Circling the Wagons: When Tribalism and Social Change Collide

By Ariella Sidelsky, New Israel Fund, Director of Strategic Partnerships

Three weeks ago, New Israel Fund (NIF) took out ads in the New York Times and the Forward, as part of a million dollar matching gift campaign funded by a longtime donor. The ads featured a news photo of a billboard in Jerusalem: a poster of a woman that had been defaced by ultra-Orthodox residents, and the words “What happens when extremism crowds our equality and democracy in Israel.” The campaign met with overwhelmingly positive responses, but there were also several irate ones. Nobody argued with the accuracy and importance of the problems the ad raised; at issue was the venue, a non-Jewish (and at least to some minds, anti-Israel) publication. One response posted on our Facebook page read: “On Erev Yom HaShoah, this is the image that the New Israel Fund wishes to convey to the American public about Israel?!” In short, what is known in Jewish-American as “a shanda before the goyim.”

We have, I think, some pretty solid responses. Pragmatically speaking, where else would we reach a mass audience of liberal Jews? (With all due respect to the venerable Forward, the Times’ Jewish readership is somewhat larger.) Secondly, in the current age of Wikileaks, investigative, and digital journalism, the truth will out, and furthermore, in the words of one august American Zionist, sunlight is the best purifier. And – something I deeply believe – the ability to critique is to the credit of the American Jewish community and of Israel; this is – in the words of one donor – a sign of strength and an engaged civil society that is seeking to highlight problems and address them.

But a question in my mind remains: why did this trigger some people and not others? We all know that we react differently to the same content in different contexts. Even though I spend most of my waking hours delving into areas in Israel that leave room for improvement, my responses to different people pointing out my country’s flaws can vary wildly based on identity, context, and other factors. Alex, a friend and conflict mediation expert, explained it to me in simple terms of tribalism: we critique and diverge within, but when attacked by an “outsider,” instinctively and automatically shift to circling the wagons. (To think of this in closer-to-home terms, think of how you can respond to a non-family member criticizing the very same parent/sibling you constantly complain about.) This is such a primal instinct that the prefrontal cortex – home of executive functions – is overridden, and the amygdala, or primitive brain, kicks in.

So what differentiates those negatively triggered by the ad from those who welcomed it? Perhaps one key difference is a perception of Jews – and by extension, for this purpose, Israel – as a powerless minority group, as opposed to one possessing power and, in the case of Israel, sovereignty. For the former, the fear – as evidenced by the Facebook comment – is not only of having the tribe shamed in public, but of stoking the fires of anti-Semitic hatred. For the latter, perhaps the overriding fear is of misusing our power and authority; thus, finding common cause for change is the higher priority. And as social justice activists, often seeking to challenge the status quo, we know that sunlight is the best purifier, and that to create change we must speak truth not only to power but sometimes to those who feel disempowered. Another element may be the ever-evolving nature of collective identity or tribe. Perhaps for some the primary division is along ethnic lines, whereas for others it may expand to values, social/political leanings and cultural affiliations (i.e. as – lets say – I can also belong to the same tribe as the non-Jewish liberal democratic, civil rights supporting aficionado of foreign films).

All this is of course conjecture. And it doesn’t get us much closer to figuring out whether there are better ways of overriding the tribal instinct to reach those higher functions. (The above-mentioned Alex’s response to this question was an unambiguous no. The primal instinct to protect the tribe is apparently so hard-wired that no rephrasing would prevent the triggering.) Siach community – your thoughts and insights?

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