On the move: exiles and emigres

An account of the Jewish diaspora is not quite what it seems

By Geoffrey Alderman, September 21, 2012

Jews: The Making of a Diaspora People/ By Irving M Zeitlin/ Polity, £55 (PB: £17.99)

Inward journey: pre-war European Jews en route to Palestine

Inward journey: pre-war European Jews en route to Palestine

What you see is not necessarily what you get. The blurb on the cover of this book states that it is “a comprehensive account of how the Jews became a diaspora people.”

It isn’t. It is a potted history of some of the Jewish people, concentrating on aspects of the biblical period, the heresies of Shabbetai Zevi and his imitators, the rise of Chasidism, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Enlightenment discussion of what Bruno Bauer called “The Jewish Question” (which was actually a gentile question) and the origins and course of the Nazi enterprise to wipe the Jews from the face of the earth. Zionism and the re-establishment of a Jewish state are added almost as an afterthought.

The history is told in a curious way, as a series of more or less critical appraisals of some classic texts, such as the writings of Simon Dubnow, Gershom Scholem and Leon Poliakov. One could even characterise the work as a collection of extended book reviews.

This is a pity, not least because there is a story to be told and questions still to be asked about how the Jewish diaspora managed to survive and even flourish, and how the Jews have managed to maintain a remarkable trans-national identity through good times and bad.

As Professor Zeitlin himself explains, the term “diaspora” actually originated as a way of describing the Jewish people at the time of the Babylonian exile.

But the Jews were never assimilated in the way other conquered ethnic groups were. Nor did Judaism disappear as did the myriad polytheistic faiths of the classical period.

Why? To be sure, part of the answer lies in the religion itself, which embraced ethical and ritualistic, but also territorial elements. The religion thus served as a vehicle through which national identity was formed, preserved and transmitted from generation to generation. But part of the answer lies in persecution, which shaped — and strengthened — the identity of diaspora Jews.

Had it not been for Nazism, for instance, German Jewry would almost certainly have long since fallen victim to the forces of assimilation. Incredibly, Zeitlin has nothing to say about the remarkable Jewish renaissance in the Soviet Union, in which the Jews discovered how to rebuild their ethnic and religious separatism on the very foundations of the state-sponsored persecution that was supposed to guarantee its elimination. Zeitlin is also silent about the Jewish experience in the UK.

In 1985, Professor Howard Sachar, of the George Washington University, published Diaspora, an analytical survey of what he called the Jewish “third world” — Jewry outside of Israel and North America. The well-meaning labours of Irving Zeitlin notwithstanding, Sachar’s tightly argued volume remains the standard work on the subject.

Geoffrey Alderman is a historian and JC columnist

Last updated: 3:08pm, September 21 2012