By Stan Persky | June 28, 2002

In Philip Roth’s very funny novel about Israel, Operation Shylock (1993), there’s a character who advocates the wacky philosophy of "Diasporism."

The term "diaspora," whose etymological roots have to do with the notion of a "scattering," is often used to refer to the international Jewish population outside of Israel. The idea suggests that eventually the world’s "scattered" Jews will return "home" to Israel, their alleged Biblical land of origin. In Roth’s comedic novel, Diasporism is the nutty contrary view that Jews should either remain in the scattered nations, cultures and societies in which they find themselves, or even return to those nations from which they came rather than attempting to maintain the embattled Jewish state of Israel in ancient Palestine.

Lately, I’ve found myself, as one of those scattered Jews and–like millions of others–a TV-viewing observer watching the latest horrors emanating from the Middle East, thinking about Diasporism. What I’ve come to think is that maybe Diasporism isn’t such a nutty idea after all, or merely the parody of the extremes of debate within the international Jewish community that it’s intended as in Roth’s novel.

What got me thinking about Diasporism is first, and most overwhelmingly, the recent events on the blood-drenched ground in Israel and Palestine itself. By now, everyone is familiar with the melancholy litany: suicide/homocide bombings of Israeli civilians by young Palestinian "martyrs"; the brutal killings of Palestinian militants and civilians, as well as the destruction of Palestinian habitations, by Israeli military and intelligence forces; the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank area, thus making even more difficult the establishment of a Palestinian state by a people long confined to the embittering living conditions of refugee camps; and, finally, the dismal performance of the political actors in the drama.

On the one hand, there’s the blatant unwillingness of the right-wing Ariel Sharon-led Israeli government to make peace with the Palestinians, and on the other, there’s the obvious incompetence of Yasser Arafat’s corrupt Palestinian Authority to do likewise. Add to that the anti-Jewish hatred daily fomented by Islamic fundamentalist forces to the right of Arafat, and you’ve got a situation in which the distinguished and fair-minded Israeli analyst Amos Elon is forced, in a recent assessment, to bleakly conclude, "In view of the frozen attitudes of practically everyone involved, it is hard to see any other prospect but more bloodshed."

However, the immediate impetus for my musings was something rather less dramatic than the events on the ground. It was one of those well-intentioned, but probably futile, electronic petitions that frequently turn up these days in one’s e-mail inbox. This one was put together by some Canadian artists who called on the Canadian government to put pressure on the U.S. government to put pressure on the Israeli government to make peace. It was the invitation to add my name to the list of petitioners–i.e., the suggestion that one has a moral responsibility to do something in the present circumstances–that seemed to require me, as an intellectual and a Jew, to at least publicly think about the Middle East conflict.

But no sooner than I began thinking about my moral responsibility to do something, especially as a Jew–even something as minimal as signing a petition–I realized that I had a big problem. First, I seldom think as a Jew. Like many other Jews in the postmodern world, though probably not a majority, my identification with this grouping is tenuous at best. Like other Jews, I’m only accidentally a member of an historical, perhaps obsolescent aggregation. By "obsolescent," what I mean is that once the Enlightenment ideas of how large groups of people might live together in democratic entities came onto the historical stage, ideas of living together in tribes, ethnicities, and religious congregations were superceded by a better idea. The claims of tribalism and true religious belief fail against the universalizing idea of democratic citizenship. Ultimately, I favour global citizenship in which all differences between people based on sex, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference and the rest are treated as mere contingencies.

Second, the identification "Jew" is only a minor component of the many identifications that form part of my self. Identifications like "writer" and "intellectual," for instance, are far more prominent in my makeup than ethnic, national, or religious identifications. I identity more with writers and thinkers–like Philip Roth and Edward Said, for example–than I do with terms like "Jew" or even a national identity such as "Canadian." That the writers and thinkers with whom I identify happen to include both Jews and Muslims isn’t what’s important about them as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, my identification with Jewishness is further weakened by my absence of religious beliefs. Since Judaism has its origins in a tribal society that worshipped a particular god, my lack of belief in that god (or any other) is a clearly debilitating factor in my presumption to speak as a Jew. Nonetheless, I experience some sense of identification, historically and culturally, with something called "Jewish culture." My own experience of it is with a very tangential version of that culture, largely Yiddish and European, that took place in mid-20th century North America. It consists primarily of familial associations, shared histories, a few bits of language of Germanic derivation, some traditional foods, and a particular sense of North American Jewish humour. In itself, such an identification is not especially different from the experiences of other assimilated North American immigrants of Greek, Italian, Chinese or Indian origin.

