United States of America … ”

Why “undivided”?

No doubt the German-American Bund, which organized the rally at the Garden, wanted to emphasize the loyalty of German immigrants and their descendants, which had been widely called into question during the Great War two decades earlier. But the organizers were at the same time calling into question the loyalty of Jewish Americans, whom the rally was intended to vilify.

The idea that Jews are a malign force who owe no allegiance to anyone or anything but themselves is classic anti-Semitism, and it was channeled by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., last week when she said at a Washington bookstore event, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

No wonder Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which the freshman congresswoman sits, denounced her statement as a “vile anti-Semitic slur.” No wonder House Democrats are scrambling to pass a resolution condemning anti-Semitism.

American history is, unfortunately, rife with accusations of disloyalty on the part of minority groups.

From the 1830s through the presidency of John F. Kennedy, Catholics were regularly slurred as taking orders from the pope. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were interned as a fifth column of the emperor. Red Scares after both world wars made leftists out to be agents of the Soviet Union. And of course, since 9/11 American Muslims have been the object of suspicion as supporters of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group known as ISIS.

There is, in fact, something un-American about the charge of what tends to be called, these days, “dual loyalty.” The United States, like many nations, allows residents to be citizens of another country as well as this one. We must presume that this means it’s OK with us if someone also pledges allegiance to that other country’s flag.

To be sure, there are things you don’t get to do on another country’s behalf. You don’t get to give it top-secret classified information, the way Jonathan Pollard did. If you lobby for its interests, you’ve got to register as a foreign agent, as Paul Manafort didn’t.

This country’s dedication to freedom of thought should allow for a range of alternative allegiances, foreign or domestic — though that proposition has been too often honored in the breach. As Justice Robert Jackson famously put it during World War II in West Virginia v. Barnette, the Supreme Court case that recognized the right of schoolchildren not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

No doubt, this constitutional right can make for ugly conflicts, and one of the ways we minimize that danger is through unwritten rules of conduct. These include not attacking those whose allegiances may differ from one’s own. Omar ignores that rule at peril of her public service.

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