My sister and I, despite having received the sparsest Jewish education, grew up to be proud Jews, Zionists and indisputably members of the Tribe. These feelings have been heightened by my adult studies of our people’s history, religion, and language, Hebrew.
“Tribal” has become a dirty word lately because of the divisiveness of America’s two political parties. A magazine article even questioned whether our democracy can survive tribalism.
I question whether the Jewish people can survive without it.
Jewish tribalism, as used here, refers to a Biblical concept known in Hebrew as “Am Yisrael,” or “the Jewish people.” It means Jews see themselves as sharing a unique, common heritage. Part of our heritage, originating in the Torah, is the teaching that “All Jews are responsible for one another.”
Indeed, Jews are currently experiencing a moment of tribal solidarity as they march together in support of those under antisemitic attack. So, my timing in writing this may be perceived as churlishly misaligned with the mood of current events. Nevertheless, it is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time–the lack of support, indifference or even antipathy within the Jewish community toward other Jews which no doubt will reemerge when the marches are forgotten.
Sometimes, it seems to me that Jews, especially my own group, progressive Jews, righteously and rightfully ready to raise their voices in defense of other groups, are too often the last people to cry out on behalf of fellow Jews.
I saw this in 2002 when the United States was ignominiously and wantonly bombing Iraq as punishment for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks. My synagogue’s social action committee collected small Red Cross packages for Iraqis. Although I was very sympathetic toward Iraqis, I was also aware that at that very same moment, Israelis were also being ignominiously and wantonly bombed.
My husband and I visited Israel in 2002 as part of a “mission” to try to understand the Palestinian-Israel situation. We participated in workshops and meetings with Israelis and Palestinians. What I remember most about this trip were the explosions which we heard regularly as we traveled. At times our bus had to be re-routed to avoid danger. Some members of our group actually witnessed an explosion in a marketplace.
Throughout Israel, suicide bombers were blowing themselves up in cafes, on buses taking children to school- anywhere they could cause pain and terror. Between 2000 and 2005, terrorist attacks killed more than 1000 Israelis and maimed countless others. There seemed to be no solution to the relentless carnage until Israel built a security wall. The wall successfully reduced the number of attacks by more than 90%.
Meanwhile, back home in America, we were caring about Iraqis but not Israelis. In fact, since most American Jews describe themselves as liberal/progressive, this is not an unusual position. Partly because Jews identify with the underdog and know Israel is strong, we can be less sympathetic to Israeli suffering than we are to those seen as somehow more deserving of our tender mercies.
We seem to forget that Israel’s power doesn’t render her people’s suffering any less painful than anyone else’s.
“An attack on one Jew, is an attack on all Jews,” said former New York State assemblyman, Dov Hikind, in a tweet. This was in response to the current rash of seemingly ceaseless assaults on Jews in Monsey, Pittsburg, Brooklyn, and Europe.
But what about the attacks on Israel? Just this summer, just a few weeks ago, just before that and before that, Israelis were being forced into bomb shelters by missiles from Gaza that reached as far as Tel Aviv. The Israeli border city, Sderot, had to build underground kindergartens because of merciless shelling from Gaza by Hamas and its affiliates. Whole generations of children are growing up with PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But the trauma is not “post.” The bombarding is both continual and unpredictable and so is the trauma.
This is how one man describes his life in Sderot:
“You walk towards your home. Perhaps you are coming home from work. Perhaps school… As you walk home, you suddenly hear a siren. A siren you’ve learned to consider routine.
You don’t think. You run.
You have twenty seconds.
Luckily, a shelter happens to be across the street. Within seconds you are there, surrounded by your community. Children are screaming. Women are crying. Men are crying.
You hear a whistling sound. A deafening explosion. The entire shelter shakes.
Slowly, people calm down. Slowly, people come out of their shelter. Slowly, they look around for the destruction. They try to forget what just happened. Until the next time.
Welcome to your life. A life between Eden and Hell.
Welcome to Sderot.”
For this man, this member of my tribe, and for all of us, I risk being a Jeremiah.
If the Jews in America don’t cry out on behalf of the Jews in Israel, what will become of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, the Tribe?
Jews are the only ancient people known to have survived as an entity throughout successive conquests by other nations and thousands of years of stateless exile. Some of this is due to Jews’ well-honed ability to retain their character as a separate group while managing to exist, sometimes barely, among hostile strangers. In this, the lion’s share of credit is probably owed to Jewish adherence to religious practices such as keeping the Sabbath, reading the Torah and following its laws. For such faithfulness to their own beliefs, Jews have endured persecution and worse.
But another factor in Jewish survival has been the tribal identity shared by Jewish communities throughout the world. “All Jews are responsible for one another.” This meant that Jews in the Middle Ages fleeing the Inquisition in Spain were able to find homes amid the Jewish community in Amsterdam. More recently, that same sense of connection and responsibility was brandished by united American Jews to force the Soviet Union to release its Jewish population. It also motivated Israelis to airlift more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to a new life in Israel in a single weekend.
I heard an Israeli woman on television ask, “Why does the American press not cover these attacks on Israel? Answering her own question, she said, 40,000 rockets and missiles have struck the country so it’s no longer “news.”
But shouldn’t it be news, at least to American Jews? Aren’t we still our brother’s keepers? Aren’t we still members of the same Tribe?
References upon request.