The Jewish Literary Salon in Krakow - one of the many complex Jewish projects in contemporary Poland
The Jewish Literary Salon in Krakow, Poland - one of the many complex Jewish projects in contemporary Poland
In Dan Sieradski’s recent web project 31 Days, 31 Ideas, cartoonist and rootsman thinker Eli Valley suggests that the American Jewish community create “Birthright Diaspora.” Awkwardly conceived as a 10-day immersion in a Jewish diasporic site, the manifesto suggests that by creating a program in which Israeli and American Jews visit “global” Jewish communities located far from their own, their Jewish identities will transform into something better. Valley writes:

It’s time to expand our notions of positive Jewish identity and at long last move beyond an ideology that fretfully masquerades self-hatred as Jewish empowerment. By digging through centuries of global Jewish life, Birthright Diaspora will help transform Jewish self-awareness and break the dichotomy of “hero” and “victim” that has handicapped internal Jewish intellectual inquiry for decades. The goal is not merely widespread immersion experiences in global Jewish communities but a renewed understanding of Diaspora as a Birthright that forms the roots of Jewish consciousness. If implemented effectively, Birthright Diaspora can lead to an existential transformation in the way Jews and Israelis view themselves and the world.

It is a heartfelt manifesto, and what it lacks in theoretical precision it regains in passion. For many years now, there has been an emphasis on the next big “program” that will contribute to the strengthening of what we have come to call Jewish Identity and Community. Various ideological camps, including Jewschool, have claimed that by funding the notion of “global Jewish Peoplehood,” Jewish identity and community will bz’h undergo the type of “existential transformation” that Valley describes.
I am confident that longing for this type of existential transformation is a red herring, or even more troubling, a fantasy of our own power. By denying the reality that the Jewish Diaspora has geographically contracted and remained intact, our cultural activists continue to accept a model of a “shackled” community that pivots off a vague notion that, as Valley writes, “in the Jewish world, the interconnectivity often manifests itself through ripples emanating from the perceived center of Jewish life in Jerusalem.”

For those who subscribe to this kind of transnational Jewish identity, Jewishness is something similar to what Homi Bhaba calls “hybrid.” This hybrid Jewishness is in persistent power relationship with its host culture i.e New York, Budapest or Tel Aviv. Jewishness, perpetually renewing its ancient Jerusalemite core, absorbs and remixes other cultures into its own. In other words, if Jews regain a more cosmopolitan understanding of how Jewishness is constructed, they will become more open and accepting to the peoples to which their own culture is indebted. What emerges is Jewish as a kind of hyper-existential way of being, something akin to how scholars conceptualize the African-ness of hip hop culture. I think, however, that Valley is misguided in his claim that the realization of “Birthright Diaspora” would create such an effect. The possibility of a localized, Farm to Table Jewishness is entirely ignored, and it ought not to be.
By positing that Jewishness is mostly freshly reaped on a street level, where local conditions and concerns, rather than ideology, reign supreme , the construction of Jewish victimhood, heroism self-hatred and nationalism can be discussed from local, rather than “diasporic”, perspectives . Rather than spending to create a “Birthright Diaspora,” why isn’t interfaith and intercultural dialogue, foreign language study, public service and artistic creativity explored more experimentally on the local level? Fostering a Jewish youth culture in a city like Chicago or Las Vegas rearranges the grammar of Jewish identity faster than you can explain the term ‘Diaspora’ to a Hebrew school class.
Valley continues:

But it’s time, for the sake of all of us, to change the paradigm. If Birthright Diaspora helps institute new ways of thinking in Israel, maybe it can actually help lead to an end to Israel’s isolation and, who knows, perhaps even a road towards peace between Israel and its neighbors.

It really isn’t a question of paradigms, diaspora, victims, interconnectivity, peace or any of the other catchwords in our current assessments of our Jewishness. Understanding Jewish culture on a local level could change how we assess and approach Jewishness in these times. I’m all for giving youth of every background the ability to search for their roots, to travel the world and to experience kabbalos shabbos in a place like Vilna. After all, the type of transformation that Valley describes is, at its core, an individual one.