Concepts and theories
1 Diasporas wreath, Elmina Castle, Ghana (© Regina Marchi)
Elmina Castle, where many slaves began their journey westwards to the Americas, was established by the Portuguese in the 1480s and later administered by the Dutch and British. Today it is a World Heritage Site. In one of its underground prisons is a shrine to the memory of the millions who endured the Atlantic ‘middle passage’ or died before or during the journey. Wreaths have been left by visitors, one of which, ‘From diasporas’, represents the memory and connection of the African diaspora with Elmina and other castles on the African coast.
In contemporary discourse, exile and diaspora are often taken to refer to various national, cultural, religious and political groups and peoples. Earlier studies, however, identified the Jewish experience as the paradigm for both exile and diaspora. Such a focus on Jewish communities found its rationale in their capacity to preserve the ‘law’ outside the ‘Holy Land’, to live a life according to the commands of the Torah despite strong assimilative pressures from the ‘host’ society. The terms exile and diaspora have their origins in different linguistic and cultural settings – that of Roman legal terminology and of Jewish theology. Although they need to be distinguished theologically according to Jewish understanding, sociologically they refer to the same socio-political situation of the exiled and diasporized group.
General meaning of exile
The term ‘exile’ is resonant with ideas of forced emigration, displacement, social and political marginalization of an individual or a group of refugees. It aligns to experiences of loneliness, foreignness, homesickness and an enduring longing to remigrate to the place of origin. The Latin notions exilium and exul denote a temporary banishment, at times also asylum. During the first millennium bce, classical oriental empires used mass deportation as a means of punishment and exercise of power, forcing entire nations to leave home and to move into exile.
Generally, people refrain from moving into exile and staying there. Exile is a state forced upon individuals, groups or a nation; they are passive reactors subjected to this state. Exile is rarely sought. At times, though, individuals, entire groups and peoples may actively escape into exile in order to seek refuge and avoid persecution. Once politically secure in exile, these individuals and groups may actively work to support other refugees and to bring about a change in political oppression. Usually, exiles think of their exile as a temporary state and their focus of identification, attention and activities clearly rests with the territory and culture of their former home. Conceived of as transitory, the state of exile may end with repatriation and a radical change of political power back home.
Exile – historical coinage
In Western common knowledge, the notion of exile is predominantly bound to the experience of the Jewish people in the first millennium bce. Exile is a term used by Jews of that time in both geographical and theological semantics: it refers to a concrete land, far away from Israel-Palestine and Judaea; and it refers to a fourfold theological scheme. According to this, God renders upon the Jewish people banishment into exile as punishment for breaking the law. As such, being forced into exile provides an explanation for the pitiful state. But it carries also advice and admonishment about how to bring exile to an end: to faithfully obey the law again, i.e. the 613 Jewish commandments and prohibitions (Hebrew mitzvot).
Jewish experience with exile started in the late eighth century bce. Assyrian invaders deported members of the ten northern tribes of Israel to upper Meso-potamia. Further displacements to Assyria followed. In 597 bce, Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judaea and deported large parts of the Judaean upper class. During the second punitive expedition in 587/586 bce, the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. The deported Jews were settled at the ‘waters of Babylon’ (Psalm 137:1). They built houses and arranged for gardens and gradually integrated into Babylonian society. Religiously, however, Jews warded off assimilation and maintained the tradition of their forefathers. In 538 bce, the edict of Cyrus ended the banishment and enabled a return to Judaea in 522 bce. Only a minority returned, however, while the rest arranged for an enduring stay. They formed the nucleus of the later, famous Babylon diaspora (Neusner 1965–70
). The completion of the restoration of the Temple in 515 marked the beginning of the era of the Second Temple (ended subsequently in 70 ce).
