The Diaspora may be moving, but it isn’t going away any time soon
When Howard Grossman moved to the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Wilkes-Barre 35 years ago, it was a thriving industrial city with a substantial, long-established Jewish community. Today, anyone who visits Wilkes-Barre cannot help but come away with the impression that this town of 43,000 has seen better days, and will perhaps see not too grand a future.
Along with the decline of the city’s industry, there’s been another loss: a massive reduction in its Jewish population. The community that numbered some 8,000 Jews in the 1920s has now shrunk to barely 2,100, a far more precipitous drop than the 40 percent decline experienced by the city at large.
Wilkes-Barre Jews, Grossman recalls, were prominent among the store owners of its bright and busy shops. But hard times for everyone had an even greater effect on the Jewish community. Today many Wilkes-Barre stores are empty while others have been replaced by low-end retail chains. The children of the original store owners, and of local garment manufacturers, teachers and professionals have, for the most part, decamped.
“It’s a shame,” Grossman says. “This is a town where they had a strong commitment.”
That commitment, Grossman insists, is still there. He estimates that 80 percent of Wilkes-Barre’s Jews are affiliated with a synagogue, a percentage far higher than in most places. Yet the depth of commitment doesn’t reduce the prospect that the community could eventually fade away.
The Protean Diaspora
The trajectory of this Pennsylvania city is nothing new — not in today’s United States, and not throughout the two-millennium-long history of the Diaspora. Jewish communities like the one in Wilkes-Barre have grown to prominence, only to decline over time into insignificance or even oblivion.
“The reality of Jewish life remains complex and protean,” Israeli historian David Vital suggests. “Jewry has no formal boundaries; its informal boundaries are subject to constant movement, change and debate.”
This has also been the history of the Jewish homeland itself: a bright period of ascendancy, followed by a stretch of desolation, and finally, today’s emerging reality, where Israel stands at the brink of becoming, for the first time since the heyday of the ancient state, the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.
Yet through history it has been the Diaspora, for all the contempt felt for it by some in Israel, that has dominated the “protean” history of our people, and marked what Martin Buber once called our “vocation of uniqueness.” Even when the old kingdom still existed in Palestine, Jews thrived mostly in “exile.” As early as 500 B.C.E., Jews established communities from Persia to North Africa. By the time of Jesus, when Hebrews accounted for roughly one in 11 residents of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean, nearly two-thirds lived outside Palestine, with roughly 1 million in Egypt alone.
Over the ensuing centuries these populations were constantly in flux, waxing and waning as economic, political and theocratic fashions forced migrations. Communities rose and then fell. At various times, Jews gathered in Antioch, Alexandria, Trier and, of course, the Eternal City itself. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Jewish fortunes shifted towards the Eastern Empire; later, to Islamic-dominated lands from Spain to Persia.
The Diaspora reached in all directions. Intolerant rulers spurred Jewish colonies to spread northward to The Netherlands and westward to England.
A different movement led eastward, this one from Germany and Central Europe to the vast, under-populated and economically backward lands of Poland and Russia. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, it was there that the largest concentration of Jews, more than 5 million, came to live.
Meanwhile, as Britain, Holland and other European powers stretched their influence around the world, Jews followed. The Diaspora spread as far as India and China, to the “new world” of Australia, and, most portentously, to the Americas.
The Reshuffled Diaspora
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, poverty and growing anti-Semitic pogroms led to the movement of 1.8 million predominately Eastern European Jews to the United States, transforming America into the leading center of Diaspora life.
Then, two inextricably related events further shattered the archipelago of historic Jewish communities: the rise of Nazism and the establishment of the State of Israel.
The first event all but wiped out the great Jewish communities of continental Europe.
The second event, the establishment of the State of Israel, was, of course, a blessing to the notion of global Jewish survival. But it also signaled the end of many of the world’s oldest Jewish enclaves. Muslim reaction against the state led to the virtual elimination of long-thriving Jewish communities in Egypt, Iraq and North Africa. Most of their members sought safety either in Israel, or in the United States, Canada, Australia or France.
This process of consolidation has now accelerated. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a large population — roughly 1 million at least — out of a traditional center of Jewish life, and in to Israel, the United States and the remaining handful of countries willing to receive it, including, ironically, post-war democratic Germany.
The trend is continuing under the current Russian regime, which, although not openly anti-Semitic, follows an authoritarian, nationalistic bent uncomfortable for many Jews. Perhaps slightly more than 250,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to the United States since the collapse of the communist regime.
Most recently, new developments have enhanced the global concentration of Jews. Rising anti-Semitism and hard economic times, for example, brought many Mexican, Argentine and other South American Jews to Israel and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. And the rise of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez — a man deeply influenced by the Argentine anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole — seems likely to accelerate the diminution of yet another small (roughly 15,000) but well-established Latin American community.
Also significant has been the rise of Islamist Iran, a country closely allied to its fellow oil producer Venezuela, and arguably the leading center of anti-Jewish agitation in the world today. Since the 1979 revolution, about 80 percent of Persian Jewry have left. More than half — at least 50,000 — have relocated to the United States, mostly to Los Angeles and to Long Island, N.Y.