New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diasporanew_jews.jpg

By Caryn Aviv and David Shneer


So much of Jewish life, thought, and scholarship revolves around the idea that Israel is the center of the Jewish universe.

When David Shneer became director of the University of Denver’s Center for Judaic Studies, a member of the advisory board asked, “What is your commitment to and stance on Israel?”

“We need to support Israel no matter what,” Caryn Aviv is often told by older Jews when she recounts her trips to Israel. “If we don’t, who will?”

These responses are fairly typical in America, where Jewish communal leaders continue to wring their hands over the lack of connection to Israel among large numbers of American Jews. They tend to see Israel as the center of a crisis-ridden Jewish world, and have serious fears that Jewish life is dying in many places. Seldom do we hear positive comments about new forms of Jewishness or the renaissance in American Jewish culture.

And yet: In doing our research on world Jewry, we relied on several facts that suggest a more complicated vision of the Jewish future than most communal leaders believe. For example, in 2003, the year of the most recent migration statistics, more Jews moved to Moscow from Israel than vice-versa. New York, not Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, is the home of the Jewish institutional world and the center of Jewish philanthropy. Jews have migrated to the United States from Iran, the former Soviet Union, and even the “promised land” of Israel itself. (Researchers have found that many Israelis, avowedly secular residents of the “Jewish” state, develop their first meaningful connections to organized Judaism while living in the United States.)

Taken together, these have helped us envision a new Jewish map, one with multiple homelands. Jews are establishing new kinds of roots, not just to particular pieces of land but also to concepts, ideas, and spaces. They are moving because they choose to, and because they’re financially able to. At the same time, they are remaking their sense of home in various places. We suggest that a global politics that recognizes the tensions between rootedness and movement, and the realness of both, should guide our thinking about identities and spaces. As Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett puts it, “we need to theorize how space is being reterritorialized in the contemporary world.”

The place to start is with “diaspora,” a term implying that the Jewish world has a single center. By deemphasizing a bipolar Jewish world—“diaspora,” which connotes powerlessness, and “homeland,” which connotes power—we suggest that power flows in many directions, to and from diverse places. We see Israel as Jacob Blaustein, the former director of the American Jewish Committee, who once debated the first Israeli president, David Ben Gurion, about the relationship between Jews in Israel and Jews in America, once did: as a Jewish home, rather than the Jewish home.

We are interested in how Jews construct something called home—wherever they choose to do it.  So we begin with a simple thesis: The emphasis on “diaspora” and “Israel” has prevented Jews from exploring the diversity of Jewish experience and the ways that Jews craft their identities in the places they live.

In the literal sense, Jews have always had many diasporas and homelands, from Sephardic Jews who were expelled from medieval Spain in 1492, to 19th and 20th century Jews who, before the Holocaust, viewed Germany as their homeland. “Not ‘may we be next year in Jerusalem,’ but ‘next year in America!’” wrote the memoirist Mary Antin. She was speaking for many Eastern European Jewish immigrants who felt that America was their true homeland. (“So there was our promised land,” she continued.)

The concept of diaspora goes even farther back. The word itself means “dispersion.” It originated in the Septuagint, one of the original Greek translations of the Bible, in Deuteronomy 28:25: “thou shalt be a diaspora in all kingdoms of the earth.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first English usage from the year 1876; and more recently, dozens of ethnic or national groups have appropriated the term to explain their own geographically scattered communities.

Jews’ understanding of their “diaspora” has often had a more negative connotation than the benign-sounding “dispersion”—sometimes vastly more negative. Za’avah, the word the Greeks translated from the original Hebrew as “dispersion,” means anything from outrage to horror to terror. In Hebrew and Yiddish, the term galut or golus is a closer equivalent, suggesting spiritual diminishment and exile. A common denominator may be the idea of a central place that a (scattered) group of people can identify with and think about, and perhaps yearn to return to.

Even the latter meaning (a place we yearn to return to) can be problematic, though, when applied to Jewish history. For instance, many Hellenistic Jews in the Second Temple period chose to live outside the borders of the holy land. While living throughout the Hellenistic empire, they sent money to Jerusalem and conceived of Jerusalem as the patris, but did not long to return there. While living in exile following the destruction of the Second Temple—which had been the locus of Jewish political and spiritual power and the symbol of Jewish rootedness in Judea—Rabbinic Jews crafted a diaspora that allowed them to be at home where they were, while maintaining cultural differences from the other people with whom they lived.

