A selection from Diasporic by Jason Leinwand

Essay

On an Emerging Diasporism

April 16, 2018Jacob Plitman

THE SIMULTANEOUS CRISES of the Trump presidency in America and the ongoing rightward radicalization of Israel present left-leaning American Jews with a conundrum. 

But rather than dampening American Jewish expression, the two crises are fueling an inspiring kind of diasporic Jewish revival. Confronted by Trump’s actions and the rising visibility of American antisemitism and xenophobia, we are recently engaged in struggle and protest of a publicly Jewish nature—against deportations, against bans on Muslims, and much more—matching in many ways the ferocity of the re-energized forces of antisemitism and white supremacy. Jewish theater, art and cultural production have taken on a new urgency; events that normally attract a small, parochial audience suddenly find themselves packed. Organizations countering the rightward shift in Israel and fighting the ongoing occupation of Palestine grow in numbers and influence. And though not new, Yiddish revivalism is enjoying broadening popularity, evidenced by new musical groups and podcasts.

As our liberal self-conception—our fundamental belief that we are good citizens, that we should cooperate with our ruling ideologies, that everything is basically okay—disintegrates, something exciting and rebellious is beginning to emerge.

The seeds of this moment were planted many decades ago. Reform Rabbi Eugene Borowitz’s 1973 work, The Mask Jews Wear, paints a familiar portrait of furor in the Jewish community. In the book, he likens the mid-20th-century American Jew to an apartment-door mezuzah buried under layers of paint. He argues that the apparent lack of a defined American ethnic identity allowed newly-immigrated Jews to submerge themselves in Americanness, to dive further into a common civic identity than in any other society in the world. Through the post-war period, it seemed truly possible to be an American Jew.

Then, crisis: The 1960s and 70s, Borowitz argued, brought for American Jews a new “realism . . . bought at the price of the assassinations of two Kennedys and a King, [and] of the credibility of Presidents Johnson and Nixon.” The decline of American legitimacy, precipitated by political turmoil and division, by resistance to racial integration, by endless war in Vietnam, and by the inescapable ennui brought about by Jewish class uplift, was creating a spiritual and political crisis that Borowitz believed would separate American Jews from America.

But a great event soon arrived to save Jews caught between the failure of the American project and their own desire for meaning. “With the Six-Day War, a decided positive shift in American Jewish self-consciousness began,” Borowitz writes. Finally triumphing over the “self hate” left over from the Holocaust, American Jews erupted in an enormous outpouring of support for Israel during the war, marking a rebirth of the Jewish being. For Borowitz, Israel answered all of our questions. It was the earth in which to root our “ethnos,” our essential difference. Even Jews in diaspora could make meaning through Israel: namely, by planning to move there as soon as possible. Of course, the vast majority of us didn’t. Instead of moving to Israel, we moved Israel inside of ourselves, and our synagogues, Jewish Federations and summer camps.

This messianic understanding of Israel, celebratory and naive, framed the upbringing of many of my generation of American Jews. Being a Jewish kid in this country is strange and disorienting. The centering of Israel explains why: your own people insist that you don’t belong “here” but “there,” in some ideal struggle very far away. Your time “here” is merely an interlude before you advance into “there.” Everything that happens to you in diaspora is like the early pages of a Bildungsroman.

Those of us who absorbed this understanding did so through a thousand different vectors, direct and indirect: the synagogue trips to Israel, the Sunday school lectures on Ariel Sharon, the map of Greater Israel on our tsedoke boxes.

For me, it was the fact that the “Prayer for Israel” we recited every day at summer camp was the song with the best tune. It was the rippling blue Jewish star gracing the bottom of the camp swimming pool. It was an attitude of defiance, cultivated by repeated assurances that if we do not fight, we die—a mindset reinforced by the burning trash thrown onto my lawn by antisemites back home in North Carolina.

However this sense of thereness was imparted, it worked. At 18, I spent a “gap year” in Israel, expecting perhaps never to return. Instead, I would unhappily learn what the symbols and experiences of Jewish nationalism meant and still mean to millions of Palestinians living under occupation. This was a life-altering, heartbreaking realization that is all too familiar to many Millennial Jews.

 

THE TRAGIC POSSIBILITY of placing Israel at the center of Jewishness did not completely elude Borowitz, even in 1973. “If the State of Israel manifested merely the same viciousness as every other modern state,” he wrote, “then I—and most Israelis, I am certain—would feel this behavior to be a betrayal of the Jewish people and its tradition.” By any good-faith measure, the intervening half-century bore out those fears. Today, Israel reveals itself more and more as America’s tragic equal, wracked by its own endless wars, its own struggle against its minorities, its own deportations of refugees. American Jews tend to be at home in both, or neither.

