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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Preserving the Diaspora

Jewish Expulsion by Titus 70 C
     I have to admit a fair amount of annoyance with the definition creep of the term diaspora to include every single instance of international ethnic community or multinational identity.  Mainly, my sense of annoyance comes from the lack of a replacement term that refers to the traditional (pre-2004) use of the term when it was seemingly expanded to refer to any international ethnic group that transcends international boundaries such as a migratory, refugee or international immigrant communities.  Disturbingly, the definition is seemingly again being modified further to refer to these international immigrant communities who retain their relations to an established, existing “homeland” or country of origin – completely redefining the most historic usage of the term.

Note:  I am readily aware of the weakness of this argument – if I was preparing a proposal on this topic, I admit that I would have to research and name specific literary and historic usages of the term.  In that sense, this paper reflects an “educated perspective” rather than established argument.  But there is just not time for that right now.  My cautionary objection to expanded use of the term will have to be made without the recommended supporting documentation and suffer accordingly.  I will almost assuredly return to this topic at a future time.
    The oldest sense of the term actually refers to the age-old Diaspora of the Jewish nation.  This term is ancient and dates possibly as far back as the original forced migration of the northern kingdom out of Palestine into the Assyrian Empire.
    Unashamedly referencing Wikipedia for a non-academic topic, the entry on Diaspora indicates that as late as 1991, William Safran defined diaspora rather conservatively and from a strongly Jewish perspective.  Wiki indicates that Safran established six criteria to distinguish between a diaspora and a migrant community:
a.       The group maintains a myth or collective memory of a homeland.
b.      The group regards that ancestral homeland as their true home.
c.       The group theoretically plans to someday return to that homeland.
d.      They are committed to the restoration or maintenance of that homeland.
e.      They relate personally or vicariously to the homeland to the point that it shapes their personal identity.
f.        The article does not mention the sixth rule.
    While Safran’s definition is better than most post-1991 definitions¸ I am, of course, uncomfortable with it.  The original usage of the term diaspora did in fact contain the points indicated by Safran – and I have no problem with Safran’s definition being applied to the most ancient (and the most recent) Jewish Diaspora(s) with a capital D.  It is historic and honors the original diaspora community and usage of the term.
    However, I would argue that for most of the Jewish Diaspora’s history after the final expulsion under the Roman Emperor Titus in 70 CE, that the core organizing principle was one of a virtual and inaccessible homeland that rigidly defined the boundaries of the diaspora ethic community but was inaccessible to that ethnic community – and that while the ethnic community successfully maintained its unique cultural and ethnic identity, it did so from a minority position amongst a scattered community that failed to transplant itself successfully in a geographic location where its political and cultural self-determination and survival were guaranteed or assumed.
Babylonian Captivity
    While I like Safran’s implied definition, I would find that it applies most closely to the Jewish cultural situation only between 586 BCE and 70 CE (the Jewish ethnic group remained scattered throughout this time period with only a remnant returning to re-establish Jerusalem under the Babylonians, but did in fact have hope of return and access to historic sites) and since 1948 (or maybe earlier with the establishment of the Zionist movement ca 1890 CE).  Between 70 CE and say 1890 CE, the land of Israel served more as an organizational “myth” to focus the Hebrew identity and help preserve and maintain its cultural unity and uniqueness.  The key defining aspect was not the relationship to a homeland that no longer existed and was no longer accessible, but rather subscription to a homeland myth around which a communal ethnic and individual identities could be established.
    In that sense, the defining characteristics of a diaspora could be recommended, in my opinion, as:
a. A scattered population across international political and cultural boundaries. Continued maintenance of a unique identity, culture, language and associational community.
b.  Continued self- and inter-affiliation between dispersed populations and groups (inter-communication).
c.      A primary sense of cultural and ethnic belonging-ness that transcends or mitigates assimilation into the new host cultures.
d.      An organizational trope in the form of a mythic homeland from which the culture originated and whose origin continues to define the boundaries and significant cultural activities of the group.
e.        An inability to realistically assume a possible physical return to that mythical homeland or to re-assume cultural or political dominance over that mythical homeland, or to establish a different, subsequent geographic base wherein the unique ethnic group is able to assert political and cultural self-determination and to guarantee future preservation and development of the unique culture.
    As you can see, I depend more on the state of being culturally and ethnically conscious without an actual homeland or geographic base wherein the group can re-gather, re-assert or continue to define its identity.
    The problem is that there are a select group of true diasporas around the world that cannot be identified as otherwise:
a.       The Jewish diaspora – The original Diaspora.  Despite the founding of the nation of Israel, the heart of the Jewish culture remains split between the mythic idea of Jerusalem as a homeland or ancestral point of origin.  Contemporary International Judaism remains very much a mobile culture that is often alienated by the conservative politics of the new national homeland.  I understand that a few Jewish sub-ethnic groups continue to not recognize the legitimacy of the new nation and continue to identify around the intangible concept of “Israel” rather than around the actual nation state.