Over the course of several centuries, Jews added various cultural strategies for remembering the homeland while firmly “rooting” themselves in local places. Jewish communities established cemeteries—a very concrete act of claiming both place and space that meant acquiring land and investing it with cultural and metaphysical power. Jews also established traditional schools (b’tei midrash) and ritual bathhouses (mikva’ot)—private spaces that served as foundations from which to construct communities. Within a more mobile modern American Jewish culture, the symbol of the mezuzah roots Jews to their homes and also creates a sense of community. These acts of marking Jewish space are just several examples of how, from the beginning of mythic Diaspora, Jews have created a sense of home while simultaneously marking themselves as apart from those around them. Jews maintained a connection to the mythic Zion, without yearning to “return” there.

After the Holocaust, and especially after the Cold War, American Jews’ notion of placement and roots changed again. The creation of Israel—the political realization of the mythic Zion—was a watershed, as centuries of history, politics, migration, culture, and religious yearning converged. It’s hardly surprising that for many Jews, Israel evokes particularly resonant, complicated meanings of home.

But for whom is Israel home, and how so? Is “home” the current state of Israel, with its contested borders, complex struggles for political power, and shifting diplomatic alliances? Or is it a polyglot of cultures and languages, a secular democracy?

These questions underscore an important fact about Israel: it is far more complicated than many people want to believe, or would make it seem. For one thing, not all Jews in Israel feel “at home.” Some do not feel at home because of Israel’s struggle with religious diversity and pluralism. Others, particularly recent immigrants, do not feel at home because of persistent stereotyping. Conversely, the majority of Jews in the United States, Russia, Germany, and elsewhere no longer see themselves as “in diaspora,” but instead see themselves at home, not pining for a Promised Land.

There are other problems with seeing Israel as the Jews’ only “home” and, therefore, with the Israel/diaspora dichotomy. For one thing, it presumes that there is a single center of a given community—which the example of contemporary Jewry shows is simply not true. It envisions the Jewish world hierarchically, with Israel on top and “the diaspora” on the bottom or at least scattered on the side.“Diaspora” is, additionally, a term with a homogenizing effect, suggesting that all Jews living outside of Israel have something in common. In fact, Jewish Studies scholars from David Biale to Deborah Dash Moore and S. Ilan Troen have argued the opposite, dismissing the idea of a unified “Jewish people” that can be broken easily into two categories. And indeed, what does an upper-middle-class secular Jew in Los Angeles have in common with a religious, Sephardic, working-class Israeli Jew in Bnei Brak except the fact that each one calls herself a Jew? Lawrence Silberstein argues that Jewish Studies scholars should embrace the concepts and theories of hybrid and fragmented identities that postcolonial theorists have used to describe South Asian, African, and other historically colonized people.

Which points to yet another problem with “diaspora”: The term has become a catch-all phrase to describe any and every imagined community that lives in multiple places. If anyone can consider himself part of a diaspora (since all “imagined communities” live in multiple places), then the word loses its meaning—so why rely on “diaspora” at all?

Politically and intellectually, we want to move beyond diaspora, a term that implies a single center to the Jewish world; a sense of exile on the part of those Jews who live elsewhere; and homogenous Jewish populations within Israel and outside of it. Rather than refer to Jews as “in Israel” or “in the diaspora,” we refer to Jews as “global” and break down the inherent dichotomy that the Israel/diaspora metaphor maintains. In this post-Zionist, post-Soviet, post-American-melting-pot moment, we see a new Jewish map, and the end of the Jewish diaspora.

All over the world, Jews today are rethinking their ideas about Israel and the tensions between exile and home, diaspora and homeland, here and there. They are dismantling the very idea of diaspora in the way they live their lives.

Caryn Aviv is the Posen Lecturer in Secular Jewish Culture for the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. David Shneer is an Associate Professor in the History Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the head of the Jewish Studies program there.

This piece was adapted from New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York University Press, 2005), by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer. It was published with permission from the authors and the publisher.

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