Media coverage of Israel’s 60th birthday has gone on for more than a week. Almost all of it was celebratory, though there were sympathetic references to the Palestinian nakba, or catastrophe, that weren’t often included in coverage of Israel’s 50th or 40th. Even The National Post, among dozens of articles, had one by Jeet Heer on the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians, which a Post editorial rebuked the same day.

Something that struck me was the fairly narrow notion of Jewish experience outside Israel, in the Diaspora, that was implied. A Toronto prof. quoted in The Post, said: “Everything they do to us … strengthens our deep-seated perception that fuels our identity of being a persecuted people.” This rings true to me not as how things are, but as how many Canadian Jews see them. I have friends and relations, often wealthy and accomplished people, who feel anti-Semitism is always imminent, though they’ve rarely or never experienced it. It shapes their attitude toward Israel as the only refuge for Jews, and makes them less willing to hear criticisms of it than most Israelis are. It seems to me irrational and I wish I understood it better.

When we were kids in the 1950s, we studied a book called Sufferance is the Badge, based on Shylock’s line, “Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.” It interpreted Jewish history as a tale of torment. But that was in the shadow of the Holocaust. When I was married in my 20s, my mother-in-law did a painting in her art class that showed religious Jews clutching Torah scrolls as they fled. Their beards and prayer shawls streamed behind. My father-in-law, a manufacturer, called it caustically, The Jews Running. I think he meant it was sentimentalized and overstated, and he wasn’t buying that version of our past, at least not outright.

All this resonated in the aftermath of Hitler, and was helpful in raising support for the fragile state of Israel. But, at bottom and for understandable reasons, it distorted two millennia of Jewish history that were rich and complex. Almost all Jewish literary and intellectual accomplishment occurred in the Diaspora. There were golden ages of relative integration, along with expulsions and pogroms. That’s a big chunk of time. Crisis comes and goes in all collective and individual lives. Jews prayed for a return to Zion, but only in the messianic future that God alone would bring about. Anyone who tried to “force the end,” was considered a heretic. They didn’t just make do in the Diaspora; they settled in and often thrived.

It seems to me that a more nuanced, positive view of the Diaspora might open many Jews to a different relationship to Israel, in which they felt freer to offer criticism. It would also correspond better to their real lives. And it would fit the increasingly diasporic nature of a globalized world.

There are now many diasporas. The stats show Canada is becoming a diasporic country, and so do your eyes as you walk around our cities. The young know they’re more likely to be wanderers than their parents were. These shifts are accompanied by tensions and sometimes disaster.

But they have many upsides. You even see it in the Obama campaign. Who could be more diasporic, with his Kenyan father and Kansan mother?

There’s a debate in Israel now over the meaning of the Jewish Diaspora. A historian has written a book claiming there was no expulsion and exile during the Roman era. Most Jews stayed put, and converted to Islam. Those Jews outside Israel increased by converting others: Arabs in North Africa and Khazars in Eastern Europe. It won’t change basic attitudes, but it enriches and complexifies the nature of Diaspora.

In a world of nations, you celebrate national birthdays. But in a world of diasporas? That may call for something completely different.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.