In the 1931 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, the Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnow contributed the entry on “diaspora,” a concise summary of his pioneering research and influential theory of Jewish national survival. According to Dubnow, after the fall of the ancient Hebrew state, dispersed Jewish communities retained their autonomy and national identity through self-governing institutions such as schools, courts, and social welfare networks. These communities, which he describes as “substitutes for state forms,” remained distinct from the nations in which they were situated, functioning as independent polities: “In most of the eastern Diaspora,” for instance, “the state delegated to such communities wide powers of regulation, taxation, [and] judicial administration (including punishment of crime).” Dubnow makes clear that the degree of independence that Jewish communities enjoyed has varied. Yet he stresses the pervasive continuity of Jewish national independence. Throughout history and across the globe, Dubnow contends, Jews have carved out autonomous zones in which they could administer their own affairs at some remove from the gentile state. These practices of communal self-government generated a distinctive theoretical tradition centered on cultural and political autonomy, rather than territorial sovereignty.
Dubnow, an activist as well as a historian, was deeply inspired by this tradition. In 1907, he co-founded the Folkspartey (Jewish People’s Party), which proposed what became known as a “diaspora nationalist” platform. The party advocated Jewish self-rule and legal recognition of a Jewish nationality within a democratic Russian government, including the establishment of a Russia-wide Jewish national assembly. These measures were necessary, Dubnow argued, to preserve Jewish independence, which was being threatened by the centralizing tendencies of the modern state. The Folkspartey’s demands for Jewish autonomy—far more extensive than those of the socialist Bund, whose vision was limited to education and language rights—were extremely popular across Eastern Europe. By 1917, elements of the party’s platform had been adopted by virtually all Jewish political parties in Russia—even Zionist ones, which demanded minority rights for European Jews in addition to the establishment of a national home in Palestine. In the heyday of diaspora nationalism, Dubnow provided historical and theoretical frame-works to support a widespread political demand: the call for collective rights of self-government within the multinational states of Eastern Europe.
Diaspora nationalism largely faded from the Jewish political lexicon after World War II. The Nazi genocide led many to conclude that this multinational vision had been decisively refuted by history, and with the establishment of the State of Israel, Jewish national self-determination was increasingly linked with territorial sovereignty. Yet in the past two decades, as a younger generation of American Jews has wrestled with anti-semitism and the dilemmas of whiteness on the one hand, and with Israel’s discriminatory practices on the other, neo-diasporisms of various kinds have proliferated. This trend accelerated in the Trump era: Writing in the pages of this magazine in 2018, then-publisher Jacob Plitman celebrated “an emerging diasporism” among artists and activists, organized around the Bund-inspired concept of “doikayt” (“hereness”)—a post-liberal politics of coalition-building that refuses to resolve differences into comfortable consensus. In short, the notion of “diaspora” has been reclaimed and rehabilitated, as leftists seek an authentic Jewish stance from which to oppose white supremacy in the United States and Jewish supremacy in Israel.
But what exactly would it mean to revive diasporism, not only as a philosophical orientation, but as a live political stance in the 21st century? The eminent Talmudist Daniel Boyarin’s new book, The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto, offers one intriguing set of answers. Like Dubnow before him, Boyarin hails diaspora “as foundational to the character of Jewish existence and a source of its cultural and political vitality,” and positions diasporic politics as an alternative to the territorial, state-centered politics of Zionism. (Boyarin vocally deplores the ideology’s moral outrages, the most egregious of which Dubnow did not live to witness.) Yet Boyarin’s non-Zionist vision is anchored in a markedly different understanding of diaspora, which he defines as a situation marked by “doubled identity as well as doubled loyalties and a doubled cultural location and doubled practices.” Diasporic Jews, as Boyarin understands them, nourish a distinct cultural world while participating enthusiastically in ambient, non-Jewish cultures. If Dubnow associated diaspora with autonomous existence sustained through schools, courts, community councils, and charities, Boyarin finds it in a diasporic consciousness cultivated through “studying Talmud, keeping the Sabbath, speaking Yiddish, dancing with Kurdish or Yemenite Jews, and studying their Torah.”