What is Particular and What is Universal in the Jewish People?

PP12_cover[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Joelle Fiss

Does the Jewish people have distinct characteristics or are its traits universal? Where does the tension between its Particularism and Universalism lie? Raising the idea of “tension” hints at the need to accommodate a struggle between Jewish ethics and universal values. It’s an assumption that should be disputed. We will see why a little later. Beyond this philosophical debate, it’s possible to shed light on a social angle, to see if the modern Jewish experience can be compared to other groups. What set of circumstances are unique to the Jewish people? What parts of the Jewish experience are universally shared?

It is the bond expressed in their covenant, which primarily connects Jews to each other. For the religious, the pact defines the relationship between God and the Israelites. For seculars, the covenant reflects the moral aspect of the Jewish social contract. However you choose to describe it, it’s the strong, three thousand tacit agreement among the majority to share a common destiny, as well as the desire to cultivate a polity that nurtures values, culture, ideals and interests – whether those are defined as particular or universal. Today’s covenant binds Jews living around the globe with Israelis from the “homeland”. Is this relationship particular or universal? To answer that question, let’s take a deeper look at what the term “homeland” can mean.

The notion of “homeland” is universal, but individually defined

According to Oxford scholar Robin Cohen[1], the notion of “homeland” changes for each diaspora community. Some groups need to feel grounded in a solid home, which is a physical connection to the homeland’s soil.

Other groups view their homelands as liquid homes, rooted in the imaginary sphere. The liquid homeland is held out indefinitely as an attractive place to return to, as part of a group’s collective memory. One telling example is peoples of West African origin who settled in the Caribbean when they were dispersed by force through the slave trade. Today, the idea of “Africa” may remain in the collective imaginary of Caribbean peoples, but most of them don’t wish to return.

In between the liquid and solid homes, there are the flexible homes: Israel can be placed in this category. The option of permanently settling there is possible, but not inescapable. Israel can be a place to settle but also one to go on holiday, soak up the sun and local pop culture, eat some falafel, try out some Hebrew and then return home. Whereas many Jews continue to glorify the solid land of milk and honey, others are drifting away from that mythical vision. The situation is not definitive, but rather fluid. Israel can be both solid and liquid depending on one’s personal identity. This is an interesting framework to analyse the specificity of Israel-Diaspora relations. How many liquid homelands are there in the world? How specific is this social reality to the Jewish people? Do other peoples with strong covenants share a similar liquid diaspora-homeland dynamic? There is a whole range of comparisons to make there.

The Jewish experience creates a typology of diaspora

What’s clear is that some universal patterns have been set into motion by the Jewish historical precedent. Cohen defines five broad diaspora types[2] that go beyond the generic term. The first is the victim group. It’s based on the Jewish model, which is the oldest recorded in history. The Jewish experience sets the prototype for all groups to follow. Victim diaspora groups are marked by a traumatic historical episode, during which the population flees or disperses. Even if migration goals are pursued after that, the calamities caused by their initial displacement demarcates this diaspora’s key characteristic. For the Jews, that moment was the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC. Cohen also includes in this group the Irish, African peoples, Armenians and Palestinians. The Irish migrated between 1845 and 1852 following the Great Famine during a period of mass starvation and disease. For Africans, the shipment of ten million people across the Atlantic for mass slavery and coerced labour in the Americas was the key calamity. The Armenian diaspora fled from genocide and mass deportations in 1915. Finally, the creation of the state of Israel was the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe), which led to its uprooting and exile.

As each group has its own dynamics, it’s hard to draw too many comparative conclusions. The Irish are formally tied by citizenship (though the right to register as a citizen terminates at the third generation); however the term ‘Irish diaspora’ is interpreted more broadly, and emotionally. African diaspora groups persecuted through the slave trade gave way to a whole array of identities and relationships to the vast original homeland, ‘Africa’. The Palestinians still don’t have a state, so it’s hard to compare their experience with the Jewish one, which has transformed with the emergence of self- determination. Despite these differences, the Jewish paradigm sets a universal one in motion: the victim diaspora group.

Some specific parts of the Jewish experience can be shared. At first glance, the Armenians may share the most comparable features to the Jewish experience. The Armenian Church sustains a distinctive Armenian identity, through its culture and language. Religion remains an important unifier. Both Jews and Armenians nurture the history of a lost territory, as well as the vivid memory of a genocide committed against them in the twentieth century. (Although those genocides led to opposed migratory patterns: whereas the Jewish centre of gravity shifted towards the newly founded state of Israel after 1948, the Armenian genocide led to further dispersion.)

With these common features, it may not be entirely accidental that some debates are strikingly similar – not least on how diaspora groups can strengthen ties and exchange ideas with those living in the “homeland”. Jews have come up with all sorts of designs in that field, for example: to create a world Jewish parliament (first discussed in the 90s), an upper chamber in the Knesset (proposed by Israeli president Moshe Katzav in 2004) or even the very recent consultation between Jews and The Jewish Agency, held in February 2014.

Interestingly, the Armenian quest has been similar. In January 2011, Armenia’s diaspora minister, Hranush Hakobyan, announced that the Republic of Armenia plans to create a new Senate, which would include representatives from the Armenian diaspora. According to the Asbarez Armenian News, “the news spread like wildfire throughout the Armenian world, and the reaction was mixed…. There (will) be extensive consultations in Armenia and the Diaspora before any decision is taken on the structure and the responsibilities of the proposed Senate.” Will Armenians feel comfortable with the presence of diaspora members in their legal structures, or will the latter be viewed as meddling in domestic affairs? Should the Armenian government include handpicked representatives or would this be viewed as an attempt to exercise undue influence over the diaspora? The Armenian debate is still in full swing.

No tension between Universality and Particularity

Understanding what defines and constitutes a diaspora, and the relationship to its homeland, can help us to explore the Jewish collective. If Jews do indeed define themselves as a victim group, can that partly explain its success in dedicating itself to particularist interests, not least the survival of its own people? The quest for survival is clearly a (legitimate) response to this narrative of victimhood. And yet – many Jewish groups do not necessarily embrace the narrative of victimhood, nor do others exclusively dedicate their time to the Jewish people. A central trait of Jewish thought and action is tikkun olam, which reaffirms humanity’s shared responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world. Promoting universal ideals through tikkun olam is a concept entrenched in centuries of rabbinical tradition. It does not make any sense to divide the debate between universalists or particularists, because universal values are solidly entrenched at the core of Jewish ethics.

The debate is devoid of tension.

Perhaps this lack of tension has produced a specific characteristic of the Jewish culture. Such an affirmation required another debate. What’s clear is that Jewish civilization has always viewed vivid argumentation as a core value to reach wisdom. Such a deep quest for free debate – as a means and as an end – has been an integral part of the Jewish ethos and social structures for centuries. It is therefore with particularlist tradition that the Jews are discussing such universal themes.

[1] The ideas of Robin Cohen are taken from his book, Global Diasporas
[2] The five diaspora types are: victim, labour, trade, imperial and de-territorialised.

Joelle Fiss is Swiss and British. She published an essay called “Tiptoeing on Minefields: How to Improve the Flow of Ideas Between Israel and the Diaspora Without It Necessarily Exploding in Your Face,” which was notably discussed in the Knesset, the Shimon Peres Presidential Conference and the European Parliament.

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.