b.      The Romani (formerly often referred to as Gypsy) diaspora which has a unique culture, language and identity and yet no homeland or even a place where they exercise political and cultural dominance.  The Gypsy diaspora seems to have originated out of India around the 11th Century CE and spread throughout Europe and North Africa.
Origins of the Mennonite Diaspora.
c.       The Mennonite or Anabaptist diaspora – the Anabaptist populations of their former original homes in Switzerland and the Netherlands leave them in a very weak cultural and ethnic minority status compared to their original cultural and political strength.  This weakening was due to forced migration out of these homelands into what has been called the Martyrs’ Trek – a sense of timeless and homeless wandering across Eastern Europe and now into North and South America.  Not only is it impossible for Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites to return to their ancestral lands, but they no longer bear realistic cultural or linguistic affinities or ability to identify with the dominant modern cultures of those homelands (ironically, many Dutch Mennonites have re-settled from Russia into Germany – a nation to which they hold no connection other than a spoken language tradition.  Secondary homelands in Prussia, Poland and Russia have long been destroyed due to subsequent evictions of Mennonite, Amish and Hutterite populations from those centers.  Current “reserves” and communities in North America are threatened by assimilation with cultural strongholds retreating to new reserves in Latin America.  Yet, Russian Mennonites, especially, have retained a continuing ethnic identity that references continued ties to the communities of Russländer Mennonites spread across the globe over those of their new host cultures – though this has weakened dramatically amongst North American Mennonites since the 1960s.  Plautdeutsche or Plattsdietsche is still spoken and written in many communities of the Mennonite diaspora and several international bodies including the Mennonite Central Committee and the Mennonite World Conference help to maintain both the historic Mennonite identity and that of various other ethnic Mennonite communities that have been established through often cooperative missionary efforts.  The Mennonites remain a unified and unique culture without a homeland or cultural territory.

d.      Possibly, the African Diaspora – The African diaspora is also a unique experience in that the non-African Black population of the world has no identifiable specific homeland to which it might relate or postulate a “return.”  In a sense, there would be two “Black” or “African” world cultures – the cultures emanating and still extant from and in the continent of Africa and the Black culture outside of Africa which shares many characteristics with the other diasporas.  What the “Black” diaspora lacks is a sense of unity and shared culture – while there is an affinity between Black cultures around the world, there is seemingly little sense of a demonstrated and united cultural experience between the American South, Jamaica, Brazil and the Haitian communities for instance.

e.      Other groups are historical diasporas but would no longer qualify:

a.       The Germanic tribes of Europe during the time of the Roman Empire might have qualified as diasporas – not because they were migratory but because they were assumed to have been forced from a homeland in which their culture originated and possibly scattered.  But… eventually they settled into their own homelands over which they exercised complete political and cultural control with the boundaries of their new territories defining the extent of their cultural identities.
b.      The French Huguenot Diaspora actually comes closest to matching the experience of the Anabaptist community in that they were removed from France and had settled communities around the world (Amsterdam, London, Latin American and New France).  When the British conquered New France, they forcibly evicted the Huguenots from present-day Canada, spreading them out over North America – there became notable centers of Huguenot culture in North Carolina and New Orleans.  However, the Huguenots were eventually able to return to Eastern Canada and have re-established a cultural center in New Brunswick.  However, lacking a clear cultural dominance of New Brunswick, the French Huguenots might still qualify as a dispersed ethnic group with a strong ethnic identity, a unique language and culture and no true geographic base.   I would not quibble over their elevatation them to a true diaspora.
c.       The Palestinians would not qualify as a diaspora – in as much as they still dominate the culture of Gaza and the West Bank and exercise nominal political control over those areas, they would at best fit the definition of international refugee community.
d.      Other immigrant groups such as the Chinese culture, Indians (India, South Africa, Europe, North America), Armenians, Russians and the Irish, for instance, are international ethnic communities with a strong homeland base in their countries of origin and the ability to realize cultural and political self-determination merely by moving back to their ancestral homelands.  Even if their constituent groups evolve into their own distinctive cultures in Durban for instance, that distinctive culture will retain a definitive home-base to which the group retains direct access. 
    Confusing international ethnic communities with true diasporas does a disfavor to the plight of those cultures who would truly be wiped out due to assimilation in their majority-status host cultures – such as the Jewish diaspora, the Mennonites and the Romani, and maybe the French Huguenots.  These true diasporas are culturally and politically dependent on the good-will and tolerance of their host cultures for their continued existence.
    For the sake of preserving these cultures and helping to maintain their endangered ethnic identities, I recommend restricted use of the term diaspora to the Classical pre-21st Century definitions and to use rather the term international immigrant community or international [ethnic] community to refer to the International Greek Community, for instance, or to the International Indian Community or the International Chinese Community.  To do otherwise actually unintentionally downplays the plight of the true diasporas while making it more difficult for them to achieve the special status necessary and access to the necessary resources within their host cultures to preserve their ethnic identities from extinction.  These true diasporas are not seeking to preserve their ethnic ties to a homeland – they are seeking to preserve the very existence of their basic cultural ethnicity and its unique cultural and historic experience.  These are key distinctions that need to be recognized and maintained.  Diaspora needs to be a special category.

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