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Jews of The Diaspora

Jews of the Diaspora

Webster's Dictionary defines diaspora as "the breaking up and scattering of a people or people settled far from their ancestral homelands." The past several hundred years have seen a number of such displacements, which have played a large role in determining how separate ethnic societies view each other.

By the end of the 19th century, Jews of the Diaspora began seriously agitating for a "home in Palestine secured by public law," in the words of Theodor Herzl, founder of the World Zionist Organization. A second impetus for Jewish immigration to the region was Russian pogroms. The Second Aliya, as it was called, lasted from 1903 to 1914, and brought some 30,000 Jews to Palestine.

  • In 1900, there were about 50,000 Jews living in Palestine
  • The Jews of the Diaspora were concentrated in 18 settlements of Hovevei Zion.
  • By the outbreak of the First World War, Palestine was home to between 40 and 50 agricultural settlements
  • There was an estimated Jewish population of 80,000 to 90,000, approximately 14% of the total population of Palestine.
  • The greatest demographic impact of Palestine before WWI was in the city of Jerusalem, where Jews achieved a majority of the population by 1914, numbering some 45,0000 out of a total of 80,000.
  • Most of the Zionist-sponsored settlements were on the coast and in lower Galilee, and not in Zion itself.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Jewish immigration to Palestine during this period was formal Ottoman opposition. Officially, Jews were welcome to emigrate to any part of the Ottoman Empire except Palestine. Most Jews entered into Palestine on pilgrim visas, and then disappeared into the agricultural settlements once their visas ran out. These settlements agitated many of their Arab neighbors by ignoring traditional Arab agricultural practices, such as fencing off areas, thus curtailing free grazing by Arab-owned animals.

Jewish impact on the rural areas was most profound. The accomplishments of the settlers alarmed the Arabs. Jews were able to raise and spend large amounts of money in order to purchase land, as well as establish schools, hospitals, and banks .

  • Between 1921 and 1925, the Jewish National Fund bought 200,000 dunums (18,000 hectares) of fertile land near Nazareth.
  • In 1929, an additional 400,000 dunums (36,000 hectares) were purchased in the Besian area of the Jordan Valley.
  • The total amount of land purchased between 1920 and 1939 was more than 846,000 dunums (76,150 hectares).
  • Together with the amount of land owned before World War I, the total amount of Jewish land owned in Palestine by 1939 was 1,496,000 dunums (134,775 hectares).

Under the British Mandate, Jewish wealth poured into Palestine, and estimated 80 million Palestinian pounds between 1920 and 1935. From this, Jewish settlers moved out of the agricultural sector and into the labor market, affecting the industrial base of Palestine.

Jews in Israel face an uncertain future and there is some question whether they have shown sufficient self-restraint in dealing with those who occupied Palestine before Zionists established a Jewish presence there. In the wake of the Holocaust enough international support was garnered to allow the establishment of a small Jewish state. But this state lacks strategic depth and is surrounded by enemies. It is also fragmented sociologically and the various groups do not always pull in the same direction. The psychological damage inflicted by living in what is increasingly becoming a garrison state must be profound. There is also the fact that modern Jewish theological beliefs are by no means homogeneous.

However, though many Jews from many lands have migrated to Israel, there is a substantial number of Jews living in foreign lands. The six million Jews who live in America, many of whom have been fully assimilated into the American mainstream and many of whom are members of Reform congregations which aim at ecumenism and engage in "a creative confrontation with modernity", constitute a reservoir of talent, economic power, and self-confidence that may prove a saving element if conditions continue to deteriorate in Palestine. If there are grounds for feeling anxious about the future of the Jews, there are also grounds for optimism.

One of the strengths of Judaism is the fact that it is uniquely attuned to history. The historical experience of the Jews has been at times catastrophic. But built into the theology of the faith is the sense that the working out of Jewish history is something which has revealed the will of God and been governed by God. Jews view their history as being not merely a chronicle of events, but as something that is a product of the nature of the Jewish God and of the covenantial relationship which Jews believe the people of Israel have with that God. Jewish theodicy holds that this God is neither capricious nor cruel, but rather, that he is a being who makes agreements with his chosen people and abides by those agreements. Jewish ontology subordinates nature-which is called into existence by God rather than being something that contains God--in a way that, in Smith's words, "'ought' cannot be assimilated to 'is'" These facts make the Jewish heritage-again as viewed by Jews-as something more than a random collection of events, something which has a moral meaning that can be explicated rationally. Abraham left the Sumerian state. He displayed obedience to the will of God when ordered to slay Isaac and his posterity was blessed. Moses was reluctant to be the instrument of the deliverance of the people out of Egypt, but he did obey God's wishes and so the people were delivered. And, eventually, Canaan was conquered. That the Jews were dispersed was not a random event involving mere political power, but was a result of God's displeasure with the apostasy and hypocrisy of the people, an apostasy and hypocrisy that the prophets, at God's behest, had warned them about. The most important meaning of the Jewish heritage is that it teaches Jews that their history is divinely driven and obeys divinely established laws of reasonable cause and effect. And this gives to that heritage an inherent strength which, we may be quite sure, helps to account for the extraordinary ability of this people to survive as a distinct people millennia after millennia. Who today worships Baal? Many still worship YHWH. We may postulate that the nature of the two deities had something to do with that. Belief in a divine plan that imbues events with meaning facilitates survival in a way that a religion based on mere acts of propitiation of a savage and unreliable deity does not.

The desiderata of the faith, are numerous. Whether the maintenance of a national homeland in the Middle East, given that the Jews there live in a sea of hostile Muslims, is permanent is problematic. But there are other desiderata which are not wholly dependent upon there being a Jewish homeland. These are determined by a creed which teaches that people must live according to the will of God, that puts forth specifically Jewish principles of piety which emphasize love of God and the hallowed nature of life in the world, that presents a view of action-in-the-world couched in moral terms, and that presents a view of God's law that is highly functional for collective survival. The faith is imbued with a sense that the world of the future can be better than the world of the present, a belief which is essentially empowering because it makes for optimism and a sense of duty rather than pessimism and passivity. There is a millenarian set of desiderata also: that the peaceable kingdom will come, that, perhaps, a Messiah will come, that the world will be changed in a way that might free it from the burden of history, an apocalyptic, eschatological vision. None of this absolutely requires an Israeli state, but these facts do not mean that possession of the state is not terribly important. Too much emphasis on the covenantial right of possessing the land of "milk and honey" has been a part of Jewish theology for another failure of that state to be a light matter. In a very important way, possession of the land of Israel is taken as a validation of Jewish theology and the theory of history that rests on it.

If the goals and objectives of the Jewish faith are multifaceted and complex, so also are the foundations on which the faith rests. To be a Jew is to sense that one is part of an exceptional community, a fact which involves both privileges and duties. Judaism is, as Joseph Conrad once described the Islamic creed, "an exacting faith." It is a religion with involves duties of outlook (a view of the world as morally meaningful), ethical duties and duties of ritual. To be a practicing Jew is to be involved in a thoroughgoing attempt to live in conformity to the perceived will of the deity. Smith refers to the almost miraculous survival of the Jews as being in some way a validation of Jewish exceptionalism. This may be going too far, but the manifold obligations of the faith, obligations founded on the notion that Jews have a special relationship to the creator, have undoubtedly contributed to the survival of the Jews because fulfillment of these obligations make for group cohesion and group cohesion makes for group survival. The Jews have been horribly persecuted at many places and many times. Adaptation to anti-semitism would not have been possible without the strong sense of communal identity which the faith promotes.

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