A Blessing or a Curse: The Discursive Tension Between Jewish Interpretations of Exile and Diaspora
When from the ashes of the Holocaust arose an officially Jewish state in the ancestral homeland of Israel, ending a painful two thousand years of exile, many Zionists expected a kibbutz galuyot–an ingathering of the exiles. Instead of this massive influx of diasporic Jews back into their long-forbidden homeland, today, Israeli Jews account for well under half of Jews around the world, and demographic patterns do not suggest this will change any time soon. The continued existence of a sizeable Jewish diaspora, despite the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty over its homeland for the first time in thousands of years, constitutes a sharp divergence in modern Zionist and Jewish philosophy.
The Jewish experience of exile from its homeland and the resultant dispersion of its population around the world is perhaps the most influential epoch that informs the religion today, on par with Jewish experiences during Exodus from Egypt and at Mount Sinai, as well as more recent formative experiences like the Holocaust and the creation of Israel. During exile, as communities sprawled across continents to far-reaching regions, Jewish populations were subjected to banishment, pogroms, and discrimination. At the same time, Jews around the world, even as many assimilated, revolutionized science, art, and culture in their communities and played important roles in banking, medicine, law, and journalism. Despite its centrality to Jewish history and existence, the moral efficacy and practical value of diaspora is a topic of great tension and disagreement in the Jewish community.
For some, exile was an unmitigated horror, and with the reintroduction of a homeland comes an obligation to return to it. They see the negation of the diaspora as a central responsibility for modern Jews, and they see Jews outside of Israel as incomplete in their service to Judaism. This argument centers the need for Jewish political self-determination and argues that if the mistreatment of the Jews was abetted by their lack of power and control, then only an allegiance to a nominally Jewish state can offer due protection. More religious adherents to this view also stress the eschatological importance of returning to Zion for the end-times when the Messiah returns and the aspirational Third Temple of Jerusalem is built.
For others, exile allowed for Jews to plant and extend their roots throughout the world and serve as “beacons of light unto the nations.” They point to the scientific and cultural innovations of assimilated Jews, the vibrancy of local Jewish communities in places around the globe, and some even see diasporic Jews as an important diversifying facet of modern Jewish existence should Israel’s Jews need outside assistance (as during the 1967 and 1973 wars)- a way to avoid, proverbially, putting all their eggs in one basket. This viewpoint posits that ethnic nationalism and biblical prophecy are outdated in a modern world, and that there is a place for Jews as minorities in a secular or pluralistic society. At the very least, these Jews see diaspora as their heritage, the condition of their friends, families, and communities, and therefore lack a driving motivation to make Aliyah, or move to Israel.
This paper will provide a historical background on Jewish exile from Judea and the subsequent two-thousand-year diaspora before individually surveying their competing interpretations, finally offering an analysis of this tension in the modern Jewish discourse.
Exile is so prominent a theme in Jewish history that it could be considered the norm rather than the exception. The central promise that God delivers through Moses during the exodus from Egypt is the deliverance of a promised land after the conclusion of a trying period of wandering the desert. It is in the spirit of this cycle that Zionists celebrated the creation of Israel after years of wandering the diaspora. In between these bookends, however, are a series of exiles rather than a continuous one. In the era of the First Temple, built according to the Hebrew Bible by King Solomon, Jewish text speaks of deportation by Assyrian conquerors around 740 BCE. In 587 BCE, Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II sacked the city of Jerusalem, destroying the First Temple and banishing Jews. While many Jews returned after Cyrus the Great conquered Jerusalem and ruled with tolerance, others remained throughout the region, constituting the first building blocks of diaspora. Though for the purposes of this paper, reference to exile and diaspora will focus on the events that stemmed following the Jewish-Roman Wars that will be expanded upon further.
As the Roman Empire exerted more influence over the land of Judea and established it as a Roman province in 6 CE, stark tensions grew between the Greek and Jewish populations, and between Jewish sects themselves (such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots). Eventually, this tension gave way to open Jewish nationalist riots and rebellion in 66 CE, in what is known as the First Jewish-Roman War, or the Great Revolt. Its result was an unambiguous Jewish defeat, and the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. By the end of the last Jewish-Roman War in 132 CE, known as the Bar Kochba Revolt, Jews were again defeated, and Jewish populations were banished from the region: thus beginning the period of exile and diaspora in question.
