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Jewish Mythbusters: Jews Are Not a Tribe

Think it's cute to call someone a "Member of the Tribe"? Sure, it turns "otherness" into exclusivity, but it's also a misnomer. In fact, it can be downright destructive. Case in point: When I worked as a docent at the Museum of Tolerance (MOT again, OMG!), I repeatedly found myself arguing whether or not Jews are a "bloodline" with tourists from Arkansas, Utah, Austria…you name it.

"Actually," I'd interject, as yet another vocal visitor explained to his or her compatriots that Jews were a race, "Judaism is not a race. It's a religion. You know, like Christianity, or Sikhism."

And without fail, I'd find myself in the midst of a totally futile debate about race, bloodlines, and tribes.

"It's a bloodline," my interlocutor would almost always declare, not hearing a word I'd said. "They're a tribe. A race."

Explaining the differences between race, ethnicity, religion, and culture was lost on these particular visitors. What wasn't lost on me, though, was the problematic nature of a seemingly harmless nickname. The Tribe. It made my skin crawl, because it misrepresented us so enormously.

The concept of a Jewish bloodline was actually exploited and manipulated by the Nazis, who went to great lengths to define Jews first and foremost as an impure, genetically inferior race.

The truth, as Douglas Rushkoff explained it, is that "Jews are not a tribe but an amalgamation of tribes around a single premise: that human beings have a role." Get it? Jews originated as a bunch of people from different tribes who came together around a set of ideas. It's why people can convert to Judaism, but can't convert to "Asianness" or "Blackness." I can go from Jewish to Sikh, like my pal Gurudhan Khalsa did, but I'll never be Latina.

So the next time someone asks you if you're a "MOT," tell them "No, but I'm Jewish."

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