Going tribal

After the Passover massacre, American Jews have rejected their proud tradition of universalism and embraced its opposite: tribalism.


Samuel G. Freedman
April 17, 2002 3:28AM (UTC)

In the days after a Palestinian suicide bomber slew 28 Israelis at a Passover Seder, as the Israeli army besieged Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, a young man named Adam Shapiro found himself trapped there, too, while tending to the chairman's wounded bodyguards through a humanitarian aid group. The spectacle of an American Jew keeping wartime company with the Palestinian Authority leader brought denunciations of Shapiro as a traitor, an enemy, a veritable John Walker Lindh. His parents in Brooklyn received so many death threats they went into hiding.

Yet Shapiro in many ways embodied one of the most durable and admirable traits in the American Jewish character: universalism. His mother and father were New York teachers, part of the grand tradition of American Jewish commitment to public education. In an interview with the Forward, a Jewish weekly newspaper, Shapiro traced his commitment to the Palestinian cause to his studies of the Holocaust, with a protest against the Rwandan genocide a stop along the way.

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The universalistic tradition in American Jewish life goes back to Western Europe, to the intellectual daring of Spinoza and Mendelssohn, the artistic adventures of Weimar Germany, the radical social experiments of "Red Vienna." Driven out of Europe by the Nazis, it manifested itself on American soil through labor unions, the civil rights crusade, the antiwar movement and, most recently, the peace process set into motion by the Oslo Accord in 1993.

But now, for a great many American Jews, all that universalism looks unspeakably naive, a luxury unsuited for a lethal world. Adam Shapiro appears less a traitor than a "freier," a Hebrew word for Israel's ultimate insult: a sucker. Almost two years after Yasser Arafat spurned Ehud Barak's peace offer at Camp David, 18 months after the Palestinians resumed armed struggle, many American Jews have reluctantly embraced universalism's opposite: tribalism.

Tribalism is the part of Jewish consciousness forged by two millennia of exile and persecution, by blood libel and inquisition and holocaust. It is the part that cannot quite bring itself to trust even the unparalleled acceptance and social mobility Jews have enjoyed in the United States. And precisely because tribalism's fears have borne so little resemblance to the American reality -- three dozen Jews in Congress, rampant intermarriage, "The Producers," the greatest hit in Broadway history -- it had steadily waned in postwar decades. Or it had until the Seder in Netanya.

The Passover massacre accomplished what no other atrocity of the intifada did. It brought into the streets a massive number of Jews from across denominational and ideological spectra, from die-hard believers in the messianic nationalism of Greater Israel to supporters of the Israeli reservists who have refused to serve in the occupied territories. The public outcry that has followed, in turn, reflected the private soul-searching of countless individuals, especially those who had put their faith in the peace process.

"During the Oslo period, universalism asserted itself and there was a flowering of progressive sentiment," says Kenneth D. Wald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who studies the political behavior of American Jewry. "But the al-Aksa intifada restored the tribal sense and the recent bombing intensified it beyond levels seen since the Six-Day War." "Indeed," says Wald, "I'm struck at how tribal I feel these days."

The transformation of American Jewish opinion has outpaced the ability of pollsters to record it. The most recent surveys, primarily from 2001, indicate that while a majority of American Jews still favor a negotiated settlement, their acceptance of Arafat as a partner has fallen dramatically. Melvin Allerhand, a psychologist in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, who has worked extensively in Israel and the United States on Arab-Jewish reconciliation, put the change in clinical terms: "When a crisis comes, people turn to extremes. For an American Jew, that means in this case becoming more tribalistic, less universalistic. From having reviled Sharon to supporting Sharon. Where previously the view was to keep talking, not to use bullets, now the discussion is, Yes, we know we have to do something to stop it.' The only question is how far you go."

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Lisa Schiffman wrote about the ambivalent identity of young American Jews such as herself, most of them unaffiliated and many of them intermarried, in her book "Generation J." From her home in the Bay Area, almost as far away as possible from Professor Wald's in Gainesville, Fla., she has felt similarly jolted. Going ice-skating in Oakland recently, she noticed an abandoned storefront bearing the slogan, "Stop U.S. aid to Israel." Picking up a copy of an alternative weekly, she saw that someone had covered the newspaper box with a flier declaring, "Israel is a fascist state."

"For most of my life, Israel was not something I thought of very much," she says. "I am of the generation of secular American Jews who grew up after the state of Israel was already a reality. Israel didn't factor into our daily thoughts. It just existed. We thought of the United States as our homeland. When we gave money, it went to the Wilderness Society, not to the Jewish Federation. When we learned foreign languages, it was Spanish and French but not Hebrew. When we went abroad for a year, it was to Europe. "I am still largely ignorant of Israel, its history, its politics, and perhaps that ignorance is not uncommon among 'Generation J' Jews," she says. "But being uneducated does not mean I do not feel tribal sadness or an intense connection to Israeli Jews right now. I do indeed. My tribalism is undeniable. Surprising even."

The biggest surprise of the reawakening of tribal consciousness may be that it did not happen sooner. Indeed, the left wing in Israel, the so-called peace camp, had largely collapsed or recanted a year ago. For such Israelis, as the journalist Yossi Klein Halevi recently pointed out in the New Republic, the first shock of the intifada came in October 2000, when a Palestinian mob disemboweled two Israeli soldiers inside the Ramallah police station. Then last June, a suicide bomber killed 20 Israelis, most of them secular teenagers who had immigrated from Russia, outside a Tel Aviv nightclub called the Dolphinarium. Ramallah taught Israelis that the Palestinian Authority was part of the intifada; the Dolphinarium taught them that the entire nation, not just the occupied territories, was under assault.

