History of the Jewish diaspora
The Kingdom of Israel (Samaria), part of the united Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, that existed between the 11th century and 930s BCE, was occupied during the reign of King Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria. It was during this period that the mass exile of Jews from their homes began. This exile, which began in 733 BCE, was completed in 722 during the reign of Sargon II, and Shalmaneser V completely destroyed Samaria.
The next migration of Jews from the kingdom of Judah, which existed from 930 to 586 BCE, began in 597 BCE and ended in 586 BCE, with the Babylonians occupying the territory during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II of New Babylon. That same year (586 BCE), the Jewish holy temple (First Temple) in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the vast majority of the population was forced to emigrate to Mesopotamia.
Most Jews returned to their homeland (Judah) after the conquest of the New Babylonian Kingdom by Cyrus II, king of the Achaemenids (a state that existed in 550-330 BCE), living under the rule of the Achaemenids in 539-332 BCE. In 516 BCE, they rebuilt their holy temple (Second Temple). Interestingly, many now wealthy Jews who had emigrated to other lands refused to return to their homeland and chose to remain in their host country as the diaspora. One of the main reasons for this was that the Jews felt safe under the Persian rulers, the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sassanids, and even enjoyed certain political rights (local self-governance).
According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, during the reign of Ptolemy I, a historian of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, who was later appointed pharaoh of Egypt by the Macedonians, the Jewish settlement was occupied (332 BCE), after which 120,000 Jews were taken prisoner and exiled to Egypt. Many historians write that because of Ptolemy’s liberal and tolerant policy, many Jews volunteered to move to Egypt. Judah was ruled by the Macedonian Empire in 332-305 BCE, by the Ptolemaic dynasty in 305-198 BCE and by the Seleucid state founded by the Greeks in Anatolia (Asia Minor) in 198-141 BCE. The Maccabean Revolt against the central government took place in Judah, a vassal of the Seleucids, in 167-160 BCE. The cause of the revolt was an attempt by the central government to interfere in the local Jewish governance. As a result of the revolt, the Hasmonean dynasty-led Jewish state maintained its semi-independence from 141 BCE to 37 CE.
In 6 CE, the lands inhabited by the Jews were occupied by the Romans, and the province of Judea was formed. After the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled the local Jews, adopted the Roman protectorate in 63 CE, Jewish immigration was revived. The first Jewish-Roman war that started in 66 CE resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the once rebuilt temple lay in ruins again. During the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138, Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina, then joined with Syria, which passed under Roman rule, and the province was renamed Syria Palaestina. The Jews revolted in 132 under the leadership of Bar Kokhba to protest the renaming of Jerusalem by the Romans, after which they were forbidden to enter Jerusalem.
Thus, in the first century CE, the Jewish diaspora settled in the Roman-occupied territories of Syria Palaestina, Egypt, Crete, and Cyrenaica (the territory of present-day Libya) and Rome itself. Bringmann (2005: 202) estimates that there were 8,000 Jews living in Rome during Caesar Augustus, constituting 10% of the city’s total population. The 13th-century historian Bar Hebraeus wrote that a total of 6.9 million Jews lived in the Roman world. However, many modern historians say that this figure is incorrect.
In the 7th century, the Levant (modern-day Palestine, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and southeastern Anatolia) was captured by the Arabs, and Byzantine (Eastern Roman) rule in Syria Palaestina came to an end. Thus, Palestine, which occasionally came under Christian rule during the 11th and 12th centuries Crusades, remained largely ruled by Muslim Arabs and came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1517.
The Jewish diaspora that began to spread around the world divided into two parts during the Middle Ages: Jews who migrated to Northern and Eastern Europe were called Ashkenazi, Jews who migrated to Spain (and Portugal), North Africa and the Middle East were called Sephardic. Ashkenazi Jews first migrated to Germany and France during the medieval Roman occupation. They are also the descendants of the Jews who migrated in the ancient world from Babylon, the Persian states (Achaemenids, Sassanids, etc.) and North Africa to Europe. Some Ashkenazim are descendants of the Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain first because of the establishment of an Islamic state in the 11th and 12th centuries and later during the Christian reconquests in the 13th and 15th centuries, and, most importantly, because of the persecution by the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries. Before the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, some 300,000 Jews lived in Spain. The Jews were ordered to convert, and some agreed, while between 40,000 and 100,000 Jews who chose not to were expelled. Thus, the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492. Most Sephardic Jews spread to North Africa (Maghreb), Christian Europe (Netherlands, England, France, and Poland), the Ottoman Empire (especially its European part), and even Latin America.
