Diasporas in general and the Jewish Diaspora in particular are very important complex sociopolitical entities that are playing a growing role in most states worldwide, as well as in regional, international and transnational politics. The diaspora phenomenon, including the Jewish Diaspora, is an expanding field of study.
Many people worldwide, including scholars—especially those adhering to the instrumentalist and constructivist approaches to the origins and development of ethnic groups, nations, and diasporas—consider the Jewish Diaspora as a modern or even a postmodern phenomenon. While it is true that the period since the midnineteenth century has seen a marked change in the entire diasporic phenomenon—including the Jewish Diaspora—the Jewish Diaspora, like other ancient diasporas, has maintained many of its “old” characteristics.
The Jewish Diaspora was established as a result of both voluntary and forced migrations of Jews out of their ancient homeland—Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). Later, Jews were either exiled from their host countries (such as Spain and England in the Middle Ages and Middle Eastern states in the twentieth century) or voluntarily migrated to secondary and tertiary host countries. The forced and voluntary migrations that resulted in the establishment of the Diaspora began much earlier than what has been regarded as the “official” date of the Diaspora’s establishment, that is, the creation of the Jewish Diaspora in Babylon.
Return movements of Hebrews from Egypt (the Exodus) and other Middle Eastern countries to the Land of Israel have occurred throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, Jewish communities continued to exist in these countries after such return migrations. Hence, a Jewish Diaspora has persisted since antiquity.
The expulsion of the Israelites by the Assyrians and of the Judeans by the Babylonians only added new larger groups to the already-existing Jewish diasporic communities in various parts of the Middle East. This means that after the initial establishment of the Jewish diasporic entities in Egypt and Syria, new Jewish diasporic entities were established in various parts of the Middle East and Asia Minor and later in the Balkans. The Babylonian Jewish Diaspora served as a model because the Jews created there an “autonomous diasporic sociopolitical system,” in which the Diaspora, rather than the devastated homeland, became the national center and played the crucial role in the nation’s persistence, cultural development, and political influence.
The establishments of the Greek Empire and later the Roman Empire, both of which controlled vast territories, facilitated both the permanent settlement of Jews and the establishment of communities in various parts of these empires and the communication between the various dispersed Jewish communities.
This expansionist trend continued during most of the Middle Ages. The Jewish Diaspora spread from the eastern Middle East, Greece, and Rome to North Africa, Europe, and Asia. Later, partly voluntarily and partly because of anti-Semitism, anti-Jewishness, and hatred, Jews migrated and established diasporic entities in South and Latin America, and then they moved to the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. In fact, the center did not shift back to the homeland even when the regional geopolitical situation changed.
The Zionist Movement, which advocated the return to Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish independent state there, was established toward the end of the nineteenth century and during the early twentieth century. Because of growing temptations of assimilation and of integration into democratizing and secularizing host lands, on the one hand, and because of persecution, anti-Semitism, and pogroms, on the other hand, the most urgent problem then facing Jewry was how to prevent defection of individuals and groups from Judaism and from membership in the Diaspora’s communities. Thus, already at that historical juncture, the problem was how to ensure continuity and enhance the readiness of Jews to identify as such, as a basis for a solidarity that could enable Jewish diasporic joint action.
Partly because of the Diaspora’s geographic dispersion and partly because of ideological pluralism among Diaspora Jews, it was difficult to reach consensus about the preferable strategy for the nation’s survival and persistence. Hence, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there emerged various approaches to these questions, and virtually all shades of strategies gained adherents. These included assimilation, integration, participation in class struggle (namely, adopting the socialist and social-democratic solutions), cultural and political autonomy, and corporatism, the latter of which meant formal representation of the Jewish community vis-à-vis host governments, such as in Great Britain.
During this period, the main new facet was the birth of the separatist Zionist movement’s strategy, which called for the Jews’ return to Palestine and the reestablishment there of their own sovereign state.
