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On how to define Diaspora

April 2010
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Many studies on the Jewish Diaspora in antiquity do not define Diaspora or characterize what is typical for a Diaspora situation. Some more recent social studies have, however, dealt with such characterizations.
Robin Cohen (Global Diasporas. An Introduction (London: UCL Press, 1997) has tried to work out a typology of diaspora, and suggests that we might talk about five types: Victim, labor, trade, imperial and cultural diasporas. While clearly admitting that some groups may take dual or multiple forms, or change character over time, this typology is nevertheless relevant for a study of the Jewish Diaspora.

Cohen also suggests that if looking at some well-known diasporas, one might characterize them thus: Jewish, Africans and Armenians – victim diasporas; the British – imperial; the Indians – labor; Chinese and Lebanese – trading, and Caribbean abroad – cultural diaspora. When it comes to the ancient Jewish settlements in the western diaspora, one might probably find all of these various types represented. There were certainly periods of deportation into exile, hence ‘victim’ types, and later during the Ptolemaic and Seleucidian periods, as well as under the Romans, they suffered from time to time ‘imperial’ deportations, e.g., as slaves.
Furthermore, there were immigrations because of prospective trade and labor possibilities, as well as immigrations of those simply leaving their homeland for a variety of rather unspecified reasons; religious, cultural etc. The papyrii found in various locations in Egypt provide evidence for how the Jews were to be found in several social strata of the society in Egypt as well as in a variety of occupations.
Furthermore, drawing upon a work of W. Safran, Cohen is also able to suggest a more elaborate list of common features of a diaspora. Most of these, he suggests, should be present if we were to label it a diaspora community: They or their ancestors may have been dispersed, they might have a kind of collective memory about their homeland, they believe they are not fully integrated in their new host societies, their ancestral homeland is to some extent idealized, and they feel a certain commitment to it, as well as even thinking that one day they might return.

Cohen is spelling this out a little bit more in the ensuing table:
Common features of a diaspora:
1. Dispersal from an original homeland, often traumatically, to two or more foreign regions;
2. alternatively, the expansion from a homeland in search of work, in pursuit trade or to further colonial ambitions;
3. a collective memory and myth about the homeland, including its location, history and achievements;
4. an idealization of the putative ancestral home and a collective commitment to its maintenance, restoration, safety and prosperity, even to its creation;
5. the development of a return movement that gains collective approbation;
6. a strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long time and based on a sense of distinctiveness, a common history and the belief in a common fate;
7. a troubled relationship with host societies, suggesting a lack of acceptance at the least or the possibility that another calamity might befall the group; and
8. a sense of empathy and solidarity with co-ethnic members in other countries of settlement; and
9. the possibility of a distinctive creative, enriching life in host countries with a tolerance for pluralism.

There are, however, two aspects that are not covered by this general model. And these are very important when it comes to understanding the Diaspora of the Jews in the 1 century CE: The role of a common religious center and its location, and the role of its legitimating religious literature. Without these aspects, the role of e.g., Philo as Diaspora Jew can hardly be understood.


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