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In Defense of the Diaspora

Nicholas Jahr
June 3, 2015

Has the Wandering Jew Reached Home?

by Nicholas Jahr

This is an edited version of an essay that originally appeared in the Spring, 2015 issue of Jewish Currents

Reviewed in this Essay: At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, by Alan Wolfe. Beacon Press, 2014, 296 pages. The People in Between: The Paradox of Jewish Interstitiality, by Robert Marx. Cover to Cover Publishing, 2014, 308 pages.

Screen-Shot-2012-11-16-at-11.19.37-PM1THE DIASPORA NEVER GETS ITS DUE. Two new books seek to change that, and in the process to revive an embattled understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Alan Wolfe, professor of political science at Boston College and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, and for years a contributing editor to The New Republic, has written his first book on the Jewish question: At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews. Then there’s Rabbi Robert J. Marx’s The People in Between: The Paradox of Jewish Interstitiality. A founder of Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Marx is a veteran of the civil rights movement and the city’s painful battle over housing discrimination. In different ways, both authors attempt to make the case for a Judaism that is deeply concerned with the rights of others. After reading these books, however, you couldn’t be blamed for wishing the diaspora had better defenders.

For nearly two thousand years, Jewish life meant life in the diaspora. But the diaspora was always thought of as an exception, not the norm — as life in golus, exile (galut in Hebrew). Following the massive Nazi destruction of the European Jewish world, modern Israel consigned the diaspora to second-class status and abolished that exceptional norm — in some instances physically, through a massive “ingathering of the exiles,” notably from Arab lands.

Amazingly, neither Wolfe nor Marx ever undertakes the most elementary accounting of the diaspora. It’s 193 pages before Wolfe offers any numbers at all (“it is difficult to obtain precise figures”), and Marx never gets around to it. Luckily, we can consult The American Jewish Year Book 2013, which features a comprehensive survey [PDF] (as did the 2012 edition).

Home to just over six million Jews, Israel is now the world’s largest Jewish community. The diaspora as a whole is nonetheless still larger, with close to eight million Jews spread across some fifteen countries. The vast majority — over 5.4 million — live in the U.S.

If we cast our net further to including, say, “non-Jews” with Jewish parents, the numbers tilt further in favor of the diaspora, with the U.S. harboring an “enlarged” Jewish population of 8.3 million, while Israel’s bumps up to 6.3 million. In terms of sheer numbers, Israel is obviously one of the most significant nodes of the Jewish world — but only one.

Still, the diaspora has long been viewed with disdain from Jerusalem; the contempt for galut Jews held by figures as diverse as Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion is well-documented. Wolfe draws a convincing sketch of the dimensions of this “negation of the diaspora,” noting that on no less an occasion than the centennial of the American Jewish Committee in 2006, Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua told the audience that Israeli Jews enjoy an identity “immeasurably fuller... than the Jewishness of an American Jew.”

Five years later, Israeli Jews were so full of it that they were buying one-way tickets to exile at a record pace. Panicking, the Netanyahu government launched an advertising campaign suggesting that diaspora Jews would forget “the lessons” of the Holocaust (whatever those were exactly) or celebrate (shudder) Christmas. As Jewish Currents went to press, Netanyahu was yet again calling for the mass immigration of European Jews to Israel.

Wolfe argues that the negation of the diaspora reflects a “particularism” deeply entwined with Zionism. He defines particularists as those “who believe Jews need to be concerned only with the needs of other Jews.” The early Zionists actually took that stance one step further, to what Wolfe calls “selectivism”: They were not concerned with “defending the particular interests of the Jewish people as a whole,” but rather with those of a select few. This meant dismissing the diaspora to secure their own claims to legitimacy.

Against this particularly particular particularism, Wolfe contrasts the universalism of the diaspora: those Jews who saw in their own struggle an opportunity to “call attention to the problems faced by all people.” His book pits these phantoms against each other, but they tend to dissipate on contact: Wolfe cites neoconservatism as the preeminent form of particularism today, but even he has to acknowledge that “in theory, neoconservatism is universalist.” In fact, neoconservatism’s emphasis on rights would suggest its theory is at least as universal as any other. If one dismisses that emphasis, as Wolfe does, then its particularism is a product of the diaspora that Wolfe would like to see as universalist.

