The Diaspora as a Spiritual Ideal

Jay Edson

Adequate solutions to conflicts of long standing generally have to begin with a new way of understanding the situation. My thinking about the meaning of a “diaspora” grew out of my reflections on the ideology and politics of Zionism. At the same time it is my hope that the idea of the “New Diaspora” that is developed later in the article will be seen to have a much broader application in the world today.


During the last Century Zionism dominated the theological and political life of Judaism. Zionism is both a religious ideology and a political movement. The basic tenet of Zionism was that the Jewish people, although they were scattered throughout the earth, constituted a nation, and as such they needed, and had the right to, a nation state of their own. Obviously the most salient obstacle in the way of accomplishing this goal was the fact that their ancient homeland in Palestine, as well as all viable alternative locations, was already inhabited.

Although many of the Zionist leaders were agnostics or atheists, the basic justification for wresting a homeland from its present inhabitants, who predictably would be reluctant to simply hand it over, was a religious one. God had promised the Jews this land, as it was recorded in the Torah. In addition to this religious motivation there was also a more practical one. To the degree that the Jewish people attempted to protect their own identity in the midst of other populations, they tended to become the target of persecutions – some of which were quite severe.

Prior to the second world war only about 20% of the Jewish people were motivated to support Zionism as a political movement. Some religious leaders felt that Zionism as a political movement was heretical, in that human beings were taking into their own hands what God was supposed to do through the action of the awaited Messiah. Many of the more secular Jews were undoubtedly disinclined to lend their support to the Zionist movement simply because they were fairly comfortable where they were, and were preoccupied with their daily concerns. Some opposed Zionism on moral or humanitarian grounds. They knew that trying to create a Jewish nation state in a land that was already occupied by other people would lead to bloodshed and suffering, and they felt that the Jewish people had no right to initiate such a conflict.

The Holocaust turned the tide in favor of the Zionist cause. It persuaded the majority of Jews that they would never be safe living as guests in other nations. It also aroused sympathy and support for the Zionist agenda from people all over the world. The political forces thus set in motion were decisive and by 1948 Israel was a recognized nation state.

This is not the place to detail the historical developments since 1948. Israel became a powerful and successful nation-state, but at a tremendous price both to the Jewish people themselves, and to the Palestinians whose land they took. The suffering, bloodshed and danger, as everyone is aware, continues to this day.

It is not my intention in this article to point my finger or to blame. Certainly one can understand the sense of urgency that compelled the Jews to pursue the Zionist agenda after the horror of the Holocaust. One can equally well understand why the Palestinians have been driven to extreme actions as they have attempted to cope with their many losses and humiliations at the hands of the Israelis. It is perhaps more difficult to sympathize with the Machiavellian policies of the United States in this situation. However, my intention here is not to blame anyone, but to seek a more adequate way of understanding of the situation.

According to an entry in the Wikepedia Encyclopedia, the term diaspora comes from a Greek word meaning “a scattering or sowing of seeds.” It “is used (without capitalization) to refer to any people or ethnic population forced or induced to leave their traditional ethnic homelands, being dispersed throughout other parts of the world, and the ensuing developments in their dispersal and culture.” The most common use of the term is to refer to the dispersion of the Jews who were exiled from Judea in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, and again from Jerusalem in 135 CE by the Romans. When it is used in this specific sense the word is capitalized.

Other well known examples of diasporas are the Africans who were taken into slavery, the Native Americans of north and South America, the Roma, the Irish as a result of the Potato Famine, the Buddhists from Tibet, and the Somalis who fled their homeland due to political turmoil in Somalia. This is not intended as an exhaustive list. It would seem that diasporas are both more common, and of greater historical significance, than is generally recognized.

The Tamils

Because of a violent conflict between the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Sinhala majority that continued for some decades, many Tamils felt it necessary to leave their homeland. In an article titled “Tamil Diaspora: A Trans State Nation” on the web site we read:

“The Tamil diaspora is a growing “togetherness” of more than 70 million people living in many lands and across distant seas, many thousands as refugees and asylum seekers. It is a togetherness rooted in an ancient heritage, a rich language and literature, and a vibrant culture. But it is a togetherness which is not simply a function of the past. It is a growing togetherness consolidated by struggle and suffering and, given purpose and direction by the aspirations of a people for the future - a future where they and their children and their children’s children may live in equality and freedom in an emerging one world.”

Two interesting points are made in this article. First, a nation need not have physical boundaries. The Tamil people scattered across the earth in many lands are still considered to be a single nation because of their “togetherness” with regard to cultural and spiritual matters. Second, they see their primary hope for the future in the equality and freedom that they will find in an “emerging one world.” This is the same “emerging one world” that Black Elk envisioned in the famous vision that came to him when he was in a near death state as the result of an illness at the age of about 10.

