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  • Johnny Gross

How should the Diaspora be understood in Jewish history?

Jonathan Ray, a professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University, wrote an essay about this question. It explored the place of Sephardi Jews exiled from Iberia in the late 15th century in the broader story of the Jewish Diaspora. Ray argues that the Jewish Diaspora is not just one story that began with the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E and has extended indefinitely. Rather, there are several distinct Jewish diasporas: Jews of different “sub-ethnic groups” settling in, leaving, and being expelled from various homelands across the world at different times and in different ways.

The Jewish Diaspora is not a “monolith,” nor is it solely a “lachrymose” history of persecution and expulsion, says Ray. The Diaspora, instead, tells a far more complicated story: it is at once a symbol of persecution and freedom, of occupation and self-determination.

This tension has divided the Jewish community about how best to treat the Diaspora in Jewish history: is it a stain or a jewel, or perhaps somewhere in between? I’ll discuss the ways in which this tension has been manifested through different forms of Jewish nationalism. More specifically, I’ll examine the works of historians, authors, and artists in order to pinpoint the underlying differences between Jewish nationalism’s many forms.

First, I will describe Jewish nationalism in the realm of theory, and then Jewish nationalism as it is depicted empirically, through literature and art. I’ll compare the conflicting theories of Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnow, and will discuss the ways in which S.Y. Agnon, Yehuda Pen, and Mark Chagall adapted and rendered those theories as depictions of human life. Only by analyzing the theory in conjunction with the evidence in this way can one paint a true picture of Jewish nationalism in 19th and 20th century Europe. And, crucially, much gets lost in translation between theory and practice that become key differentiating factors between the conflicting versions of Jewish nationalism.


I will begin here by describing the two main theories of Jewish nationalism that I wish to discuss in this paper: Zionism and Diaspora Nationalism. Zionism, to give a general definition, views Judaism as a nation that must have its own, self-governed country[1] (it evolved to specify that this country be the historic Jewish homeland of Palestine, but whether it originally stipulated this is unclear).[2] Zionism, moreover, opposes the notion that European Jewry should assimilate into mainstream European culture, arguing that Jews should instead organize among themselves, through a self-driven labor force and economy, to form a unique nation.[3] While this concept has been prevalent among Jewish intellectuals for centuries, Zionism did not become a formal ideology until the late 19th century, responding to rampant anti-Semitism in Europe.[4]

Diaspora Nationalism is a far more nuanced, and far less well-known concept. It argues that Jews must develop a Jewish national feeling within the Diaspora, such that countries around the world contain communities of Jews whose lives are steeped in Jewish culture; in this way, Diaspora National communities around the world are connected, as if members of the same nation, by their common embrace of Jewish culture.

The tension between these two ideologies stems ultimately from their treatment of the Diaspora: Diaspora Nationalists resent Zionism’s rejection of the vibrant Jewish lifestyle that has developed during the Diaspora, whereas Zionists fear that Diaspora Nationalists underestimate the danger of the Diaspora to the continuity of Judaism.[5]

Zionist ideas show up prominently in the work of 19th century Polish-German historian Heinrich Graetz, who was the first Jewish historian to produce a multi-volume, comprehensive account of Jewish history (approximately a decade before the establishment of Zionism).[6] In his work, Graetz claims that Judaism is governed by one, central idea, founded not on the individual, but the community.[7] Moreover, this community, and more generally Jewish life, must be grounded in a physical space. To Graetz, land is as inseparably a part of Judaism as is the Torah and the people of Israel;, in fact, these three elements of Judaism are themselves inextricably connected to one another. “[The Torah, the nation of Israel and the Holy Land] are inseparably united by an invisible bond. Judaism without the firm soil of national life resembles an inwardly hollowed-out and half-uprooted tree.”[8] So says Graetz, claiming that stripping the Jew of his Holy Land renders him nationless and necessarily undermines his Judaism.