In addition to the two main Jewish groups, there are Mizrahi Jews, Yemenite Jews, and Karaite Jews. Mizrahi Jews are descendants of the Jews from the territories of Muslim-ruled states; these are modern Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, Persian, Afghan, Bukharian, Kurdish, Mountain (Azerbaijani), Georgian Jews. Yemenite Jews, or Temanim, are the Jews who were exiled to Yemen since the Babylonian times; they are very different in terms of religion, language and culture from most Jewish communities due to their compact living conditions. Karaite Jews, on the other hand, have only a religious affiliation with the modern Jewish community. The Karaim are not ethnically Jewish, but simply maintain their religious identity, with certain distinctions, that is, they observe Judaism. The Karaim live mostly in Egypt, Iraq and Crimea.
Many Ashkenazi immigrated to America in the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular, to the United States, where they formed a strong diaspora. Persian and Mizrahi Jews also joined them. Jews are more likely to mix with non-Jews and start a family in the United States. For this reason, a generation has grown up that consider themselves Jewish, not being actually Jewish. According to the 2019 data of the Pew Research Center, there are 7.5 million Jews living in the United States.
The national awakening among the Jews and the emergence of the Zionist movement date back to the 19th century. The essence of the Zionist movement is the return to Jerusalem, the historical land of Israel, which the Jewish diaspora around the world calls “aliyah.” Thus, the immigration of Diaspora Jews to Palestine began in the 19th century, or more precisely in 1882.
In 1947, the UN drew up a plan for partitioning Palestine, creating the independent Arab and Jewish states and setting up a Special International Regime for the city of Jerusalem. Although the Partition Plan was accepted by the Jews, the Arabs strongly opposed it. As a result, on May 14, 1948, the establishment of the state of Israel in the area specified in the UN plan was announced. Thus began the Israeli-Arab wars that continue to this day. As a result of these wars, the Jews occupy most of the territory that was to be given to the Arab Palestinian state according to the UN plan. As a result of the 1948-1967 wars, the Jews annexed the lands they claimed to belong to the ancient kingdom of Judah (West Bank of the Jordan River) from Jordan to Israel. At present, this area remains the administrative territory of Israel and is called “Judea (Judah) and Samaria”. As a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, in addition to the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights came under Jewish control. However, the Palestinians and other Arab and Muslim countries do not agree with this, and the struggle that continues to this day took an organized form with the First Intifada in 2000. Israel’s wars with neighboring Arab countries eventually led to the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries in the Middle East between 1948 and 1973. The ongoing struggle against Israel (which the Jews call acts of terrorism) has led to the construction of a wall separating Jews from the Palestinians and, finally, to the 2005 law to expel Jews from the Gaza Strip and hand over control of the region to the Palestinian National Authority. Despite the efforts to promote Palestine as a free state in the world, the Palestinian National Authority has not yet achieved this goal.
When the State of Israel was established in 1948, 3 million Jews returned to their homeland. According to 2018 data, there are 14.6 million Jewish and 17.8 million partly Jewish people in the world. 51% of them live in the United States, 30% in Israel, 2% in the West Bank, and the rest in other countries (France, Canada, Russia, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Ukraine, Hungary, etc.). Under the law adopted on July 5, 1950, every Jew in the diaspora has the right to return to Israel, live there, and obtain citizenship at any time. Therefore, the Israeli-Jewish diaspora can be considered the world’s oldest diaspora with the longest (2,000 years) history of existence without a home state.
Thus, we can say that the word “diaspora” originally had a negative connotation because it meant the expulsion of Jews from the “holy land,” but over time it also began to refer to people who voluntarily spread around the world, and the term began to be used globally.
Activities and role of the Jewish diaspora in the world political arena
Those who see the Jewish diaspora as an “ideal type” mainly point out its five features: a tragic historical event, a cultural trauma that led to the formation of the diaspora, diaspora members being scattered around the territory of two or more countries, a strong sense of attachment to the homeland, a strong sense of ethnic identity, and strong organization.
Charles King (2010: 149) considers the organizational activity of the diaspora, the level of economic resources and revenues and the degree of social solidarity as the main factors shaping diaspora policy. Strong diasporas combining these factors have the power to influence both the local elites in the homeland and the current policy of their host country, and can play a more significant role in international politics (Rutland, 2015).
Diaspora policy is usually studied at various panels devoted to “ethnic lobbying”, immigrants, emigrants, and compatriots living abroad. For example, the Cuban, Irish, Polish, Armenian, and Jewish diasporas in the United States are particularly active in domestic politics, forming interest groups, lobbying and playing a special role in changing the conceptual framework for causes and policies related to their respective countries of origin (Adamson, 2016: 291).
One of the most significant achievements of the Jewish diaspora was the Balfour Declaration issued by the British government in 1917. This document laid the foundation for the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine in 1948. It is because of this that many blame the Jewish diaspora for creating anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East.