Prior to World War II (1939–1945), the emerging but small Zionist movement faced tough intranational competition with other Jewish movements that had emerged in the Diaspora. Actually, prior to the emergence of Nazism and World War II, Zionism was a marginal movement in world Jewry, and its strategy did not attract the majority of Jews. The impact of that war, especially the painful realization of the full scope of the Holocaust and its disastrous consequences, created the right backdrop for a breakthrough by the Zionist movement. Many Diaspora Jews realized that the Zionist strategy was not only feasible but also an appealing solution to the problem of Jewish survival and national revival. Though the situation was ripe for the implementation of the Zionist strategy, membership in and support of the Zionist movement was still rather limited.
The efforts to form consensus around the Zionist solution generated many delicate questions about central issues, some of which are still debated in the early twenty-first century. Among these, an important issue has been what should be the relations between the Zionists and other Jewish groups that opted for other strategies. Another unsolved issue revolves around reconciling the various elements in the national identity and perceptions. Because this fundamental question has not been solved, the issues of the principles that determine Israeli citizenship, and consequently the relations between Israel and certain segments in the Diaspora, have remained unsolved.
An additional debate about essentials that has not been concluded concerns the centrality of Israel versus the autonomy of diasporic communities. In two large and strong diasporic communities—the U.S. and French communities—strong inclinations toward cultural and political self-sufficiency and freedom of action have emerged vis-à-vis Israel. Connected to these trends, new attitudes have emerged concerning certain practical issues, such as loyalty to Israel versus host countries, and Israel’s “right” to influence Diaspora leaders and members in order to increase support for its endeavors.
Furthermore, there was and there still is no consensus between Diaspora and Israeli leaders concerning the role of the Diaspora in the establishment of the Israeli state. In the wake of World War II, this historical act was promoted and actually implemented by leaders and parties adopting an ideology that emphasized the predominance of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) in the Jewish nation.
After the Holocaust, when the Jews still constituted a stateless diaspora, large segments in various Jewish communities adopted an exceptionally supportive strategy toward the Jewish state. Later this strategy changed. In most Western democracies, where Jewish communities have been able to act relatively freely, these entities have adopted a communal strategy. Essentially, this strategy means not only moderate social, political, and economic behavior, but it also has determined the nature of the organizations the Diaspora operates. On a spectrum of strategies that runs from an assimilationist poll, on the one hand, to a return to the homeland, on the other hand, the communal strategy is regarded as one that poses major threats neither to the host countries nor to the members of the Diaspora. By adopting this strategy the Diaspora members implicitly pronounce that they accept the main social, political, and economic rules of the game in the host countries and that only under extreme circumstances would they adopt dual loyalties. When fully implemented, this pattern diminishes potential and actual controversies and clashes between the Diaspora and its host lands.
The establishment of Israel in 1948 marked a fundamental change in the position of the Jewish Diaspora. Whereas prior to its establishment the Jews constituted a “classical stateless diaspora,” afterward the Jews dwelling outside Israel should be regarded as a “classical state-based diaspora.” Since 1948 the Jewish Diaspora has shown great similarity to other classical diasporas whose connections are with independent homelands.
After the establishment of Israel a new group joined the classical Jewish Diaspora—Israeli emigrants. Most of these Israelis emigrated to and settled in various host countries as a result of voluntary decisions, and therefore they also hardly regard their situation as exilic.
The Land of Israel is a crucial element in the ethno-national-religious identity of Diaspora Jews. Throughout history the collective memories of the homeland remained vivid in the hearts and minds of Diaspora Jews. The spiritual and emotional ties of Jews, though not all Jews, to the ancient homeland contributed to a sense of national solidarity. Later this solidarity also served as a basis for various activities on behalf of that segment of the nation that dwelled in the homeland. Such support peaked in the wake of the establishment of modern Israel, and still later during and after the 1967 and 1973 wars. Since then general support for the Jewish state has been declining.
Similar to the situation with all other diasporas, the Jews form a majority only in Israel, and only small minorities in all their host countries. In fact, the majority of the nation dwells outside the homeland—most of them in relative security, economic prosperity, and cultural bloom. These facts and Israel’s problematic security situation have raised the issue of the location of the national center, and of its corollary, the question of peripheriality in this nation. During the first two decades after the establishment of Israel it seemed as if the Diaspora recognized the new nation-state as the main Jewish center, and its policies and actions determined developments in the Diaspora.
