WHENEVER I AM traveling and meet another Jew, I get that warm fuzzy feeling. Ah! I have met an MOT—another Member of the Tribe. In this case it is the tribe of Moses. There is something very comforting about it. For hundreds of years we have been the “other” on the outside, and so when meet another “outsider” it is an instant connection. Somehow we feel safe and protected. Such are some of the feelings that tribalism engenders.
But, it’s not just religion, of course. As David Ropeik writes in his article “How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous” in The Big Think online, “We identify ourselves as members of all sorts of tribes; our families, political parties, race, gender, social organizations. We even identify tribally just based on where we live. Go Celtics, go Red Sox, go U.S. Olympic team!”
Ropeik continues, pointing out that ”Tribalism is pervasive, and it controls a lot of our behavior, readily overriding reason. Wars are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism—wipe out the other group to keep our group safe.” Much of the turmoil in the Middle East stems primarily from ancient tribal conflicts between the two major denominations of Islam—Sunni and Shia.
Andrew Sullivan writes in New York Magazine, “In the Balkans, a long period of relative peace imposed by communism was shattered by brutal sectarian and ethnic warfare, as previously intermingled citizens split into irreconcilable groups.” Once communism lost its hold over the Russian states, anti-Semitism grew by leaps and bounds.
“Tribal loyalties turned Beirut, Lebanon’s beautiful cosmopolitan capital, into an urban wasteland in the 1970s; they caused close to a million deaths in a few months in Rwanda in the 1990s.”
Our loyalty dominates much of how we behave, how we think and act, and how we treat each other. So it’s not surprising that “The more unsettled and uncertain we feel with… feelings that make us feel threatened—the more we circle the wagons and fiercely fight for tribal success, looking to the tribe to keep us safe,” writes Ropeik.
In a recent article, “The New Tribalism and the Decline of the Nation State,” Robert Reich writes, “In the past three hundred years the idea of nationhood took root in most of the world. Members of tribes started to become citizens, viewing themselves as a single people with patriotic sentiments and duties toward their homeland. … Today we are witnessing a reversion to tribalism around the world, away from nation states.”
America’s new tribalism can be seen most distinctly in its politics. Nowadays the members of one tribe hold sharply different views and values than the members of the other. Each tribe has contrasting ideas about rights and freedoms. Each has its own totems and its own media that confirm its beliefs.”
As long as we remain loyal only to our own tribes, there is a real question as to whether or not we can ever resolve our differences, in this country or around the world. I am both an American Jew and a Jewish American. Let us begin to rethink the concept of the nation state, where we recognize that we connect to each other because of a loyalty to something larger than our tribes.
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.