Diasporism – A Radical Vision for Jewish Self-Determination

Publisher’s note: this article was originally published in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning student magazine “Silt” (Vol. 1) and in the pro-Palestinian student magazine “Written Revolution” (Vol. 3).


“Draw the flags of your heritage.”

That was the question for my first assignment in eighth grade U.S. History. I was startled, to say the least. I knew that in 1911, my great-grandparents escaped to the U.S. from antisemitic pogroms in Ukraine. But my assignment was in 2011. The Maidan Revolution and Ukraine’s reevaluation of its identity were still three years away, and in the view of global society, I was not considered a Ukrainian–     just a Jew. In this world, a flag is your culture. Even though I had no family between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, I drew the Israeli flag, as that was the only flag that depicted the Star of David.      My community (and much of the rest of the world) told me that Israel was my homeland. The same community upheld Zionism, the belief that the Jewish right to self-determination depends on the existence of a nation-state with an exclusively Jewish identity, as the answer to our safety and survival as a people. 

Years later, I learned of the Nakba, the violent colonial settlement and occupation, expulsion, and exclusion of the indigenous Palestinian population on which Zionism rests. After rejecting Zionism, I began a deep search. What else could be the pillar of Jewish identity? How can we exercise self-determination as a people without a nation-state? Anti-Zionism alone could not solve these matters. Basing a group identity on fighting ethnonationalism is reactive and negative. I wanted something constructive that looked toward a future to be created instead of a present to bemoan. To quote the late Anarchist activist Aaron Bushnell (May his memory be a blessing): “What I'm trying to say is, it's so important to imagine a better world. Let your thoughts run wild with idealistic dreams of what the world should look like” [1]. 

Soon, I found Diasporism.

Diasporism is rooted in the Jewish Labor Bund, an early 20th-century Eastern European Jewish political organization that fought for the rights of Jews and all oppressed peoples. In the Bund’s view, culture was what bound Jews together, not a place or nation-state. Resultantly, the Bund was opposed to the creation of a separate state for Jews (or any ethnicity), seeing Zionism as a form of escapism from combatting the antisemitism and oppression that existed in the Russian empire. The Bund’s mission was to make the world in which Jews lived safer, which could only be accomplished through collective organizing with non-Jewish society.  

For me, Diasporism means taking the Bund’s revolutionary spirit and imagining what a liberatory future would look like for Jews (and everyone). Diasporism allows us to affirm our Jewish identity as a positive, progressive force that can be the foundation for radical social action. Diasporism challenges the notion that any group should rely on a hegemonic nation-state to provide self-determination and survival. Who needs strictly defined borders and a homogeneous population when communities can create self-governance locally and develop mutually beneficial relationships with their diverse neighbors? 

Diasporism can serve as a springboard for a larger diasporic Jewish cultural revival. The vast number of expulsions, genocides, persecutions, and assimilations forced on Diasporic Jewish communities over the 20th century by hierarchical powers has led to a vast loss of our traditions. By reviving our many Jewish ethnic cultures, we can reconnect with and rebuild our identities, contributing to our autonomy and resistance. To this end, I’ve been learning how to play Klezmer music on the clarinet (a very useful skill for entertaining folks at Shabbat dinners), reading Ashkenazi history, and working on rebuilding Ukraine since the genocidal, unjust Russian full-scale invasion. Today, many indigenous people are fighting for cultural autonomy and non-hierarchical ways of sharing the Earth as a form of resistance. Jewish traditions, like the Bund, have sought to nourish and preserve our people, pushing against the Western European idea that rights should be based on "ownership" of land. Now, we have an opportunity to learn from our own history and pursue collective liberation in solidarity with the indigenous peoples continually fighting for cultural autonomy and non-hierarchical ways of sharing the Earth.                     

To me, Diasporism is defined by the following principles:

Doikayt (Yiddish for “hereness”) - The home of the Jewish people is wherever they live, instead of a far-off land. 

Autonomism – Jews should be able to curate cultural, religious, social, political, and economic autonomy wherever they live. 

Collective Liberation – Recognition that the fight against antisemitism and all other hierarchical structures are intertwined and that true liberation for all will only come when Jews and non-Jews work together to dismantle systems of oppression.

Anti-Authoritarianism – Opposition to hierarchical power structures in society, organizations, and human relations. Anti-authoritarian thinking embraces respectful and egalitarian human social relations. 

The story of the Jewish Diaspora is almost as old as the Jewish people itself. From the Babylonian Exile to Medieval Spain to the Pale of Settlement, Jews have had to live scattered amongst many nations. We’ve learned how to keep our traditions alive while contributing to the well-being of both Jewish and non-Jewish society and without being a dominant power. Even our traditional religion is built with Diaspora in mind—Rabbinic Judaism came as a reaction to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the need to keep Jewish identity alive under dispersion. Temple services replaced prayers based on Babylonian exile-era practices, and oral Jewish law was written into the Talmud. Jewish people create home wherever we are and will continue to do so, no matter what happens. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz (Z’”l), the late founder of the modern Radical Diasporist movement, said: “Diasporism joins those who see borders as lines to cross. Who seek the memory or possibility or value of motion, fluidity, and multiple vision... I posit a Jewish identity that embraces diversity and resists a closed circle. My hope is to join a debate about home, diversity, and justice” [2]. May we work to put Melanie’s theory in practice and do our part to heal the world.

Long live the Jewish Diaspora!

[1] Bushnell, A. [acebush1] (2023, March 17). “What I'm trying to say is, it's so important to imagine a better world. Let your thoughts run wild with idealistic dreams of what the world should look like.” [Online forum post]. Reddit. https://web.archive.org/web/20230317110400/https://www.reddit.com/user/acebush1/

[2] Kaye/Kantrowitz, M. (2007). The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism (p. xii). Indiana University Press.