By the early twenty-first century, there were at the least four major Jewish centers—the American, French, Russian, and Israeli. Among these centers there is implicit and explicit, continuous tacit competition about predominance in the entire nation.
In most of the host countries, especially the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Australia, Mexico, and Peru, there are relatively large groups of core Jews who have well integrated into these societies, political systems, and economies. These Jews—most of whom were in their forties and fifties in the early twenty-first century—obtained an academic education and became affluent. Many of the members of these well-integrated groups are in high-tech fields, academia, and other professional occupations, such as journalism, medicine, banking, insurance, and law. Some of them belong to the richer segments in these countries, but most of the members of these groups belong to the middle and upper-middle class. The main reasons for these achievements are: Jews’ determination to continue to survive and overcome actual and perceived difficulties in their host lands, their painful memories of historical deprivation and persecution, family and communal support and encouragement, a strong emphasis on education within their families and communities (education being a precondition for economic success), and the existence of Jewish communal and international networks and systems of communication.
There are, however, still many Jews permanently residing in the above-mentioned and other host lands, such as east and central European and some Latin and South American countries. These Jews are typically older and belong to lower income groups or to the working class. These poorer Jews need support from their host governments and their Jewish communities. This last factor affects the allocation of the resources that are at the disposal of the various Jewish diasporic communities. When the political and economic conditions in such host lands become more difficult, such Jews get support from the wealthier Jewish communities. This has been the case, for example, with the Jewish refugees created by World War II, with Jews in Middle Eastern and North African countries until the 1950s, and, more recently, with Ethiopian Jews.
By the early twenty-first century, the return of Jews to countries where they were persecuted and from which they were expelled had also become apparent. The “return” of Jews to host countries such as Germany, Spain, and Austria, shows that Israel is not regarded as the undisputed national center. Moreover, the majority of Diaspora Jews has stayed and will be staying in their host countries.
Despite persecution and migration to secondary and tertiary host countries, on the one hand, and acceptance by host societies and governments that result in assimilation or full integration, on the other hand, in various host countries a Diaspora core is maintained. These cores of devout Jews maintain their ethnonational and religious identity and resist assimilation or full integration.
In the past, the religious element in the Jewish identity was essential for the entire nation. Since World War II, however, this element has lost some of its significance. Though religious Jews claim that they constitute the main barrier against a sweeping assimilation that would result in the disappearance of Jewry, the ethnonational factor now serves as the basis for the continuous existence of many Jewish communities all over the world.
Because of its origins, endurance, and attachment to its ancient homeland, it is not surprising that the Jewish Diaspora has been considered an imperishable “classical,” “archetypal,” and “mobilized” diaspora. Some observers, however, are pessimistic about its future survival. The gist of the pessimists’ argument is that the new pluralism, multiculturalism, and tolerance toward the “others,” which prevail in the more democratic host countries, speed up the assimilatory tendencies that demographically decimate world Jewry.
This diaspora should now be regarded as an ethnonational–religious state–linked diaspora that is similar to other older and newer existing diasporas. In fact, the Jewish Diaspora fits a collective profile of ethnonational diasporas (Cohen 1997; Sheffer 2006). As applied to the Jewish case, the profile includes a number of elements.
As has been shown in the historical analysis above, the Jewish Diaspora was created as a result of voluntary and forced migration out of its homeland—Eretz Israel—and out of other host countries, and eventually as a result of its members’ permanent settlement in host countries. This diaspora has remained a rather small minority in all its host lands; after permanently settling in their host lands, the Diaspora’s members have maintained their ethnonational identity. This identity is buttressed by strong religious beliefs. The identity of this entity’s members is based on a combination of nonessentialist-primordial, psychological, and instrumental factors. The nonessentialist-primordial factors include the idea of common ancestry, biological connections, a common historical language, collective historical memories—among which the twentieth-century Holocaust is important—a discernable degree of national solidarity, a deeply rooted connection to the ancient homeland, and similar patterns of collective behavior. This identity is also based on instrumental factors concerning various benefits that derive from being members of the Diaspora. The strategy of many Jewish diasporic entities is communalist and is implemented through multiple organizations and active trans-state networks that protect and promote the diaspora’s political and economic interests. Another element of the profile is that most members of the Diaspora do not regard their existence in their host countries as exilic.