Graetz supports this claim by portraying the connection between the Jew, his community, and his land as something endowed and engineered by God. Indeed, as he constructs the central “idea” on which Judaism is based, Graetz observes that the role of God in Judaism—what he calls the “special God-concept”—is integral to Judaism’s identity. That God itself wishes to form the Jews into a people renders the concept of God necessarily also a “concept of the state.”[9] In fact, this oneness of God and State must be recognized by the Jews, says Graetz, via a political constitution that brings God tangibly into their self-governance.[10]

Graetz’s idea that the Jews’ rootedness in a land is a fundamental constituent of their Judaism can easily be called “proto-Zionist.”[11] And, moreover, the absolute nature of his argument, as if to say his theory is proven fact, is similar in nature to Zionism as it is leveraged socially and politically; that is, it often falsely presents itself as the only acceptable way to uplift Jews from persecution.

Simon Dubnow, a 20th century, largely self-taught Russian historian, is among those who challenge the notion that Zionism and Graetz’s land-God concept exclusively reflect the essential constitution of Judaism. Dubnow, instead, subscribes to the Diaspora Nationalist school of thought. In a collection of essays on “old and new Judaism,”[12] Dubnow argues that the Jew is not necessarily rooted in a fixed land but is rather rooted in “‘the Jewish national soul.’” That is, to Dubnow, the Jewish national soul is the “soil in which, deep down, lies imbedded, as an unconscious element, the Jewish national feeling, and as a conscious element, the Jewish national idea.”[13]

The Jewish nation in this way, Dubnow seems to argue, is a product of the Diaspora. Indeed, Dubnow believes that it is unfair to dismiss the Diaspora as a time and space exclusively in which Jews are victimized and oppressed. The Diaspora is, instead, far more formative to the Jewish people, characterizing an “uninterrupted life of the spirit, [an] aspiration for the higher and the better in the domain of religious thought, [and] moral intrepidity.”[14] The Diaspora to Dubnow thus does not represent a time in which the Jew is far from his nation, but just the opposite: it represents the formation and crystallization of the Jewish national soul.

Dubnow, however, does not believe that living in the Diaspora should involve assimilation. Dubnow, somewhat similar in fact to Graetz, rejects assimilation as an option for Diaspora Jews,[15] instead supporting a turn inward during the Diaspora: a Jewish self-absorption.[16] Diaspora Jews become self-absorbed; that is, in that they regard “every tradition, every custom […] as a jewel,”[17] in essence establishing for themselves a “spiritual nation,” rooted not in physical, but religious and cultural “soil.”[18] This self-absorption, says Dubnow, is indispensable to the survival of the Jews’ nationhood: for, just as political nations require military protection, so do spiritual nations require spiritual protection.[19]


But Graetz and Dubnow present only theories, not lived experience or even modern-day depictions of their versions of Jewish nationalism. Their claims thus cannot be foolproof. They cannot simply be applied schematically to real-life cases. To be sure, vestiges of both Zionist and Diaspora Nationalist theory show up implicitly in Jewish literary work, particularly that of 20th-century Eastern European author S.Y. Agnon, as well as artists Yehuda Pen and Marc Chagall. But the shortcomings of the theory are evident as well—Zionist and Diaspora Nationalist theory take on distinctly modern and personalized forms in the works of Agnon, Pen, and Chagall.

I’ll begin with Agnon: he depicts modern, abstract renderings of both Zionism and Diaspora Nationalism in his novel A Simple Story, which takes place in Szybusz, Galacia at the turn of the twentieth century.[20] A Simple Story is a peculiar type of love story about two cousins: Hirshl, a middle class, sixteen-year-old boy, and Blume, a recently orphaned daughter of two poor parents. Blume goes to work as a maid in her cousin Hirshl’s home, and Hirshl, despite Blume’s status as low-class, swoons for her. After a brief romance, Blume suddenly leaves Hirshl’s house, which sends Hirshl into a fit of insanity. This lasts until Hirshl is married to a different woman—this time of equal socio-economic footing as him—as part of an arranged marriage. Class, it is clear, becomes an underlying theme of the story.

