The Numbers:13 Project
From the tribe of Asher, Sethur son of Michael. Numbers 13:13
I have many discussions with people of different faith traditions, but the ones that intrigue me the most are those that include other Jews. I am certain that my listening skills have changed during the years that I have immersed myself in interfaith work, but I hear the representations about Jewish concerns very differently these days than when I spent most of my days in a synagogue.
To be succinct, I am much more aware of tribalism.
I could offer all sorts of examples. I am always bemused to hear about Jewish territorial claims in the Middle East (which I support, by the way) being qualitatively different than non-Jewish territorial claims. Usually the Bible, Jewish law and/or historical presence are invoked to distinguish our affirmations from those who appeal to different scriptures, codes or narratives.
Then there are those who insist that Jewish identity is qualitatively different from other faith-based identities because “we are a way of life, not a religion” or “we are a people, not a faith.”
And then there are some who sneak their pride of accomplishment into conversations by mentioning the number of Jewish Nobel prize laureates, philanthropists or humanitarians, generally understood to be disproportionate to the rest of the sub-groups of the human family.
Of course, few of the speakers draw on personal experience as they do not live in the aforementioned territory, practice the way of life or have been awarded the Nobel Prize. I do not dismiss their pride or even their perspective, but I have noticed increasingly that the implicit message is “this is what makes us distinct from the rest of you.” Even when it doesn’t and, therefore, we aren’t.
But of all the matters of tribal chauvinism that have become increasingly conspicuous to me is a pride in victimization. Lest I be misunderstood, the scourge of Jew-hatred (mostly known as anti-semitism) is real and demanding of attention from people of good will, Jews or not. But from old to young, I hear a desperation to preserve the distinctiveness of Jewish suffering as if we lose a critical aspect of our identity if an outsider can form empathy with us or expect empathy from us. Sometimes it sounds like it is the only unifying aspect of our tribal identity.
That’s really harsh, isn’t it? But I share two examples that cause me to think about it as I see the word “tribe” in the verse above, which appears twelve times in the surrounding twelve verses.
The first involves the choice of words by a very public figure to describe a very public tragedy. A Member of Congress, controversially outspoken, used the term “concentration camps” to describe the facilities in which children who crossed the southern border of the United States illegally are being held, separated from their families. I could have predicted that the conversation would focus on her choice of descriptor rather than the disturbing, even criminal situation she condemned. (And let’s make clear: the term was not used in any complimentary sense, nor was it used to imply that Jews were somehow responsible for the policy.)
The umbrage that erupted from mostly Jews was extraordinary. I can’t say if it had anything to do with the speaker’s politics or ethnic identity or confrontational style. But some version of “how dare she” seemed to be on so many people’s lips you would think that she was a Holocaust denier. I had to laugh when I read an acquaintance of mine declare that if she had never visited a concentration camp, she had no business invoking the image. (That person has been an acquaintance of mine for more than fifty years and invoked the image multiple times before setting foot in Europe.)
The second was even more disturbing. In a private meeting with members of another faith group, the term “anti-semitism” was bandied about to describe any perceived prejudice toward Jews. I observed that we needed to be more careful with the term. Aside from the fact that it has historical meaning (it was a political term invented in the late 19th century), “anti-semitism” carries with it thousands of years of anti-Jewish bigotry and oppression and the murders of six million Jews. There is no such thing as acceptable bigotry, but there is such a thing as overstating intent or impact of a choice of language or action.
A member of my tribe – and a much younger one at that – pushed back on my point. She claimed that she wanted to preserve the distinctiveness of prejudice toward Jews to remind anyone who practiced any form of it that they were part of a long history of oppression. It is important to call it “anti-semitism,” she suggested, precisely because of that history.
I did not pursue the matter at the time by asking about terms like racism, sexism, homophobia or other words that describe a range of behaviors that exist on a continuum from insensitive to criminal. But I did say to myself, “Wow, do I feel sorry for her.” Her tribal identity may include a sense of geography, religious practice or personal heroes, but it seems to be defined by the perpetuity of hatred.
I have performed no studies on this subject. Like most everyone, I am an observer of anecdotal evidence. It allows me to hope that I am wrong. But I worry that I am right. I have no desire to define my tribe by its disregard for those who are not members.