Terra incognita: The myth and madness of the ‘white tribe’

In many countries the concept of race, ethnicity and especially the concept of being a member of a proud “white” group has been challenged in recent decades.

April 26, 2015 21:14
A STATUE of a Native-American tribe

A STATUE of a Native-American tribe. Some in Israel have proposed a ‘tribal’ understanding of society. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In an ‘Independence Day special’ the website Walla published an “introduction to the new tribes of Israel.” It read like a sort of 19th century travel guide, like some great European explorer’s racially-tinged descriptions of his encounters with the natives. The tribes that Walla “discovered” included the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), National Religious, Arabs, Russians, Mizrahim and “the white tribe.”

The odd article, in which it defined the “white tribe” as consisting of “elite, secular, Ashkenazi” Israelis, might be taken to be a kind of a purimspiel or April Fool’s joke if the issue wasn’t so deadly serious. The concept of white tribalism is not an invention of one website, but rather a growing trend in Israel.

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Ravit Hecht, writing at Haaretz on April 22, discussed the feelings of the Israeli Left, “who felt [they] had been punished by a ‘tribal vote,’” and referenced the “white Ashkenazi camp.”

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In many countries the concept of race, ethnicity and especially the concept of being a member of a proud “white” group has been challenged in recent decades. But in Israel it has gone the opposite way, such that pride in being a member of a mythological “white tribe” is growing. Israeli Hebrew publications, particularly in the political Center and Left, use this term often. It is important to understand what they mean and to confront their terminology.

The “white tribe” concept is not always clearly understood by those who employ it.

Nehemia Shtrasler, an economics commentator, discussed the politics of the “white tribe” and its views of haredim in 2013. He claimed that “white tribe”  “refers to an amorphous group comprising Jews of Ashkenazi origin who live in north Tel Aviv and who deeply despise the haredim.” He contrasted those who dislike haredim with those who defend them: “The people who believe this nonsense [of defending haredim] are a few whites who also live in north Tel Aviv, but who do not see themselves as part of the white race.”

In 2012 when Shaul Mofaz won the leadership of Kadima, Culture and Sport minister Limor Livnat claimed that “the white tribe will turn to Yair Lapid and the Labor Party,” an allusion to the theory that Lapid is “white” and the Labor party appeals to “white” voters.

In response Yifat Ben Hay-Seger, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, noted that Israeli society was a modern version of the 12 tribes. “And among these tribes,” she wrote, “is a wide range of skin color: white, brown and even black. It is not always possible to figure out one’s origin by one’s skin color. Who doesn’t know Ashkenazim who are dark, or Mizrahim who have light skin and eyes? Thus the expression ‘the white tribe’ is not a matter of color, but rather constitutes a clear hierarchical distinction between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim.”

The fact is that there are large numbers of people in Israel who go to sleep at night self-defining as a “white tribe.” They have cultivated a sense of white superiority. In the era where the world is going the other way, challenging the concept of “white privilege” or challenging racial and ethnic structures, some Israelis are going in the opposite direction, trying to set up boundaries to their “racial” identity as “whites.” Did they not see the failure of this model in other countries? It may be worth reminding Israelis of two interesting books on this subject. In 1981 television producer David Harrison published the book The White Tribe of Africa which argued passionately that the Afrikaners in South Africa, whose leaders had established Apartheid, were a kind of indigenous “white tribe” on the African continent by virtue of their long residence there and having developed a unique culture. Harrison’s conception of the Dutch-descended white minority in South Africa as a tribe has not vanished. Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, made similar comments to Afrikaners at a speech in Sandton in 2009, saying they were unique as a “white tribe” on the African continent.

Themba Moses Msimang, writing at Africasacountry.com, disagreed with this concept: “The juxtaposition of ‘black tribalism’ with ‘white tribalism’ allows for the fallacious claim of parity between oppressors and oppressed.”

Agree or disagree with the view that Afrikaners are a “white tribe,” why on earth would anyone want to import that concept to Israel? It’s as if the “white elite” in Israel want to dig as deeply as they can into the hole at the bottom of which is the self-fulfilling prophecy of the BDS movement, accepting the accusation of Israeli apartheid.

The “white tribe” manifesto is not born of self-critique in Israel. It isn’t like the adoption of “white privilege” among some Jewish Americans who identify as “white” and foist upon themselves the burden of “privilege.”

This is a topic of discussion among some Jews in America. Writing at The New Republic, Phoebe Maltz-Bovy argued that Jews are accorded “the unearned advantages white people, Jewish and otherwise, enjoy.”

A fascinating 2008 book by Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity, argues that Jews had to sacrifice their racial distinctiveness in order to achieve inclusion among the white American elite.

A visceral representation of this problematic situation can be found in the 1980 classic Caddyshack, in which a loud-mouthed and demonstrably Jewish character appears on a golf course and shakes up the local WASP elite.

What is well known is that American Jews may have embraced “whiteness” when it was convenient and necessary to gain entrance to society, but there was never a widespread notion of “white pride” among Jews, who often viewed themselves as partners in the struggle for the civil rights of ethnic minorities.

The “price of whiteness” Goldstein alludes to is that, having gained entrance to the “white club,” Jews perhaps lose out on some of the benefits of a society in the US that now awards multiculturalism.

But in Israel the bizarre concept of “white tribe” has gone the other way. Jewish immigrants from Europe never had to gain entrance to elite society. They created the myth of being an intellectual elite; as columnist Richard Cohen described them, “fighting intellectuals, rifle in one hand and a volume of Kierkegaard in the other.” Rather than reducing their reliance on a “white identity” over time in the Middle East, they have clung tenaciously to a myth of European superiority and a “secular Ashkenazi” identity.

The “white tribalism” posits that, in the words of one author, “we are now fighting a political and cultural war for Israel’s identity.”

This manifests itself in insane proposals for creating ethnic ghettos and bantustans in Israel.

Carlo Strenger and Judd Yadid at Haaretz proposed “cantonization” in an October 7 article, where each “ethnic” and religious group would get its own canton. One cannot escape the feeling that among a self-defined “liberal” elite there is adoration of a race-based nationalism that failed miserably elsewhere.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, echoed this weirdo logic in a 1962 cabinet meeting. Fearing that Israel would become a “Levantine nation” he noted “the problem is what character the Oriental [Jews from Muslim countries] communities will be. They will be the majority in the nation...whether we will succeed by artificial means to elevate them...the question is what kind of Jews they will be. Will they be the Jews we want them to be, or will they be like the Jews of Morocco?” When “the Jews” were not assimilated into a “European” standard, the ideology of “white tribe” emerged as another solution: Assimilation didn’t work, so let’s define ourselves as a superior tribe.

What happened in Israel is that an unfortunate group of people have been conditioned to cling to and embellish a myth of “white tribe” beliefs; and they have been encouraged in their views by the media. They have ascribed to being “Ashkenazi” – which is a religious tradition, not an ethnic one – the quality of being different and superior. They have adopted the same racist views against the other “tribes” that Jews were subjected to in Europe.

It would be better to abolish this childish tribal identification, that is more befitting an ideology of the late 19th century than the 21st.

“White tribalism” is probably one of the worst concepts that has befallen Israel, and creates a self-fulfilling racist insularity. The more some on the Left and Center embrace this race-based heresy, the worse becomes the state’s ability to create an integrated, open-minded society that will succeed in the long term.

Follow the author @Sfrantzman.

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