During the following centuries, Israel-Palestine remained a region of political instability and a war zone contested by Egypt and Persia, before Greece established its supremacy from 333 bce onwards. Jews emigrated to safer places such as Asia Minor and to existing Jewish communities in Egypt to ply their trade and business. Alexandria in northern Egypt developed into a flourishing Jewish centre of commerce and learning. Here, Jews translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, which was their own vernacular and that of the reigning power. The evolved Greek translation, the Septuagint (third/second century bce), coined the term ‘diaspora’ to address the various Jewish communities scattered all over the eastern Mediterranean (Barclay 1996
; Cohen 1999
; Grabbe 2008
Diaspora as a neologism
The Greek noun diasporá
derives from the composite verb dia-
, adopting meanings of ‘to scatter, spread, disperse, be separated’. The verb, which became more widely used in the fifth century bce among classical philosophers and Hellenist writers, had a negative connotation. Epicurus, reported Plutarch, used ‘diaspora’ in the context of his philosophical treatises to refer
to processes of dispersion and decomposition, a dissolution into various parts (e.g. atoms) without any further relation to each other. ‘Diaspora’ had an ad-verse, devastating meaning and was not used to imply a geographic place or sociological group. The Alexandrian Jewish-Greek translators of the Hebrew scriptures adopted precisely the disastrous connotations of current philosophical discourse (van Unnik 1993
In the evolved Septuagint, however, the noun diasporá
and the verb diaspeírein
were coined as technical terms to interpret Jewish existence far from the ‘Promised Land’ in light of an encompassing soteriological pattern. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew words for ‘exile’, ‘banishment’ and ‘deportation’, gôlGôl
, were explicitly not rendered into Greek by the term ‘diaspora’. Gôl
were understood as unique notions for the Babylonian captivity -and exile. They were thus translated in the Septuagint by Greek words denoting movement under force (metoikesía
) and captivity as a result of war (aìchmalosía
), avoiding any equivalence between gôlGôl
. Jewish–Greek translators of the third and second century bce intentionally distinguished between galût
, adopting a new word to express neologically their situation of living outside Israel-Palestine (Arowele 1977
: 46–7; van Unnik 1993
: 81–4; Tromp 1998
Diaspora as part of a soteriological scheme
In retrospect, post-Babylonian Jews interpreted the Babylonian captivity theologically – that is, as God’s punishment for their disobedience to the commands of the Torah. With the return to Palestine and Jerusalem, this punishment had come to an end. Living outside the ‘Holy Land’ subsequently – from the fifth century bce on – was understood differently. In Egypt, Asia Minor and Greece, many Jews had become secure, established and quite successful. Nevertheless, they still interpreted residing outside Palestine as a transitory, miserable and unfavourable stay. It was understood as a preparation for, an intermediate situation until, the final divine gathering in Jerusalem. Basically, ‘diaspora’ took on spiritual and soteriological meanings, pointing to the ‘gathering of the scattered’ by God’s grace at the end of time. The term was coined to form an integral part of a pattern constituted by the fourfold course of sin and disobedience, scattering and diaspora, repentance, and finally return and gathering (van Unnik 1993
: 113–19; Tromp 1998
In Hellenistic times, Jews from the diaspora were able to travel to Palestine and Jerusalem. The large number of pilgrims gives ample evidence that Jews could have returned to Palestine. Most stayed, however, in the diaspora. Theologically, it was held that the gathering in the ‘Holy Land’ was not to be brought about by humans, but by God alone. All men and women in the diaspora could do to help usher in such a time was to live wholeheartedly in accordance with the commands of the Torah. In this way, apart from its indissoluble soteriological
meaning and context, i.e. the interpretation of history with respect to God’s saving grace, the proper term ‘diaspora’ also takes on meanings of admonition and a reminder to obey the Jewish law. Socioculturally, it appears that quite a number of Jews (certainly not all) fared rather well in cultural centres outside the Holy Land; the Jews of Alexandria and Sardis maintained religious and administrative structures of their own, with synagogues, gymnasia, baths, cemeteries and societies. Many preferred to stay in the diaspora, rather than returning to more or less regularly war-torn Palestine (Eisenstadt 1992
; Barclay 1996
; Baumann 2003
; Gruen 2002
Ensuing adoption of diaspora
In the first century ce, Christians adopted the term diaspora, but altered its soteriological meaning according to Christian eschatology. The individual writers of the different biblical stories and letters interpreted the early Church ‘as a pilgrim, sojourning and dispersed community, in the understanding that it is the eschatological people of God’ (Arowele 1977
: 476). On earth, dispersed Christians would function as the ‘seed’ to disseminate the message of Jesus. The Christians’ real home, however, was the so-called ‘heavenly city Jerusalem’, the goal of Christian pilgrimage.
