project diaspora

by tobybee

Last week I went with my friend Dave to a rather bad talk at Monash Uni. When I say bad, I really mean that it was depressing, conservative, and reinforced the limited options which currently exist in the Melbourne Jewish community. There were three speakers, each of whom outlined different ideas (based on various demographic studies that they have been involved in) of what characterises the Melbourne Jewish community since the 1960s. One of the most dominant ideas, which permeated all three talks, was that there are only three ways in which they are perceiving that Jews in Melbourne are expressing their Jewishness/Judaism: through religion, through Zionism, and by marrying another Jew.

And I think, to a large extent that they are right. While certainly there are pockets of Jews in Melbourne who are finding ways that are outside these dominant systems of Jewishness in which to express their Jewish identities, it is largely up to us to invent ways of doing it. And I’ve felt this for a while – that the Jewish community in Melbourne hasn’t really provided me with many of the tools which I require to express my Jewishness. The basics were there, but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve developed a meaningful and dynamic way of being Jewish that goes beyond the simplicity of Melbourne’s version of Zionism; or the emptiness of a racialised Jewishness, where it’s most important to be friends with people whose blood is Jewish; or the distance of sitting upstairs, behind a mehitza, in an Orthodox shul.

At shul on Saturday a woman, Marla (who, incidentally, I went to primary school with, and haven’t seen in the intervening 16 years), gave a drasha based on her time at Pardes, a multidenominational Jewish study centre in Jerusalem. And she spoke about the importance of Jewish education for adults, and argued that in Melbourne we say that we value education, and being Jewish, but there is no communal effort to encourage Jewish education beyond the basics that people learn in dayschool or Sunday school. She was emphasising to us that, as adults, we can get so much more from the basic texts and ideas which we were introduced to as children. And that it’s important that we do re-enter Jewish texts and histories as adults, with increased knowledge and maturity to think more seriously and deeply about our Jewish identities.

It was with these two moments in mind that I read an idea from Eli Valley (of brilliantly provocative comic fame), called “Birthright Diaspora”. Written as part of a series called ’28 days, 28 ideas’, being compiled by Jewschool writers and others, he writes:

Birthright Diaspora will make Jews proud again.

It’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it? For one thing, despite the insistent proclamations of Jewish fund-raising letters and Israeli political and cultural leaders, most Jews in the Diaspora are not living on the brink of physical, spiritual or cultural devastation. In fact, by and large they’re pretty proud of who they are already. Secondly, to associate Diaspora experiences with “pride” is to break one of the major taboos of modern Jewish education. Israel is the pinnacle of pride; Diaspora the domain of destruction. That’s why education about the Diaspora designed for fifteen-year olds has meant role-playing “discrimination, persecution, forced conversion, outmarriage, assimilation, [and] (im)migration” so that “the message of a diminishing Jewish world and Israel as the only country with a growing Jewish population should be apparent.”

Yay, let’s role-play some more!

Even Birthright Israel, for all its enormous accomplishments as a global immersion-based educational vehicle and new Jewish rite-of-passage, suggests a binary notion of Jewish history and identity: “Israel made Jews proud … [it] represents the ideological revolution in which Jews became the ‘subjects’ of history rather than the ‘objects.’”

And yet, as it turns out, more than a few Jews have been proud actors on the historical stage since the Roman conquest of Palestine in 70 CE. It’s time to expand our notions of positive Jewish identity and at long last move beyond an ideology that fretfully masquerades self-hatred as Jewish empowerment. By digging through centuries of global Jewish life, Birthright Diaspora will help transform Jewish self-awareness and break the dichotomy of “hero” and “victim” that has handicapped internal Jewish intellectual inquiry for decades. The goal is not merely widespread immersion experiences in global Jewish communities but a renewed understanding of Diaspora as a Birthright that forms the roots of Jewish consciousness. If implemented effectively, Birthright Diaspora can lead to an existential transformation in the way Jews and Israelis view themselves and the world.


It cannot be stressed enough: The focus of the trips will be the life of the communities, past and present. Jewish sites will be used as launching pads for discussions and experiences of local Jewish history, religion, art, folklore and contemporary life. Participants will explore the ways in which the dynamics of Diaspora formed the backbone of modern Jewish consciousness intellectually, culturally, socially and ethically. Periods of trial will not be elided, but neither will they be fetishized. In an effort to offer a more nuanced picture of the Diaspora than has generally been provided, special attention will be paid to the intermingling and cross-fertilization of Jewish and non-Jewish cultures that has occurred in every community and in almost every period of Jewish history. Whether in Canada, Brazil or India, participants will hear tales of communities as well as families, both famous and little-known, and explore the ways individuals celebrated, wrestled with, contributed to, fled, and drew inspiration from Jewish civilization and from the customs and philosophies of the outside world. Birthright Diaspora will also utilize “mifgashim” among current Jewish residents in the same age group as the visitors. There will be great opportunities for service learning programs, but in keeping with Birthright Diaspora’s efforts to break ideological dichotomies, Jewish poorism will not be permitted. Instead, service learning will be provided on a reciprocal basis. For example, if a group from Houston is involved in repairing a cemetery in Cracow, a group from Poland will repair a cemetery (or engage in another local service activity) as part of its visit to Houston.

He continues on to expand on his idea, which I think is a truly wonderful one. I really think that having a sense of diaspora history and identity is fundamental to a continued dynamic diaspora Jewishness. A pride in diasporic Jewishness needs to cultivated, and this, I think, needs to be a pride based in a history which doesn’t end in the Holocaust or with the creation of the State of Israel, but in a continued politics, history, and culture of movement, exchange and learning.

*to read more discussion about this idea by Eli Valley, check out this post on Jewschool.