Moral codes based on tribalism—defining the in-group and the out-group, whether by culture, religion or race—offer no solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict or any of the other wars wracking our world. The only path to peace is a morality based on empathy and universal humanity, yet it seems further from our grasp than ever.
Israel’s invasion of Gaza is raging across the Middle East like a wildfire. And like any other blaze, it’s sending up embers that fall back to earth, where they ignite new violence.
In Russia, bottled-up social pressure and discontent has found an outlet in the form of antisemitic hate. Last week, we saw terrifying video of an angry mob storming an airport in the Dagestan region, hunting for Jews on a just-arrived flight from Israel. They didn’t find any, but that’s all that stopped this from becoming a pogrom.
But we shouldn’t be so quick to look down on backward nations like Russia. In both the US and Europe, there’s been a rash of antisemitic attacks under the bigoted logic that all Jews everywhere bear collective responsibility for what the Israeli government does.
At the same time, it’s not only Jews who are targets of hate. The editor of a scientific journal was fired for quoting a satire from The Onion that implicitly criticized Israel. In Illinois, a 6-year-old Palestinian boy was murdered and his mother was stabbed. At Stanford University, a driver hit a Muslim student with his car in an apparently deliberate attack.
The government agencies that track such things report an uptick in both antisemitic and anti-Muslim bias crimes. Who should we sympathize with, when there’s ample evidence of persecution and victimization everywhere we look? Do we have to choose who to support based on who’s suffered the most, like some grotesque Olympics of pain?
Our moral codes weren’t built for this
What we need is a moral code built on recognition of our common humanity. We need an ethics that treats all people as fundamentally alike, and all deserving of equal rights, whatever their culture and whichever side of the border they happen to be standing on.
Most moral codes don’t do this. For the most part, the moral codes that guide us today come from times when the family or the village or the tribe was the only unit of society. They’re small and parochial, looking no further than the next hilltop. In those times, the outside world was a strange and frightening place. Banding together promised safety, and to be outside the group spelled doom.
This kind of thinking is the animating idea behind nationalism, religious orthodoxy, and cultural tribalism. These concepts of morality are different on the surface, but underneath, they’re fundamentally alike. They’re all about the in-group versus the out-group. The only thing that varies is the criteria for who’s in and who’s out.
This mindset splits the world into binary opposites. Everyone is either an ally or an enemy, a good person or an evildoer, a saint or a sinner. It’s appealingly straightforward, which makes it satisfying. Tribalism is one of those tendencies that just hits the right buttons in the human brain.
(We often conceive of justice as a set of scales, but I fear that metaphor can lead us astray into dangerously simplistic thinking. After all, scales tip one way or the other. There’s no outcome in between.)
But when we encounter a case that crosses those tidy lines, it creates uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. What happens when a person, or a people, is a genuine victim of persecution, but also an oppressor? What happens when “our side” is inflicting harm, or when there are kind, innocent people on the other side?
That doesn’t fit into a framework of right-or-wrong, in-or-out tribalism. So, these moral systems don’t try to account for it. Instead, they steamroll it into a convenient two-dimensional portrait. Whatever harm the bad guys commit is further evidence of their wickedness. Whatever harm the good guys commit is rational and justified (or alternatively, lies and propaganda made up by the enemy in a bid for sympathy).
The flattening tendency of tribalism obliterates nuance from every conflict. No one wants to be in the middle, where every side is lobbing bombs at you. Thus, everyone gets pushed to pick one side or the other, to join a team, to declare our allegiance and wave the flag.
And, the longer these debates go on, the more entrenched all sides become. The battle lines are drawn, positions harden, and resentment curdles. People start to believe, not just that they’re on the right side, but that the right side is obvious. They start to believe that everyone who doesn’t see the world the same way as they do is a puppet of imperialists, or an apologist for genocide, or a settler colonialist, or a secret Nazi.
Whenever I consider what’s to be done, I always go back to empathy. I said in my last column that it doesn’t offer an easy solution to this conflict. And yet, it’s the only guide we have. If there’s any way out, it will only be discovered by the embrace of mutual understanding. It will never be achieved by force of arms on either side.
Israel is the refuge of a people who were expelled from their ancestral homeland and endured centuries of brutal persecution. The Jews were scattered across the earth, forced to live among those who despised them. They were scapegoated by vicious conspiracy theories, prevented from owning land, often forbidden to practice their own religion. Ultimately, they were targeted for extermination in the worst slaughter of the 20th century.
You can’t understand Israel without grasping that bone-deep history of trauma. You can’t grasp the roots of this conflict without hearing the echo of “Never again” in the back of every Jewish person’s mind. They have very good reason to want to protect themselves, without ever having to rely on anyone else’s mercy or goodwill.
At the same time, Israelis need to understand that their current situation is of their own making. Israel will never be safe until it learns to live together in peace with its neighbors. Not only have they not done that, they’ve forced the Palestinians to live under hellish conditions.
If there’s ever going to be an end to these conflicts, the Palestinians need a realistic hope of a better future. Just as the Jews do, they deserve safety, stability, and the chance to control their own destiny. They can’t stay confined and oppressed forever, with no chance of things ever getting better for them.
Otherwise, no informed observer of human nature would expect them to respond with anything other than destructive nihilism and religious zealotry. Historically, the Jews rebelled many times against oppressive foreign rulers. How can they not expect others to do the same?
This is less a perspective flip than a perspective cartwheel. Whichever side you look at it from, it demands the overturning of sacred beliefs. It’s a gymnastic feat of empathy, and perhaps most people aren’t capable of it. But if we’re not capable of it, then this bloodshed will go on forever.
A crutch we no longer need
In the olden days, one could argue, tribalism was the only option. After all, belief in universal brotherhood was no good to anyone if the invaders from over the next hill didn’t share that view. When culture and language and religion were much deeper rifts that separated humans from each other, cleaving to the tribe was the only way to survive.
But that survival instinct is a crutch we no longer need. We live in a world where anyone can travel anywhere, learn about any culture, translate any language. We know more about each other than we ever have. We no longer have any excuse for treating other humans as aliens or dangerous creatures. By all rights, we should find it easier to get along.
Instead, millions cling fiercely to their tribalisms, even when we no longer have any need for them. Because of these imaginary distinctions, real human beings are hating each other, shedding blood, waging war, killing, and dying. It’s a tragic absurdity that should have no place in a rational world.