Israel Studies 10.1 (2005) 1-35
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Is the Jewish Diaspora Unique?
Reflections on the Diaspora's Current Situation*
Gabriel (Gabi) Sheffer
The Jewish Diaspora, Israel, and consequently Israeli-Jewish Diaspora relations are all in the midst of ongoing intense transformations.1 These profound changes, however, are of a chaotic nature. They are caused by contradictory trends and features. There is no wonder that such changes confuse many gentiles, as well as many in the Jewish Diaspora (here-after the Diaspora) and in Israel. The main purpose of the present essay, therefore, is to contribute to the clarification of this situation.
This essay focuses on recent developments and the current situation of the Jewish people. Because of space limitations, it does not present the significant historical perspective on the fundamental changes and their results that have occurred in world Jewry during the last two centuries, and especially since the late nineteenth century. Nevertheless, one of the most meaningful changes in this respect should be mentioned here: instead of an entity that primarily and deeply had been anchored in a national-religious culture, the Zionist movement, as well as related processes of emancipation and secularization, turned substantial segments of world Jewry into people who, to a large extent, are rooted in a secular national culture.
In any case, and more specifically, the purposes here are: (1) to discuss the uniqueness of the Diaspora, or its similarity to other diasporas; (2) to consider the possible implications of either of these possibilities for predicting the future of the Diaspora; (3) to review the main transformations occurring in the Jewish Diaspora; (4) to outline the consequent major critical issues facing it; and, (5) to suggest how all these developments influencethe Diaspora's reciprocal relations with Israel.
To accurately grasp the deeper meanings of the changes currently occurring in the Jewish Diaspora and in Israeli-Diaspora relations, however—and consequentlythe problems that the Diaspora is facing—the [End Page 1] scope of the customary discussion about the Diaspora and its relations with its homeland should be expanded. As I have argued in some of my previous publications,2 and as, for example, William Safran argues in his article in this issue,3 it is advisable to examine the Jewish Diaspora's situation in general, and the Diaspora-Israeli reciprocal relations in particular, within the wider context of available insights into the general diasporic phenomenon.4 It is regrettable that the number of general and specific studies of homelands (countries-of-origin) relations with their diasporas is inadequate; however, to apply theoretical and comparative insights to the Jewish Diaspora is particularly important in order to reach a realistic evaluation of the current trends that might impact on its future development.
There is, in fact, an increasing awareness that in many respectsthe Jewish Diaspora is similar to other ethno-national diasporas. Yet this notion is far from being widely accepted. Thus, more often than not, when gentile and Jewish publics at large—as well as politicians, journalists and some scholars—reflect on the Jewish Diaspora and its relations with Israel, the question of the uniqueness of these two segments of world Jewry and their relations still pops up. Mostly, the general public, the politicians, and the analysts in the Diaspora's host countries, as well as those in Israel, emphatically argue that the Jewish Diaspora and its relations with its homeland are unique. It is thus worthwhile to briefly and generally refer to this bewildering topic.
Whoever has examined the sensitive question of the uniqueness of any social-political formation, or the other side of the same coin—the similarities between social-political systems—isaware of the fact that there is no readily available and persuasive "yes" or "no" answer to the question ofwhether such formations are indeed unique. There are a number of reasons for this difficulty. First, most social-political formations are structurally and behaviorally highly complex, and it is usually difficult to determine the critical elements that could, or should, be compared;consequently,conclusions about their similarities or uniqueness are difficult to...