When John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, voters were uncomfortable with the prospect of being led by somebody who wasn't Protestant, and aired their fears.
Could Kennedy, they wondered, as a Roman Catholic, manage to put the interests of his country ahead of pressures from the Vatican?
Kennedy was forced to repeatedly address these worries. Speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960, he first chided his audience for ignoring issues like poverty and Communism, and instead forcing him to talk about whether he'd take his marching orders from the pope.
"Because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured -- perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this," he said. "So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again — not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me —but what kind of America I believe in. I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act."
Kennedy was good to his word. In the countless histories of his all-too-brief administration, JFK has been accused of many lapses, but excessive zeal for his Catholic faith and fidelity to its teachings are not among them.
That is not surprising. The idea of divided loyalties is typically a baseless slur, tossed at anyone who is different, suggesting that our country's common interests are being subjugated to some outside loyalty.
The same accusations have been hurled at Jews, after they got a country of their own, Israel. And these insinuations always seemed the same kind of disguised bigotry that Kennedy faced.
Look at the Iran deal. Who can say there isn't a segment of American Jews who are , if not exactly following the orders of the Israeli government, then buying its worldview, hook, line and sinker, and passionately opposing American policy for that reason alone?
Here Barack Obama, the president of the United States, has worked out an agreement that he and our five most important allies feel is the best strategy to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, however, believes that any agreement with Iran is worthless and prefers steep economic sanctions leading toward pre-emptive war. He has been trying to undercut the deal, and is aided by a distressingly large cast of allies in the United States, mainly the chorus of Obama's fanatic GOP foes—not one Republican in Congress supports the deal—and that slice of American Jewry who believes that supporting Israel means endorsing anything its government does, no matter how misguided.
Netanyahu might be right, I should add. Or might not. Nobody knows, and those who claim to know are just bluffing. We have only one past, but a multitude of futures, and we can never tell how our actions now will affect what unfolds.
The stunning thing is, in all the discussion of the merits of the deal, the fact that our president supports one side, and the head of another country, even a country as historically friendly as Israel, supports the other, hardly enters the calculus. I'm mentioning it here because I haven't heard anybody mention it. Maybe it's a naive point, but there you go.
At the end of last week it seemed there are enough votes in Congress to keep the deal from being overturned, though the We-Never-Lose-We-Just-Fall-Back-and-Keep-Fighting Republicans are already digging to find creative ways to undercut it.
Tough economic sanctions that isolated Iran certainly didn't keep it from making the progress toward a bomb it already has. And a deal might allow them to continue, aided by renewed economic support. Everyone suggesting the best route are really guessing, based more on their biases and partisanship than any cool analysis of fact. The bottom line is, if Netanyahu embraced the deal, the critics here would fall in line. But he doesn't, so they echo his denunciations.
That isn't good for the future of Jews, already a dwindling minority facing rising anti-Semitism. I'm not saying that we should keep our place; just that we should consider whether throwing in our lot with foreign leaders in fevered opposition—so extreme that the Anti-Defamation League found itself accusing certain Jewish groups of anti-Semitism— is a long-term success strategy.
Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is a blip. But someday a viable Jewish candidate will runs for president, and somebody will raise the question of whether he (or she) will do what's best for our country, or owe special allegiance to Israel. Those critics will wave the bloody shirt of the fierce opposition to the Iran deal as evidence, and who will be able to say there isn't some kernel of truth there? The best defense will be the existence of J Street Jews who did not dance to whatever tune the current administration in Israel is piping. But that is a a nuanced argument, the type all too often lost in the gale of political discourse. Whether the deal will work or not is unknown by anybody. We'll have to find out. But that the debate has undercut the always tentative position of the American Jewish community is a certainty.