Tribalism is bad. Sensible people will know what I mean by tribe. It’s not a club based on some common preference like stamp collecting or bowling or cooking. It’s more than that. It involves a judgment-suspending commitment. Nationalism is a good example.
Tribalism is bad because it can erode important social cooperation, which comes in many forms including the division of labor and trade, domestic and foreign. It’s also bad because it encourages people to overlook even the grossest injustice that they would not tolerate if their tribe was on the receiving end.
We lately have witnessed increasing and more virulent tribalism in the area of race and certainly in politics. If you want to see it in action, watch how the Democrats treated journalist Matt Taibbi when he appeared before a House committee recently. It was disgraceful.
But tribalism can occur when you least expect it. For example I was surprised when I watched Mark Steiner of The Real News Network interview Kenneth Roth the other day. Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) from 1993 to 2022, was invited in 2021 to assume a fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. But disinvited this year because, he says, after he and HRW had criticized Israel’s apartheid rule over the Palestinians, he was accused of antisemitism. After protests on Roth’s behalf, however, Roth was re-invited. The Kennedy School denies that charges of antisemitism were the reason for the invitation withdrawal (Roth disputes this), instead calling it a mistake and not an attempt to limit debate.
Human Rights Watch and other prestigious human-rights organizations, including Israeli Jewish groups, have certainly criticized Israel for how it abuses the Palestinians. (HRW criticizes many states throughout the world for violating individual rights; it has also criticized the Palestinian Authority, which Israel set up under the Oslo Accords.) In 2021 the HRW report “A Threshold Crossed” stated,
Across these areas and in most aspects of life, Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians. Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy. In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.
The idea that criticism of Israel is ipso facto antisemitic is worse than wrong. It is designed to innoculate Israel against all criticism. And that aim, I believe, is premised on the notion that after the monstrosity of Nazi Germany — indeed, after the long history of anti-Jewish persecution — the normal moral rules do not apply to Jewish people, at least not those in Israel. “How dare you criticize the Jewish State?” is a way to tell Palestinians and their defenders to shut up and go away, stigmatizing them as bigots in the process.
You can imagine my surprise when I heard Roth talk about his case and Israel without discussing the plight of the Palestinians. Here’s the key part of the interview. Roth said:
I am 100 percent Jewish. I totally identify…. I am not advocating for a weak state [of Israel], but even a strong state has to respect rights because ultimately, people’s sense of right and wrong, the sense that everybody has rights that need to be respected is key to the long-term survival of Israel and the Jews, particularly when Israel lives in such a hostile neighborhood where who knows what the crazies in Iran might do if they get a nuclear bomb? So you want these norms against abusing people to be as strong as possible. That’s a critical part of their defense not only of Israel but of Jewish people around the world. [Video at 12:24. Emphasis added.]
He went on to say that although accusing Israel’s critics of antisemitism may strengthen that state by silencing some people, this comes “at the expense of Jews wherever they live and that is not a smart move.” How so? By watering down the term antisemitism, which helps real antisemites.
To give Roth the benefit of the doubt, I’ll emphasize that his organization and he personally have criticized Jewish supremacy and apartheid policies toward the Palestinians. Also, he may have been taking his lead from the interviewer, Mark Steiner. Finally, it is certainly effective to point out that, as he says, “cheapen[ing]” the meaning of antisemitism does Jews no favor, even if it silences some of Israel’s critics.
Still … how could he not even mention the long-suffering Palestinians? He says Israel ought to stop the injustice because “ultimately” the survival of Israel and the Jewish people hangs in the balance. He makes it sound as if it’s all about the Jews and not the Palestinians.
Roth even worked in the “hostile neighborhood” trope and the Iranian “crazies” who allegedly want a nuclear weapon. The main reason for the hostility is that in 1947-48 and in 1967 Israeli forces led by Europeans seeking a Jewish state dispossessed innocent Palestinians of land they had worked and lived on for many generations. They’ve been oppressed and subjected to apartheid policies ever since.
As for Iran, it is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and inspected regularly; plus it signed, along with the Obama administration and several other nations, the redundant JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which would have made it even more certain that Iran would not build a bomb. In return, the West would lift the sanctions that have increasingly crushed the Iranian people. But Donald Trump pulled out of the JCPOA, and Biden has yet to restart it. The sanctions continue. Meanwhile, Israel has conducted covert warfare against Iran and has been trying to get the U.S. government to attack Iran.
The point here is that even Kenneth Roth has not escaped tribalism.