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Coined in the third century B.C., the term diaspora has evolved into a buzzword used to describe the migrations of groups as diverse as ethnic populations, religious communities, and even engineers working abroad. This concise book provides a critical introduction to the concept of diaspora, bringing a fresh, synthetic perspective to virtually all aspects of this topic. Stéphane Dufoix incorporates a wealth of case studies—about the Jewish, Armenian, African, Chinese, Greek, and
Indian experiences— to illustrate key concepts, give a clear overview on current thinking, and reassess the value of the term for us today.
"Diaspora" is a Greek word, derived from the verb diaspeiro, which was used as early as the fifth century B.C. by Sophocles, Herodotus, and Thucydides. The modern usage of "diaspora" stems from its appearance as a neologism in the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek by the legendary seventy Jewish scholars in Alexandria in the third century B.C. In the so-called Septuagint Bible, "diaspora" is used twelve times. But it doesn't refer to the historic dispersion of the Jews who were taken as captives to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., or to any other human historical event. Contrary to what has often been claimed, "diaspora" was not used to translate the Hebrew terms galut, galah, and golah. These were rendered in the Septuagint by several Greek words: apoikia (emigration), paroikia (settlement abroad), metoikia (emigration) or metoikesia (transportation), aikhmalosia (wartime captivity), or apokalupsis (revelation). Instead, "diaspora" always meant the threat of dispersion facing the Hebrews if they failed to obey God's will, and it applied almost exclusively to divine acts. God is the one who scatters the sinners or will gather them together in the future. Relying on works by other historians of religion such as Willem Cornelius van Unnik and Johannes Tromp, Martin Baumann shows that it was only in later Jewish tradition that the meaning of "diaspora" changed to designate both the scattered people and the locale of their dispersion.
In the Christian tradition, the New Testament (where "diaspora" appears three times) presents the church as a dispersed community of pilgrims waiting to return to the City of God. The eschatological waiting connected with "diaspora" tends to disappear in the fourth century, only to resurface during the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, when it describes Protestant minorities in Catholic countries, or the reverse.
To understand the growing popularity of the term during the second half of the twentieth century, it is essential to examine two examples that are strongly both linked and opposed: the "Jewish diaspora" and the "black diaspora."
THE JEWISH AND BLACK/AFRICAN DIASPORAS The Jewish Diaspora
Considering the Jewish experience of dispersion means taking into account all of Jewish history, which is marked by constant swings between the centrality of the land of Israel-where no sovereign Jewish power existed between 586 B.C. and 1948-and the growth of one or more centers outside it. The French sociologist Shmuel Trigano counts no fewer than nine "geopolitical structures," or "geons," of world Judaism.
What he calls "the unfinished space" corresponds to the period of geographical instability (1250-586 B.C.) when the territory was initially divided among tribes until the founding of the Davidic kingdom, then split into northern and southern kingdoms, and finally saw the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar. "The bipolar world" (586-332 B.C.) marked a break in the unity of the people between the Israeli and Babylonian hubs. Most of the Jews had been deported (galut) to Babylon, and some chose not to leave when it became possible to return home. This bipolarity survived the conquest of Israel by Alexander, but the Babylonian center lost some of its influence in the "Judeo-Western system" (332 B.C.-A.D. 224). Though not politically independent, Jews were present in the land of Israel even after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, which is usually given as the start of the Jewish "diaspora." The Jews left Israel only after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century, because of persecution suffered under Byzantine rule.
A new geon, "the shattered world" (A.D. 224-630), saw the Babylonian hub develop as the first Jewish center outside of Israel. Arab expansion starting in the seventh century gave the Jewish world a common geopolitical framework. In this "sea of oneness" (A.D. 630-1250), Babylon was joined by a new hub on the Iberian Peninsula, the site of a Jewish golden age in artistic, scientific, intellectual, and political domains. During this period, the distinction was first drawn between the Iberian Jewish communities, the Sephardim-from S'farad, meaning "Spain" in medieval Hebrew-and those who traveled from Israel through Italy to settle in Italy, France, and the Rhineland and were known as the Ashkenazim, from Ashk'naz, the Hebrew term for the Germanic countries. Fleeing anti-Semitic persecutions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Ashkenazim would turn tolerant Poland into "the star of the North" (1250-1492). Meanwhile, the Catholic Reconquest and the Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century ended the Arab presence in Europe and in the Baghdad Caliphate, bringing the Jewish Iberian and Babylonian hubs to an end. The expulsion of the Sephardim from Spain in 1492 and their dispersal to the Ottoman Empire, the cities of northern Europe, Galilee, and the Americas transformed the Jewish world into a "compass card" (1492-1700) marked by the establishment of many small centers focused on commerce and banking. The crisis then faced by the Marranos, the crypto-Jews expelled from Spain, signaled the decline of the earlier centers and the emergence of Prussia and France as countries where citizenship for Jews became possible. France declared the emancipation of the Jews-that is, the end of special laws and the proclamation of equal rights-on 27 September 1791. Some Germanic states adopted similar principles in the first half of the nineteenth century, but they did not apply to the whole of German territory until after the empire was unified in 1871.
