In Jewish Italy, ‘Diaspora’ Is a Dirty Word
The former Jewish ghetto on the banks of the Tiber in central Rome. / Getty Images
Should Jews living in the Diaspora feel ashamed of being, well, Jews living in the Diaspora? A growing number of European Jews, it seems, believe the answer is yes. But when did we start buying into this narrative?
I’ve been asking myself this question lately because of a debate that’s going on here in Italy. It has to do with the opportunity to build a Holocaust museum. A very well known conservative pundit, Giuliano Ferrara, recently criticized the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna, who dared to protest the fact that Italy doesn’t have such a museum. Ferrara suggested Jews worry less about “the anti-Semitism of the past” and focus on more urgent issues, such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
What struck me most was the reaction I saw in the Italian Jewish press and online forums. A number of people sided with the right-wing commentator, claiming that building a memorial for the Holocaust would actually be inappropriate. Why? Because it would promote a Diasporic idea of Judaism!
Emanuele Segre Amar, a Jewish leader who serves as deputy chair of the Jewish community of Turin, went so far as to claim that Holocaust memorials “promote the stereotype of the Jew as victim, docile, weak, assimilated and Diasporic.”
It’s worth noting that this idea, together with the idea of Israeli Judaism being somehow more “authentic” than Diaspora Judaism, is nothing new. But it used to come mainly from Israelis.
For example, a now-infamous campaign run in 2011 by the Israeli government attempted to lure back U.S.-based Israeli expats by suggesting that Jewish children raised in the Diaspora don’t know what Hannukah is (the video has since been removed from YouTube).
A. B. Yehoshua, the Jerusalem-born author, is one of the best-known supporters of this view. Living outside Israel, he once claimed, “is a very deep failure of the Jewish people.” Yehoshua was also quoted as saying that those living in the Diaspora are “only partial Jews,” as opposed to “complete Jews” like himself.
Back in the early days of the Zionist endeavor, setting the model of a “new” and presumably better Jew was part of the creation of a new State. More “Hebrew” than “Jewish,” this ideal Zionist Jew ought to be a strong fighter, farmer and pioneer — in stark opposition to the European yid, who was seen as submissive, nebbish and bourgeois. Taken to its extreme, this view led to blaming the victims of pogroms, and later of the Holocaust, for going “like sheep to the slaughter.”
The sense of guilt and inferiority experienced by European Jews who immigrated to Israel became a trope in Israeli literature. Just look at Yael Dayan’s novel Death Had Two Sons (1967), Ben-Zion Tomer’s play Children of the Shadows (1962) and Gila Almagor’s novel Under the Domim Tree (1992).
But when did we, Jews living in the Diaspora, begin to buy into this narrative?
Last time I checked, Turin, a town in northern Italy, was part of the Diaspora. Which also makes Segre Amar the official of a “Diasporic” community. So why did he utter “Diasporic” as if it were a dirty word?
Confused, I turned to the Internet for answers and posed the question online in a couple of Jewish forums. Some people replied it didn’t make any sense, but others agreed with Segre Amar, claiming that a certain sense of guilt is part of the Diaspora experience. Finally, someone pointed out that in the age of low-cost flights, the separation between Israel and the Diaspora (particularly southern Europe) is no longer what it used to be.
I started to wonder if, at this stage, the distinction between Israeli and Diaspora Judaism is really geographical at all. Maybe “Israel” and the “Diaspora” have at some point become “places of the soul” rather than geographical terms. Maybe when some European Jews use the word “Diasporic” as if it’s a dirty word, they mean something new. In this language, “Israel” means “strong” and “projected into the future,” while “Diaspora” means “weak” and “anchored in a past of victimhood.” (I think this is much truer of Europe, where Jews face a terrible past and tend to perceive themselves as weak, as opposed to the U.S.)
In this view, the “new Jew” is no longer the one who works the land on a kibbutz, but the one who aggressively tweets against Iran. And with this in mind, you can almost start to see why some European Jews would want building Holocaust memorials to be labeled “Diasporic,” while lobbying against potential Iranian nukes becomes the “Israeli” — truly Jewish — thing to do. It allows them to live out a sort of fantasy — one in which they can see themselves as fighters, much prouder and stronger than their fathers, without ever moving from their homes.