The Sad Descent From ‘Members Of The Tribe’ To Tribalism


Andrew Sullivan’s disturbingly insightful essay in New York Magazine on how America has become a tribal society in recent years (“America Wasn’t Built For Humans,” Sept. 19) describes two distinct segments “fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other.” I realized while reading it that one could just as well substitute “Jewish community” for “America” and his thesis would still ring true.

Of the two tribes Sullivan writes about, one is mostly white, living in rural areas, clinging to religious faith, strongly nationalist and voting Republican, and the other is made up of racial minorities and white liberals mostly found in urban areas on the two coasts, primarily secular, with a global outlook and voting Democratic. The gap between the two is widening as is the intensity of their contempt for each other, he asserts.

Much of Sullivan’s essay describes how the common bonds that held American society together have frayed, as evidenced by the collapse of bipartisanship in Washington, replaced by a zero-sum political climate where the parties try to negate the legislation passed by their opponents.

He also explains how “immersion in tribal loyalty makes the activities of another tribe not just alien but close to incomprehensible,” with tribalists responding to criticism not by reflecting on one’s “own actions or assumptions but instantly point[ing] to the same flaw in his [or her] enemy.”

The Jewish community, mirroring the larger society, has been plagued by the same kind of toxic divisions over religious and political issues, spilling over to attitudes toward the government in Jerusalem and, more recently, Donald Trump. On one side are the older, politically conservative and often religiously observant Jews, on the other is the majority Jewish population of younger and less observant and secular Jews who are political liberals.

The latter group, believed to be as much as 90 percent of the Jewish community, lists social justice, abortion access, gay marriage, universal healthcare, gun control and public school education as key issues for them. Some have described Reform temples as “the Democratic Party at prayer.”

The more politically conservative Jews care deeply about tuition credits to offset the high cost of a day school education, and support a government in Jerusalem that many of their fellow Jews fear has too little respect for democratic principles, and leans too far to the right in the sway of the religious parties and Jews living in West Bank communities.

Readers of The Jewish Week no doubt see Letters to the Editor that all too often characterize adherents of opposing religious streams as either too parochial or porously inauthentic. In our most recent issue, letter-writers wondered why Reform Jews care about praying at the Western Wall since the movement’s liturgy doesn’t call for the return of animal sacrifices. And we receive a steady dose of letters accusing Orthodox Jews of clannishness and unethical behavior, applying negative stereotypes to “the Orthodox” (as if they were a unified movement), who are portrayed as intolerant and discriminatory for adhering to fundamental religious beliefs, including the separation of sexes in religious roles or opposition to interfaith marriages.

(The dilemma for an editor is whether to publish letters expressing various forms of bias against fellow Jews. Should such letters be published, disturbing as they are, because they reflect common sentiment, or should offensive letters simply be tossed?)

Clearly, the lines are drawn between our two Jewish tribes, and civility has long been abandoned. The Iran nuclear deal two years ago exposed a new level of vitriol in our community, each side accusing the other of hastening Israel’s demise. The higher the stakes, the nastier the behavior. The goal is no longer to persuade the other side, but to marginalize, if not demonize, one’s fellow Jews.

Blogs and online comments allow for hateful bile to reach countless readers. And people seem increasingly eager to join the fray. Just this week, JTA reported on a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta who felt the need to apologize to his congregants for a Rosh HaShanah sermon that some said was too critical of the political left. Rabbi Shalom Lewis’ talk called out the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ rights movement for their pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel elements. Rabbi Lewis told JTA he stood by his remarks — “as Americans and Jews, we must pick sides,” he said — but regretted that he had not made clear he was referring specifically to the radical left.

In much of the Orthodox community, this story would only be newsworthy if congregants complained that their rabbis’ sermons didn’t slam these movements.

The fact that a vocal minority of fervently pro-Israel Jews, many of them observant, view even domestic politics through the lens of support for Israel explains why they support Trump’s presidency in such high numbers. For them, Trump is, most importantly, not Obama. He shows empathy and support for the Israeli government and prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that Obama often clashed with, and he has cast Iran, once more, in the role of evil antagonist to be confronted, not wooed.

Liberal Jews, by contrast, are among Trump’s biggest critics, focusing on his boorish behavior, narcissism, nationalism and penchant for telling lies.

No community is as divided over Trump as ours.

Particularly disturbing is that Israel, once the great connector among American Jews, has become the great divider, and a community obsessed with its shrinking numbers seems all too ready to jettison those among us with whom we disagree.

The two extremes of our community are growing — the unaffiliated and the ultra-Orthodox — while the center is aging. It’s hard to see where common ground is when we can’t agree on “who is a Jew?” And there are major divisions on the most basic of values: Democratic principles vs. authoritarian ones; religious pluralism vs. religious coercion; and Israel existentially threatened or powerful enough to make compromises. Even something as sacrosanct as anti-Semitism has become politicized and weaponized.

We often like to think of ourselves as “members of the tribe,” but our troublesome tribal instincts are eating us up from within. And we fall victim to the same kind of refusal to accept a cogent argument — if it comes from “the other side” — that is eroding societal bonds around the country.

For example, when I recommended the Andrew Sullivan essay to a friend, his first response was to point out that the author, once a strong proponent of Israel, has become an outspoken critic of the Jewish state.

“I wouldn’t read anything that guy wrote,” my friend said, effectively proving Sullivan’s most basic point.

When will we stop beating each other up long enough to listen to what our adversaries/fellow Jews have to say?


was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at