As the Russian hub grew in size, the influence of the Ottoman and Middle Eastern ones diminished. This "tripolar world" (1700-1948) went into decline at the end of the nineteenth century with the rise of anti-Semitism in France (the Dreyfus Affair) and Germany, as well as in Russia, where the tsars encouraged pogroms against Jewish shtetls. The migrations to the West began then: 2.7 million people between 1881 and 1914, and 860,000 from 1915 to 1939. The consequences of the Nazis coming to power in Germany in 1933-persecutions, World War II, and the launching of the "final solution" with the Axis powers' support-led to the destruction of the Jews of Europe, 6 million of whom would die in the Holocaust. Europe's Jews represented 72 percent of the world Jewish community in 1850 and 57 percent in 1939; after the war, that figure fell to 32 percent. The creation of the State of Israel in May 1948 inaugurated the current "duopoly" (1948 to the present). It is characterized by the coexistence of a state for the Jews and the maintenance of a non-Israeli Jewish identity now mainly centered in the United States.
For the American political scientist Daniel Elazar, the Jewish people represent "the classic diaspora phenomenon" by reason of their capacity to preserve their "integrity as an ethnoreligious community" despite more than two thousand years of existence without political power over their own country of origin. Moreover, the continual Jewish migrations during those two millennia favored religious identification based on a shared temporal and religious rhythm rather than on shared land. The existence of the Jews as a political entity (eda, in Hebrew) rests on the idea of a covenant between God and the twelve tribes of Israel. Its principles are found in the Torah, which is both the name of the first five books of the Bible and the collection of the rules of Jewish life (Talmud and commentaries). The eda is unusual in being at once dissociated from a territory yet needing one in order to be fully realized. From the very beginning, the organization of the Jewish people in spatial circles (local, regional, and global associations) rather than geographical ones allowed an extended family or tribe to move through wider and wider levels when dispersion imposed a redefinition of the spatial frameworks. The local circle often matched a city's limits, and a regional one those of a state or a continent. But from the fifth to the eleventh centuries, the eda rested on the institution of the Resh Galuta, the head of the exile community in Babylon. When this position disappeared with the end of the Muslim empire, respect for the Torah was Judaism's sole remaining inclusive force.
The emergence of Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century marked a passage to new forms of representation. The persecutions suffered by the Jews in central and eastern Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century led to the formation of small organizations aimed at founding agricultural colonies in Palestine. A return to Zion, the mountain that rises above Jerusalem, became a goal. Zionism developed in the Russian empire as early as 1882, but it was the publication of The Jewish State, by Theodore Herzl, in 1896 that marked the birth of Zionism as a political movement advocating the founding of a Jewish national homeland. The First Zionist Congress, which met in Basel in 1897, chose the two goals of establishing a national assembly of the Jewish people through the election of delegates from all the communities, and creating a national homeland by encouraging emigration to Palestine. The first point saw the establishment of what would become the World Zionist Organization, which attracted tens of thousands of individual members in 1897 and had a million by 1939. The World Jewish Congress, created in 1936, allowed for national groupings. But the Zionist movement was divided over two issues involving a homeland: the respective roles of religion and politics, and the approach to founding a state. Between the two world wars, after the defeat of the 1917 Balfour Declaration and as more and more Jews immigrated to Palestine, the Zionists split again, this time over the question of violence. The Socialists advocated a nonviolent approach and the encouragement of immigration; Vladimir Jabotinsky's "revisionists" and their military wing, the Irgun, decided in 1936 to respond with violence to Arab terrorism and, later, to British domination.
Giving an overall estimate of the world's Jewish population and its geographical distribution presupposes knowing who is Jewish. Current statistics generally follow a definition that is broader than that prescribed by halakha (tradition), which dictates every aspect of Jewish life and says that one must be born of a Jewish mother or ritually convert to Judaism. The figures usually put forth take into account what the demographer Sergio DellaPergola calls "the core Jewish population," which includes all those who consider themselves to be Jews. It should be noted that this definition, though founded on a subjective conception of Jewishness, is more restricted than that which operates in the framework of Israel's Law of Return. The most recent version of this law includes spouses, non-Jewish children and grandchildren, and their spouses.
