The lost tribe of America

My post about Michael Oren and American Jews last week brought many comments and emails. Some liked it, but the ones that didn’t either didn’t like my tone (“bitter, negative, polarized”) or felt that I was being unfair to those who did continue to support Israel.

I’m sorry about the tone, but I can’t pretend I don’t feel strongly about this. While I’m not happy that otherwise nice Scandinavians don’t support us, it hurts much more when unfair criticism comes from our own people. And I should note that there are some American Jews that really do care about Israel, who work hard to counteract anti-Israel propaganda and to inform and influence policymakers about issues that are critical for us. But they are a minority.

There were several things that came between me and much of the US Jewish community. In short, I think my problems with Jews are symptomatic of a major change that has happened on the left side of American politics in the past two decades or so: the replacement of liberalism by what is called ‘progressivism’, but is really a doctrinaire leftism that incorporates elements of the so-called “post-modern/post-colonial” worldview. Jews, as is ever so, are in the vanguard of this movement, and it is these Jews with whom I came into conflict.

I admit to having strong opinions about some things that go against the ‘progressive’ narrative about Israel: I think Israel needs to hold on to Judea and Samaria for security reasons, because it is the spiritual and historical heartland of the Jewish people, and because we are wholly justified in this by international law. I think that the problem that the Arabs refuse to accept a Jewish presence between the river and the sea needs a solution, but that it won’t be found by expelling Jews. It’s an Arab problem, not a Jewish one.

So if this position puts me out of the mainstream, I can understand that not everyone agrees with me. What I found hard to accept was that they refused even to listen. Again, there were exceptions, but in so many cases the response was not to dispute or debate me but to try to shut me up. That was problem one.

Problem two was Barack Obama.

Almost immediately after his inauguration, when President Obama made the notorious speech in Cairo that explicitly validated the Palestinian historical narrative, I realized that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we were not in Kansas anymore. This was not the pragmatism of Bill Clinton or the liberalism of Lyndon Johnson or Adlai Stevenson; instead, there were echoes of Edward Said. And as Obama’s contempt for our state and our Prime Minister became clearer and his Mideast policies worse, I became more and more critical.

But most progressive Jews, many of whom had worked in his campaign, didn’t want to hear anything negative about “their President.” Especially in social media, reactions to criticism of administration policies were vicious, often including accusations of racism. The discussion ended once the question of Obama or his policies came up.

It wasn’t that we disagreed; it was that no communication was possible.

I don’t expect them to pop out of their mother’s wombs quoting Jabotinsky because of their Jewish DNA. But this wasn’t just a political disagreement. We were starting from wholly different premises, living inside different conceptual schemes.

There is a certain minimum degree of – dare I say it? – tribal attachment that traditionally characterized Jews. It’s a starting point for discussion. And they don’t have it.

A person with a tribal attachment would at least listen to a pro-Israel view because it would be important to them. He or she would be open to talk about the idea of Jewish peoplehood, the idea that there is value in the preservation of a distinct Jewish people, and that a Jewish state may be essential to it and be worth defending.

This attachment has all but disappeared among liberal or ‘progressive’ Jews. And I blame the doctrinaire leftism I mentioned above. It is responsible for both the demise of Jewish tribalism, and the obsession with race that has seized left-of-center dialogue today.

A basic principle of this ideology is that there are oppressed groups and oppressors (often called ‘people of color’ and ‘whites’). The greatest sin is racism, which is the mistreatment of people of color by whites. This actually has little or nothing to do with race: Jews are considered white, while Arabs, their genetic cousins, are ‘people of color’. Any criticism of a person of color by a white is suspect, which explains the sensitivity to my objections to Obama Administration policies.

It is seen as a form of racism for whites to behave tribally to any extent, although people of color are permitted to do so (thus Israel is described as an ‘apartheid state’, while the insistence of Mahmoud Abbas on a racially pure ‘Palestine’ is considered unexceptional). Jewish protesters who said the mourner’s kaddish for Palestinian victims of one of the Gaza wars did it to embarrass those of us who (tribally) care more for our own than for our enemies. Can you imagine Arabs mourning dead IDF soldiers?

Liberal American Jews have taken this to heart. Their tribalism has been stamped out. They are embarrassed to feel that there is anything special or worth preserving about Jewish peoplehood. They like Jewish food, Jewish summer camp, Jewish music, etc. But they don’t see themselves as part of a people, a distinct unit with a connection to biblical times. They have been taught that there’s something ugly, even racist, about this idea.

