CONFESSIONS OF A TRIBALIST

Last May, the author Michael Chabon—himself Jewish—told graduating Reform rabbis and educators they needed to help dissolve Judaism. The goal? A world where everyone’s the same. Amy Chua, the Chinese-American Yale law professor, who authored Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, opposes that view. I side with Chua.

In “Tribal World: Group Identity is All” (July/August 2018 Foreign Affairs), Chua writes, “The human instinct to identify with a group is almost certainly hard-wired…” In that context, she faults U.S. policymakers for underestimating “the role that group identification plays in shaping human behavior.” Tribes are for real.

I’m guilty of upholding my Jewish identity. Some friends brought up as “just Americans” have confided they envy my ethnic identity. Granted, many North American Jews exhibit no particular concern for Judaism and Jewish life, as Chabon would have them do.

The Talmud (Shevuot39a) teaches, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.” All Israel [the Jewish people] are responsible each for the other. I take this to heart.

I read baseball box scores each morning and note the performance of each Jewish player. As of yesterday, the Astros’ Alex Bregman—this year’s All-Star Game most valuable player—had 22 homeruns and 71 runs batted in. The Dodgers’ Joc Pederson hit two home runs last night. The Red Sox’ Ian Kinsler  had three hits. The Orioles’ Danny Valencia, a position player, pitched.  When Orioles relief pitcher Richard Blier—having a great year—went out for the season with an injury, that hurt. Basketball’s Omri Casspi signed with Memphis. Hooray!

It’s not just sports. Last Sunday night, Carolyn and I went to the Jewish Film Festival to see a documentary about Sammy Davis, Jr. As my synagogue’s congregation and Israel’s population attest, Jews display a wide variety of genetics and cultural backgrounds. I believe in Am Yisrael Echad—the people Israel is one. We’re universalists despite our particularism.

Am I offending others, such as Whites, Blacks, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Asians, Latinos, Cat Lovers, and Chocaholics? If so, who determines our universalistic identity? Hopefully, no one. I can see the inevitable outcome: Jews forego Chanukah for Christmas to be “like everyone else.”

Yes, tribalism can be toxic. Witness the Greater Middle East and India, for example. Examine Europe: France’s Jews, who suffered during the Holocaust with French complicity, endure violent anti-Semitism, much at the hands of Muslims. European Muslims don’t have it easy, either. A Muslim friend born in England is achieving great success as an actor yet remains wary. Mesut Ozil, five-time German soccer player of the year, left the national team after criticism for posing for a photo with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (admittedly not my favorite political leader).“I’m a German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” wrote Ozil, born in Germany.

The United States offers ample proof that tribalists can be loyal citizens, who take our Constitution and values to heart. The hyphenated American—Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans and so on—helped make this nation great. When the current political idiocy ends, we will continue to do so. The hyphen enables us to bring varied religious and cultural backgrounds to a common table heaped with bagels, ribs, Mongolian beef, tacos, chicken vindaloo—and respect. All enrich the American experience.

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4 Comments


  1. Tracy
    Aug 03, 2018

    Terrific post, David. I’d pick one small nit with the above though. Although “hypenated Americans” include Irish-Americans, Chinese-Americans, African-Americans, etc…we don’t really refer to ourselves as “Jewish-Americans,” or at least I’m unaware of any Jews who do that. We refer to ourselves as “American Jews.” No hyphen. “Jew” being the noun and “American” being the adjective modifying the noun. I believe this is because we think of ourselves as Jews first, Americans second. Again, just my opinion, but I think it reflects that tribalism Ms. Chua is talking about.

    Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.


    • David
      Aug 03, 2018

      Thanks, Tracy. I use the hyphen for Jewish-Americans to make a point. Obviously, had my grandparents gone to Argentina, I’d be Argentine but still Jewish. So, I’m a Jew first because religious/cultural identity transcends geography while not negating citizenship and loyalty to the nation.


  2. David Newman
    Aug 03, 2018

    Actually, Judaism has an answer for the tribalism v. universalism dilemma. We are repeatedly told to treat the stranger (i.e. the non-member of our tribe) as we treat ourselves. A respect for each person — created in God’s image — regardless of his or her tribal identities is the Jewish answer. We can belong to a tribe (or maybe more than one), but still honor that which is universal in all of us.

    Shabbat shalom.


    • David
      Aug 04, 2018

      Absolutely, David. Well said.

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