let's talk about the word "diaspora"
Historical revisionism is rampant in Israel-Palestine discourse. I see it everywhere where Jewish history is concerned, and I’ve especially noticed it in left-wing (I myself am left-wing) and anti-Zionist spaces.
Revising or changing Jewish history — a history that is 3000+ years old and extremely well-recorded, both by Jews and non-Jews alike — is inherently antisemitic. If you must manipulate, change, or deny our history to justify your political views, you are a bigot. Period.
In recent years, I’ve seen people claim that the Jewish usage of the word “diaspora” is appropriation, anti-Palestinian, or supportive of white supremacy and/or settler colonialism. This is absolutely absurd and ahistorical.
The word diaspora quite literally originated with Jews. It’s our word to use and it was our word to use long before it was anyone else’s.
By dictionary definition (Merriam-Webster, Oxford, etc), the word “diaspora” means the following:
(1) the dispersion of Jews from the Land of Israel; the dispersion of Jews from the Land of Israel* after the Babylonian Exile; communities of Jews living outside of the Land of Israel/Palestine
(2) people settled far from their ancestral homelands (e.g. the African diaspora in the United States); places where people far from their ancestral homelands live; the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland
*many of these dictionaries use the word “Palestine” here, but the region was not officially named Palestine until the year 136 CE, over 700 years after the Babylonian Exile. While the first ever reference to any region known as “Palestine” was in the 5th century BCE, this region referred to a loose geographic area, encompassing the Mediterranean coast across Egypt, Israel/Palestine, and Lebanon. In other words, no one back then would’ve said the Jews were exiled from Palestine.
The word “galut,” in Hebrew, describes the concept of the Jewish perception of the “condition and feelings of a nation uprooted from its homeland,” forced to live under foreign rule. It’s a word that appears time and time again in the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), and as such, it’s at least around 2500 years old.
The word was used during the time of the Babylonian Exile, when Jews were forcibly displaced from the Kingdom of Judah in 587/6 BCE. However, it’s likely the word and/or its root existed in Hebrew beforehand.
Though the word “galut” describes the physical dispersion of the Jewish People, it also encompasses the Jewish emotion and pain of being forcefully exiled from the Land of Israel. As such, it does have a negative connotation. It’s a concept that is quite difficult to translate neatly into a Western paradigm, as it is a physical, emotional, and spiritual state of being.
The word “diaspora” comes from the Greek διασπείρω (diaspeirō), which means “I scatter, I spread about,” and is how the Greeks translated “galut” when they read the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”).
In other words, the word “diaspora” came about when the Greeks tried to find a way to translate the word “galut,” which is a Hebrew word, specific to the experience and history of the Jewish People.
The Greeks used the word “diaspora” to refer not just to the Babylonian Exile, but also to the Assyrian Exile, which had happened centuries prior, when the Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and exiled its inhabitants between 740-722 BCE. The Greeks coined the word — again, specifically in reference to the Jewish People — in the third century BCE, some 2200+ years ago.
When capitalised, “Diaspora” specifically refers to the Jewish diaspora: the dispersion of the Jewish People beyond the Land of Israel.
The word “diaspora” entered the English language (as opposed to Greek or Latin) in the late 1800s, referring almost exclusively to the Jewish diaspora. In the 1950s, the word entered the American lexicon, and it wasn’t until then that the word began to be used in other contexts, such as to refer to the African diaspora in the United States.
To reiterate an earlier slide, in the English dictionary, when “Diaspora” is capitalised, it refers exclusively to the Jewish diaspora.
In the 1990s, Holocaust survivor and Professor Emeritus of Political Science William Safran explained what distinguishes diaspora communities from migrant communities. A diaspora community must meet the following criteria: (1) the group maintains a myth or collective memory of their homeland; (2) they regard their ancestral homeland as their true home, to which they will eventually return; (3) they are committed to the maintenance and/or restoration of their homeland; (4) they relate “personally or vicariously” to their homeland to the extent that it shapes their identity.
Jews have been expelled from the Land of Israel at various points throughout history.
Between 740-722 BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and expelled its inhabitants, both displacing them internally (i.e. from the northern Kingdom of Israel to the southern Kingdom of Judah), as well as taking captives with them outside of the Land of Israel. The account of the Assyrian Captivity is verified by both Jewish and Assyrian sources. According to Assyrian sources, 27,290 Israelites were taken captive.
In 587/586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah and displaced its residents, taken about 25% of Judeans as captives. This account is verified by Jewish and Babylonian sources, as well as archeological excavations. Due to the political upheaval, deportations, and famine, archaeologist Avraham Faust calculates that only about 10% of the population survived in the Land of Israel. In 539 BCE, the Babylonians allowed Jews to return, though many stayed in Babylon.
During the Jewish-Roman Wars (66-73, 115-117, and 132-136), the Romans massacred or took captive some 600,000-million Jews.
During the Byzantine, Arab, and Crusader periods, antisemitic legislation, persecution, and massacres resulted in multiple other displacements. For example, in 1012, Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah decreed that all Jews who refused to convert to Islam were to leave Palestine.
In 1948, Jordan expelled some 40,000 Jews from East Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria (later renamed the West Bank).
Not only is the actual word “diaspora” originally and inherently Jewish, but the experience of the diaspora is important to the Jewish experience. As a result of all of these expulsions, as well as further displacements elsewhere in the world (e.g. the expulsion of Jews from England, the Spanish Inquisition, the thousands of expulsions of Jews from elsewhere in Europe, as well as hundreds of expulsions of Jews in Southwest Asia and North Africa, etc), many diaspora communities formed, which accounts for one of the reasons that the Jewish People are such a diverse tribe.
The Jewish sub-ethnic groups (e.g. Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Beta Israel, Bene Israel, etc) describe diasporic experiences (the terms “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardi” also describe the differing religious rites, which formed during the diaspora). For instance, “Ashkenazi” describes the diasporic experience of Jews whose ancestors coalesced in the Roman Empire during the first millenium, later migrating northward and eastward due to persecution and ethnic cleansing. “Sephardi” describes the diasporic experience of Jews whose ancestors settled in the Iberian Peninsula prior to the Spanish and Portuguese Institutions (the term “Sephardi” can also have a wider meaning, describing the communities that follow the Sephardic rite, such as many Mizrahi communities).
For all of these reasons, to make the claim that Jews shouldn’t use the word “diaspora” is ahistorical, revisionist, and frankly, utterly absurd if you know anything at all about Jewish history, Jewish culture and identity, and/or etymology.
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