In the centuries that followed, Jewish populations spread throughout the Middle East, into Africa and Asia, and especially to Europe. In Southern and Western Europe, and the Iberian Peninusla in particular, this regional subdivision flourished and became known as the Sephardim. These Jews interacted regularly with Muslim and Christian populations in the area and contributed to science, math, art, and philsophy during this period known as the Convivencia. Yet later amidst the Inquisition, Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal or forced to convert to Christianity under penalty of torture or death. To the East, in modern-day nations like Germany, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, a distinct regional subdivision emerged known as the Ashkenaz. These jews developed tight-knit communities in smaller villages known as Shtetls, and later urban centers primarily speaking in Yiddish, an amalgamation of Hebrew and German.
In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, European Jews suffered violent hardships like pogroms, and anti-semitic accusations from the blood libel to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. At the same time, Jews also enjoyed a period of liberalization and assimilation known as Jewish Emancipation. This emancipation was instigated from the top-down, but offered Jews more social mobility, rights, and opportunities, and it developed alongside Europe’s period of Enlightenment. The specifically Jewish Enlightenment — the Haskalah — also flourished at this time, merging a revival of traditional Jewish practice (the use of Hebrew, for instance) with a reverance towards the modern: scientific and cultural progress, with figures like Moses Mendelsohn at the helm.
By the late 19th century, against the backdrop of the Dreyfus trial in France and rising European anti-semitism more generally, it became clear that modernization and assimilation would not be a panacea for the Jews, who were still accused of dual-loyalty, disenfranchised in society, and othered. This disheartening realization led to the rise of Jewish nationalism in the form of a popular movement known as Zionism. While Zionism is certainly not monolithic (with religious, political, cultural, and labor motivations), the movement generally supported the establishment, or re-establishment, of a Jewish state in the area of its ancestral homeland in Israel. While this paper will (conveniently) avoid making value judgements on the tenets of Jewish ethnonationalism, it will highlight some disagreements among leading Zionists. For instance, when Theodore Herzl, the father of political zionism, centered the bureaucratic aspect of Israel and was open to using German as its official language, he was confronted by leading cultural zionist Ahad Ha’am. Ha’am argued for the use of Hebrew and the need for Israel to serve as a spiritual center of Jewish life, striving for “a Jewish state, not merely a state of Jews.”
Regardless of these disagreements, the Zionist movement was able to achieve the formation of the modern Jewish state known as Israel in 1948. With this achievement came a renewed focus on and re-evaluation of the diaspora. For some, once Israel was founded, the “negation of the Diaspora” and the “ingathering of Exiles” became priorities. For others, the continued existence of a diaspora posed no problem so long as Israel remained a spiritual and cultural center of Judaism; Jewish statehood could interact with Jewish diaspora in meaningful and important ways. The following sections will explore these diverging factions further.
At its core, any complete rejection of diaspora rests on the assumption that the experience was and is intrinsically bad, and that it is anything but preferred or homeostatic. Adherents to this paradigm typically refer to the experience as Galut, or exile, as to give it a negative and coercive connotation and to differentiate it from voluntary processes of population dispersion, which occur naturally and are typically bereft of moral value, be it positive or negative. There is no shortage of evidence in support of this theory, from the targeting of Jews during the Crusades, expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition, the economic and political marginalization of Jewish communities, pogroms, and an abhorrent Holocaust. For these thinkers, exile was a grueling journey on the road to redemption, and so there is no reason to remain on this road once we have reached our destination.
These thinkers, however, are not of homogenous motivation. Religious Zionists often focus on the notion of Kibbutz Galuyot, the Ingathering of Exiles, a promise given in the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. Political or Cultural Zionists often point to the notion of shlilat ha’galut, or Negation of the Diaspora, a principle positing that Jewish life outside of a homeland cannot exist without a degree of discrimination or cultural degradation at the hands of assimilation. Revisionist Zionists focused on power-dynamics between territorial sovereignty and minority-majority relations. A survey of early and contemporary Zionist commentary and various Israeli policies and curriculums show that regardless of whether the ingathering of exiles and negation of the diaspora are dominant priorities in Judaism today, they are nevertheless sizeable and controversial ones. The following section will include counterarguments.
