My life partner and I once found ourselves on a remote part of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. We got to talking with a calm, perceptive and unusually grounded woman who told us she lived there. When she then asked us where we called home, and we told her Israel, she responded with what seemed to her to be the logical, natural, next question: "Oh ... what tribe are you?"
While we, taken aback, groped for an answer, she told us in a manner as matter-of-fact as an observation about the weather, that she was of the Tribe of Ephraim. Everyone at her church, she continued, knew which tribe they belonged to.
Perhaps the question is harder for us to answer because we no longer see ourselves, as the first 12 Tribes did, as the children of the children of Jacob. The tribes that make up the latter-day State of Israel are, in fact, the remnants of revolution, of a surfeit of concurrent revolutions, in fact. Together those revolutions have built and battered Israel into the magnificent muck-up that's now about to hit 60.
A field guide:
The Tribe of Beitar
Tribal lore blends Polish-Jewish culture of nursing grievances as a way of life, with multigenerational Mizrahi rage at the ghost of Mapai (see below).
Political orientation: Raucously hawkish, but once in power, tends to give away occupied land (for example, Sinai, Gaza, most of Hebron).
Religious orientation: Beitar-odox, a fundamentalist belief in Beitar Jerusalem and the redemptive power of soccer. Sabbath observance may include participation in Orthodox minyan, followed by a chain-smoking convoy drive - yellow-and-black Beitar scarf flying from car windows - to the match of the week.
The Tribe of Mapai
Once the proudly dominant clan, running everything from the Israel Defense Forces to health care to steel production. Now splintered, anemic, rudderless, vestigial, yuppified - barely an extended dysfunctional family.
Political orientation: Once strongly social-democratic. Once strongly dovish.
Identifying characteristics: Equivocation. Nostalgia.
The Tribe of Maran
Named for tribal elder Maran (Revered Rabbi) Ovadia Yosef.
Aim: To restore pride to Jews of Mediterranean and Mideast origin, who often faced discrimination and humiliation at the hands of Mapai.
Political orientation: Tough on religious issues, hard-line though occasionally flexible on matters of defense and diplomacy.
Identifying characteristics: By far the best dressed (and groomed) among the ultra-Orthodox. Not to be confused with the Ashkenazi Tribe of Mamaloshen, too varied (think pro-Gush Emunim to pro-Ahmadinejad) to be detailed here.
The Tribe of Tech
One of the newer clans. Believes in the redemptive power of long hours, innovative ideas, Nasdaq and eventual sale of the company to a global corporation for mega-millions.
Political orientation: Vaguely centrist. Believes in stability and furtherance of peace talks as good for investment and the economy.
Identifying characteristics: Bluetooth implant, polo shirt, car with company logo on back fender and bumper sticker reading "How's my driving?" - but with phone number too small to read when vehicle is traveling at warp speed.
The Tribe of Yesha
Includes many of the some quarter-million Jewish residents of the West Bank, plus a huge number of settler would-have-beens in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Modi'in, Brooklyn and elsewhere.
Political orientation: Vanguard of the religious right, but drifting. Youth are having second thoughts. The disengagement from Gaza shattered faith in the government, the state, the Yesha Council and national Orthodoxy, giving rise to the hardal - the Haredi Leumi amalgam.
The Tribe of Bil'in
A small, poorly organized but vocal clan, with offshoots in South Tel Aviv lofts and elsewhere. Signature ritual is protest against West Bank fence near village of Bi'lin.
Religious orientation: Personal anarchism. Antipathy to Israeli governmental institutions and policies. Antipathy may extend to Zionism as a philosophy, and/or to bourgeois parents.
The Tribe of Kach
The rightist version of the Bil'inist. Feels compulsion to spend all Jewish holidays in Hebron. Feels compulsion to spray-paint "Kahane was right" on all available bus stops.
Political orientation: Far right. Fervent belief in expelling Arabs from Greater Israel. Often characterized by excessive interest in and carrying of large handguns. Tribe has many fellow travelers, notably Women in Green.
Identifying characteristics: Oversized kippot. Oversized earlocks. Oversized sidearms.
The Tribe of Tibi
Israel's Arab minority, perhaps the most difficult grouping to typify, as it is made up of numerous minorities and clans of diverse religions, cultures, and political and social attitudes.
These include Christians, Muslims and Druze, Negev and Galilee Bedouin, IDF officers and firebrand Islamists. Their position also makes them vulnerable to the simultaneous suspicions of fellow Israelis and neighboring Palestinians.
The Tribes of Sheinkin and Bombamela
Two sides of a similar coin, this group - largely native-born Ashkenazi in origin - may tend toward artistic/New Age/yuppie commercial ventures on the one hand, and patchouli-flavored hippie dropout status on the other.
The Tribe of Vesty
More than a million strong, "the Russians," as immigrants from ex-Soviet lands are collectively known, have created a subculture of their own. In some disciplines, notably music, they have brought a level of formality and seriousness, which may put them at odds with the more offhand approach of the native-born.
P.S. After almost two decades here, I still have little idea which tribe is truly mine. Perhaps a little perspective is in order. Perhaps another visit to Kauai.
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