Tribalism vs. Universalism

Moti Rieber is a rabbi, writer and activist based in Overland Park, Kansas. He serves as rabbi of the Lawrence (KS) Jewish Community Congregation.

I’m writing this with a heavy heart, as warfare between Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza has broken out yet again. I believe this is the fourth time since the Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza that hostilities have broken out.

Like many who are concerned about that small piece of land that is home to two peoples, my social media pages have seen a lot of extremely emotional posts about the situation. On one hand are the pro-Israel voices, who essentially say that the Gazans brought this on themselves by electing Hamas and allowing them to shoot rockets into Israel. On the other hand are pro-Palestinian voices, who see this situation as the outcome of 60 years of Israeli occupation and (what they see as) Israel’s refusal to negotiate in good faith toward a peaceful settlement. And there are Jews in both camps.

I think this reflects a tension between two strains within Judaism: tribalism – the communal imperative to privilege Jewish peoplehood and self-defense, particularly defense of Israel and its actions; and univeralism – the call, emanating for the prophetic tradition, to live according to our best values, to treat The Other as we would wish to be treated. For the tribalist, Israel’s actions are necessary self-defense, however unfortunate; for the universalist, Israel’s actions are at best reckless and at worst an abrogation of its, and the Jewish people’s, commitment to be a “light unto the nations.”

The tribalist tends to be the one who holds Jewish identity itself the closest, and who might have been told, “Always keep your passport in order, in case you have to leave suddenly,” who prioritizes Israel as the last refuge of an ever-refugee people. The universalist lives in an America where Jews are not only tolerated, but honored – respected by all, at the top of every field. They can’t imagine a circumstance in which they would ever have to flee, and to them, Israel’s role as potential haven is theoretical at best.

This is an oversimplification, as both tendencies appear in both countries, but we might even say that tribalism is represented by Israel – a fortress mentality focused on self-protection and self-preservation, and universalism is represented by America – where Jews are, and want to be, one people among many.

And for further oversimplification, tribalists tend to be more religious, older, in-married and affiliated with synagogue and Federation, while universalists tend to be more secular, younger, intermarried (or the product of interfaith homes) and unaffiliated. Although we certainly have many people in our LJCC community who value their commitment to Jewish peoplehood, we (I believe) tend to be more universalist – in our commitments, in our beliefs, and in our actions.

I think we’re starting to see the tension between the two tendencies near the breaking point. Tribalists can’t understand why anybody would question Israel taking whatever it believes are the necessary steps to defend its people, and universalists can’t understand how any country – or any religion – could justify some of Israel’s actions, particularly when they result, as they so often do, in civilian casualties.

Worse, we may be entering a situation where Israel’s actions are serving as a deterrent to people being involved in Judaism at all. If Israel represents Judaism, they say, if what it does represents what Judaism means, then count me out.

I look at that with as much heartbreak as I look at the violence in Israel/Palestine. At this point I feel closer to the universalists of other religious traditions than I feel to the tribalists of my own. I don’t want to spend my time defending Israel-right-or-wrong. I want to develop, and represent, and teach, a Judaism that is universal in its commitments, that promotes peace, reconciliation and diversity, a Judaism that is in keeping with what I think are its deepest and best values. A Judaism that calls us to our best selves.

And offer it to whomever wants it.

I hope that includes you.

One Response to “Tribalism vs. Universalism”

  1. Thanks you for this. Well said. I am a secular Jew who is proud of Judaism’s history of support for justice and universal values.


    Marcia Almey · July 23rd, 2014 at 3:25 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik