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  • The Jewish Diaspora in a Comparative and Theoretical Perspective
  • William Safran (bio)

For many generations, the phenomenon of Diaspora was dealt with only in connection with the Jews. Thus, the entry on "Diaspora" in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences published in 1937 was by Simon Dubnow, the prominent scholar of Jewish history.1 With few exceptions, political scientists and historians ignored it, including those who focused on nationalism and ethnicity.2 The reason was simple: diaspora referred to a very specific case—that of the exile of the Jews from the Holy Land and their dispersal throughout several parts of the globe. Diaspora [galut] connoted deracination, legal disabilities, oppression, and an often painful adjustment to a hostland whose hospitality was unreliable and ephemeral. It also connoted the existence on foreign soil of an expatriate community that considered its presence to be transitory. Meanwhile, it developed a set of institutions, social patterns, and ethnonational and/or religious symbols that held it together. These included the language, religion, values, social norms, and narratives of the homeland. Gradually, this community adjusted to the hostland environment and became itself a center of cultural creation. All the while, however, it continued to cultivate the idea of return to the homeland.

The Jewish Prototype and Beyond

Several of the above characteristics have applied to other expatriated communities, such as the Armenian, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Kurdish, Palestinian, Parsi, and Sikh, whose experiences of expatriation, institution-building, cultural continuity, and refusal to relinquish their collective identities have demarcated them from mere immigrants. These communities [End Page 36] are diasporas in the generic sense, insofar as they satisfy a number of the following criteria:

  1. 1. They, or their ancestors, have been dispersed from a specific original "center" to two or more peripheral, or foreign, regions.3

  2. 2. They retain a collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland—its physical location, history, achievements, and, often enough, sufferings.

  3. 3. Their relationship with the dominant element of society in the hostland is complicated and often uneasy. They believe that they are not, and perhaps cannot be, fully accepted by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulated from it.

  4. 4. They regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return—if and when conditions are appropriate.

  5. 5. They continue to relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethnocommunal consciousness and solidarity, which reach across political boundaries, are importantly defined in terms of the existence of such a relationship. That relationship may include a collective commitment to the maintenance or restoration of their original homeland and to its independence, safety, and prosperity.4 The absence of such a relationship makes it difficult to speak of transnationalism.

  6. 6. They wish to survive as a distinct community—in most instances as a minority—by maintaining and transmitting a cultural and/or religious heritage derived from their ancestral home and the symbols based on it. In so doing, they adapt to hostland conditions and experiences to become themselves centers of cultural creation and elaboration.

  7. 7. Their cultural, religious, economic, and/or political relationships with the homeland are reflected in a significant way in their communal institutions.5

These criteria are based on the Jewish diaspora as a paradigmatic one.6 The Jews are the oldest diaspora; they lacked a "homeland" for two millennia but thought about it constantly and the idea of a return to it-at first an eschatological conception and much later a concrete one—remained part of their collective consciousness. Their diasporic condition was a long-lasting and unhappy one, reflected in the Yiddish conception of the epitome of duration: "lang vi der goles" (as long as [our] Exile). [End Page 37]

For Jews, diaspora has had a specific meaning historically—that of exile under conditions of minority status and of powerlessness.7 It has also connoted a continuing sense of insecurity, for Jews have been the proverbial Other in terms of religion, dress, customs, cuisine, and language, so that they have constituted convenient scapegoats and have been subjected to forcible conversion, expulsion, and massacres.



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