“I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.”

The New Diaspora

Some become members of a diaspora because traumatic historical events have made them refugees. I do not wish to romanticize their situation, or suggest anything that might prolong it. Those who are refugees for any reason need to be helped to find places where they can settle and try to build new lives. Always they are faced with the problem of retaining what is good from their own cultures while adapting to the new environments in which they find themselves. This is never easy, and should never be forced on anyone. At the same time there may be a spiritual significance to what they are undergoing. In many ways these diasporas may be on the cutting edge of history. They force people in concrete ways to come to terms with what may be the most important issue in the world today – how do we find unity in diversity? The origin of the word is significant. A diaspora is a “scattering of seeds” a source of new growth.

Others become members of a diaspora because they have been excluded from full membership within the communities where they reside. Those with “deviant” sexual orientations, those who have been in prison for any reason, those labeled as “mentally ill,” and those with belief systems that vary too much from the norm, all find themselves excluded in varying degrees, and become a part of diasporas that await the day when we are able to create a world that excludes no one. These groups also are on the cutting edge of history. They disturb the sleep of acceptable humanity with questions that may some day awaken it: “Why do you choose not to see me as fully human?” “What can be done so that we will not fear each other so much?” “How can we be different yet not at war?”

Perhaps there are some who become dislocated from an easy identification with their nation states and their social groups simply because of their vision of a Promised Land of universal dimensions. Such people have been made homeless simply by their spiritual awakening. They realize that the old containers of sex, nation, social class, race and spiritual tradition are no longer adequate markers for their primary identification. These five containers must be broken. They are the “foreign lands” that hold us in captivity, and alienate us from who we might become, individually and collectively.

The whole earth must be the Promised Land, and it must exclude no one regardless of sexual identity, national affiliation, race, spiritual tradition, or social class. Social class, as an organizing structure superimposed over us, poisons our collective and individual lives and must radically dismantled. No person or group is entitled to hugely disproportionate degrees of either the world’s goods or social power. The other “containers” may continue to exist, but not as primary focal points for our identities. I am a citizen of the world first, and only secondarily a citizen of the United States or of Zimbabwe. I am a spiritual seeker first, and only secondarily a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu. I am a loving person first, and only secondarily a woman or a man or a homosexual or a heterosexual. I am a human being first, and only secondarily a member of whatever race I may choose to assign myself to. The New Jerusalem is not to be found in any nation-state, nor in any other grouping of people that sets itself up in opposition to other groups that it would exclude.

Teilhard de Chardin summed it up nicely. “We must give up our old prejudices and build the earth.” The New Jerusalem, the Promised Land, must be the whole earth, and all its people.

The New Diaspora consists of all those people whose Promised Land is the whole earth as a community living in harmony with each other – a harmony that is made possible not because diversity is suppressed but because it is celebrated. The ideal of the New Diaspora is diversity within unity – a community of people that is grounded in freedom, mutual respect, and civil liberties for all. Until we have arrived there we are “strangers in a strange land.”

Application to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict

However understandable the Zionist political movement was, it would seem that it was a mistake. The mistake was essentially religious in nature. It was a matter of identifying the Promised Land with a nation state – with any nation state – when it must now be understood to be the whole earth. The future of the world is with the New Diaspora – with those who are only nominally, if at all, citizens of any nation state – those who await the arrival of the “New Jerusalem” – the Promised land – the great hoop that Back Elk dreamed of.

We cannot undo what has been happening for the last fifty years in Israel and Palestine, any more that we can undo slavery, or the genocide of Native Americans in North America, or the Chinese invasion of Tibet. But we can take things as they are now and ask, “what would bring this situation closer to the new spiritual ideal that we must now put forward – the ideal of an enriching diversity within the unity of the whole earth – the dream of all those who long for the only Promised Land that makes sense in the 21st Century.”

With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, our analysis of the New Diaspora suggests that the only progressive solution to the conflict lies in the Israelis and the Palestinians learning to live together. As Todd May summarizes it, “the only politically and ethically viable approach to the problem of Israel and Palestine is to support a single democratic secular state that provides equal rights for all of its citizens.” (See the article, “The Emerging Case for a Single State in Palestine,” below).

Some would question how realistic it is to hope for a single state in which Jew and Palestinians can live together in relative harmony. In all probability, some less that ideal compromise will have to be accepted as a way of ending the violence and opening the way to a deeper resolution of the conflict. Eventually, however, a solution will need to be found that is based on the concept of a single, multi-cultural democracy, or on an arrangement that transcends the notion of a “nation state” entirely.