There’s No Place Like Home

Surely we’re all multiculturists now. We accept the necessity of the pluralist democratic state, with multiple groups sharing a contested yet neutral public space. We know, as children of modernity, that we can never be fully ‘at home’, that communities are virtual, free flowing and in flux, and that identities are multiple. We know, from the tradition of post-colonial thought that homelands are always ‘imagined’. We know these things as a society, at least in part, because Jews have taught them to us. As the pioneers of the modern project, Jewish ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ were instrumental in creating a world where the borders of nation states were transcended and internationalism became a defining value.
What then do we make of the staggeringly retrograde, parochial ethnocentrism and nationalism which serves as the house philosophy for most Anglo-Jewish institutions? That continues to demand that its youth movements ‘educate’ its young to believe that they can only fulfil themselves as Jews by making aliyah, and thereby ‘returning home’? That sees the promotion of Jewish values, ethics and intellectual culture as a fringe pursuit, subsumed to the greater project of defending all the policies of the state of Israel?
In this context it is time for pro-diaspora, internationalist Jews to stand up and be counted. So hard are the narratives of Zionism drummed into us that we forget that other readings of Judaism are possible, and possibly preferable. A Jew’s home is wherever there is a search for justice, wherever people transcend the limits of what is towards what can be, wrestling with God and man to find ways to actualize the utopian. In ‘coming out’ as diaspora Jews we should declare ourselves proud to be inheritors of a tradition that sees the whole world as its zone of concern, rather than limiting its ambition to a narrow strip of land.
Judaism was born, written and developed outside the land of Israel. Rabbinic Judaism, which is the Judaism we practice, not some neo-Karaite fantasy, begins when Yochanan ben Zakkai escapes from besieged Jerusalem in a coffin to open an academy in Yavne, which becomes the setting for the Mishnah. In doing so he puts text before land, ideas before nationalism, creating a rethought homeland that is virtual and portable and he becomes the first modern in the process. Rabbi Yochanan was forced to leave in a coffin, not because of the Romans, who approved of his enterprise, but because of the Jewish zealots, who preferred to die than see Jerusalem fall, and therefore prevented anyone for leaving. The zealots of today are those who proclaim that Israel is the only viable place for Jews to be, who look down on the rest of the Jewish world, and who throw in their lot with an increasingly shaky experiment in Hebraic ethnocracy. The task for the rest of us is to build Yavne.
One of the major benefits of a diasporic Judaism is that it is proudly pro-Jewish. In contrast to Zionism, whose founders echoed many of the ideas and rhetoric of anti-Semites, diaspora Jews are heirs to a tradition that grows out of a rich Jewish cultural mileu. We are inheritors to the extraordinary vibrant worlds created by Jews wherever they lived, when they, to quote Jeremiah ‘sought the welfare of the cities to which they had been exiled’. From southern Europe to North Africa, to India to North America and to Eastern and Western Europe, Jews have been, and have been seen to be, a global people. Wherever we found ourselves we enriched the local culture, forced our neighbours to deal with notions of difference, and, in many cases created music, literature and religious texts and rituals that have rank with the greatest of global culture. Naturally, there were times of persecution, hardly surprising in a two-thousand-year history of a group with such a radical message. But to make this persecution the sole focus, to damn these communities as failures of powerlessness is inaccurate, offensive and imperialistic. The nature of diaspora as aberration and seat of Jewish decline, so prevalent in classic Zionism, is really an internalising of nineteenth-century notions of Jews as a problem, one that was to be solved, preferably by their leaving the European stage altogether. To call for a return to a pre-diasporic Judaism is to seek after a fantasy. Judaism only developed in any recognisable form once in exile, and Judaism that rejects diaspora is no Judaism at all.
As a descendent of Askenazic, Yiddish speaking Jews from Eastern Europe I identify particularly with Yiddishism, that extraordinary flowering of Jewish humanism and with Bundism, the socialist philosophy of Jewish society operating within an multicultural, socialist environment. The Bundist notion of doi-keit, or here-ness, that life should be centred wherever one finds oneself, needs to be reclaimed and celebrated. The fact that Bundism is so little known amongst British Jews is rather tragic; the Bund was the strongest group within pre-war Eastern European Jewry, and its position between the extremes of Zionism or total assimilation can still be helpful for us today.
The project of building internationalist, pro-diasporic Judaism is closely tied in with the project of creating Jewish communities that are self- confident, dynamic, and open minded. This began to happen in the 1990s, both as Jews internalised the lessons of multiculturalism — that assimilation to a ‘British norm’ was no longer necessary, and during the Oslo peace process, when it seemed that we might be able to put hasbara, and our obsession with Israel behind us. Unfortunately this confidence has been worn down through the years of the second intifada, war on terror and the move to the right in Israel, allowing the most reactionary elements in British Jewry to keep promoting their messages of fear and tribalism. The culmination of this swing backwards was the recent Gaza rally in Trafalgar Square, where the assorted dignitaries gave their support to Israel’s military campaign, supposedly in the name of all British Jews. Fortunately, the genie is out of the bottle. As a result of the years of confidence there exists a large number of Jews unwilling to tow the communal line, and willing to speak out These individuals and groups have shown themselves effective in criticising Israeli policies and the uncritical support for Israel by the Anglo-Jewish establishment. To be truly effective, however, we need to go further: to create a message that goes beyond the negative and makes the positive case for diaspora, perhaps the greatest Jewish idea of all.

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  1. gringras says

    so you’re okay with connecting ethnocentrically to Judaism just so long as it’s universalist?

    1. Joseph Finlay says

      I’m not sure I understand your point. I argue against an ethnocentric connection to Judaism. Certainly I have a connection to past Jewish communities that is in patt ethnic, but I think that we would be better off theorising Jewish communities as communities of practice, rather than a people glued together by common descent.

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