At the beginning of 2006, according to DellaPergola, the world Jewish population numbered about 13.1 million, of whom nearly 81 percent lived in two countries: the United States (about 5.3 million) and Israel (5.3 million out of a total population of about 7 million). Ninety-five percent of Jews are concentrated in ten countries: the United States and Israel, France (491,500), Canada (373,000), the United Kingdom (297,000), Russia (228,000), Argentina (184,500), Germany (118,000), Australia (103,000), and Brazil (96,500).
The Black/African Diaspora
It is no accident that "diaspora" has been applied to the situation of the descendants of Africans living on other continents. Indeed, even before the word was used, the parallel was being drawn in the nineteenth century between the Jewish and black dispersions in the writings of the first thinkers of the "pan-Africanist" cause, W. E. B. DuBois and Edward Blyden. For blacks, the biblical episode of the Exodus-escaping from slavery and reaching the Promised Land-had special resonance. Jews and blacks are linked by the role of Africa in Jewish history. Blyden considered the Jewish question to be the "question of questions," and he admired Zionism for undertaking and organizing a return to the land of origin. He himself "returned" to Africa in 1850 in the context of a program launched in the 1820s to settle former slaves that led to the creation of Liberia. Aspirations for a return to Africa from the United States and England took shape as early as 1787, when the British government supported settlement in Sierra Leone, and continued into the early twentieth century. In the 1920s, Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, the head of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), advocated the founding of a black nation in Africa. The 1920 Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World proclaimed the black race's right to self-determination and chose red, green, and black as the colors of the "African nation." But the project of return depended on a shipping company, the Black Star Line, and its financial difficulties led to Garvey's downfall. He was imprisoned and then expelled from the United States and the UNIA. With that, the "back-to-Africa" plans came to an end.
In spite of the link between the Jewish and black peoples established by the idea of a return to the land of origin, none of those militant theoreticians used the word "diaspora." Until now, scholars all agreed that the first written occurrences of the expressions "African diaspora" and "black diaspora," and the use of "diaspora" to describe the situation of blacks living outside of Africa, dated from 1965. And that is what I wrote in the French edition of this book, citing articles by George Shepperson and Abiola Irele. I did note that the expressions and issues were not new inventions but had already been circulating in intellectual circles since the mid-1950s.
My research since 2003 reveals that not only did the idea occur earlier but the terms themselves did, too. They were often used to explicitly draw an analogy between Jewish history and black history, or to note the existence of discrimination that both groups faced in the countries where they lived.
In his 1916 book American Civilization and the Negro, the African American thinker and doctor Charles Victor Roman raised the question of the future of blacks in Africa and the American South: "The Negro is not going to leave here for two reasons: In the first place this is his home, and in the second place there is nowhere to go. He is not going back to Africa any more than the white man is going back to Europe or the Jew is going back to Palestine. Palestine may be rehabilitated and Europe be Americanized, but the Jew will not lose his worldwide citizenship, nor America fail of her geographical destination as the garden-spot of the world. The Negro will do his part to carry the light of civilization to the dark corners of the world, especially to Africa; dark, mysterious, inscrutable Africa; the puzzle of the past and the riddle of the future; the imperturbable mother of civilizations and peoples. The slave-trade was the diaspora of the African, and the children of this alienation have become a permanent part of the citizenry of the American republic." Soon afterward, in 1917, the analogy was drawn on the Jewish side. A Yiddish newspaper, The Jewish Daily Forward, made the connection between the race riots that erupted in East St. Louis, Illinois, on 2 July, and the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, during which more than fifty Jews were killed: "Kishinev and St. Louis-the same soil, the same people. It is a distance of four and a half thousand miles between these two cities and yet they are so close and so similar to each other.... Actually twin sisters, which could easily be mistaken for each other. Four and a half thousand miles apart, but the same events in both.... The same brutality, the same wildness, the same human beasts." The editorial went on: "The situation of the Negroes in America is very comparable to the situation of the Jews ... in Russia. The Negro diaspora, the special laws, the decrees, the pogroms and also the Negro complaints, the Negro hopes, are very similar to those which we Jews ... lived through." The Jewish editorial writer is proclaiming the "Negro diaspora." But those two occurrences hardly spelled the formula's success. Not until the 1950s and 1960s would its usage become common among English-speaking historians of Africa, like Basil Davidson, and, especially, among French scholars and intellectuals.
Excerpted from Diasporas by Stéphane Dufoix Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 27, 2013
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