In their desperation, Israelis in early 2001 elected Ariel Sharon, long a marginalized figure for his role in the Lebanon invasion and his indirect responsibility for a massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. A vast majority endorsed his tactic of targeted assassination. Such prominent figures in the peace camp as Benny Morris, the revisionist historian best known for his book about the conflict, "Righteous Victims," depicted the intifada as a war for Israeli survival. Another major figure in Israeli cultural life, the novelist Orly Castel-Bloom, entitled her recent book about life during the intifada "Body Parts." And where 400,000 Israelis had marched against the Lebanon invasion in 1982, a mere 7,000 joined a protest held in the wake of the Passover attack.

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What struck Israelis as tragic confirmation hit many American Jews more as revelation. Throughout the peace process, a silent majority had favored the land-for-peace formula without particularly campaigning for it. The Jewish establishment, particularly the lobby AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, had always viewed Oslo and Arafat more warily. So the Ramallah lynching and the Dolphinarium bombing mobilized largely those American Jews already inclined toward mobilization, those on the political right and in the Orthodox community.

The power of the Passover bombing to rouse the rest lay in its symbolism. Even as a majority of American Jews do not belong to a synagogue, even as Jewish ethnicity has lost much of its substance in the postwar decades, more American Jews attend a Seder (87 percent) than engage in virtually any other ritual, according to research by the sociologist Stephen M. Cohen. All but the most estranged sliver of American Jewry knows firsthand the feeling of a Seder.

Hirsch Goodman of the Jerusalem Report likened the Passover bombing to Kristallnacht. For a newly tribalistic American Jew, it called forth more recent antecedents. The anti-Israel rhetoric at the United Nations racism conference in Durban, South Africa, the explicit anti-Semitism in the execution of journalist Daniel Pearl, the wave of arson and vandalism against Jewish facilities in France; all of these events fit into the larger pattern of implacable hatred not against West Bank settlers, not against Israelis, but against Jews, period.

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With all of that in mind, a rabbinical student named Brent Spodek began e-mailing friends last week to implore them to attend Monday's pro-Israel rally in Washington. He intended to march with a contingent from the New Israel Fund, one of the major groups in the American peace camp, and he personally supported the several hundred Israeli reservists who had refused to serve in what some deride as "the war for the settlements."

"I knew I would be going to this rally even before I knew I would be helping to organize a more 'progressive' voice in Washington," Spodek says. "I knew I would be going because, for me, any conversation about Israel begins from an absolute affirmation of the right of Israel to exist as a state, and a recognition that, unfortunately, states are built and defended through force. God willing, we will one day settle our disputes through a more peaceful method, but that day is far off.

"I think one of the big lies that we on the left often tell ourselves," he says, "is that it is possible to be neutral, impartial -- in short, to be Swiss. But as the Swiss banks let us know, even the Swiss aren't Swiss. And I know I'm a Jew. I will voice my concerns [about Israeli policy] and I will strive to be a righteous person -- but I will do this from within my tribe."

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No episode better marks the shifts within the American Jewish left than the imbroglio surrounding Rabbi Michael Lerner's full-page advertisement in the New York Times in late March. Lerner founded the Jewish magazine Tikkun, whose name is drawn from the Hebrew injunction that Jews engage in tikkun olam, healing the world, and he has long been a fixture in both social-justice and spirituality circles. In this ad, however, he likened the Israeli army to Pharaoh in the Passover story and assailed its soldiers for blindly "following orders" -- a phrase that, intentionally or not, equated those men and women with the Nazis. Several of the Jewish leaders who were listed in the advertisement, including the two chief rabbis of Manhattan's famously liberal synagogue B'nai Jeshurun, renounced it. On Monday, B'nai Jeshurun closed its Hebrew school because so many teachers were attending the rally; the answering machine at the synagogue offices provided information on a bus service to the event.

For the seven summers between the signing of the Oslo Accords and the onset of the al-Aksa intifada, the theater producer Emanuel Azenberg led a unique tour of Israel for friends and colleagues in the performing-arts community. In addition to making the standard tourist stops of Masada, Yad Vashem and the like, Azenberg brought his group to Jericho to meet with the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erakat. They dined; they talked; they argued. But surely, they must have thought, peace was at hand.

But now, having been reared in the left-wing culture of Labor Zionism, Azenberg finds himself unexpectedly supporting Ariel Sharon, for so long the bête noire of peaceniks. "When Arafat walked away from Barak at Camp David, the Hebrew phrase is ayn brayah, there is no choice," Azenberg put it. "The left collapsed and the right became the alternative. Do I think Sharon's invasion will do anything? How do we know? If you kill 300 or 500 real terrorists, how long will it take to replace them? Five years? When you see the houses in the refugee camps that have been razed, you feel rachmanis [pity]. On the other hand, I have the same rachmanis, and a little bit more, for the people who got blown up. I used to think that if you give the Palestinians a middle-class existence for 40, 45 years, even the ones who want all of Israel will change their mind. Now the dream would be a cease-fire. And maybe in 200 years, they'll like each other."


Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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