In 1882, Leon Pinsker wrote “Auto-Emancipation,” a founding text in modern Jewish Nationalism. In it he argued that because Jews considered themselves a ‘nation,’ so long as they lacked national sovereignty, there would be a deficit of self-respect and dignity. His view of exile: “We fell victim to the transient existence of migratory birds, which eventually became a legacy of irredeemable calamity.” Still, this is as much an argument for a homeland as it is against a diaspora, and it does not preclude the coexistence of both. Other early Zionists went further. Pioneering Hebrew writer Yosef Haim Brenner wrote extensively about the Diaspora Jew, and the characters he created with this archetype were riddled with despair; weak, powerless, culturally deficient. Ukrainian-Israeli philosopher Yezekiel Kaufmann, who famously wrote Exile and Alienism, argued that an inherent consequence of diaspora was assimilation, and that assimilation itself is intolerable. He wrote: “Whoever is prepared to pay a price in the name of assimilation is not even worthy of pity. He is worthy of contempt and ignominy.”
Ze’ev Jabotinsky was the founder of Revisionist Zionism, a more militant and territorially focused strain, and one that influenced later right-wing Israeli political parties. He promoted the idea of the “New Jew,” empowered, unapologetic, and secure, contrasted with the “Old Jew,” who were disempowered in ghettos or who had assimilated. It was Jabotinsky who is famously quoted as preaching to Jews “eliminate the diaspora, or surely, the diaspora will eliminate you.” Around this time, it was customary to refer to Israeli-born Jews as “Sabras,” a term of endearment referring to the cactus-like plant found in the region and which were analogous to the hard outside covering but sweet inside of the Jews who braved oppression and made their way to the homeland.
Some contemporary Zionists have taken a similar, contemptuous stand. Israeli author and poet Yonatan Geffen famously wrote: “You cannot sit in Manhattan and be a Zionist just because you like oranges, falafel and come here once a year to argue in Jerusalem about ‘Where is Zionism going?’ There is only one answer: Zionism is going on here. Zionism as I see it exists only in its practical form. And as a person who likes shoes is not a shoemaker, so a Jew who likes Israel isn’t a Zionist.” Another popular Israeli author, A.B. Yehoshua, was even more derisive during a controversial 2006 speech to the American Jewish Committee, saying: ““Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel . . . your Jewish identity has no meaning at all. Diaspora Jews are play-acting Judaism.” Further, a poll taken by sociologist Steven Cohen and political science professor Charles Liebman found that close to two-thirds of Israeli Jews believed that living in Israel gave Jews a more meaningful life, and that encouraging Diaspora Jews to make Aliyah should be a priority.
This line of thinking is also prevalent among some modern political leaders as well. In 2000, Israeli President Moshe Katsav was quoted arguing that Israeli leaders should no longer justify Jews living abroad, saying “We have legitimized living in the Diaspora and have said it does not bother us, but the only branch that can ensure the continuation of the Jewish nation is the Jewish state.” In a 2006 closed-door meeting, current Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was also quoted disparaging the diaspora, saying “there is no future for Jews in the Diaspora, because of assimilation and intermarriage. The only future for Jews is in Israel.”
This viewpoint was one of the major focuses of pre-state and early state Israeli national education curriculums. Pre-state education was largely decentralized and provided by community groups in an activist style, stressing the importance of fighting for a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine and negating the diaspora. A review of teacher reports between 1939–1941 found that by and large, students in Mandatory Palestine demonstrated a lack of interest, alienation, and contempt towards Jews outside of Israel. By 1953, curriculum was standardized by the State Education Law and presented a coherent view of diaspora as a negative condition of the past and one that was meant to be ameliorated by moving to Israel. Since the 1970’s, however, Israeli educational curriculums have indeed taken a more collaborative and positive view towards the Diaspora, stressing the connection between and unitary goals of Jews worldwide, and seeing victims of the diaspora as noble martyrs rather than “lambs to the slaughter.”