Though there’s no mention of it in Graetz’s writings, class is a major theme that is intimately connected to Zionism in Agnon’s rendering. Class and Jewish nationalism are explicitly connected early on in the story, when Hirshl joins a local Zionist organization called the Society for Zion. In the story, the Society for Zion is composed exclusively of boys from comfortable, middle class families who gather together to read and play chess. Only sometimes does the society sing “sad songs of longing for Zion,”[21] or discuss matters relating to Zionism. As such, the society attracts many non-Zionists, such as Hirshl,[22] who come, it appears, to enjoy the company of others, or, perhaps, just to be steeped in middle class culture. In this way, Zionism is depicted almost as a front—a code-word, if you will, for if not wealth, then financial comfort. Moreover, Hirshl and his parents’ complete indifference towards Zionism as an ideology[23] shows that it, at least to well-off families in Szybusz, is almost void of its original meaning. Zionism, in some sense, becomes not about what Graetz describes as being rooted to a physical land, but rather, more simplistically, about bringing together upper-class communities.

Nowhere else in the story is Zionism mentioned this explicitly. However, the fundamental concept of Zionism, as well as that of Diaspora Nationalism, are in some sense what underlie the arc of the story. That is, in the novel, the physical rootedness Graetz attributes to Zionism, as well as Dubnow’s concept of spiritual rootedness, are pitted, thematically, against each other. Hirshl represents physical rootedness in that he refuses to leave the comfort of his home to go in pursuit of Blume.[24] In this sense, he is stuck in a household, perhaps representative of a nation, in which everyone is the same, especially as it concerns wealth. And even when Hirshl marries his wife Mina and leaves his home, he remains within the same sphere of well-off Jews.[25] Blume, on the other hand, seems indifferent towards the space she exists in and even the people with which she spends her life. After leaving Hirshl’s house, she goes to work at another home, nearly eliminating all contact with Hirshl and his parents. And, towards the end of the story, when Blume is introduced to a man whom she is expected to marry, she rejects him, thus choosing not to physically root herself in any one household.[26] She is, instead, rooted in her books—a practice she inherited from her father[27]—creating for herself almost a spiritual sense of home, as Dubnow might characterize it.

Agnon’s novel is quite abstract and difficult to decipher, which makes pinpointing the precise representations of Zionism and Diaspora Nationalism somewhat uncertain. But less abstract in his depictions of Jewish nationalism is 20th-century Eastern European painter Yehuda Pen. Pen, who was born into a poor Jewish family,[28] channels Dubnow’s theory of Diaspora Nationalism in his paintings, particularly the idea that Diaspora Jews must embrace their uniquely Jewish culture while existing in non-Jewish societies. However, in a fashion similar to Agnon, Pen imbues his message with the theme of class, which is not explicitly present in Dubnow’s work.

Figure 1

Pen’s paintings are hyper-realistic, heightening the emotional impact and honesty of his depictions of class and nationalism. In this way, he is able to identify with the masses of Diaspora Jewry, particularly those in Eastern Europe who routinely struggled with poverty.[29] A 1914 painting entitled Clockmaker (Figure 1) is one of Pen’s most lifelike renderings of European Diaspora Jewry. In it, Pen depicts a modest clockmaker who has taken a rest in his shop. The clockmaker’s appearance is unkempt, with a long, straggly beard and black, somewhat ragged clothing, indicating that he is certainly not a member of the elite. Surrounding him are various clocks, some finished and some in progress, but, curiously, no explicit signs of the Jewish religion: he wears a hat, not a kippa, and there is no mezuzah or star of David in the shop that might indicate his Judaism. However, the man in the painting has clearly not assimilated, as evidenced by the newspaper in his hands, which is written in Yiddish: the language of European Diaspora Jewry.[30] And what’s more, he is reading the back page of the paper, a spot typically designated for local community gossip.[31] He is thus immersed in his Jewish community, which is precisely the power that Dubnow attributes to Diaspora Nationalism and the spiritual nation: that Diaspora Jews, so far from their historic homeland and disparate across the world, are still strung together by a communal cultural identity. The nuance, of course, is that Pen’s version of Dubnow’s theory creates a spiritual nation inseparable from the consideration of class.