Another achievement of the Israeli diaspora was persuading the US administration to help the newly established state of Israel, which was in dire need of economic assistance in 1948. Many of those Jews had never seen Palestine-Israel before. They explained their efforts by saying they were tending a “spiritual garden”. Thus, at a time when the political orientation of the state of Israel was still unknown to the United States (the USSR was the first state to de jure recognize Israel’s independence, and the United States was already gripped in a “cold war” with the USSR by then), the US administration gave Israel a $100 million loan through the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Interestingly, unlike the Arab countries, the newly established state of Israel “met” all the criteria required by the United States to allocate this loan. In order to get this aid, the Jews cited the fact that they had established a democratic government, whereas there was no democracy in the Arab world. It was the victory of Israel’s public diplomacy to convince the US Congress that the United States provided substantial financial assistance to Israel in the first ten years of its existence (Aridan, 2019: 131-132).
According to (unofficial) data for 2016, the United States provides $3 billion a year in aid to Israel, which comprises 9% of its annual foreign aid budget. Between 1948 and 2016, the total amount of this assistance made up $250 billion (Smith, 2016: 4).
Abba Eban, Israeli Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, opposed the frequent use of the word “lobby” because it was not as “popular” (in a good way) despite being part of the American democratic system. He stressed that lobbyists in general needed to support themselves before Israel. In other words, if they wanted to be of use to Israel, the Jews in the United States must first be of use to themselves, to develop, and gain more powerful tools of influence. They were not to be Israel’s “satellites,” but to grow up to be actors capable of making their own decisions favoring their homeland after being adequately informed by Israel. William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, known for his “Israel Controls the Senate” statement (1973), was one those most critical of the influence those actors exerted on the US policy (Aridan, 2019: 134) (The very same Fulbright had been the founder of one of the main tools of the US soft power strategy in 1946—the scholarship program that bears his name. Many of the young people who have completed this still active program are famous for their pro-US speeches and socio-political activities after returning to their respective countries.)
All this gives us reason to say that the US political system is a mixed mechanism that does not serve the Israeli interests unambiguously, and those defending the Israeli interests are subjected to criticism from time to time by various politicians. An example of this is the anti-Israel stance of former US President Jimmy Carter in his 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Jews claim that political theorists such as Freeman, Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, parrot Fulbright. The two professors co-authored the book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy in 2006.
We can see that the anti-Israel stance in the United States has come to the fore, especially when US interests clash with Israeli interests. For example, in the war between Israel and Egypt (1973), the United States had to relegate its Israeli interests to the background to a certain extent in order not to lose Egypt, which could withstand the Soviet threat and the spread of the USSR regional influence. That did not please the Jews. Under the Camp David Accords (1978) that ended this war, Israel returned the previously (in 1956) occupied Suez Canal to Egypt. Jewish settlements set up here were destroyed (1982). Thus, except the cases in which Israeli interests clash with global US interests, one may say that they are mostly parallel, supportive, and serve each other, and that Jews are largely integrated into American society (at all levels of authority).
The financial power of the Jewish diaspora is one of the main means of securing its political power.
One of the strengths of the Jewish diaspora is social solidarity. No matter where they are in the world, Jews feel a social responsibility towards each other. This is the essence of the slogan “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh” chanted at all social events. In this regard, philanthropy, moral responsibility (mitzvah) has already become their way of life. For example, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund are organizations set up by Diaspora Jews to help the homeland.
Sometimes the diaspora does or says what the home state cannot do or say, because the diaspora has no official legal obligations and liability. For example, the state of Israel is interested in developing relations with Germany. But the Holocaust will never be forgotten. Therefore, Holocaust-related, in particular, anti-Semitism-related, propaganda was entrusted mainly to the diaspora.
The Israeli government is, of course, well aware of the strength of the Jewish diaspora around the world. However, Ben-Gurion’s interesting statement made in 1950 is indicative of Israel’s attitude toward the Jewish diaspora: “We, the people of Israel, have no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities abroad… Our success or failure depends in a large measure on our cooperation with, and on the strength of, the great Jewish community of the United States, and, we, therefore, are anxious that nothing should be said or done which could in the slightest degree undermine the sense of security and stability of American Jewry.”
The relationship between the diaspora and politics is shaped against the backdrop of the diaspora’s relationship with both the home and the host country. Thus, the diaspora itself becomes a political issue. In this regard, the lobbying activity of the diaspora transcends the borders of interstate relations. In other words, the diaspora is becoming a non-governmental, non-state actor in world politics. It is important to keep this powerful actor fully informed in the interests of the state, to support growing economic and political integration in the host country, to increase economic power, and then to gear this power at the welfare of compatriots of the same ethnic identity and the interests of the homeland. This activity is not aimed at separatism, division and discrimination in the country of residence, but rather carried out in parallel with the integration into the state, stimulation of the participation of Jews in government and economy.
It should be emphasized that behind every successful project there is an idea, a dream for the future. Thus, Theodore Herzl, who first proposed the idea of a Jewish state in 1896 (in his book The Jewish State), clearly saw the need to create a Jewish state in the future, and thought that it would happen one day. And so it did. This is the backbone of the activity of the Jewish diaspora: idea—support—success!