All in all, then, I’m probably what a lot of other "more Jewish" Jews would describe as a "bad Jew." But whether I’m a "bad Jew," or more charitably, a critical one, I don’t want those other Jews to speak in my name. At the very least, it’s important for both Jews and non-Jews to know that "Jewish opinion" is not a monolithic entity prepared to sanction anything done in the name of a Jewish homeland.

If there’s little in my Jewish experience that calls for political imperatives, the political imperative of Israel, however, requires some recognition. As many people are aware, there is a long history of Jewish suffering based solely on the fact of being Jewish. Whether one locates its origins in Biblical texts, the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century, the pogroms in Russia and elsewhere in the 19th century or the attempted genocide of the Jews in the Holocaust of the mid-20th century by the Nazis, it’s possible to understand the invention of political Zionism, the idea of Jews having a country of their own. Developed in the late 19th century, Zionism gained provisional impetus in the wake of World War I, and became an irresistible proposal in the post-World War II realization of the extent of the Nazi attempt at Jewish extermination.

There was a mid-century moment when a Jewish state located in Palestine seemed like a good idea. Not only would it provide redress and refuge for a clearly endangered ethnicity, but in its Enlightenment aspect, it contained some interesting and "progressive" ideas, mostly "socialistic," of how people might live together in the developed world. It soon became not only a possibly good idea, but a matter of Realpolitik, a fact of international political life. From the beginning, of course, there was a troubling question, namely, that of the status of the existing inhabitants of Palestine upon whom the new Jewish state was imposed. While the Palestinians’ lack of a coherent, modern state might have lent minimal plausibility to the Jewish tendency to deny the very existence of these people, it soon became clear that their existence and their claims upon the land could not be ignored.

Now, a half-century after the fact of a Jewish state, there are reasons for second thoughts. It seems to me, especially in the last quarter-century, that Israel has been a moral failure. Created in the name of securing justice for the Jews from an unjust world, it has ended up imposing injustice on others, injustice arguably as brutal as that imposed on the Jews themselves. Although the best solution for the land known as Palestine would be a multi-ethnic, secular, democratic state, inhabited by Jews, Palestinians, and whoever else has a claim to that dwelling place, that’s probably not historically possible, and therefore the best we can do is to continue to urge upon the warring parties a peaceful resolution of a long-running, bitter conflict.

I don’t have any great, new ideas about the details of that resolution beyond the ones daily offered by the large chorus of "experts" on the subject. I suppose that the next stage of the resolution requires the creation of a Palestinian state, the dismantlement of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, the withdrawal of Israeli forces to some regionally agreed-upon boundaries, and the implementation of the agreement through the use of U.N. forces to guarantee the security of all parties, even though, as Amos Elon says, the prospects for any of that look particularly dim at the moment.

In this frozen moment, then, perhaps larger ideas offer a better hope of new perspectives rather than the further hashing of familiar differences and the exchange of mutual blame. Thus, I’m brought around to the utopian notion of Diasporism. The short version of my position is this: I’m a Diasporist. I think the half-century old Israeli state, even though it perhaps once seemed like a-good-idea-at-the-time, is a moral failure.

As a Diasporist, I’m against all state configurations based on religion and/or mono-ethnic groups. That is, if I oppose Islamic and Christian states, and I do, I’m equally opposed to Jewish states. I support only secular, democratic, multi-ethnic states in which religion and ethnicity are separated from the democratic institutions of the state. I think Jews ought to live in various democratic nations around the world, recipients of the same democratic rights as all other citizens of those nations, no more, no less. Like others, Jews ought to have the right within those nations to form religious/cultural communities, or to remain outside of those communities as individuals not particularly interested in their religious/ethnic heritage. I think the idea of all Jews living together in a single, religious state is, ultimately, a mistake. I’m aware of course that my Diasporism is simply utopian musing, and likely to have less impact on events than even a futile petition, but given the hopeless impasse of the actual situation, thinking in broader terms may be as helpful as anything else these days.

In a practical sense, Diasporism, as impractical as it is, is today a more plausible idea than at most times in the past. First, there is less religious belief extant among Jews and hence less reason for their congregation in a theocratic state, and second, there are now more democratic states in existence in which Jews can live securely, enjoying equal rights. I’ve no objection to the Israeli Jewish culture, with its restoration of the Hebrew language and its vibrant artistic tradition, but I’ve also no objection to the assimilation of Jews into other cultures, much as Italians, Greeks, Chinese and Indians have assimilated into Canadian culture, often while retaining valued ethnic traditions. Better to be a "bad," critical Jew than one whose political actions make a mockery of the suffering of the Holocaust. Philip Roth’s idea of Diasporism may have begun as a literary joke but, given what we’ve seen of political reality, this may be another case where art makes more sense than life.

June 15, 2002 (1971 w.)


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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