Figure 2

Pen, by foregrounding class in his paintings, indeed made artwork as if he was a spokesperson for all of Diaspora Jewry, conveying themes of home as well, as if to say that he had found his home among the Jewish masses. One of Pen’s paintings, entitled House Where I Was Born (Figure 2), presumably also from the early twentieth century, conveys this message by depicting, quite simplistically, a house. The house, however, is rather decrepit, the wooden panels of the exterior peeling off and the ceiling almost caving in. But the setting is serene, with a blue sky strewn with white and grey clouds in the background. Pen, here, seems to be conveying nostalgia and a sense of pride; he does not harbor disdain towards his life as a low-class Jew, rather he reveres it. This house is, in many ways, a symbol of his spiritual nation within the Diaspora, which he seems proudly to call home.

Beyond just living as a painter, Pen also spent his life teaching and mentoring the next generation of Jewish European artists. Pen’s most famous pupil, and in fact one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century,[32] was Belarus-born Marc Chagall. Chagall, having inherited modernist influences from artists such as Pablo Picasso,[33] packaged Yehuda Pen’s message in a wholly different form, but still channeled Dubnow’s Diaspora Nationalism. And, moreover, whereas Pen tended to depict realistic, almost self-explanatory figures, Chagall painted abstract renderings in order to depict less-concrete symbols and archetypes of Diaspora Jews. The abstract nature of Chagall’s paintings, as well as the common-folk figures and symbols they portray, made it such that any Jew could relate to the content.

Figure 3

The Jewish archetype perhaps most prevalent in Chagall’s paintings is the “Wandering Jew.” “Wandering” in this context has several meanings and connotations, but I will focus here on the idea that it characterizes a search for the Jewish homeland. In Chagall’s 1914 painting Wandering Jew (Figure 3), a black-clad, hunchbacked Jew is venturing away from a village, but it is not clear where he is travelling to. By creating a setting that is simple and ambiguous, Chagall seems to be commenting on what Diaspora Jews wander in search of. They wander in search of home, yes, but perhaps their home remains in the Diaspora; it does not need to be their historical home of Palestine. This theme of “wandering” gives Chagall’s message more intentionality than Pen’s. Indeed, Pen’s paintings seem almost to portray one, particular Diaspora Jewish community—quite possibly his own—making fewer statements on the general mentality of Jews in the Diaspora. Chagall, however, seems to be showing the deliberateness of Diaspora Jews as a collective: they do not remain in the Diaspora because they have no other choice, but instead they choose to wander and choose to settle in the Diaspora. Moreover, Chagall’s method of abstract art allows him to deliver this theme, which seems far more abstract than those Pen portrays, to the largest audience and in a way that resonates on an emotional and theoretical level, as opposed to a practical one.

Figure 4

The Diaspora as a chosen home is a prominent theme in some of Chagall’s more famous paintings, two of which are I and the Village (1911, Figure 4) and The Fiddler (1912, Figure 5). I and the Village is an abstract depiction of home, containing, at the foreground, two large heads facing each other and smiling: one is of a lamb and one is of a human: a depiction of the modest farm-lives of Diaspora Jews. In the background is a town, which, based on the architecture, is presumably a European town (perhaps Chagall’s hometown of Vitebsk, Belarus).[34] The painting, being multi-colored and containing several different figures and buildings, instantly gives off feelings of joy and vibrancy, notions that are less prominent in Pen’s subtler and more neutrally colored paintings. The Fiddler conveys a similar message. The foreground of the painting is of a modestly clad man who is standing on a roof and playing a fiddle. He, appearing giddy and full of joy, towers over the buildings that fill the background, which again seems to depict a European town. In both paintings, the human figure, simple and making no distinctions of class, is the focus, as if to declare that all Diaspora Jews have the agency to choose the Diaspora as their home.

Figure 5

Chagall’s message of individual agency is perhaps most apt to package the intricacies and underlying tensions surrounding the treatment of the Jewish Diaspora. And it is the best message with which to close this paper. For what Jonathan Ray warns against is constructing a monolithic story of individual Diaspora Jewish experiences. And in that same vein, the conversations that I have facilitated between Graetz and Dubnow, and later Agnon, Pen, and Chagall, have, I hope, helped illustrate a confluence of responses to the Diaspora.