On the basis of such identity and identification, a sense of solidarity emerged and has been sustained. Such solidarity has facilitated continuous connections between the elites and active members on the grassroots level, which pertain to the cultural, social, economic, and political matters of the entire entity. In turn, these constitute determining factors in the relations among Jewish diasporans, their host countries, their homeland, their brethren in other host lands, and other international actors.
All the above-mentioned factors serve as the bases for organization and collective action. An essential purpose of these organizations and activities is to ensure the Diaspora’s capability to survive and to promote its interests in host lands and in the homeland, as well as to maintain cultural, social, economic, and political connections with the homeland and with other segments of the same nation.
Wherever and whenever they are free to choose, Jewish diasporans tend to adopt distinct strategies concerning their existence in their host lands and with their homeland. Generally, core members of the Jewish Diaspora adopt the communalist strategy, which is intended to ensure integration, rather than assimilation, in the host countries. This strategy, coupled with the wish to maintain contacts with the homeland determines the nature of the organizations that the Diaspora establishes, and also leads them to establish elaborate and labyrinthine trans-state networks.
The establishment of the Diaspora’s organizations, including the trans-state networks, and their subsequent activities, raises complex issues of loyalty. To avoid and prevent undesirable clashes between the Diaspora and its host societies and governments concerning the laws of the land and the norms of the dominant segments in the host societies, the Diaspora’s members usually accept these norms and comply with the laws. Nevertheless, during certain periods, especially when the homeland or the host country finds themselves in the midst of crises, or when the Diaspora encounters severe difficulties, certain segments in the host societies develop negative attitudes about the Diaspora’s disloyalty. On certain occasions, such tensions and clashes lead to the homeland’s intervention on behalf of its Diaspora or meddling in its affairs.
As noted above, despite certain pessimistic predictions of the demise of this ancient diaspora, all indicators show that like other similar diasporas, the Jewish Diaspora will continue to exist and even prosper.
SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Assimilation; Citizenship; Communalism; Ethnicity; Holocaust, The; Jews; Judaism; Migration; Pogroms; Socialism; Statelessness; Zionism
Boyarin, Daniel, and Jonathan Boyarin. 2003. Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Diaspora. In Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, 85–118. Oxford: Blackwell.
Braziel, Jana Evans, and Anita Mannur, eds. 2003. Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
Cohen, Robin. 1997. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. London:UCL Press.
Kellas, James G. 1991. The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Safran, William. 2005. The Jewish Diaspora in a Comparative and Theoretical Perspective. Israel Studies 10 (1): 36–60.
Sheffer, Gabriel. 2005. Is the Jewish Diaspora Unique? Reflections on the Diaspora’s Current Situation. Israel Studies 10 (1): 1–35.
Sheffer, Gabriel. 2006. Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Vertovec, Steven. 1997. Three Meanings of “Diaspora,” Exemplified among South Asian Religions. Diaspora 6 (3): 277–299.
Gabriel (Gabi) Sheffer
The Greek term diaspora, meaning "dispersion," has been used since ancient times as a means of describing the Jewish experience as well as the fact of Jewish settlement outside of the Jewish homeland to the present day. Originally, the term diaspora was used with respect to only three groups whose populations were dispersed in classical times: the Greeks, the Jews, and the Armenians. More recently, the term diaspora has been applied to a variety of other groups throughout the world who have endured dispersion from their original homelands. To the extent recent usage has changed the term's original connotation, its continued use to characterize the Jewish historical experience in its entirety can be misleading.
Classical scholars distinguish the forced exile of the Jews following the destruction of the First and Second Temples at Jerusalem (586 b.c.e. and 70 c.e., respectively) from the voluntary emigration out of the Jewish state that first occurred on a large scale under Persian rule after 538 b.c.e. and lasted through the escalating Roman occupation and administration of Judea after 6 c.e. Only voluntary emigration, by their analysis, truly falls under the heading of "diaspora." Forcible expulsion is more appropriately characterized by the Hebrew terms galut or golah, both referring to the state of living in exile. Part of the confusion between "diaspora" and "exile" arose after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e., when the two kinds of dispersion became inextricably intertwined and the terminology merged. The terms were not again seen to be separate and distinct until the creation of the modern State of Israel in 1948, when the creation of a central Jewish polity ended the enforced exile of Jews while many Jews elected to remain in diaspora—that is, living in areas outside the new Jewish state. After 1948, Israeli scholars began to apply the Hebrew term tefutsoth, which does not carry the connotation of forcible expatriation, to refer to the Jewish diaspora.
