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Term "Diaspora" Is Going Out Of Style As Post-Zionist Ideology Gains

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November-December 1999

In the present post-Zionist era, the term "Diaspora" is going out of style as a way to refer to Jews outside of Israel, reports The Forward (Nov. 5, 1999).  

While newspapers and casual commentators refer to Rabbi Michael Melchior as Israel’s Diaspora affairs minister, his aides are quick to complain that his title is really "minister of Israeli society and the world Jewish community," The Forward reports. Meanwhile, a new division at Israel‘s Foreign Ministry to forge contact between Israelis and Jews elsewhere is called Bayit Meshutaf, or Shared Home. Even the venerable Museum of the Diaspora is now referring to itself at times as the Museum of the Jewish People.  

The Forward notes that, "The term ‘Diaspora,’ it seems, is going out of style. As post-Zionist ideology gains speed, as Jewish communities around the world gain confidence in their legitimacy and as reform and Conservative Jews grow disillusioned with their movements’ status (in Israel), ‘Diaspora’ is being relegated to the realm of the politically incorrect. The shift in terminology is significant, because it signals that the way Jews around the world think about Israel is changing, with the Jewish states centrality on the wane and criticism of its history on the rise. Those who have forsaken the term say it bespeaks an era gone by and a Zionist ideology gone stale, although the term ‘Diaspora’ itself replaced ‘exile,’ which was in common use until the 1970s. The idea, say detractors the term, implies that Jewish life outside Israel is somehow inferior to Jewish life here (in Israel)—a concept that some may find distasteful but that others uphold as a pillar of Zionism."  

John Ruskay, executive vice-president of the UJA-Federation of New York, said: "While Diaspora literally means dispersion, it has come to have a pejorative connotation of ‘less than.’ The challenge that faces us is to strengthen Jewish communities and the Jewish people throughout the world, and for each segment to bring its contribution to the table. The formulation ‘Diaspora-Israel’ takes us back to the old debates and it encompasses such diversionary judgments as center and periphery."  

Rabbi Melchior prefers to be called "minister of Israeli society and the world Jewish community" because "the Diaspora is something that has a negative connotation in the eyes of Israelis. We think that if you say that it’s the ‘world Jewish community,’ the concept or feeling of togetherness will get stronger," a media adviser to Rabbi Melchior, Moni Mordechai, said. "This is no longer what Jews abroad owe to the state of Israel. This is about how we contribute to each other."  

Use of terms such as "Jews around the world" rather than "Diaspora," states Professor Steven Cohen of the Hebrew University’s Melton Center for Jewish Education, "reflects the American Jewish leadership becoming more sensitive to its own achievements and to resisting an Israel-centric definition of the Jewish world. The current tendencies are to diminish the centrism of Israel. For me, it’s a good thing."  

Others disagree. A member of the World Zionist Executive, David Sommer, said of Israelis who eschew the term "Diaspora" for fear of alienating Americans: "I think they lack a backbone. Since I believe we should speak about the centrality of Israel, you can’t speak about many centers. Those who are speaking about many equal centers are speaking about the equality of Jerusalem and Babylonia. I’m sorry to say that I disagree with that. . .There is no doubt that my point of view as a Zionist and from the Zionist point of view, which is the Jewish state"s point of view, the people in the Diaspora are out of home."  

Also supporting the term and concept of "Diaspora" is Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). He said that as far as he is concerned "Diaspora" is "a perfectly acceptable word."

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