No one conceptualization of or response to the millenia-long Jewish Diaspora (or perhaps Jewish Diasporas) is inherently wrong, but nor is one more valid than others. Out of Zionism, Diaspora Nationalism, and the several other Jewish Diaspora ideologies that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there is no right answer. But they all must exist with the acknowledgement that the others can exist with equal validity.

In America I am a Diaspora Jew but have no plans of relocating to Israel. Some American Jews do. But the Diaspora need not have this subtext of intentionality, that one must emerge from the Diaspora. The Diaspora deserves to be recognized rightfully as a transnational Jewish homeland, equal in validity as our historic home in Palestine.


Works Cited

Agnon, Shmuel Yosef. A Simple Story. The Toby Press, 2014.

Clarke, Diana. “Diaspora Nationalism, Yiddish Contradiction: a Conversation with Max Sparber.” In

Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies, 12 Mar. 2017,

Dubnow, Simon. Nationalism and History; Essays on Old and New Judaism. Atheneum, 1970.

Graetz, Heinrich, and Ismar Schorsch. The Structure of Jewish History: and Other Essays. The Jewish

Theolog. Seminary of America, 1975.

Kohn, Jerome, and Ron H. Feldman, editors. “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition.” The Jewish Writings, by Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, 2007, pp. 275-297.

Laor, Dan. “Agnon, Shemu'el Yosef.” YIVO | Poland: Poland from 1795 to 1939,

Sorkin, David, and John Gross. “Graetz and Zionism.” 12 Dec. 2018.

Sorkin, David. “First Draft - Jewish Nationalism.” Received by John Gross, First Draft - Jewish Nationalism, 15 Dec. 2018.

Sorkin, David. “Heinrich Graetz.” Making European Culture Jewish. 25 Sept. 2018, New Haven, William L. Harkness Hall.

Sorkin, David. “Leo Baeck.” Making European Culture Jewish. 25 Oct. 2018, New Haven, William L. Harkness Hall.

Sorkin, David. “Marc Chagall.” Making European Culture Jewish. 15 Nov. 2018, New Haven, William L. Harkness Hall.

Sorkin, David. “Yehuda Pen.” Making European Culture Jewish. 13 Nov. 2018, New Haven, William L. Harkness Hall.

“Zionism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 18 July 2016,

“Zionism.”, A&E Television Networks, 21 Aug. 2018,



1. “Zionism,” Encyclopædia Britannica.

2. Sorkin, “Leo Baeck.”

3. Sorkin, David. “First Draft - Jewish Nationalism.” Received by John Gross, First Draft - Jewish Nationalism, 15 Dec.2018.

4. “Zionism,”

5. Clarke, “Diaspora Nationalism, Yiddish Contradiction.”

6. Sorkin, “Heinrich Graetz.”

7. Graetz, The Structure of Jewish History, 70.

8. Ibid, 71.

9. Ibid, 69.

10. Graetz, The Structure of Jewish History, 69.

11. Sorkin, David, and John Gross. “Graetz and Zionism.” 12 Dec. 2018.

12. Dubnow, Nationalism and History; Essays on Old and New Judaism, cover page.

13. Ibid, 266.

14. Ibid, 269.

15. Dubnow, Nationalism and History; Essays on Old and New Judaism, 289-291.

16. Ibid, 290.

17. Ibid, 289.

18. Ibid, 289.

19. Dubnow, Nationalism and History; Essays on Old and New Judaism, 290.

20. Laor,“Agnon, Shemu'el Yosef.” 

21. Agnon, A Simple Story, 18.

22. Ibid, 18.

23. Ibid, 18.

24. Agnon, A Simple Story.

25. Ibid, 87

26. Ibid, 157

27. Ibid, 20-24.

28. Sorkin, “Yehuda Pen.”

29. Sorkin, “Yehuda Pen.”

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Sorkin, “Marc Chagall.”

33. Ibid.

34. Sorkin, “Marc Chagall.”

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