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Michael Oren
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Why tribes?

One can almost imagine a modern shibboleth test in which we are stopped and asked, 'judicial reform' or 'judicial coup'?
Demonstrators argue with ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest march in Bnei Brak against funding to ultra-Orthodox parties in the state budget, on May 17, 2023. (Flash90)
Demonstrators argue with ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest march in Bnei Brak against funding to ultra-Orthodox parties in the state budget, on May 17, 2023. (Flash90)

“We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass,” declared the just-inaugurated President Barack Obama in January 2009, “that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve.” I remember listening to those words and thinking, Why tribes? Surely, of all the schisms dividing the American public, why were tribes singled out for censure? 

The questions would reoccur to me over the following years each time the president returned to his anti-tribal theme. I lacked an answer, though, until I met a Native American chief. We were both attending a pro-Israel event sponsored by Evangelical groups. A towering man, 6-foot-6 at least, in Western garb and braided hair, the chief was also a pastor. He seemed the perfect person to ask about the president’s problem with tribes.

“What the president doesn’t understand is that the tribe is the messenger,” the chief softly replied, and then, smiling, he explained, “Without the messenger, there is no message.” 

I’ve thought about his response over the years and wondered whether the Gospel’s choice of twelve apostles – echoing the number of our Biblical tribes – was intentional. How better, the chief would say, to spread the Good News? 

I thought about the chief’s words again last Shabbat while reading Parashat Pinchas. Much of the text in this Torah portion is devoted to a census of the tribes – bad news here: the numbers shrunk – and their apportionment of the Land of Israel according to size and lottery. It all seems pretty fair unless one asks the same question I raised in 2009, “Why tribes?” Why, after surviving the Exodus, the crossing of the sea, and forty years in an often-hostile wilderness, are the Children of Israel still divided tribally? What happened to the single people repeatedly mentioned in Moses’s demand, “Let my people go?” If all those experiences, capped by the giving of the law, won’t forge a united nation, what could?

Much more was needed, clearly. No sooner did the Children of Israel get the green light to enter the Land, when two of the tribes – Reuben and Gad plus half of Manasseh – refused to go. Throughout the following centuries, our tribes proved to be a frequent source of internal friction, even bloodshed

A testament to that violence exists in one of the few Hebrew words to enter the English language, shibboleth. Defined as “a custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to…a particular social class” – think MAGA – shibboleth in Hebrew means ‘ear of grain.’ But in the Book of Judges, 12:1-15, the word presages its English usage when it’s employed by the Gileadites to expose their Ephramite enemies escaping across the Jordan. 

When those Ephraimites who escaped said, ‘Let me go over, the men of Gilead said to him, are you an Ephraimite? If he said no, they said to him, ‘Say now Shibboleth,’ and he said Sibboleth, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him at the passages of Jordan. There fell forty-two thousand men.

Almost four hundred years later, in 975 BCE, tribalism would tear the House of Israel apart. An argument over taxes spurred the ten northern tribes, together with part of Benjamin, to secede from the Judean kingdom and declare their own, Israel. Conquered by the Assyrians in 721, the inhabitants of Israel were banished from their homeland with their ultimate whereabouts unknown. Native Americans, the Māori in New Zealand, the South African Lembra, the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, and even the Japanese and the British – are just some of the peoples who claim descent from those lost ten tribes. 

The waning of our tribal identity did not, however, relieve us of inter-Jewish strife. That was demonstrated tragically during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, a national trauma that we are still mourning this month. Even as the legions were ramming down the city’s walls, the Jews inside were busy murdering one another. Great suffering would have to be endured, exile, oppression, and massacre before we Jews could define ourselves as MOTs – members not of multiple tribes but of one.

The founding of the State of Israel seemed to signify an end to tribalism. Jews from seventy different nations, scarcely sharing a common culture and language, were ingathered into our homeland and declared citizens of the state. All carried the same passport, saluted the same flag, and chatted in colloquial Hebrew. A Jewish army, united for the first time since the Maccabees, fought off external enemies. The legacy of Issachar, Zebulon, Naftali, and Asher, together with most other tribes, were relegated to decorations on synagogue walls and windows. 

Or so we thought. “Israeli society has become divided between four tribes,” declared then-President Reuven Rivlin in June 2015. He listed them as secular Jews, national religious Orthodox Jews, ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews, and Arabs. Between those tribes, Rivlin warned, there existed rising levels of “tension, fear, and hostility,” and far from a shared sense of destiny. Even the IDF was losing its historic melting pot role, conscripting less than half the population. The answer, he posited, was a
New Israeli Order that abandoned the old majority-minority relationship in favor of a partnership based on security, joint responsibility, equality, and the creation of a unified Israeli identity.

Rivlin’s jeremiad made waves but unfortunately little else. The eight years since have witnessed a wider and deeper fragmentation of Israeli society. Many secular Jews vehemently oppose the government’s proposed judicial reforms while others no less ardently support them. Religious national Jews are divided between those who back the radically anti-Arab policies of ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir and those who are revolted by them. Even the Arabs have broken down into sub-tribes that either continue to reject the Jewish State or express a willingness to reconcile with it, between modernists and Islamists, between those who oppose an expanded police presence in Arab communities and those who demand it. 

Today, perhaps no less than 3,000 years ago, the specter of inter-tribal violence looms ominously over Israel. Shibboleths – in the English sense – are again rife. One could almost imagine being stopped by guards at the B’not Yaakov bridge over the Jordan and being asked, “judicial reform” or “judicial coup?”

Which brings us back to Parshat Pinchas and to the question “why tribes?” A good Jewish answer I’ve heard is that our separation into tribes reflected the human reality of diversity. We are, in fact, inherently, perpetually, different. The challenge posed to the Children of Israel was to overcome those distinctions and strive for the oneness – and the holiness – of peoplehood. And to help us achieve that goal, G-d gave us a common faith, a common law, and (various pronunciations aside) language. These, vastly more than tribes, have sustained us for millennia.

A message for the world

This is the challenge for us today, to acknowledge the persistence of divisions among us and to find common ground between them. Often, this will involve communicating with people whose positions we find repugnant, even dangerous, and yet the lines must remain open. As with any conversation, boundaries must be established and violence under any circumstances ruled out, but the discussion must begin. It can be conducted under the aegis of our president or through the good offices of NGOs, and declared open to all who are willing to talk. 

We in Israel still have a message for the world – of reconciliation between modernity and tradition, East and West, and democracy with national defense. To deliver it, though, we must transcend our divisions. However tribal, we must act as unified messengers.

About the Author
Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset Member, and Deputy Minister for Diplomacy, is the founder of the Israel Advocacy Group and the Substack, Clarity.
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