The Jewish diaspora is said by classical scholars to have begun during the First Temple period, with the establishment of a community of Jewish mercenaries within the military outpost of Elephantine (Southern Egypt) and with the removal of Jewish captives from the conquered Hebrew kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. However, the notion of diaspora as "exile" is theologically tied to the destruction of the First Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 b.c.e. As part of their conquest of the Hebrew kingdom of Judah, the Babylonians exiled the Jewish elite to Babylon, where they were said to have remained for three generations. Although the Assyrian captives had also been exiled by force, it was only during the Babylonian captivity that Jews developed the institutional structures that would later allow Judaism to survive without a homeland in the nineteen centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple and the complete suppression of a Jewish polity in Judea. In Babylon, exiled Jewish scholars completed the compilation of the written Torah, to which they added some prophetic writings and chronicles. The innovation of the synagogue for small group devotions changed the practice of public worship significantly by putting scholars at the forefront in place of the High Priest of the Temple at Jerusalem. It was during the Babylonian exile that scholarly debates over the meaning of scripture began to evolve into the study networks of rabbinic Judaism that would sustain Jewish life and traditions without access to the Temple, the central focus of all Jewish religious life where the holy Ark of the Covenant was housed.
The Babylonian exile ended in 538 b.c.e. when the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylon and issued an edict that permitted the Jewish captives to return to their homeland. Although the exiles then had the freedom to return to Judah and re-establish the Temple under Persian rule, most chose to remain in Babylon where they had adapted to life in exile. This represented the beginning of a pronounced shift within Jewish culture with respect to the relationship between individual Jews and the Jewish state. The structures developed by the exiles in Babylon to maintain their commitment to Judaism while absent from the Jewish polity meant that it was now possible, for the first time, to sustain Jewish life without having to live in the Jewish homeland. Following the example of the former Babylonian captives, a growing number of Jews began to embrace the capacity created by the new and portable forms of Jewish ritual life to reside in places were there were better opportunities. In the years after the completion of the Second Temple in 515 b.c.e., a growing proportion of the Jewish population lived outside the Jewish polity, some through forcible exile, and some voluntarily in pursuit of economic ventures outside the Jewish state. By the first century b.c.e., the Greek geographer Strabo noted that the Jewish diaspora had penetrated nearly every part of the known world.
Hellenism and the Jewish Diaspora
Voluntary dispersion from the Jewish homeland in the kingdom of Judah, and later Judea, was sparked by the development of a plastic Hellenistic culture, of which Judea itself would become a part, which formed following the conquests of Alexander the Great in 333 b.c.e. As Hellenistic political rule expanded throughout the Mediterranean world, the colonies, institutions, and commerce it created attracted Jews in search of trade to venture out into far-flung areas of Greek settlement, where they came into closer contact with Hellenistic ideology. It was during this period that Jews began to disperse throughout the Mediterranean basin in substantial numbers. As the philosopher Philo Judaeus noted in the first century c.e., the area of Jewish settlement within the Hellenistic world spread from Libya to Ethiopia. Important and influential diaspora communities formed at Alexandria (Egypt), Cyrene (Libya), Antioch (Syria), Pergamon (Turkey/Asia Minor) and other large Hellenistic port cities. In these places, Jews were exposed to Hellenistic teachings in philosophy and science. Some important Jewish individuals, such as Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, flourished in this bicultural environment, but the impact of Hellenistic thought on rabbinic Judaism was slight overall. This was because of a revival of Jewish nationalism and violent resistance to Greek influence within Judea, under the leadership of Judah Maccabbee, as well as the emergence of Babylon, which remained outside the sphere of Hellenistic culture, as the main center for Jewish theological development and scholasticism.