Of course, plenty of radicals and others saw this coming. (On one public panel in 1963, Leonard Cohen called this brewing situation “the insane Talmud of identity that must end in psychiatry or Zionism.”) But many of us didn’t, and rage was often the result. Yet even our rage at being betrayed, the fiery emotion sustaining anti-occupation and anti-Zionist Jewish organizations, may soon slip away from us. Betrayal requires an element of surprise. How long can we be fueled on anger and opposition alone?

This American Jewish crisis does not exist purely on moral or spiritual planes. Like everyone else, we must reckon with the fact that the capitalist economic forces that brought wealth to America and some sectors of our community are approaching crisis. The economic and political arrangements that made up America-as-we-knew-it are eroding or already gone. And so go our shorelines and riverbeds and water tables; “diaspora” takes on an unsettling new intensity as millions face displacement from climate change.

We are pinched between late-capitalist America and an Israel that proved to be more state than messiah. This is the diasporic double bind, and the crisis that frames the thinking of many young leftist Jews. Spiritually, communally, and politically, either one must displace one’s heart and mind into the concrete compromises of various nationalisms, or endure a diasporism marked by wandering: a permanent wrestling with uncertainty and anger, a journey with no definite end, a covenant with discomfort.

Scary! But at the very least, facing it directly makes things simpler. “There will be no psalms, there will be no light,” as Cohen said during the same panel, “there will be no illumination until we can confess the position into which we have decayed.” The confession is the easy part. Next we have to start thinking about what we’re going to build.

Luckily, nothing Jewish ever starts from scratch. In her 2007 book, The Colors of Jews, scholar and activist Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz gave more shape to the idea of diasporism by discussing the meaning of home:

What do I mean by home? Not the nation state; not religious worship; not the deepest grief of a people marked by hatred. I mean a commitment to what is and is not mine; to the strangeness of others, to my strangeness to others; to common threads twisted with surprise. Diasporism takes root in the Jewish Socialist Labor Bund’s principle of doikayt—hereness—the right to be, and to fight for justice, wherever we are...Doikayt is about wanting to be citizens, to have rights, to not worry about being shipped off at any moment where someone else thinks you do or don’t belong…I name this commitment Diasporism.

 

HERENESS is the organizing principle of diasporism, a critical awareness of Israel coupled with a commitment to struggling primarily in the communities in which we live. Hereness invites us to dig in and build a political, spiritual and material fullness. Thereness tell us to search for meaning and well-being elsewhere, to separate our heart and head and displace them from our body. Hereness might have us use our trauma to build close relationships with our neighbors and allies. Thereness encourages us to imagine that isolation will heal our pain.

Hereness isn’t just about place, but about people: centering our politics and spiritual project around those nearest to us, adopting neighborliness as political practice and intergenerationality as a matter of course. Hereness demands that we learn our local histories and resurrect hidden ones of our own. Hereness means we refuse to disappear into the interiority of our liturgy, and equally refuse to stop being Jews in public. Hereness forces us to consider critically our relationship with class and its ordering of our world. Hereness is weird and materialist and queer and fun and angry, and best of all it’s already happening.

Together, these recent phenomena—large protests by organizations like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Bend the Arc; renewed interest in Jewish arts and culture; growing membership in independent minyans; a large Jewish infusion into socialist organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America; newly organized Sephardi/Mizrahi and Jews of Color caucuses; the appearance of new Jewish publications like Protocols and the revival of old ones like this magazine; and so on—are significant cultural, artistic, political, and spiritual reactions to our crisis: reflections of an emerging diasporism. Perhaps their disparate nature is a strength. On the other hand, maybe some degree of diasporic community and institution-building will be necessary to construct our future.

How can Jews play an active role in the redistribution of wealth in our country? What local partnerships are full of possibility? What might Jewish education look like with hereness at the root? How can we resuscitate our dialogue with America’s other minorities? Maybe we should open an Embassy of the American Jewish Diaspora, elect an ambassador, print a sheaf of letterhead, and begin taking meetings with business and social leaders. There are a thousand short stories to be written, published and tucked like a prayer into the cracks in the walls of our neighbors’ homes.

We see Jewish Currents as a hearth for the sparks of this burgeoning diasporic struggle—an intergenerational project in touch with its history, arguing about its present and working to envision its future. To that end, we are immensely grateful for the recent grant that has provided for the magazine’s rejuvenation, and for the thousands of small contributors that have kept it alive for well over a half-century, and on whom we will continue to rely. We relaunch with a commitment to documenting this ongoing emergence and its relationship to politics at large, to publishing groundbreaking art and literature, and challenging the long-held assumptions from a world that is already gone.

 

Jacob Plitman is the executive editor of Jewish Currents.