This piece is published at Tablet Magazine.
What’s needed is more tribalism, not less
Among the responses in Israel to the Paris Terror Attacks, there has emerged a divide that deserves attention. Depending on where you spend your political time, one or the other response will appear predictable (and lamentable).
First, there are the self-referential Zionists who think, as they did after the attacks of Sept. 11 and the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and so many other moments: “Now, maybe they’ll understand our plight, and realize we have the same enemies,” and “We Israelis have a lot to teach you.” Their battle-hardened cousins further to the right reply, “Don’t bother trying, they’re all anti-Semitic and judge us by a double standard” or even “The West deserves what they’re getting, as a punishment for their hypocrisy.”
On the other hand, we have those who see this entire range of responses as distasteful, to say the least. Instead, they urge an expression of sympathy and solidarity unclouded by words of reproach, by displaying the French flag online as a way to declare #JeSuisFrançais. It’s really not cool for Israelis to complain about a double standard at a time like this, they scold. It’s not about us—it’s about France. As for those people, like the prime minister, who compare ISIS to Palestinian terrorists, they are engaging in a low form of propaganda, trying to use the victims of other wars in other places to wash away the sins of Israeli occupation.
In a deeply disturbing and repeating 21st-century, paradox, however, the approach of Israel’s generous and selfless ones has worked to the benefit of most regressive forces on the planet—while on the contrary, the voice that awakening Europe needs most to heed in the current crisis is that of those self-centered Israelis who relate European woes to their own pain. The failure to understand this paradox explains both why Western elites are so poor at resisting global jihad, and why, for a disaffected youth—Muslim by birth or by choice—it makes sense to join that jihad. Indeed, this split in Israeli discourse about the Paris attacks illustrates the disproportionate impact of a peculiar Jewish dispute on the current cognitive disorientation of the West.
But first, let’s explain our terms. Let’s call the first response the tribalist approach. It is centered on the self, preoccupied with defending family, clan, group; suspicious by default of others, especially of strangers; and easily rendered defensive by threatening behavior. Tribalists think in terms of “us vs. them”; they treat “their own” differently from others, and when they feel sufficiently threatened, they will lash out. They think of their own pain and feel anger at hypocrisy (in this case against the French for their 15-year-long indifference to the pain of their Jews). This mindset historically favors vengeful attitudes—“they deserve it”—and rough justice.
Politically, these folks appear on the “right” of our spectrum, and they remind us of historical periods when people with power lacked empathy and used it cruelly, a political culture of rule or be ruled, that democracies hope to have outgrown. Tribalists are the zero-sum folks: “I only win if they lose,” and, “they only understand force.” Like Huntington, one of their intellectual heroes, these tribalists tend to lookfor enemies. They find reasons to be belligerent, to provoke war, they “invent the enemy.”
Let’s call the second response the universalist: considerate of others, self-abnegating: “This is not about Israel.” These are the positive-sum folks, the ones who make friends, who build on trust, who come up with mutually beneficial projects from which everyone profits, who look for the voluntary win-win rather than the coercedwin-lose. They reject the selfish me first, the invidious us-them, the tribal my side right or wrong.
These folks appear on the “left” of our political spectrum. They empathize with the “other” and embrace diversity. They can and want to trust. In renouncing the win-lose, they become capable of granting dignity and freedom to others—the fundamental social contract of a successful egalitarian culture. They imagine themselves as inhabitants of a future diverse, civil, and peaceful global community, where racism and xenophobia are no more.
This dichotomy between tribal and universal sheds light on the current paradoxical situation in Europe, where the most extraordinary cognitive disarray rules. Specifically, when it comes to judging Israel’s conflict with its neighbors, Europeans have inverted vision. And the ensuing radical cognitive disorientation contributes to a fatal misreading of the forces Europeans themselves face.
By and large, the European elites—journalists, academics, policy pundits, political class—are members of the universalist camp. In their reading, Israelis are the zero-sum players. They deserve the hostility of their neighbors; they have brought uponthemselves the suicide bombings, the intifadas, and the deep hatreds. They have done so with their settlements and occupation and humiliating checkpoints and periodic bombing raids that kill hundreds of children and thousands of innocent civilians.