At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews

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Author Meets Critics Book Panel

Alan Wolfe, Boston College (author)
Ben Birnbaum, Boston College
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Kevin Kenny, Boston College
Moderated by Erik Owens, Boston College

Date: November 12, 2014

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Many Jewish thinkers have considered it close to heresy to validate life in the Diaspora. But what if the Diaspora is a blessing in disguise? In At Home in Exile, Alan Wolfe, writing for the first time about his Jewish heritage, makes an impassioned, eloquent and controversial argument that Jews should take pride in their Diasporic tradition. It is true that Jews have experienced more than their fair share of discrimination and destruction in exile, and there can be no doubt that anti-Semitism persists throughout the world. Yet for the first time in history, Wolfe shows, it is possible for Jews to lead vibrant, successful and, above all else, secure lives in states in which they are a minority. Wolfe argues the Diaspora can be good for the Jews no matter where they live, Israel very much included—as well as for the non-Jews with whom they live, Israel once again included. Not only can the Diaspora offer Jews the opportunity to reach a deep appreciation of pluralism and a commitment to fighting prejudice, but in an era of rising inequalities and global instability, the whole world can benefit from Jews’ passion for justice and human dignity. At Home in Exile is an inspiring call for a Judaism that isn’t defensive and insecure but is instead open and inquiring. At this event, Wolfe will be joined by a distinguished panel of scholars who will review and critique this work.

Speaker Bio

Alan Wolfe is the founding director of the Boisi Center and professor of political science at Boston College. He is the author and editor of more than twenty books, including, most recently, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews (2014), Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (2011), The Future of Liberalism (2009), Does American Democracy Still Work? (2006), Return to Greatness (2005), The Transformation of American Religion: How We actually Practice our Faith (2003), Moral Freedom (2001) and One Nation After All (1999). Widely considered one of the nation's most prominent public intellectuals, he is a frequent contributor to the New York TimesWashington Post, and Atlantic, and has delivered lectures across the United States and Europe.

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is special assistant to the president of Boston College, executive director of its Office of Marketing Communications, and editor of Boston College Magazine. His essays have appeared in the AtlanticHarvard Divinity ReviewImageMoment,  Nextbook and the Jewish Review of Books, among other publications, and have been anthologized in Best American EssaysBest Spiritual Writing, and Best Catholic Writing. He is also the recipient of the 2006 Simon Rockower Award from the American Jewish Journalists AssociationHe is the author or editor of several books on Boston College history, including The Heights, an Illustrated History of Boston College, 1863-2013 (2014), and editor of the essay collection Take Heart: Catholic Writers on Hope in Our Time (2007).

Susannah Heschel

Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. Her research focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of biblical scholarship, and the history of anti-Semitism. Her books include Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (1998) and The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (2008). She is also the editor of Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1997) and Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism (1998, with David Biale and Michale Galchinsky). Heschel has served as a Rockefeller fellow at the National Humanities Center, and on the Academic Advisory Committee of the Research Center of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is currently working on a book about Jewish scholarship of Islam, for which she received a Carnegie Foundation Scholar’s Grant in 2009. She earned her B.A. in Religion from Trinity College, her M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School and her Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania.

Kevin Kenny

Kevin Kenny is professor and chair of the History Department at Boston College, where he teaches courses on American immigration and global migration. He is the author of Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (1998), The American Irish: A History (2000) and Peaceable Kingdom Lost (2009). He is also editor of Ireland and the British Empire (2004) and has published articles on immigration in the Journal of American History and the Journal of American Ethnic History. Professor Kenny’s latest book, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (2013), examines the origins, meaning, and utility of a central concept in the study of migration, with particular reference to Jewish, African, Irish and Asian history. He received his B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Edinburgh, and an M.A., M.Phil, and Ph.D. in American History from Columbia University.

Event Photos

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Boisi Center director Alan Wolfe discusses his latest book, "At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews"

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Professor Wolfe addresses questions raised by the panelists.

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Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, responds to Professor Wolfe's book.

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Kevin Kenny, professor of History at BC and chair of the department, discusses the concept of diaspora.

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Ben Birnbaum, editor of "Boston College Magazine," delivers a personal response to Professor Wolfe's book.

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A question from the audience

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Erik Owens, associate director of the Boisi Center, introduces the panel discussion. (Photos by MTS Photography)

Event Recap

On November 12 Alan Wolfe presented his new book At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews, and received feedback from a distinguished panel of respondents. Billed as an “author meets critics” event, Wolfe’s critics for the evening were Ben Birnbaum, editor of the Boston College Magazine; Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College; and Kevin Kenny, professor and chair of the Boston College History Department.

