The day after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, I was teaching a graduate course on identity politics and feminist theory. We were discussing the politics of Diaspora living and the possibility of inhabiting two homelands simultaneously. I had several international students in my classroom, some of whom intended to stay in the U.S.A upon completion of their PhDs and others who were not sure, but hoped in some ways to maintain a connection both to their birthplace and to what was fast becoming a new homeland. What they knew about me was that I was an American Jew who wrote about Jewish identities.
The following is an excerpt from an article I published several months after that evening. It captures something I was unconsciously carrying with me, something much more visceral than the theoretical issues we had been pursuing in the classroom. At the end of the course, one of my students lingered longer than usual, waiting for a chance to talk to me. The following describes that encounter:
I was taken aback…when one of my graduate students a woman from Kenya, extended condolences to me at the loss of my Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin. It was not until that moment that I realized that I was indeed bereaved, as if I had lost a member of my family, my own, my kin. I only recognized this deeply embedded component of my American Jewish identity when it was made evident to me by an “other,” who herself was deeply embedded in a least two communities….
My years of identity research have taught me that the question of who belongs or does not belong is best understood when we appreciate that the “we” of any community or nation live on the borders of many identities simultaneously. Some of us are “commuters,” others of us are “integrators,” and all of us are identity “negotiators.” Some of us commute across identity borders depending on the setting we find ourselves in, others try to integrate them into one hybrid identity, and still others transcend those borders altogether. Until the very moment that my student offered her condolences to me I had not realized that I carried with me, however, unconsciously, and, however, vicariously, two identities; a latent Israeli and a dominant American one.
The term Diaspora first entered the English language in the late 19th century to describe the dispersal of Jews (after their captivity in Babylonia in the 5th century B.C.E.). Dispersal is a benign way of describing the many “dispersals” over the course of history, which Jews have experienced from the Inquisition through the Holocaust. Today, all Jews living outside of Israel are considered to be in “Diaspora.” For many well-assimilated American Jews (and for a large number of Jews living in other Western homelands) the Diaspora, if it exists at all within their consciousness, represents an attachment rather than a geographical commitment to Israel.
As a youngster in an after-school Hebrew program, I learned that we Jews were a Diasporic people. We would remain in Diaspora, I was taught, until we could return to Zion, to our ancestral homeland, Israel. Dressed in white and blue, I remember singing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem at the beginning of almost all Hebrew school events. Having a sweet voice, I was often asked to augment such displays of national identity by singing a song whose first line, translated from the Hebrew, begins: “If I should forget thee, O’ Jerusalem…”. I also did some solo singing in my public school, playing the Virgin Mary in a Christmas Pageant and singing Silent Night. Growing up in the late forties and fifties, we did not know from Christmaka. My father was born in Poland and my mother in Brooklyn, N.Y of recently arrived immigrant parents from Russia. We lived in a Jewish ghetto, a poor area of Cleveland Ohio also heavily populated by Blacks and Polish Catholics. My private life of home, family, and friends was deeply Jewish; outside that community I was fiercely American. I had no identity conflicts. Public school represented a predominately White Christian America and Hebrew School, Jewish America. I was at home in both. I was an identity “commuter.”
My family never thought of aliyah, or emigration to Israel, yet we were profoundly attached to it, both emotionally and psychologically. World War Two cemented that attachment. Except for one brief moment in the fifties, during my teenage years when I was an active participant in Habonim, (a Jewish Socialist-Zionist cultural youth movement) did I ever think that Israel might become my residential homeland. As life tends to get in the way of our plans, I got over my socialist dreams and became part of the new left movements of the sixties. Through social protest, my commitment to my primary home, the U.S., became even stronger. Today I am still a Diaspora Jew with strong attachments and even stronger views, many of them quite critical, of my other homeland, Israel.