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Is it really wrong to have ties to a community based in a shared vision of God, justice, and hope, rather than in land and blood?
Now that America is actually lurching toward fascism, though, that passage looks a lot less safe. Israel, it is increasingly clear, has its own concerns, largely unrelated to the five or 10 dollars total I donated some four decades ago. The diaspora has to look after itself, as it always has. And if we’re on our own, maybe we should start thinking about what aspects of Jewish life out here can help us say “never again,” rather than hoping in vain for Israel to save us when the day comes.
Israel has always justified itself ideologically as a response to the Shoah; Jewish nationalism, the line goes, is a rebuke to, and a refutation of, Nazi ideology. But the government in Israel has been largely indifferent to the rise of fascism and far-right politics globally. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could barely bring himself to condemn the fascist, openly anti-Semitic “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon has been condemned by the Anti-Defamation League for fanning bigotry and encouraging the fascist tendencies of the alt-right, but Israeli government officials have praised himbecause he supports their own political agenda. Netanyahu’s son shared anti-Semitic images on Facebook to attack the billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros.
None of this is exactly surprising. Israel as a state doesn’t feel threatened by growing fascism abroad because Israel as a state isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, the target of fascism abroad. Hitler was not focused on killing Jewish people in Israel, not least because no state of Israel existed when he held power. As Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, tells me: “Hitler’s anti-Semitism had nothing to do with Israel! It was directed at the diaspora.”
The Nazis didn’t just hate the diaspora at random either; they hated the diaspora for being a diaspora. Nazi propaganda attacked Jews as being despicable precisely because they were a people without a country. The notorious Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew portrays Jewish people as verminous immigrants, likening them to rats spreading disease. Assimilated Jewish people, for their part, are deceivers, aliens in skin suits waiting to crawl out and corrupt the noble volk. Anti-Semites today follow a similar line, sneering at Jewish people for being supposed “globalists.” Fascist anti-Semitism is hardly the only kind of anti-Semitism. But it’s important to recognize that, for fascists, the sin of Jewish people, for which they must be destroyed, is a sin of insufficient nationalism. Jews are evil because they have no rooted nationalist essence.
Zionism responded to the spread of nationalism in Europe by imagining, and then creating, a Jewish national identity. But there were other Jewish responses that ceded less ideological ground to the presuppositions of fascism. The socialist Bund movement in Eastern Europe, for example, was a “deeply internationalist and universalist current, the bearer of secular, emancipatory, rationalist values,” according to Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg’s Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism.
The Bund and other Jewish socialist movements used Jewish diaspora internationalism as a springboard to socialist internationalism, and vice versa. Rather than seeking a Jewish homeland, Jewish socialists and communists had a vision of trans-national equality, in which workers of all nations would be liberated. “I’ve often been asked, here in Israel, what prompted me to volunteer for Spain: Did I go there as a Jew or as a communist?” Shlomo Szlein told Brossat and Klingberg. “That’s basically a ridiculous question…. After all, recruitment for Spain was on the basis of anti-fascism.” And who has more reason to be anti-fascist than a Jewish communist?
The diaspora is everything that fascists hate—and if fascists hate it, it’s probably worth embracing. Guitarist Marc Ribot, who named his debut album “the rootless cosmopolitans” (after an anti-Semitic catchphrase from the Soviets), has the right idea. When Jewish identity is centered on Israel, the diaspora is always supposed to be vaguely embarrassed because it conforms to fascist stereotypes about cosmopolitanism, internationalism, intellectualism. But is it really wrong to have ties to a community based in a shared vision of God, justice, and hope, rather than in land and blood?
Bundists, according to Molly Crabapple, writing recently in the New York Review of Books, “adhered to the doctrine of do’ikayt or ‘Hereness.’ Jews had the right to live in freedom and dignity wherever it was they stood.” The Holocaust shattered the diaspora, by killing millions of international Jews. But it also shattered the diaspora by negating it as a positive, achievable dream. Back there in Hebrew school, I always understood that “never again” didn’t just refer to the Holocaust, but to faith in the diaspora. We could never trust any homeland but our own again.
We can’t bring back the dead, but perhaps we can recapture at least a part of the dream. The diaspora isn’t a failed experiment, or a mistake, or a way station on the way to something better. It’s still, today, despite Hitler’s best efforts, the place I live, and the place where most Jewish people in the world live.
Maybe we’re home here, wherever we are, because anywhere we are is worth living in, and worth making a better place. Maybe we can see value in our neighbors, wherever they come from, whatever their history, simply because they’re our neighbors now. Our existence in the diaspora is anti-fascist. That’s something to be proud of, and to build on.