Having become the state religion of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century, the idea of sojourn and diaspora quickly vanished in Christian memory. A millennium later, following the sixteenth-century Reformation and the formation of different Christian confessions, the term came to denote Protestants living in Catholic territory and vice versa. In the nineteenth century, owing to inner state migrations, diaspora became predominantly associated with confessional minorities.
Since the 1960s, with increasing transnational and global migrant movements, ‘diaspora’ was employed to denote a national, cultural or religious group living in a foreign land. Following African Studies (Harris 1993
; Shepperson 1993
), which compared the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans to the expulsion of classical Jews, the term became widely used and popular in various social sciences. The increasing broadening of the term and its at times vague employment were criticized from the mid-1990s onwards, with scholars calling for more theorized and analytically useful usage (Tölölyan 1996
; Cohen 1997
; Vertovec 1997
; Baumann 2000
Varied connotations of exile
In contrast, the notion of exile did not encounter such popularity and fashionable employment in the twentieth century. During the 1930s and 1940s, many authors, intellectuals, artists, journalists and scientists, chiefly of Jewish birth, fled Nazi Germany for the security of exile in Britain and the USA. There, they initiated and assisted agencies in providing support for refugees, as well as
analysing the fascinating power of the ‘political religion’ of National Socialism (Krohn 1998
; Sheppard 2006
). During the second half of the twentieth century, many people faced a similar fate, being forced to leave their home countries owing to political pressures and persecution. Among countless examples, the Tibetans, Cubans and Armenians all appeared prominently in the media (Lang 1989
; Tweed 1997
; Korom 1999
). Indeed, Tibetans speak of their central Tibetan administration as a ‘government-in-exile’, while Edward Said underscores that: ‘Modern western culture […] in large part [is] the work of exiles, émigrés, refugees. In the United States, academic, intellectual and aesthetic thought is what it is today because of refugees from fascism, communism, and other regimes given to the oppression and expulsion of dissidents’ (Said 2001
: 173). Although exile is, in Said’s words, ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: Its essential sadness can never be surmounted’ (ibid.: 173), voices that also value exile positively as a place of freedom and innovation have become widespread. Palestinian, Iranian and African artists, musicians and poets in exile all refer to the possibility of meeting other people, of benefiting from exchange and encounter, and finding inspiration for new ideas. Nevertheless, reference to such voices is not intended to banalize the anguish and predicaments experienced. The memory and longing of the exiled are bound to the former homeland and they interpret their freedom to engage for political change back home.
‘Exile’, in contrast to diaspora, is seldom associated with religious connotations and semantics. It appears that its use relates more explicitly to political persecution and forced flight caused by a nation-state than does ‘diaspora’. The latter, particularly in recent discourse, appears to relate to a state of enduring consciousness of living away from home, adapted to the new social and cultural context. In contrast, contemporary connotations of exile are resonant of a state of sojourn, estrangement and homesickness. The history and experiences of classical Jews, however, do not support such differentiations. The current attributions are rather the result of ongoing intellectual discourses and reasoning, coining the terms anew.
Achebe, C. (2000) Home and Exile, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Eisenstadt, S. N. (1992) Jewish Civilization: The Jewish Historical Experience in a Comparative Perspective, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Haebich, A. and B. Offord (eds) (2008) Landscapes of Exile: Once Perilous, Now Safe, Frankfurt: P. Lang.
Krohn, C. D. (ed.) (1998) Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration 1933–1945, Darmstadt: Wiss. Buchgesellschaft.
Said, E. W. (2001) Ref...