For some religious Zionists, the creation of Israel was a fulfillment of promises made in Deuteronomy 30:4–5: “Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. The Lord your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors.” They see exile as a distinct period of a Jewish history that was both prophesied to happen and prophesied to end. Other religious Jews, namely the ultra-orthodox and Hasidim, living in and outside of Israel, reject the idea that modern Israeli statehood is the fulfillment of this biblical prophecy. For them, the promise of Zion will not come until the Messiah returns and the world transforms. In fact, in the 1970’s, Lubavitch Hasidic leader M.M. Schneerson declared that Jews who lived in Israel were just as much in exile as those who lived in the diaspora. These Jews maintain that while the population may not be as dispersed, the condition of exile remains imposed by earthly reality. The biblical significance of Modern Israel is a separate cleavage that causes tensions in the Jewish community, albeit an issue relegated to more Religious adherents. Regardless, there clearly exists a defined segment of Jewish discourse that has been and continues to be unsupportive of the diaspora to a contemptuous or at least concerned degree.
Diaspora as Neutral or Good
However dogmatic these aforementioned anti-assimilationist Zionists may be, they by no means subscribe to the dominant view in contemporary Jewish discourse. The idea that Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews can coexist and interact meaningfully for mutual benefit is a leading one among American Jews, Israeli Jews, and Zionist thinkers of all persuasions. Many are content with living Jewish lives outside of Israel or believe that diasporic Judaism can survive meaningfully so long as it has a physical, spiritual, and cultural homeland to keep it centered, even if it is in another time zone. This interpretation, while acknowledging the pain and horror of exile, also sees the experience as one that tested and strengthened the character of Judaism and spread its roots across the world. As they say, greatness is born from adversity. This section will enumerate neutral and positive views of exile and diaspora from the past and present.
As Jewish Nationalism became popular and Jewish victims during exile were labeled as “weak” or “submissive,” there arose a prominent counter-movement that sought instead to celebrate the sacrifices of past victims and acknowledge their plight as martyrdom rather than surrender. The Israeli novelist Haim Hazaz expounded : “Exile is not just one long tale of decline and fall but one of heroism, not just one of ugliness and disgrace but of glory and credit, not just one of humiliation and slavery but of freedom generous and inspiring, unparalleled in human history. But for it, Israel would have been reduced to the dead level of all the nations, like any other people that has nothing else but a country and a government, wrapped up in their four cubits of mundane time-killing existence and lowest common culture. What they [the nations] need is exile, not revolutions, internationals, or leagues of nations, but exile plain and simple, that will refine, purify and teach them to understand the meaning of the universe, of man, of fellowship, compassion, truth, and justice.”
After all, if what made diaspora (merely the dispersion of a population) galut (coerced exile) was that it was imposed by outside forces, then the creation of a modern Israeli state does indeed negate the exile, leaving only a self-imposed and optional dispersion. This is not a unique circumstance in Jewish history, but rather was the status quo for centuries after the Babylonian exile and lasting throughout the Second Temple period. While welcome back into Judea, many Jews chose to remain throughout the Mediterranean Region, in Persia, or in the Maghreb. They would travel to Israel for holidays or special occasions and it was the source of their spiritual existence, but they were content to live apart from it so long as they knew it was there for them, safe and welcoming. Similarly, many Jews today are content to live in the Diaspora, travelling to Israel for holidays, Bar Mitzvah’s, or educational programs like Birthright. Supporters of this relationship promote its collaborative nature, noting the importance of international Jewish support for economic and military security. In fact, were it not for the original economic support of diaspora communities, many of whom were going door to door for donations, early communities in Mandatory Palestine could never have survived and grown.
This spirit of partnership abounded even more following tumultuous Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973. Institutions like the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, and the Joint Distribution Committee were organized or re-organized to foster joint activity between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. In the 1980’s, a plan called “Project Renewal” established a series of twin city relationships. Benji Levy, the CEO of a Jewish group called Mosaic United, has stressed that this collaboration is easier than ever in an age of globalization, the internet, and instant communication. He stresses that by working together, Israeli and Diaspora Jews can create a stronger and more unified existence for the modern Jewry as a whole. Conversely, Israeli state policy has aimed in recent years to support Jews in the diaspora, and Israel’s controversial 2018 Nation-State Law included directives meant at buoying Jewish communities outside of Israel. Detractors of this policy, on the other hand, have argued that this amounts to an attitude that the diaspora cannot take care of itself. Nevertheless, the spirit of collaboration is widespread.