The migration of Jews out of Judea continued under the Romans, but under different conditions and therefore with different motivations. The economic and social environment of the Hellenistic empire had drawn Jews out of Judea of their own volition without substantially disrupting Jewish theocratic traditions. Roman rule, however, aimed at conquest and subjugation of the Jewish state apparatus. This created a fundamental tension between Judea's inhabitants and Roman administrators that frequently erupted into violence. Jewish migration into the Roman Empire therefore, while still voluntary, was driven in large part by the desire to escape violence and oppression in Judea. Growing conflict led to two revolts by the people of Judea and the employment of ever more brutal tactics by the Romans. Roman military occupation of Judea in 63 c.e. and ongoing violence (including the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e.) through the crushing of the Bar Kochba Revolt, made Judea less desirable as a place for Jews to live and encouraged further dispersion of Judea's Jews throughout the Roman world. Judea's role as the center for Jewish life declined rapidly after 138 c.e. By the seventh century c.e., the vast majority of Jews resided in communities outside of biblical Judah and Israel, and by 1600 only one percent of the Jewish people could be found in the traditional Jewish homelands of the Hebrew scriptures.
Interpretations of the Jewish Diaspora
Rome's imperial aims involved the destruction of Jewish political independence. Once that had been achieved and Judea no longer represented a threat to Rome's territorial advances, Jews were as readily absorbed into the empire as other conquered peoples. In 212 c.e., an edict extended Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants, including Jews. Judaism was officially recognized, and Jews were free to pursue an autonomous communal life without interference from the Roman state. Although they were banned from Jerusalem, they could move and settle freely throughout the rest of the empire. This situation began to change with the spread of Christianity, as the church fathers found it imperative that they distinguish the new faith from its predecessor. In 313, the emperor Constantine issued an edict granting freedom of worship to all religious sects. For the first time, the Christian religion was no longer suppressed and it quickly came to predominate within the empire. This had negative consequences for Jews, as the Christian Church began to call for the official separation of Jews from Christians.
Initially, the Jewish diaspora throughout the Mediterranean had helped to advance the diffusion of Judaism into regions where it had previously been unknown. By the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century c.e, Jewish communities were well-established in sites throughout the Roman world, from Asia Minor to Spain. Rome itself had at least thirteen synagogues. A wider Jewish presence led to better knowledge of Judaism, and upon occasion to conversion of local populations. About 700 c.e., for example, Bulan, leader of the nomadic Khazar people of Central Asia, decided to convert his nation to Judaism, creating an autonomous Jewish state that lasted for some five hundred years. However, after 500, Judaism faced growing threats from the spread of Christianity and (after 632) Islam, both of which found the continuing evolution of Jewish thought threatening to their respective theological postures as successors to Judaism.
Jewish leaders of medieval Europe such as Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (otherwise Nachmanides) saw the Roman conquest of Israel as the beginning of a permanent Jewish diaspora within the Christian world. This understanding of the Jewish diaspora was grounded in personal experience with the Holy Roman Church and its dictates. By 1215, the Roman Catholic Church's Fourth Lateran Council advocated the wearing of special insignia by Jews living in Christian lands, to identify them for an uneducated Christian populace as people to be avoided and as a "badge of shame" to highlight the inferiority of their religious beliefs. Moreover, Jews living in diaspora in Europe faced successive waves of expulsion, forced conversion, and segregation into ghettos as Christians attempted different tactics to control and constrain the development of a Jewish communal presence in their midst. From the Jewish perspective, the sense of diaspora as exile was also acutely heightened (particularly during the Crusades) by the inability of Jews to return to the Holy Land to rebuild the Temple and gather in Jewish exiles—that is, to reestablish a Jewish state as an independent political and theological entity. Exile became the dominant understanding of the diaspora in subsequent generations of both Jews and Christians. Jewish and Christian thinkers put a different spin on the notion of "exile" however. For Jews, the exile, although painful, was part of God's plan for the Jews as a test of their faith and commitment to the Torah. Christians saw the diaspora as God's just punishment of the Jews for their role in the death of Christ. While Islamic rulers treated Jews less harshly than did their Christian counterparts. Muslims similarly distinguished themselves from Jews and Judaism and there were scattered instances of persecution, including forced conversions, in Muslim lands.