As for universalism, Wolfe cobbles together an intellectual lineage that runs from Moses Mendelssohn and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise through the American Council for Judaism’s Rabbi Elmer Berger to today’s Jewish critics of Israel such as Philip Weiss, Gershom Gorenberg, and Peter Beinart. It’s the last two Wolfe finds by far the most sympathetic, though “the reforms they advocate seem hopelessly utopian in the current political atmosphere.”

The $525,000 dollar question (adjusted for inflation) is whether universalism will “once again becom[e] attractive to Jews in the Diaspora.” Wolfe never says outright that it will, but he seems to think so. Unfortunately, to make that case for Europe, he cites relatively marginal groups like Limmud and Paideia (The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden); for the U.S. he leans on the silent majority of secular Jews and insists that “universalism is built into the DNA of the nonestablishment sector.” It’s not an encouraging assessment of the prospects for a universalist revival.

Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands haunts Wolfe’s narrative. He never discusses it directly, much less by that name (he does mention Israel’s “illegal settlements” at least once); he is mostly content to refer nebulously to how diaspora Jews might one day “play a greater role in helping Israel to come to its senses.” How exactly they should do this, Wolfe never says. Presumably by writing books like his, which do not explain what that would mean. Almost certainly not by taking any definite political action: “The best that liberal Zionists can do is to serve as Israel’s conscience,” he rules. For Wolfe, the diaspora is relevant primarily in relation to Israel.

RABBI ROBERT J. MARX IMAGINES a grander role for the diaspora. That role is “interstitial,” which is to Marx “the essence of existence ‘between the parts’ ... the role of a people that is situated between two or more segments of society.” To his credit, he has written a book which raises some provocative ideas. To his detriment, the book bears none of them out. He seeks a reckoning with anti-Semitism (which he spells without the hyphen, to emphasize its focus on Jews over other “Semites”), and insists that it “invariably entails interstitiality,” that “it is precisely the resiliency as well as the durability of antisemitism that demand a study of the interstitial role.”

Marx clearly wants Jews to take some responsibility for anti-Semitism, insofar as a few Jews have fulfilled the worst stereotypes of money-lenders. At times Marx seems to regard anti-Semitism as constitutive of Jewish identity in some way: “A distressing paradox of Jewish history lies in the counterintuitive fact that Jewish cohesiveness owes more to enemies than to friends.” Given that thesis, you might expect him to highlight moments when Jewish communities rallied together against anti-Semitism, suppressed their own differences, and prevented people from straying too far from the fold. He offers none.

Studying the interstitial role does little to clarify matters. Interstitiality, Marx tells us, can be both positive and negative. In its positive incarnation — much like Wolfe’s universalist Judaism — interstitiality means empathizing with the pain of others and responding “to the cries of those who are hungry and powerless.” Its negative flipside sees Jews “assume the posture of helpless victims” of anti-Semitism. Why either should necessarily emerge from interstitiality is never made clear.

Most of the time, what Marx seems to have in mind is the historical position of some Jews between rulers and ruled, as tax collectors or financiers. (Of course, it’s only a minority of Jews who enjoyed the profoundly mixed blessings of this role, which makes it difficult to see how it could shape the character of the Jewish community as a whole.) Otherwise, it’s often unclear just which segments of society the Jews are “between.”

After 207 pages, Marx mentions that “the ‘positive interstitial’ role is based upon a religious view of Judaism, not a secular one.” This seemingly vital point is little more than an aside before a brief discussion of Rabbi Abraham Heschel (itself a digression that occurs at the opening of a chapter on Spinoza, “the quintessential interstitial Jew”) and his work in the civil rights movement. Many secular Jews who were in the trenches and on the buses in that movement would probably disagree.

Even later in his book, Marx asks: “Is the interstitial analysis still applicable to the Jewish community of the United States?” His whole endeavor would seem to hinge on the question. Marx answers it by first glancing at the conflict between the American Rabbis Stephen S. Wise and Isaac Leeser, then turning his attention to fin-de-siècle German Jewish elites, then fast forwarding to Henry Kissinger and Joe Lieberman’s vice-presidential bid. This is characteristic: Marx doesn’t meander so much as careen wildly through two millenia of Jewish history, pinballing from Rashi to Maimonides to Herzl to Dubnow to Sartre to Arendt to Spinoza. His focus often settles, as it does in his chapter on U.S. Jewry, on his subjects’ encounters with anti-Semitism, which is so closely entangled with his idea of interstitiality that the one becomes a proxy for the other. Whether “the interstitial analysis” still applies to American Jews remains a mystery.

