Open Letter to My Students 45: Rethinking the Diaspora

[First, many thanks to all of you responded so generously to my last letter. Your support means the world to me.]

And now: Letter 45, “Rethinking the Diaspora”

Credit Marx and Engels. The world has always had workers, but they had no consciousness of themselves as such until Marx and Engels told them so, most famously in their Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world, unite!” Now they knew: they were “workers,” and “of the world,” no less. Communism was a dead-end disaster, but collective consciousness armed workers worldwide to unionize and change history. 

Apply that Marx/Engels insight to women, and you get feminism. Apply it to the Black experience in America and you get Black Lives Matter. What if we apply it to Jews?

Jewish peoplehood has been likened to an ellipse, not a circle, because it has two centers: the Land (now the State) of Israel; and the diaspora. With the Roman destruction of the former, the latter predominated: the Babylonian Talmud, a golden age in Spain, and so forth. Nevertheless, in the Jewish imagination, diasporan life was perceived as a sorry state of exile, a temporary condition until we get back home to Zion. Three times a day, we prayed for that return. “I am in the uttermost west,” sang our 12th-century Spanish poet Judah Halevi, “but my heart is in the east.”   

We never did all move back to Zion, however. Instead, the diaspora continued producing ever more golden ages: Rashi and his school of biblical/Talmudic interpreters in 11th/12th-century France and Germany; Maimonides in 12th-century Egypt; the flowering of Talmudic study in 16th/17th-century Poland and Lithuania; Hasidism a century later; all our modern movements, from Reform to Orthodoxy – a product of 19th-century Germany and America. 

We have inherited all this, but without the diasporan pride that it deserves. The trifecta of Czarist persecution, Nazi nightmare, and Stalin’s purges cast doubt on the entire diasporan enterprise. Then came deliverance, the realization of the Zionist dream, and our adoption of a secular version of the rabbinic return-to-Zion story. We preached moving to Israel (aliyah) as a virtue, celebrated anyone who undertook it, and sent our children to Israel to see what real Jewish life looks like: the Land of the Bible, even a biblical zoo, modern Hebrew in the streets, a Hebrew University, a genuine Jewish state, a Jewish army even! 

By contrast, we treated the diaspora, even here in America, as the leftover dregs of ersatz Jewish life awaiting outright assimilation. Never mind the host of Jewish Nobel-prize winners (J. Robert Oppenheimer, Jonas Salk, Richard Feynman, Milton Friedman, for starters); or composers (Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein); and writers (Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Arthur Miller). Never mind, as well, today’s impressive list of Jewish scientists, writers, journalists, philanthropists, university scholars, and executive CEOs. Never mind, finally, our own cultural efflorescence of Jewish creativity:  concerts, novels, theatre, movies, departments of Jewish Studies at universities across the country. Interest in Judaism is widespread, even among non-Jews. Jewish numbers are rising. Far from destroying us, intermarriage is showing signs of actually adding to our ranks. We are far from assimilating. 

The disparagement of diasporan Judaism is a false projection of the older generation’s experience onto the future. Younger generations of Jews don’t walk around in despair over what Judaism has to offer outside of Israel. If we want Judaism to persist among them, the last thing we should do is tell them that if they want Jewish meaning they have to go to Israel to get it.   

Let me be clear: I still revel in Israel’s successes. I just want to revel equally in ours, because a flourishing Jewish People demands constructive creativity not just in Israel, but outside of it as well. And I don’t mean just in the United States. I mean the diaspora worldwide which should see itself as an interconnected web of diasporan consciousness that transcends geographical specificity and is independent of the size of any particular community within it. 

Accurate appraisals of size are hard to come by, because estimates depend on who and how you count, and because both the “who” and the “how” have political and ideological consequences. American Jews number between 6 and 8 million. France (442,000?), Canada (394,000?) and the UK (292,000?) follow next. But the issue is not just raw numbers; with proper intentionality and self-confidence even smaller Jewish communities can achieve distinction. 

Take Australia, for example. Compared to the United States, its Jewish population of 118,000 may seem paltry, but the greatest detriment to Australian Jewish achievement is the damaging sense that diasporan life is, by definition, a losing proposition; that it is, therefore, hardly worth all-out investing in; and that the best that diasporas can expect is to hold the line against assimilation while sending their best and brightest to Israel. In reality, Australia’s 118,000 Jews – like Mexico’s 40,000, Belgium’s 29,000, and Chile’s 18,000 – are not inherently incapacitated. They are just unfocused on a vision of their own potential, which would increase geometrically, were they to become conscious of themselves as part of a worldwide diasporan network. Isn’t it time we echoed the Marx/Engels challenge: “Diasporan Jews of the world, unite!”

Because the idea of raising to prominence the entire world diaspora contradicts all we have been conditioned to believe, there are bound to be passionate objections.  But a moment’s thought is sufficient to dispel them.

Do we thereby minimize needed support for Israel? Not at all. A healthy, active, and thoughtful Jewish diaspora is just what Israel needs right now, as a world partner for the Jewish voice in our time.

Is diasporan self-esteem just a rerun of a bankrupt 19th-century fantasy that Jews outside of Israel even have a future?  Anti-Semitism never dies, does it? Isn’t it on the rise, even right here in America? Admittedly, we need always to be on guard against anti-Semitism. And thank God for Israel and its Law of Return for Jews who may need it. But prejudice need not fester into persecution. A return of the Hitlerian horror with a passive world order that let Jews die is not an eternally necessary outcome. And in any case, as long as there is a diaspora, it might as well be self-consciously proud, united across the world, and partnering with Israel for the sake of a purpose-driven Jewish People, responsive to our God-given mission to be a force for good.


One response to “Open Letter to My Students 45: Rethinking the Diaspora

  1. Phyllis Steiner

    Kol haKavod!

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