Last month I gave a lecture at the Jewish Museum in Berlin as part of a program on “What Does the Diaspora Mean for Jews and Muslims?”  My 30-minuteish lecture (in English) begins at minute 4:27.  The other speaker’s (excellent) lecture (in German) on Islamic views follows, and the panel discussion and questions (in English and German) begin at minute 1:15:00.

My argument, in short is that even in antiquity three quite distinct notions of Jewish “Diaspora” existed, and the emergence (and acceptance, or not) of each can be tied to distinct socio-political conditions.  These notions are:

  1. A center-periphery model, in which the Land of Israel was considered the center and was in many respects hierarchically above the periphery.  This is probably the most common way in which Diaspora is viewed today;
  2. A center-periphery model, in which a center of Jewish learning is seen as hierarchically superior to the Land of Israel.  This model is especially prominent in the Babylonian Talmud.  Many Babylonian rabbis saw their own community as the center, to which those in the Land of Israel (and elsewhere) should defer;
  3. A trans-regional, diffuse model, in which there either is no center at all or are shifting and weak centers.  This model, discussed extensively in Daniel Boyarin’s provocative book, A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, was suggested by Philo and was probably regnant throughout the Middle Ages.  The interesting feature of this model is that it promotes lateral ties between different Jewish communities rather than the hub-spoke image of the center-periphery models.  It creates a relational web.

Toward the end of my lecture I wonder about whether a fourth model is emerging that largely follows my third model but has a stronger place for the modern State of Israel.

There has been, of course, an incredibly robust and diverse discussion of this issue among Zionist thinkers beginning in the nineteenth century.  My goal was not to rehash those discussions but to try to look into more distant Jewish history in order to recover a range of opinions.

A more personal aside.  I have traveled in Germany before and while I have felt heavily during some of these trips, I have always been impressed with both the country and its citizens, even if they seem to scowl a lot.  The Germans I have met were almost always bluntly and honestly wrestled with the meaning of the Holocaust for them, and in its response to the current refugee crisis Germany has shown admirable leadership.  I had never been to Berlin, though, and Berlin – well, Berlin was something different.  Berlin evoked within me, more strongly than I ever would have anticipated, thoughts of Hitler and evil.  Berlin carries this weight, and marks in its urban landscape not only the Holocaust but also, and perhaps more prominently, the scars of the East-West division.  Most Berliners, I am sure, understandably look past these markers of their past as they go about their daily lives.  For me, though, Berlin creaked under the weight of history; it is a living and breathing memorial to fascism.  It was hard for me to stop thinking about death and wondering how in this place Germans so easily turned on and killed each other.

To be a Jew today, no matter where, always means to some extent wrestling with the idea of Diaspora (or center) and trying to figure out what that means, individually and communally.  To be a Jew in Berlin today, though, seems to me to bring that struggle to an entirely different level.