Avi Rockoff

Memo from a Member of a Tribe

“Netanyahu won,” he says.  “Now he’ll annex the whole West Bank.  About time too.”

You have already formed a clear picture of the speaker, positive or negative according to your political views.  But wait.

“I lived under Jordanian rule for twenty years,” he goes on.  “Nobody ever cared about Palestine then.  Now that the Israelis have built something, they want it.”

I will call the speaker Vartan.  He is Armenian, born in Jerusalem’s Old City in 1945.   He moved to America as a young man “when tourism dried up and I could not make a living.”  Vartan has done well in America.  He often travels to Colorado to visit his daughter and grandchildren.

You may think I am trying to make a political point, but I am not.  Benjamin Netanyahu is (for now) Israel’s prime minister, not mine.  I offer no public opinions about the political choices Israelis make.  They will live with the consequences of their choices.  Some of my children and grandchildren will, but I likely will not.

I am instead making a human point.  But first I need to introduce you to Hisham.  Hisham has a medical problem.

During a pause in the doctor talk, Hisham’s father Elias sees my kippa and asks, hopefully, “Are you Israeli?”

I tell him I am not.  But surely, given my headgear, I must be connected with Israel, yes?

Elias says, “I fought with the Israelis in 1982.”

Hisham groans with his eyes, the way adolescents do when their parent is about to humiliate them, again.

“Let me show you a picture,” says Elias, scrolling through the photos on his phone.

Poor Hisham.  If he could teleport himself to Mount Lebanon, my exam table would already be empty.

Elias finds the photo and proudly hands me his phone.  It shows a younger version of himself, in green army fatigues.

“That is me in an Israeli uniform,” he says.  “We trained in the Negev.”   His eyes shine.  It is hard not to be touched.  He is sharing one of the proudest moments of his life, one he relives whenever he finds someone he thinks might appreciate it.

What is my point?  That Israel’s 1982 Lebanese incursion was a wonderful idea?  That Netanyahu should annex the West Bank tomorrow afternoon?  As I already said, those are assessments and political choices for Israelis to make, on which I take no public position.  Taking a political position implies, or should imply, being prepared to live with the consequences of taking it.

My point is this:

Both Vartan and Elias have “religious affiliations.” Vartan is Armenian Apostolic, Elias is Maronite Christian.  But their “religion”—what they profess to believe—is not the core of their identity.  Rather, they are members of tribes: the Armenians and the Maronites.  Tribes tell stories: of friends who supported them, of enemies who did them harm.  Tribe members support their friends and dislike, or revile, their enemies.  When safe among familiars, or in neutral territory with a fellow whose skullcap suggests he’ll see things their way, they share their opinions with no apology.

The world is full of such tribes.  Read the papers.  For a mana rishona, read about the Cameroon Anglophones, a minority whose plight may have escaped your notice.  For their English-speaking sins, their French-speaking rulers forbid them to leave the country.  Now and then they shoot English speakers in the street.  This minority’s fault lies not in their syntax but in themselves: being part of a poor and marginal tribe without power or influential friends.  Rather like the Jews before the State of Israel was founded.

American Jews are also a tribe, but a tribe with an asterisk.  They may call themselves “Members of the Tribe,” but they do it with an ironic wink or an embarrassed shrug.  Being a member of an actual tribe is so damnably particular.  Aren’t we Jews, champion outsiders, supposed to take a broader, universal view?

Maybe so, but which vantage you take that position from makes a difference.  Whether, for instance, you send your children to the Israeli army, or find yourself on the potential receiving end of missiles launched by other tribes unburdened by universalist scruples.

I heard a radio discussion the other day between an American grandfather, a lifelong Zionist who remembers what the establishment of the State of Israel meant to Jews worldwide, especially those who were “stateless,” and his granddaughter, active in IfNotNow, a group dedicated to “ending the Occupation.”  The young woman respects her grandpa, but as far as she is concerned, the Occupation is a moral disaster and a violation of the “true spirit of Judaism.”

Ah, youth: when you grasp profundities like the true spirit of Judaism. I’m still working on that, but then I am old. I suffer from too much long-term memory.

Never mind that; my reaction to her goes beyond wincing at sanctimony.  Maybe the Occupation is troubling, even disastrous: practically, humanly, theologically, religiously.  If Israelis lament Lebanon and look with horror at the prospect of West Bank annexation, they have every right to think that way, express their views, and vote accordingly.   I see myself as part of their tribe, supportive and sympatheic, if physically remote.

Yes, I know, it is generational. Young American Jews grow disaffected from the State of Israel because they lack a sense of tribal solidarity, of being part of the Jewish family.  How nice for them.  Their grandparents fled misery for safety and comfort, or didn’t flee and survived hell, or were carted off and murdered, so they could join groups like IfNotNow or BDS and dispense moral advice to their own, while giving aid and comfort to sworn enemies of our tribe who wish us — and the State that represents us — nothing but existential harm, who want not a better Israel but no Israel, because even one Jewish state on the planet is too many for them.  And their Jewish colleagues who support such groups do so from a safe distance, putting themselves at no risk, speaking freely while crying in full voice that they are being “silenced.”

To such Jews I say: When you attack my tribe, from within or without, you attack me.  If you do, I offer no conciliation, no offers to engage with or understand your position.  From my vantage, you deserve none of these.

In short, my reply to such coreligionists lacks all nuance and is fully tribal.  And, like those of Vartan and Elias, my opinion comes with no apologies.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliyah with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem. His new book, This Year in Jerusalem: Aliyah Dispatches, has been recently published by Shikey Press.
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