Marx writes approvingly of the 20th century Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, whose “dream [of a Jewish nation independent of a nation-state] was reinforced by an impressive knowledge of Jewish history coupled with an understanding that this history was much more than a series of events dominated by their heroes and villains.” Disappointingly, this is precisely the book Marx has written: a series of events dominated by heroes, with anti-Semitism as the villain.

WOLFE AND MARX CHALLENGE US to imagine the diaspora independent of Israel and anti-Semitism. On the latter count, it’s Wolfe who provides the most effective rebuttal: Jewish life in the diaspora is safer than it’s ever been. Placed in the balance with the existential threat Israel’s leaders constantly insist it faces, the murder of four Jews in a Paris supermarket doesn’t tip the scales. Every year more Jews are attacked or killed because they are Jewish in Israel than in any other country in the world. While there may always be a need for continued vigilance, anti-Semitism can’t be a reason to retreat from the diaspora — and Israel can hardly be considered a safe haven.

Strictly as a question of population, there’s no reason for the diaspora to cede pride of place to Israel. Even if you insist that the diaspora can’t be considered a single entity, American Jewry continues to rival its Israeli cousin in size. A strictly quantitative argument, moreover, fails to value the several centuries-old tradition of France’s 478,000 Jews (to cite just one example). The diaspora, after all, is where nearly all of what we think of as Jewish culture was developed, from the Babylonian Talmud to the Guide for the Perplexed to khasidism to yidishkayt. In the words of 19th-century American rabbi Irving Reichert (quoted by Wolfe): “Israel took upon itself the yoke of the law not in Palestine but in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, and by far the greatest part of its deathless and distinguished contribution to world culture was produced not in Palestine but in Babylon and the lands of the dispersion.”

It’s striking that neither Wolfe nor Marx has much to say about the Jewish Labor Bund, much less its principle of doikayt (‘hereness’). Suffice to say, the Bund emerged in the Pale of Settlement on the verge of the 20th century; its Polish branch came to espouse doikayt as a central organizing principle. They didn’t think the answer to “the Jewish question” was retreating to a nation-state of their own, but rather in fighting for their rights in lands in which they already lived. Doikayt does not necessarily lead to the universalism that Wolfe champions — but the doikayt of the Bund was certainly connected to a commitment to transforming society, to redirecting Judaism’s messianic energy toward creating a better world here and now.

We’d hope that life as a minority would inspire Jews to take up the cause of the marginalized and oppressed, but that’s obviously not the only kind of thinking that proceeds from Jewish historical awareness. It is at best an elective affinity — as strong for secular Jews as it is for religious ones. At one point Marx rattles off some of the qualities of positive interstitiality: a commitment to study, a respect for the enigma of the universe, a receptiveness to reason and new ideas, and a deep commitment to justice. Historically, those last two qualities are far more reflective of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) and progressive movements like the Bund than of the various religious movements within Judaism.

Israel’s emergence has left us living in a post-messianic era. The disorienting realization of a promise few ever expected to be realized, it relegated the diaspora to a supporting role on the world stage. There was no reason to accept that status. Zionism promised that it would make the Jews “normal,” a people like any other. Israel has instead intensely cultivated a sense of being separate and distinct. The diaspora holds out a different promise: of tolerance and diversity, of finding ways to live together and forge a better world short of utopia. Defending the diaspora means declaring independence from Israel, paying attention to how Jews are actually choosing to live, and recognizing that the promised land always lies in the future.

Nicholas Jahr, a member of our editorial board, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He last wrote for Jewish Currents in 2013 on “The Secret History of Palestinian Non-Violence,” and is a regular contributor to the website.

Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and a member of Jewish Currents’ editorial board. In the past he has written for the magazine about comics, film, the diaspora, Israeli elections, and Palestinian nonviolence. His work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Nation, City & State, and the Village Voice (RIP).