Rethinking Jewish Diaspora: On Analogy, Translation, and Abjection



In this text, Ben Ratskoff nuances the concept of “radical diasporism” beyond Jewish opposition to Zionism. Through a careful, almost theological demonstration, he argues that the geographic dispersion that gave “diaspora” its name is not only a divine curse but also an invitation to subvert state structures.

For Richard Iton. May his memory be a blessing.

When the concept of “diaspora” exploded in Anglophone academic discourse in the 1990s, promising to describe all sorts of contemporary identities, experiences, and communities, as well as to transcend nationalist and racial essentialisms, its theorists articulated a rather ambivalent relationship to the Jewish case. These theorists often tacitly deferred to the ‘classic’ or ‘ideal’ Jewish type of diaspora—shaped by the term’s etymological meaning of geographical dispersion from a homeland—before either generalizing this Jewish experience beyond any historical and cultural specificity or claiming to supersede it entirely with new notions of fragmentation, transnationality, and hybridity. In one of the earliest efforts to distinguish the new conception from a Jewish one, theorist Stuart Hall attempted to displace what he considered an “old, the imperialising, the hegemonising form of ‘ethnicity’”—for, he continued, “we have seen the fate of the people of Palestine at the hands of this backward-looking conception of diaspora” (“Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” 1990). In its place, the new diaspora concept would be defined “by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity.”

It is not quite clear how the recognition of Jewish identity’s heterogeneity and difference will serve the Palestinian struggle for liberation. While monopolizing expressions and definitions of Jewish identity remains an important strategy of the state of Israel and its supporters, the state of Israel has also embraced of late a representational politics of diversity that reproduces the state’s legitimacy and expands the settler community—a politics of diversity that, moreover, does little to ameliorate material inequalities that persist across this settler community. In any case, Hall’s veiled dismissal of a putatively old Jewish conception of diaspora indexes how routine nods to diaspora’s traditional association with Jewish history and experience typically lack critical engagement with this association and often stage a subsequent attempt to supersede it.

Nonetheless, following the ‘diaspora’ renaissance in Anglophone academic discourse, U.S. Jewish critics of Zionism began to formulate political programs of radical Jewish “Diasporism” that deliberately challenged the nationalist forms of identification promoted by the state of Israel.