By the late eighteenth century many Jews had come to believe that their exile from the Jewish state was permanent. For some, accepting that the diaspora was inescapable meant developing the means for resolving persistent questions about the place of Jews in the various societies within which they resided. Influenced by the developing Enlightenment, Jewish intellectuals in Europe believed that the contemporary mission of the Jewish people was to adapt to their surroundings and find ways to participate in the nation state on equal terms with other citizens. The most important of these advocates was Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin. Following Mendelssohn's call for civil integration of the Jews, later generations of Reformers suggested a series of modifications to Jewish ritual practice that were intended to harmonize Judaism with modern life and make it possible for Jews to present their community as well disposed for social and political participation. The Reformers had great success and influence in Germany and the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In other places, the idea of Jewish integration and acculturation was not as readily embraced. The outbreak of violence after the death of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 pushed the Jews of Russia and Poland in the opposite direction, toward Jewish nationalism, and awakened interest in reestablishing a Jewish state at the site of the original Jewish homeland. After the anti-Semitic debacle of the Dreyfus Affair in France, a broad range of European and American Jewish intellectuals were forced to the conclusion that the kind of complete civil integration imagined by the Reformers would never be possible. Accordingly, the first Zionist Congress was held at Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, to organize the push for the Jewish return to Palestine. Zionism, in effect, called for an end to the demeaning conditions in which diaspora Jews were generally forced to live through the creation of a new, modern Jewish state in Palestine.
Diaspora in the Twenty-First Century
In the early 2000s, the diaspora is commonly understood to comprise all Jews living outside modern Israel, regardless of their nation of birth. The establishment of the state of Israel following the United Nations partition plan created the opportunity to end the Jewish diaspora. The new nation attempted an in-gathering of Jewish exiles from around the world, in part by establishing the Law of Return (1950), which permitted any Jew to immigrate to Israel, and the Citizenship Law (1952), which permitted Jews to claim Israeli citizenship upon touching Israeli soil. In the first year of its independence, Israel took in and absorbed 203,000 Jews from forty-two different countries, comprising not only the survivors of European Jewry (largely Ashkenazim), but also large numbers of "Oriental" Jews from Arab lands who had become the victims of escalating violence and persecution as international pressure mounted to sanction the creation of a Jewish state in the British mandate. Some Jewish refugees arrived via special convoys organized by the Jewish Agency to move large numbers of Jewish refugees living in exigent circumstances, including Jews from Yemen (Operation Magic Carpet, 1949), Iraq (Operation Ezra and Operation Nehemiah, 1950), and later from Ethiopia (Operations Solomon, 1974, and Moses, 1984–1985). Due to extensive immigration from Europe and Arab lands where anti-Semitism surged, the Jewish population of Israel increased from 657,000 in 1948 to 1,810,000 by 1958.
There remain, in the early twenty-first century, multiple interpretations of the diaspora and its significance to Jewish history and to the modern state of Israel. Many Jews, for a variety of complex reasons, continue to reside outside the Jewish state, not only in the affluent nations of Europe and North America, but in countries around the world.
See also Exile ; Ghetto ; Identity, Multiple: Jewish Multiple Identity ; Judaism .
Baer, Yitzhak F. Galut. Translated by Robert Warshow. Reprint. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988.
Barnavi, Eli, ed.. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People: From the Time of the Patriarchs to the Present. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Baron, Salo Wittmayer. The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution. 3 vols. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972. Originally published in 1942.
Comay, Joan, with Beth Hatefutsoth. The Diaspora Story: The Epic of the Jewish People among the Nations. New York: Random House, 1980.
Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. Jewish Civilization: The Jewish Historical Experience in a Comparative Perspective. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992.
Gilbert, Martin. The Atlas of Jewish History. 3rd ed. New York: Dorset Press, 1984.
Rawidowicz, Simon. Israel: The Ever-Dying People and Other Essays. Edited by C. I. Ravid. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986.
Rubinstein, Hilary L., et al. The Jews in the Modern World: A History since 1750. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.