Irish Times

The State of the Diaspora

First, let me give the context. This book tells us that, of the 13.2 million Jews worldwide, 37 per cent of the total now live in Israel. Some 43 per cent live in the United States, and the rest of the world accounts for a mere 20 per cent. The conventional wisdom is that the process of concentration in Israel and in a handful of cities in Western Europe and in the US will continue.

There are, we are further told, 20 per cent fewer Jews worldwide today than before the Holocaust. There is evidence of increased secularisation and of “marrying out”. A survey in 1990 showed that over 50 per cent of US Jews were marrying non-Jews. So where does that leave the future of Judaism if there is to be a heavier geographical centralisation in the years ahead and an overall decline in numbers?

But Larry Tye, a journalist with the Boston Globe, has not written a jeremiad for the inevitable decline of Judaism in the 21st century. His book, provocatively but accurately entitled Home Lands, sets out to provide the reader with the conclusions based on his travels to seven diaspora communities, including Dublin. Taking the negative signs into account, he writes: “But there are just as many signs of strength. Never in the history of the diaspora have there been more opportunities for Jews to connect to their Judaism, educationally, culturally, and religiously. Enough are making those connections voluntarily and enthusiastically that communal leaders I met in Paris, Atlanta, and New York offered a nearly identical forecast: in the future there will be ‘fewer but better Jews’.”

Tye also visited Dusseldorf, Dnepropetrovsk, Buenos Aires and Israel while researching a book that was both a quest to understand his own Jewish context and to find an answer to the question whether “it was okay for me to feel at home as a Jew in Boston, or anywhere else in the diaspora”. Hence the title, provocative for some, Home Lands.

The author provides a rationale for his choice of diasporas but those left out may not find that argument convincing. It is best, in my view, to read what is before us rather than reflect on what has been omitted. I think the author has chosen wisely.

His chapter on Buenos Aires, where the Jewish community is 170,000-strong, provides an excellent example of his investigative style — a combination of research with a heavy concentration on interviews. Here, with September 11th in New York and Washington very much in our mind, Tye writes movingly about an explosion in 1994 — he dates it July 18th, but my memory is March — which killed 86 and wounded 236 others. The perpetrators have never been convicted for that bomb attack on AMIA, the headquarters of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Aid Society, which also housed the archives and the historical record of that community. Jews were also numbered disproportionately, he writes, among the desaprecidos who died in that country’s Dirty War in the 1970s and early 1980s when Argentina was under military rule. But despite the uncertainties of living in a country where anti-Semitism and military authoritarianism has been prevalent, the Jewish community in Buenos Aires lives with a renewed sense of vigour and purpose,content to continue to make Argentina its homeland but ever vigilant and prepared for the possibility of an unprovoked attack on the community. Many Argentinian Jews are to be found living in Israel today.

The same can be said for Irish Jews. There are 300-plus Irish Jews living there, many leaving the country since the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. Tye provides a balanced account of the history and development of Irish Jewry. His depiction of the contemporary situation reproduces the evidence from those who are pessimistic and optimistic about a future where the younger generation of the community goes abroad in the main to be educated at third level, to work, to marry and to settle down. Joe Morrison, who was born in Limerick in 1915, is quoted as saying: “I’ve seen two shuls, two minyans, and two Orthodox communities disappear in Dublin. Unless some unknown factor arises, I’m pessimistic about Jews existing as a community in Ireland.” Dr Michael Solomons, a distinguised member of an old Irish Ashkenazic (and not Sephardic family, as I once wrongly described them), is quoted as seeing himself as being the “the last of the Mohicans among the Solomons in Ireland”. His four children left for America, New Zealand and England. He has been associated with the Dublin Jewish Progressive community, founded in 1946, which today has about 90 families associated with it.

Tye correctly depicts the Dublin Jewish community undergoing a period of change and challenge not necessarily leading inevitably to ineradicable decline. The globalisation of the economy, reflected in a buoyant Irish economic life, has witnessed widespread immigration, which may add in Dublin to the life of both the reform congregation and the traditional congregation now concentrated around the Terenure Synagogue. “I think there’s going to be a reversal of the tide of emigration to one of immigration,” Joe Briscoe is quoted as saying. “And, to put it in a nutshell, there will be a renaissance or rebirth.” But he does not think that is going to just happen: “We’ve got to do something to make it happen.” Meanwhile, as Tye points out, many young Irish Jews are to be found in Israel or working and living outside Ireland and that is a pattern for other small diasporas.

The analysis of the relationship between members of the Jewish diaspora and the state of Israel lies at the heart of this text. The author has had to jettison many of his preconceptions, and his ideas have evolved as he researched this book. This is an important book which seeks to break away from mechanistic interpretations of the Jewish diaspora. This mosaic of Jewish life in the diaspora is a significant contribution to debate. It is neither steeped in nostalgia nor laden with false hope. Tye gets the balance just right. What more is there to say!

Dr. Dermot Keogh is professor of history at University College Cork and author of Jews in Twentieth-Century Ireland: Refugees, Antisemitism and the Holocaust.