Recently, Ithacans learned that a group calling itself the "Twelve Tribes" had purchased the former Home Dairy on The Commons and would reopen it as a coffee and maté shop. They had also bought the former Ithaca Fitness Center on Third Street, converting it into a collective residence.
The city's Commons Coordinator welcomed the new business, which he likened to other stores on The Commons run by Mennonites and Christian Scientists. The Ithaca Times, in a cover story, quoted a spokesman for the group saying that negative comments published about the Twelve Tribes had been totally without foundation. The reporter had not interviewed any ex-members who had left the group. End of story?
Some of us skeptical observers were not reassured by the undiluted welcome conveyed by local media, since we are aware of other sources characterizing the Twelve Tribes as an outright cult. Unlike mainline religious groups that operate openly, cults are run by authoritarian leaders, who accept the gifts and obeisance of followers. The ideology of a cult typically employs messianic promises to attract recruits. It is also not uncommon for the most vulnerable cult members to be subjected to psychological and physical abuse by the "elders."
It seems high time to seek the answers to at least four questions:
1. How is "Twelve Tribes" different from other cults?
2. Has it been convicted of breaking any laws?
3. Are its beliefs in accord with basic American values?
4. What is the mission that has brought it to Ithaca?
1. Perhaps I, as a Jew, am especially sensitive to the term "Twelve Tribes," as an apparent attempt to hijack a term from biblical history. Indeed, the group's leader known as "Yonek" -- a former carnival barker, who followed a vision that came to him on a California beach -- uses this label to package his synthetic faith as a combination of Judaism and apocalyptic Christianity. This would-be Moses/Messiah has recruited followers in the United States, France and Brazil who surrender their bank accounts, cars and other worldly possessions to him. Then they work in farflung shops, factories and farms to keep him in a princely jet-setting style, according to the Boston Herald. Their living arrangements and diets are Spartan, but -- content to labor without pay -- their enterprises have been thriving.
2. Two published accounts have reported the conviction of the Twelve Tribes in Albany by a New York state court for violating child labor laws, according to the Boston Herald and New York Post. These articles reported that children as young as six have routinely been used in businesses such as candle-making, soap and furniture plants. The group's spokesman conceded that, at times, Twelve Tribes had operated "close to the limits of the letter of the law."
3. Twelve Tribes is ruled by men who claim that they have been divinely ordained as superior to women, as African Americans are inferior to whites, and children subordinate to adults. Not surprisingly, homosexuals and gays are beyond the pale.
Of course, even such obnoxious beliefs are protected by the First Amendment. Yet questions are raised when the Twelve Tribes advocates spanking children from months on (Chattanooga Times, 1/9/80). Since the group practices home schooling, it should be held to account if it inculcates an ideology going counter to New York State education law. Without doubt, infants also require legal protection from child abuse.
Moving further from constitutionally protected ideas to suspect practices, the Twelve Tribes has been accused of encouraging parental kidnapping in child custody disputes (Boston Herald, 9/7/01) Around the same time, Boston inspectors were called to a rooming house in Dorchester, to check on the group's noncompliance with city housing codes. Will Ithaca officials exercise equal vigilance?
4. Finally, why has the Twelve Tribes chosen this college town as its next colony? Cults are drawn to university students who have embarked on spiritual searches and are insecure about their identities. Fortunately, there are professors in Ithaca who have expertise in assessing cults. Won't they join in a badly needed public debate about the proper local response to the Twelve Tribes? Surely, the hosannas from uninformed media and business leaders were premature.