As America Wrestles with Tribalism, Jews Will Be Exhibit A

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Since Election Day, America has been fighting about tribalism. How much was Trump’s victory due to white tribalism? Should Democrats abandon “identity politics” hoping to transcend tribalism, or should they double down on multiculturalism, tribal though it may be?

Eventually, the American mainstream will settle on answers to these questions, and on a Big Story to explain them. I don’t know what that Story will be, but I know one thing: explicitly or implicitly, it will be largely about Jews.

That’s not because American Jews are an interesting example of how identity can be complex, although we are. And it’s not because hatred of Jews is newly energized, although it is. No, Jews will be central to how we talk about tribalism because Jews are central to how Westerners think about tribalism—and we have been for a long time.

As David Nirenberg showed in his brilliant 2013 book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, for the past two thousand years, Christian and Islamic cultures have used “figures of Judaism” as important tools for thinking about philosophy, politics, art, and more. Body and soul; universal and particular; law, in letter and spirit; justice and mercy; written and spoken words as related to truth and lies; money and credit as related to work, trust, and exploitation—discussions of these topics and many more, Nirenberg shows, leaned heavily on “figures of Judaism” throughout centuries of Western thought. From St. Paul to Karl Marx and from medieval poets to modern philosophers, Western society worked out much of its moral vocabulary by developing and investigating a set of archetypes about Jewishness to act as a foil.

Nirenberg uses the term “figures of Judaism” to distinguish these archetypes from actual, living Jews. Western societies’ seeming obsession with Jewishness was never really focused on them. That’s why Western thinkers constantly argued things out in terms of Jews whether those thinkers lived in cities with large Jewish populations or in countries where no Jew had set foot in centuries. Real Jews live in some places and not others, but “figures of Judaism” live everywhere in the Western imagination. That’s why asking whether or not Shakespeare was “antisemitic” is a meaningless question. He had never seen an actual Jew; a Jew was a literary type for him, carrying a rich set of conceptual and emotional associations—no more real, and no less evocative, than a dragon. Jewishness, in this theoretical sense, wasn’t only something that real Jews carried—it was a particular way of thinking and acting, a way of being that all people are susceptible to, Gentiles included. (Shakespeare used this idea of Gentiles behaving Jewishly to great effect in The Merchant of Venice, as Nirenberg illustrates.) A miserly Christian might be said to be acting Jewish. The same goes for too literal a poet, too usurious a banker, too clever a lawyer, or too legalistic a theologian.

And what about too tribal an American? Will our new, high-stakes conversation about tribalism be framed in terms of Jewish clannishness versus Christian universality? Do “figures of Judaism” still haunt us?

How could they not? We all do most of our thinking and arguing with inherited concepts. Antisemitism has become taboo in America, thankfully. But people never stopped thinking about morality in terms that were originally developed as contrasts to Jewishness. They just kept the old definitions of evil and took off the explicit Jewish label.

So it’s no indictment of modern Americans’ intentions to say that “figures of Judaism” are everywhere, albeit in disguise. Countless people rely on these concepts who have nothing but warm feelings for real Jews. (Countless Jews unwittingly rely on them too.) Left-leaning American discourse will tell you that universal morality is always superior to anything particularistic, which is why nationalism and patriotism are vulgar and immoral. (The State of Israel, of course, is the far Left’s ultimate example of evil nationalism.) The Left will tell you that judicial originalists are heartless, legalistic Pharisees, and that Wall Street bankers and corporate lobbyists are money-changers who should be thrown out of the Temple. Meanwhile, on the Right, you can look past the obvious Nazis tweeting gas chamber photos. Look even at some of the State of Israel’s most sincere Right-leaning defenders: you’ll still find an exaggerated hatred of lawyers (legalistic and clever); of bankers (greedy and exploitative); of intellectuals and journalists (turning words against common sense); and of city-dwellers (as contrasted with “honest” rural folk who do “real” work).

These favorite tropes of both political sides weren’t invented yesterday. They have history, and, eventually, they have consequences.

Again let me emphasize that a person isn’t an “antisemite” for thinking along these lines. The anti-Jewish origins of these ideas are obscure even to those who repeat them, and the ugly undertones are subtle and almost always unintended.

But it still matters, for all of us, that so much of our moral and political vocabulary was created under the assumption that virtue is largely defined as That Which Is the Opposite of Jewish. It matters because Jews are real people, not dragons. If we let these narratives go unquestioned, our growing political tensions will leave Jews uniquely vulnerable as targets for the angriest people on all sides at once.

And it matters because these conversations about nationalism, tribalism, immigration, and globalization are enormously important, and demand to be considered with wisdom and clarity. If modern societies rely on a lazy, subconscious heuristic of Jewishness instead of real discernment in shaping a new story about the rightful place of tribes and nations in human life, it won’t only be Jews who pay the price.

About the Author
Seth Chalmer is a writer and Jewish communal professional living in the Bronx, New York with his wife and daughters. A native of Vermont and a graduate of NYU's Wagner-Skirball dual Masters program in Nonprofit Management and Judaic Studies, Seth also holds a B.F.A. in Acting, Musical Theatre emphasis. He has written on religion and culture for the LA Times, On Being, First Things, The Jewish Week, eJewish Philanthropy, and the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. His music has been performed at the Shalshelet Music Festival of new Jewish liturgical music. Seth currently works as communications manager for Jewish Funders Network. (His opinions on this blog don't represent his employer.) Past work includes roles as assistant director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive; cultural arts director of the Dayton Jewish Community Center; retention specialist at the Center for Employment Opportunities, where he helped empower people returning home from prison to succeed in careers; and performer in the national stage tour of Sesame Street Live: Elmo's Coloring Book (Oscar the Grouch and Professor Art, 2004-5).
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