As a result, the best that can be expected from them is indifference, and the worst the wholesale acceptance of the Israel-as-colonial-oppressor narrative. As one of my correspondents said, “Israel is just another foreign country to them.” And it is frustrating to tribal people like Oren and myself when they just don’t care. But why should we expect them to?

Nevertheless, the tribal feeling exists elsewhere. Most Israelis, religious or secular, feel it, and most observant Jews anywhere feel it. Michael Oren obviously does. Unless carried to extremes, it is a positive force. It is what built the Jewish state, and will guarantee its continued existence. Who volunteers for a combat unit in the IDF because they see themselves as citizens of the world?

Tribalism may be out of fashion, but it may also be necessary for our collective survival. Since Korach, Jews have been easy prey to seduction by the Left. Will American Jewry suffer the same fate as Korach?

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5 Responses to The lost tribe of America

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is the best analysis I have seen of this question. It confirms many of my own perceptions but goes well beyond them in its depth of understanding.
    The sense of belonging to a people, to having special connection with a certain group of people is in some sense an extension of ‘family feeling’. The denial of this feeling is part of the essence of ‘progressive Jews’.
    I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that it is far more difficult and even painful to see betrayal of Israel when it comes from those ostensibly ‘one’s own’.
    My small comment here does not do justice to the richness of this particular piece of writing.

  2. shalom-hillel says:

    Some of your respondents thought your tone was bitter? How about this; the Reform Temple I used to attend made me want to puke . The rabbi brought in someone from an organization that gets Birthright participants to go to the West Bank to hear the Palestinian narrative so the young Jews can go back to their college campuses and give the Palestinian side. Really. And then there was the older woman who shared with us that at her interfaith meeting with Muslims and Christians she told them how ashamed she was to be Jewish because of Israel. Try to explain to them about the security situation and why Israel must remain in the West Bank and they don’t want to listen. Apparently they don’t care. And suddenly you become a “bad person” for having such a view. There is a psychological component to this. It’s really not rational, and I know exactly what you mean about a sense of simple attachment to the Jewish people that is lacking . They have been indoctrinated and only listen to views like their own. The ones who disagree do so very quietly, not wanting to be ostracized.

  3. IRAB says:


    G-d Bless you. You stated the essencs of this troubling matter with eloquence. For my money, those people you’ve so masterfully described can take their liberalism and their progressiveness and they can shove it. I’d decided a while back to not waste my time with those types. They are infected, and unfortunately irredeemable. They have made themseves into enemies of the Jewish people. You nailed it. The won’t listen, they try to shut you down. They’ve forfeited the right to be considered as from among the rest of us. In short, to hell with them! There is too much at stake for Israel, and for the rest of us. Let them go live with the Arab/Islamic world.

  4. Olgordo says:

    Of course, we have these “liberal / progressive” idiots here in the UK too, but it is only recently that I’ve come to realise how much larger their tribe is in the US. A former Jewish American friend who had always professed such great love for Israel became an Obama campaign worker and was absolutely furious with me when I dared to suggest that her beloved President was indeed an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people. As IRAB says, to hell with them!

  5. David Rosenberg says:

    JStreet uses the tagline “The Political Home for Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Americans”. JStreet is Pro-Israel in the same way that the Ku Klux Klan is a civil rights group. (The KKK says it is “bringing a message of hope and deliverance to White Christian America” so they must be for someone’s civil rights. JStreet opposes the opinion of most Israelis about how to defend Israel, but if some Israelis agree with JStreet, then JStreet must be pro “a minority of Israelis” even though they are anti the Israeli government and the majority of the Israeli people.) And JStreet is Pro-Peace in the same way that Neville Chamberlain’s shortsighted appeasement brought very temporary peace to Britain (and made WWII worse).

    From the safety of America, JStreet criticizes Israel’s attempts to defend its civilians from terrorism and urges the U.S. to pressure Israel to make more and more concessions to the Arab murderers. But JStreet is silent about the U.S. funding of organizations (such as the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA) who teach anti-Semitism, incite violence against Jews, reward terrorists, honor mass murderers, and are bringing up another generation of children who can’t accept peace with Israel because they are being taught that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist as a Jewish state. JStreet never urges the U.S. to pressure the Arabs to stop their violence against Jews, their holding terrorists up as role models, their paying salaries to convicted murderers of Jews, or raising yet another generation of children who will be unwilling to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors.

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