Fending Off Tribalism, Jews Argue Self-Definition

<i> Martin E. Marty is a professor of religion at the University of Chicago and senior editor of the Christian Century</i>

“Who is a Jew?” Jews everywhere have had to ask that question again this November, thanks to postelection political battles in Israel. While the non-Jewish world looks on, Jews debate their identity. The victorious Likud Party, seeking to form a coalition to govern Israel, seemed ready to bow to the demands of small ultraorthodox religious parties. The heart of the small parties’ demand? Revise the Law of Return, the law that is the prescription for immigrants wishing to become citizens of Israel. The ultras insisted that only Orthodox rabbis counted as sponsors of converts to Judaism. Only offspring of Jewish mothers who were properly sponsored henceforth would count as real Jews.

That left out most Jews in the United States--where half the world’s 16 million Jews live. These Americans are overwhelmingly of Reform or Conservative Jewish allegiance, meaning they wouldn’t count as Jews in the Israel they have loved and supported for 40 years. In the eyes of such non-Orthodox Jews, the recent trend in Israel has been tribalist-- and that is bad.

Tribalism converts a good notion into a hard ideology. The good notion is: In tribes, like find like. People know who they are. They build trust. People in these figurative tribes live by shared memories and stories, affectionate relations and helpful dreams. In a world where so many are lonely and insecure, tribes provide company and security where it matters. Without some tribal sense, Israel would not have endured, fought off enemies, built a great new nation. With too much tribalism, Israel could lose support and experience schism.


Tribalism is based on mistrust. The ultraorthodox Jews in Israel do not trust Reform or Conservative rabbis to pass on authentic Judaism. Tribalists are bound to the rules and regulations of their groups; they scrutinize members as much as they rule out non-members. Longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer once said orthodoxies can be born of mutual suspicion more than of love for truth. In the tight and insecure group, the line between “we” and “they” is sharp. The ultraorthodox in Israel do not worry or care about who Gentiles are. Instead they sharpen the definitions of Judaism. Tribalists call down their God to endorse their actions and leave everyone else to their own devices.

There are many reasons why capitulation--or near capitulation--to the tribalists in Israel provoked violent negative reaction among the majority of Israeli and American Jews. Few peoples have more at stake than Jews in the subtle drawing of lines between tribe and tribalism. Look at the record.

For centuries, Jews were forced into ghettos, a harassed people. They had to huddle together and then were criticized by non-Jews for such huddling, for acting like a tribe apart. In the 19th Century their avant-garde tried a different strategy. Enlightenment Judaism in Europe advised Jews to adapt, to blend into the environment, to give up much of what their neighbors called tribal. Some gave away too much. They lost their identity and Jewish values. When Kristallnacht came 50 years ago in Germany and Hitler started exterminating Jews, acts of blending counted for nothing. Jews forced to their deaths, and Jews far away who suffered for and with the victims in Europe, learned again how important for their survival and dignity it was to stress their Jewishness. The founding of Israel 40 years ago was the rallying symbol for Jews recovering their identity.

Who, then, was a Jew? For all but the ultraorthodox, the definitions had grown generous. People wanted to be Jews again. Reform and Conservative Judaism prevailed in America, and both produced converts--some of whom migrated to Israel and found acceptance. Religious overdefinition was not essential. Modern Israel is, by most measures, a secular society, made up mostly of non-observant Jews. The observant there tend to be Orthodox. American Judaism, by contrast, is more observant, but the synagogue goers and keepers of the way are less frequently Orthodox. And most American Orthodox leadership withholds support from Israeli ultraorthodoxies. Coexistence between types was possible because Israel, and the threats of Israel’s enemies, united them.

Now that covenant of coexistence is breaking down, leaving the heady little parties in Israel smug and demanding; many secular Jews in Israeli politics are sullenly acquiescent, and most Jews in America are disheartened. To see healthy tribal spirit turn into tribalism threatens the dreams for Israel and the integrity of Jews.

If Israel’s majorities ever capitulate--if they find the older and more generous definitions of Judaism negotiable for the sake of political advantage--tribalism will have won. And if it does, Israel will be advancing a trend that disturbs the peace wherever it erupts.

While the recent headlines exposed Jewish agonies over extremism in Israeli politics, I was chairing a conference, “Fundamentalisms Around the World.” Scholar after scholar reported on Islamic fundamentalisms, on American Protestant self-centered and belligerent movements, on Sikhs and Sri Lankans and a dozen more. What they had in common matched the trend in Israel. People called down their god or the spirits of their tribe to support their cause, to help them draw lines between the righteous “we” and the hated “they.”

Tribalism runs counter to earlier, indeed mid-20th-Century, dreams that peoples might understand peoples, might live and let live. Israel, born of conflict and located in the midst of conflict, set out to be a free society and a reasonably generous one. It took shape at about the time the United Nations, the World Council of Churches and any number of “united” and “world” agencies embodied hopes for interaction between peoples. Those were years when metaphors such as “global village” or “the family of man” seemed applicable.

No more. Something is evidently so erosive in modern life that people cannot tolerate its changes. The media, television, travel, mass higher education and more--all threaten tribes and their values. So tribalists exploit the situations and start defining, start ruling out those they differ from even slightly.

In an older, rural and underpopulated world, where bows and arrows were the weapons and skirmishes could be confined, tribalism was less threatening than it is today. In today’s Israel, it is the Jewish and Muslim extremists who claim God is on their side in West Bank struggles. In Northern Ireland, the tribes call themselves Protestant and Catholic and invoke their god against each other. In Africa, where outsiders gerrymandered boundaries that did not match outlines of tribal areas, tribe cruelly kills tribe.

In days when weapons are cheap and terrorism is an approved fanatic tactic, any advance against tribalism is a sign of borrowed time, of measured hope. If the Jews with more generous definitions outlast the ultras, they need not and will not merely blend into the environment. They will instead have found new reasons to be Jewish, for their tradition as “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) will have served them well. That example should also shed some light for the rest of us in these dark times.