The Jews as a Diaspora Nation

Sara Ben-Isaac's picture
October 29, 2020
United Kingdom
Subject Fields: 
European History / Studies, Humanities, Jewish History / Studies, Modern European History / Studies, Social History / Studies

The word “diaspora” entered the English during entered the English language at a “moment of high nationalism,” during what historians call the long nineteenth century (1789 to 1914), and the conjunction has colored associations with “diaspora” ever since. In that context, it came to mean an abnormal condition in contrast with the normal state of “national” groups as sovereign occupants of a territory. “Diaspora” in its modern, negative acceptation is thus a product of “the West.” A further turn of the kaleidoscope away from this Western configuration offers different visions of the past and for the future.
Until now in modern thought, there have been two allegedly crucial factors for the identification of a “diaspora.” The first is purportedly temporal and refers to an earlier past in which the nation was one and sovereign, a condition that was interrupted, leaving it now homeless, weak, and assailable. The second is spatial, offering a descriptive model in which there is now a situation of homeland versus diaspora. Homeland, once again, is imagined as an ideal, diaspora as deeply, profoundly, necessarily a defective condition. According to these views, this has led to the conclusion that diaspora is a pathology whose only cure is a nation-state, for the Jews as well as for other nations.
Professor Boyarin seeks to replace these negative conceptions of diaspora with one that sees it as foundational to the character of Jewish existence and a source of its cultural and political vitality. Diaspora is not primarily an event in the past, but an ongoing condition, a form of cultural national life in which nations may continue to exist, robustly, but the existence of and insistence on a piece of land that ideally incorporates only folks of that nation and not only that, but all of them, or the vast majority of them, is simply not in play.


Daniel Boyarin, Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture and rhetoric, UC Berkeley received his Ph. D. in 1975 from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Prof. Boyarin has written extensively on talmudic and midrashic studies, and his work has focused on cultural studies in rabbinic Judaism, including issues of gender and sexuality as well as research on the Jews as a colonized people. His most recent research interests centered primarily around questions of the relationship of Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity and the genealogy of the concepts of “religion” and “Judaism.” Current projects include a critical edition of the second chapter of Bavli Pesachim, a biography of Josephus for the Yale Jewish Lives, as well as a book to be entitled: What is the Jews: A Manifesto.

Contact Info: 


Institute of Jewish Studies UCL

Contact Email: