The PJ Tatler

Is the End of the Diaspora Good for the Jews?

With ancient Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere starting to flee, that’s what the great Joel Kotkin is wondering:

Recent anti-Semitic events – from France and Belgium to Argentina – are accelerating the relentless shrinking of the Jewish Diaspora. Once spread virtually throughout the world, the Diaspora – the scattering of Jews after the fall of ancient Israel – is retreating from many of its global redoubts as Jews increasingly cluster in two places: Israel and the United States.

Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Jewish communities throughout Europe are again on the decline. This time, the pressure mainly comes not from the traditional anti-Semitic Right but from Islamic fundamentalists, which include many European citizens. Not all this decline is attributable to attacks from Islamic militants. Demographic factors – intermarriage and low birth rates – afflict almost all Diaspora communities.

But large-scale migration out of Europe is something not seen since the 1950s. In France, the nation with the largest Jewish population outside Israel and the United States, the outflow of Jews doubled in 2014, to 7,000, from the year before. The Jewish Agency is now drawing up plans to attract 120,000 more to Israel.

Kotkin notes that the creation of the state of Israel inadvertently helped reduce the presence of Diaspora Jews in their traditional communities of North Africa and the Levant. Further, America’s welcoming presence has sheltered Jews from Iran and South Africa who have fled the political turmoil in those two countries.

As one Jewish community after another has declined, the role of Israel has expanded. In 1939, most of the world’s 16 million Jews lived in Europe, and, even by 1945, barely one in five Jews resided in Palestine. Since then, the Diaspora population has dropped from 10 million to 8 million, while Israel now accounts for roughly 40 percent of the world’s Jews, according to the Jewish Agency. Overall, the United States and Israel account for 81 percent of Jews worldwide, compared with barely a quarter in 1939.

At the same time, Israel’s Jewish community will grow faster due to a birthrate twice as high as in most countries, including the United States. These trends confirm some of the predictions made a half century ago by the French sociologist Georges Friedmann in his provocative book, “The End of the Jewish People?” As Israel became stronger, more dominant and, more Middle Eastern in mentality, he suggested, Israeli identity would soon supplant that of the Diaspora. “The ‘Jewish people,’” he wrote, “is disappearing and giving place to the Israeli nation.”

Kotkin, a professor of urban studies at Chapman University in southern California, however, makes some powerful arguments in favor of continuing a strong Jewish presence across the world:

The mingling of Jewish and other cultures helped create the earliest global financial networks, the development of “off the shelf” clothing and the Hollywood entertainment industry. Intellectually, the Diaspora created some of the world’s greatest minds, including Moses Maimonides, Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Andrew Grove and Saul Bellow.

Diasporas tend to produce remarkable innovation and creative thinking. Dispersed colonies of Armenians, Lebanese, Chinese and Indians have played disproportionate roles in modern cultures and economies, due largely to their global reach and knowledge. One of the great tragedies of the current wave of Islamist agitation lies in the gradual eviction of Christians, Baha’i and other minorities from the Middle East, where they have played critical roles in these countries.

Ultimately, maintaining the Diaspora may prove as important to Jews as the continued security of Israel. Without the Diaspora, Israel just becomes another nation, with its unique history but no real universal message. The universality of the Jewish experience grows not from the soil, but from culture and thought developed largely in “exile.” In this respect, the erosion of the French Jewish community, as well as others, is not just a tragedy for that country, but for the world.

Over to you, David Goldman.