As many early Jewish Nationalists sought to connect contemporary suffering with biblical or historical Jewish suffering, this connection did not make itself readily felt in the mainstream. The Jews of Europe numbered in the millions, and their concern was their immediate and material suffering, of which there was no shortage. As the situation in Europe devolved, populations made their way to North America, where the majority of Jews actually live today. Many of these immigrants did indeed see themselves as part of a diaspora, but from their European nation of origin rather than a spiritual conception of Zion. It was to Poland, or Germany, or Russia that these Jews had to flee and where they felt an ancestral connection to, especially given their occupational, social, and territorial roots; material reality can often be more compelling than spiritual longing.
The most glaring aspect of Jewish diaspora is perhaps the more than 300,000 to 500,000 Israeli Jews who have emigrated out of Israel since its creation. The term for these Jews is Yerida and is typically deployed derogatorily. Yerida means to descend and is meant to contrast with the act of moving to Israel known as Aliyah, to ascend. Emigration from Israel has typically been frowned upon in Israeli society and is technically in violation of Jewish Law (Halakha) with the exception of economic necessity, according to the famous medieval Sephardic philosopher known as Moses Maimonides, or Rambam. Israeli views of their emigrating countrymen were historically condescending, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin even being quoted as labeling emigrants as “leftover weaklings.” The Israeli government even went as far as implementing bureaucratic roadblocks towards emigration, and from 1948–1961 Israelis who wished to leave the country even on temporary vacation had to apply for a special exit visa, a policy meant to strengthen national solidarity and prevent military deserters. Even if this is a popular view among Israeli adults, it’s not an opinion shared by younger generations. A 2007 poll of Israeli teenagers found that almost half expressed a desire to move abroad, and that more than a third describe the domestic situation in Israel as “not good.” The reasons for Israeli emigration are myriad, but chief among them are economic opportunity, housing shortages, a desire for secularism, and dissent regarding the Israeli’s handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because the community is so sizeable and its position so unique, its place in the debate between diaspora and homeland is central.
Although American Jews end their Passover Seder’s with an emphatic “Next Year in Jerusalem,” most are not selling their houses, packing their bags, or saying their goodbyes. For many of these Jews, their heritage derives from the customs of their parents, the observance of holidays, the value of community, the bagels and lox, the Seinfeld references, the Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve. An altogether novel but vibrant Jewish culture emerged in this North American context. If this is assimilation, they say, then assimilation is not intrinsically bad. Perhaps it is merely the normal consequence of a modernizing and secularizing world. These Jews don’t mind living in diverse communities, alongside Muslim, Christian, or secular neighbors, influencing and being influenced, even if that means a divergence from traditional Talmudic teachings or biblical prophecy, and even if that means their language or clothing have been “westernized.”
It is anything but controversial to write a paper supposing there to a disagreement among Jews. As goes a classic joke: if you have ten Jews in a room, you will hear eleven opinions. This Jewish tendency towards debate and disagreement is by no means a recent development. In fact, the tendency towards debate is and has been one of the many sources of Judaism’s greatness, and it fosters an environment of intellectual vibrancy, necessary adaption, and personal connection to faith and culture. Jews, like other ethnic and religious groups, have consistently needed to adapt to their circumstances but have also gone to great lengths to preserve the customs and faith of their ancestors. This goal is one that can be reached and followed in any number of ways. Whether the existence of the diaspora is a blessing or a curse, it is the result of an intergenerational journey.
Even if this discursive disagreement is not unique to Jewish history, it is still a notable part of it, and one worthy of continued examination. The implications of diasporic collaboration or a lack thereof are vast, and the political and economic strength of the Jewish state is at stake. It is important for the global Jewry as a whole to come to terms with a central, unflinching reality — barring catastrophe, there will remain a sizeable Jewish population both within and outside of Israel. The sooner that this reality be accepted, even if it may not be celebrated, the sooner Jewish solidarity can be strengthened to continue lasting the test of time.
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