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A New Diaspora

For a diasporic identity to be truly radical, to genuinely break from nationalism, we must move beyond the stereoscopic vision of homeland and diaspora, towards theorising a diaspora with no centre, a diaspora with no homeland.

In his book, Global Diasporas, Robin Cohen calls for the reimporting of a diasporic consciousness into the Jewish psyche, leading to a ‘perpetual diasporic tension'(1) which would foreground the idea of a sharing of space. His arguments are partially based on a mythical and historical view of Jewish history much of which is situated outside of a ‘given’ land. He points out from a biblical perspective that Abraham, the first Jew, was from Ur and spent much of his time on the move and that the torah was presented to the Jews outside of the Promised Land in the desert. From a more historical point of view, he recalls that much of Jewish cultural heritage, including the writing of the Babylonian Talmud took place in the diaspora which was a fertile ground for Jewish thought. The radical break from much diaporic thinking comes in the notion of diaspora which exists irrespective of and indeed in the absence of any kind of real homeland. The focus of diaspora then changes from being organised around a territory to being organised around a text. The perpetual tensions push and pull in multiple directions. There is a tension between Jewish diaspora identity and local secular identity, between multiple diaspora interpretations of the central text the torah and between the identities which the national discourses attempt to write on the diaspora Jews and their chosen diaspora identities. Clearly, there is room here for a multiplicity of identities within the discourse of diasporic Jewishness. Because each individual is positioned around a text there is no inside or outside, but infinite interpretations. Because the diaspora lays claim to no territory, there are no borders and even the imagined border of Jew/non-Jew is notoriously porous and ultimately irrelevant.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between a diaspora with and without a homeland. Both Cohen and Daniel Boyarin are clear about the negative effects of a homeland on the diaspora population. Cohen objects to the theoretical foreclosure caused by the discourse of Jewish nationalism, or Zionism which he sees as an essentialist discourse insisting that one can only be authentically Jewish in Israel. He also notes how the notion of exile led to the depiction of Jews as ‘pathological half-persons'(2), displaced from their ‘true home’. Going further, Boyarin questions whether diaspora is possible at all given the existance of Israel since it remoulds the ‘disaggregated’ Jewish identity which is so much a part of diaspora existence. Like Cohen, he asserts that ‘the bible story is not one of autochthony but one of always already coming from somewhere else'(3), and that the torah should not be read as a text which which provides a basis for a Jewish homeland. Instead, he states that ‘diasporic identity has been founded on common memory of a shared space and on the hope for such a shared space in an infinitely deferred future’ [my italics](4). Thus with recourse to the infinite deferral, the operation of differance, within the torah, we see how a ‘return’ to Zion is a messianic dream rather than a preferred political reality. This discussion of the effect that a homeland has on the diasporic population underlines then the importance of the decentred diaspora whose members are positioned as full subjects, not on the outside of an unfulfilled dream, but as functionaries in a liberationary disaggregated identity, described by Boyarin as ‘not national, not genealogical, not religious, but all of these in dialectical tension with one another'(5).

The ‘flat’ structure of a disaggregated diaspora is key to the identities of those who identify with it. The lack of hierarchy or of any kind of meta structure means that the diaspora community becomes multiple, constantly shifting and renegotiating. Indeed one might say that the diaspora becomes multiple, that there is no longer a single discourse of diaspora but multiple discourses of diaspora. For the individual, situated as a node in this global rhizome, the assertion of multiple identities become possible. In this way each person can become a powerful agent for change. Radhakrishnan theorises a diasporic identity ‘where different and heterogeneous agencies within the same “subject” are perennially calling each other’s absolutism into question'(6), this is perhaps a realisation of the ‘diasporic tension’ that Cohen refers to. This multiple, disaggregated identity means that the subject cannot be contained and constrained within the master discourse of a nation state. It means that no one narrative of identity can assert itself over another, it means that we maintain a constant suspicion of the identities which we give ourselves. The position is exemplified by Derrida’s description of himself; the young boy who is expelled from school as a result of the racist policies of Vichy France. His self-description as a ‘a little black and very Arab Jew'(7)exemplifies the disaggregated identity which Boyarin advocates. Derrida ‘understood nothing’ about his expulsion because his Jewishness was only one part of his identity. It was the nationalist French discourse which sought to identify him solely as a Jew, since he did not fit into the colonial narrative of the identity of a French Algerian. Whilst the multiple identities of black, Arab and Jewish located within the little Derrida call each others’ absolutism into question, the identity imposed by a nation is both totalising and necessarily exclusionary.

There are then, a number of Jewish traditions and ideas that can be reclaimed in service of the decentred diaspora. One of these is the notion of the ‘wandering Jew’. As Cohen points out, this stereotype has been used to oppress Jews from both inside and outside. From a religious Jewish perspective, the Jew is condemned to wander in exile as a punishment for living sinfully in the promised land, and from a religious Christian perspective, the Jew must wander as a punishment for deicide(8). Yet a secular understanding of the term (which is perhaps reminiscent of Stalin’s ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’) could reclaim it as overwhelmingly positive and universal. This sense of rootlessness is, as Boyarin maintains, the gift that the Jewish people have to give to the world. Continuing, we can understand the concept of the Jewish nation as or l’goyim, or a light unto the nations in a new and radical way. If we see the diaspora as a light unto the nations, the gift to the nations is their own transcendence; the move from nationhood to post nationhood. Perhaps we should not consider it as a light to the nations rather than one through the nations, one which interrogates their boundaries and borders and liberates their citizens. Finally, how is the indeterminate state of post nationalism to be achieved? I would argue that the answer lies within fiction. For if narrative has the power to create nationhood, then the deconstruction of these narratives must have the power to deconstruct nations. Rushdie’s writing is a crucial part of the process, for it produces the suspicion in national narratives that can only destabilise them. Yet I feel that a new focus can also be of use. A fiction that, asserts a sense of diasporic identity, which orients itself around the diaspora without recourse to a centre or homeland is vital to creating a powerful consciousness of diaspora. In this, I believe, lie the seeds of post-nationalism.


1 Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas. London. UCL Press. 1997. p123

2 Cohen, R. 1997. p4

3 Boyarin, D. A Radical Jew. California. University of California. 1994. p252

4 Boyarin, D. 1994. p245

5 Boyarin, D. 1994. p244

6 Radhakrishnan, R. Diasporic Mediations 1996. p130

7 Derrida, Jacques and Bennington, Geoffrey. Jacques Derrida. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 1991. p58

8 Cohen, R. 1997. p10

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