Now then: what has this
Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov,
got to do with this?
Kick off, throw in, have a little scrimmage,
Keep it low, a splendid rush, bravo, win or die;
On the ball, City, never mind the danger,
Steady on, now’s your chance,
Hurrah! We’ve scored a goal.
City!, City!, City!
I’m sure you’re way ahead of me – the first quote is, as you’ll have recognized instantly, the verse of the song On The Ball, City sung by the entire
congregation assemblage of Norwich City supporters before each home game at Carrow Road. I was amazed to learn that the song is extremely old, possibly antedating the club itself.
The second quote, which translates into English as ‘
Excuse me Madam but does this bus go to the station How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, how beautiful your dwelling places, O Israel’, or some such of like fashion, is sung to a rousing tune, by way of throat-clearance, by congregants fans at the beginning of a Sabbath morning service in a synagogue.
So much for the identities of these songs – what have they got in common? Nothing much, you might think. One of them is in Hebrew, and the other isn’t. One is sung in a place of worship … Oh, all right, both of them are. What they have in common is this – they are communal signals given by individual participants to indicate subsumation into a larger group [did you really write that phrase? You did? It's crap. Just sayin' - Ed]. This is often emphasized by common articles of dress. Synagogue worshippers habitually wear very expensive yet somehow rather scratchy yellow and green leisurewear, with numbers on the back, while Canaries fans, if male, wear skullcaps and prayer shawls with tassels on the end.
But wait, there’s more.
Delegates at Labour Party conferences address one another as ‘Comrade’, wear red rosettes and sing the Internationale (I have all this on good authority from Mrs Crox, who has been to a couple of these shindigs). Chapters of the Womens’ Institute start their meetings by singing Jerusalem before smearing one another in home-made jam.
It’s all, I submit, reflective of a common urge, to be tribal. This came home to me five or six years ago when I read a book called Us and Them by David Berreby – a book that goes into the reasons for the tribal impulse, and perhaps the most fascinating book on the human condition I have ever read. If you haven’t read it – I strongly recommend that you leave this blog now and seek it out.
I took two messages from this book. The first is that tribalism needn’t have very deep roots. Experiments in which groups of people are randomly assigned to teams (the ‘reds’ and the ‘blues’, say) and then made to compete with each other, soon form collective identities, and, not much later, mythologies whereby their own group is exalted and the other, demonized. Family ties nor even much commonality of any other experience need have anything to do with it. Tribal attitudes happen spontaneously, whether in a nation or a knitting circle, a parent-teacher association or a corporation.
The second message related to my own Judaism. Before reading Us and Them I had a hard time explaining this to others. Is Jewishness a statement of ethnicity? Well, yes, in that it has rather strict rules about who is a Jew, who isn’t, proscriptions on intermarriage and so on. But, on the other hand, no – there are Jews of every skin colour, from lily white to deepest black, and, confusingly, whereas the ethnicity of Jews is discernible genetically, they are also genetically close to the societies in which they find themselves. But is Jewishness a religion? Well, yes, plainly. But as Jonathan Freedland explains in his book Jacob’s Gift, it is perfectly possible – even entirely reasonable – to be an atheist as well as a practicing Jew, and as we all know, practice makes perfect. Such a stance is just about inconceivable in Islam or Christianity. If Judaism is a religion, it’s a very odd one.
All such difficulties are swept away once one considers Judaism as tribal – an in-group with its own codes of dress, of language, of ways of doing things. But once you go that far, then practically every group activity is tribal.
A typical tribal response is to launch salvoes of complaint if the tribe perceives itself as under attack. I’ve done this myself – I too am human – but I have encountered some telling examples in my capacity as the editor of Futures, the weekly SF stream at Your Favourite etcetera etcetera. A story we published that poked gentle fun at transubstantiation provoked an irate response – which was as nothing to the high-fiving d00dsplaining douchebaggery that spewed forth from a well-known Minnesota blogevangelist when we published a story which (in the tribal mind) imagined a society in which militant atheism ruled the roost and expunged belief by force. Quite apart from the failure of all concerned to understand that the views expressed by characters in stories need have nothing to do with the views of the author, or the editor, never mind that these views have every right to be held, one could, as if at the wrong end of the telescope, see nothing more than two tribes, neither more or less equal to the other.
And, what the heck, these are just stories – whether SF; the tale we’ve just celebrated in which angels of death pass over the houses of the Israelites, looking for Egyptians to smite with plagues of lawnmowers and all-you-can-eat KFC bargain buckets; the one I saw described recently as the cult in which adherents symbolically consume the flesh and blood of their own maimed and tortured God; notwithstanding inasmuch as which the spectacle from which adherents derive almost ecstatic satisfaction from a ritual, with its arcane rules comprehensible only to
Level-Five Operating Thetans initiates – the Offside Rule, anyone? - in which young men kick a ball round a field. It’s tribal. And despite the efforts of churchmen and He Who Must Not Be Named alike to urge us to transcend this corporeal estate, we cannot help it – it’s only human.