For post-diaspora Jews, ‘homeland’ has changed in meaning
by Antony Polonsky, Globe Correspondent, 11/30/2001
Since the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century of our era, Jews have thought of themselves as living in exile (in Hebrew, galut). Today, as Boston Globe writer Larry Tye points out in “Home Lands,” those outside the state of Israel see themselves as comfortably settled in a diaspora of a permanent character, similar to those created by the Irish, the Armenians, and many other groups.
While they are linked both politically and personally with Israel, where nearly half of the world’s Jews now live, they have no intention for the most part of moving there, as was expected by the Zionist founders of the state.
The process whereby this has come about is both complex and paradoxical. Beginning in the late 18th century, in such Western European states as England, France, the Netherlands, and Italy, Jews were rapidly integrated both politically and socially into the rising middle class, while in Central Europe, Jews formed a large part of the commercial middle class and were seen by many as responsible for the ills of capitalism. Political integration was not, by and large, followed by social integration.
It was in the lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where the bulk of European Jews lived, that integration was least successful. By the end of the 19th century, most Jews in this area came to regard themselves as a nation or proto-nation rather than as a religious community. From the East European Jewish heartland, a “new” Jewish politics — including Zionism — was carried to Central and Western Europe and to the United States.
By the beginning of the 21st century both the integrationist and the national solutions of the “Jewish problem” have succeeded. A Jewish state has been established, while Jews outside Israel, after the traumatic effects of the Holocaust and enforced assimilation in the Soviet Union, have achieved a real degree of security throughout the Jewish diaspora.
This new situation forms the background of Tye’s stimulating and readable book. The author illustrates the character of the “new Jewish diaspora” by describing Jewish life in seven cities: Dusseldorf, Germany; Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine; Boston; Buenos Aires; Dublin; Paris; and Atlanta. He links his description of Jewish life in these cities with the general evolution of Jewish life in each country. A particularly compelling chapter outlines the success of the charismatic Lubavitch rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki in revitalizing Jewish life in Dnepropetrovsk, which has become a model for the rest of Ukraine. His success owes much to the impact of Boston Jews — Jewish Boston is the sister city of Jewish Dnepropetrovsk, and many local Jews have helped to rebuild Jewish life there, donating medical and other supplies. Local readers will find particularly interesting Tye’s description of Jewish life in Boston, which has flourished with the waning of anti-Semitism and the development of many new and innovative forms of religious and cultural life.
Tye sees the developments he describes as “normalizing” the Jewish situation. The 19th-century Russian Zionist theorist Leon Pinsker argued that anti-Semitism did not derive from social, economic, or religious hatred but from the indefin able nature of the Jews. Were they a nation, a religious group, or some peculiar combination of the two? To many people they were a historical ghost and aroused the fears that ghosts arouse. However one views his theory, the fact is that the Jews are now like many other groups — they have a homeland and diaspora, both of which appear to be permanent. The book thus ends on an optimistic note, anticipating both the continued viability of the diaspora, the creation of a new and mutually beneficial relationship between Israel and the diaspora, and the establishment of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Home Lands” was written before the catastrophic events of Sept. 11, which have made Israel’s security seem much more fragile and have been accompanied by an outpouring of anti-Semitic hatred from significant sections of the Arab and Muslim world. Let us hope that Tye’s optimistic conclusions will be borne out by the establishment of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, by a successful war against terrorism, and by the repudiation by most Muslims of the hate-filled rhetoric of Islamic radicals. Otherwise it will be “back to abnormal” for the Jewish people, both in Israel and perhaps also in the diaspora.
Antony Polonsky is Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.