In At Home in Exile, Wolfe argues that there is a bright future for Jewish universalism—a strand of Jewish thought that emphasizes concern for all, in contrast with a particularistic concern for the Jewish people. Jewish life in the Diaspora is vibrant and thriving. The tension between Jewish universalism and particularism is not new but has taken on a new urgency in recent years. With the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel now nearly seventy-five years in the past, Wolfe argues, the Jewish people have reached a moment in their history in which they can once again go beyond the particularism inherent in these events and once more consider their broader obligations to humankind. He suggests that the Jewish people ought to embrace their broad acceptance in Western society and view the Diaspora as a viable and positive site of Jewish existence.

Ben Birnbaum praised the book for being enlightening, well-researched and fair. At the same time, he explained, Wolfe’s argument pitting universalism against particularism ultimately left him cold. Particularism and universalism are, in fact, two sides of the same particularistic coin—universalism maintains the notion that the Jews are the chosen people with an obligation to be a “light unto the nations,” only without God. Birnbaum said he long ago rejected the notion that Jews had some special calling, citing it as onerous. The Jewish people are no more special, with no more obligations, than any other people. All peoples, not only Jews, do best when they live up to their own ideals. He concluded, “I am not in exile, I am not in Diaspora. I am where I was born, and where I want to be.”

Susannah Heschel’s remarks focused on the understanding of exile in Wolfe’s book. Heschel agreed with Wolfe that Jews in America are different than they were even forty years ago, let alone a century and a half ago in Europe: they are more at home with—no longer neurotic about—their Jewish identity. She asked, though: Was it exile they enjoyed, or the benefits of living in a multi-cultural democracy? She also wondered whether Jews in Israel were not still also in exile since, by design, the modern Israeli state was created in a spirit contrary to that of pious Judaism.

Kevin Kenny began his remarks with a careful articulation of Wolfe’s thesis. He then evaluated Wolfe’s book from his perspective as a historian of diaspora. Diaspora involves exile and banishment, but can also entail great flourishing, as in the case of the Jews. In assessing Jewish Diaspora today, assimilation is a factor that needs to be considered; more than half of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States are marrying non-Jews. Kenny noted, moreover, that while Judaism without a state is a concept being celebrated by a minority of Jewish academics around the world, in practice this arrangment brought with it much adversity for the Jewish people. The tragic irony is that the ending of one diaspora (the Jewish) marked the beginning of another (the Palestinian). A diaspora that is to be good for the Palestinians depends on the Jewish universalism that Wolfe advocates.

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Further Reading

Works by Author

Alan Wolfe, "Giving Diaspora Its Due," excerpt of At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the JewsChronicle of Higher Education, September 8, 2014.

Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live our Faith (New York: Free Press, 2003).

Alan Wolfe, “Israel’s Moral Peril,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 25, 2012.

Alan Wolfe, “Free Speech, Israel, and Jewish Illiberalism,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 17, 2006.

Reviews of At Home in Exile

Peter Beinart, "'At Home in Exile' and 'The Pious Ones," New York Times, November 6, 2014.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch, "Innovation Is Key to Jewish Diaspora's Survival," Haaretz, December 7, 2014.

Jane Eisner, "Is Exile Good for the Jews?Forward, November 17, 2014.

Michael S. Roth, "A Shared Blessing for a Far-Flung People," New York Times, October 26, 2014.

Other Related Works

"A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews," Pew Research Center (October 1, 2013).

Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York: New York University Press, 2005).

Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997).

Peter Beinart, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” The New York Review of Books (May 2010).

David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel, eds., Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998).

Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin, “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity,” Critical Inquiry 19 (Summer 1993).

Stéphane Dufoix, La dispersion: Une histoire des usages du mot diaspora (Paris: Editions Amsterdam, 2011).

Laurie Goodstein, "Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews," New York Times, October 1, 2013.

Jordan Chandler Hirsch, “Diaspora Divided,” review of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of ZionismJewish Review of Books (Spring 2012).

Alan Dershowitz, The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century (Boston: Little Brown, 1997).

Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jews, and Other Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).

Marc Gellman, “Joe Lieberman as Rorschach Test,” First Things (December 2000).

Zvi Gitelman, “The Decline of the Diaspora Jewish Nation: Boundaries, Content, and Jewish Identity,” Jewish Social Studies, New Series, 4.2 (Winter 1998).

Dana Evan Kaplan, Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

Kevin Kenny, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Irving Kristol, “Why Religion is Good for the Jews,” Commentary (August 1994).

Dan Lainer-Vos, “Manufacturing national attachments: gift-giving, market exchange and the construction of Irish and Zionist diaspora bonds,” Theor Soc (published online: 16 October 2011).

Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society, 2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013).

Allan Arkush, “All-American, Post-Everything,” review of Shaul Magid’s American Post-JudaismJewish Review of Books (Fall 2013).

Yehuda Mirsky, “Do Israeli and American Jews Need Each Other?” review of Shmuel Rosner’s Shtetl, Bagel, Baseball,

Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, The Jew in the Modern World, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Jacob Neusner, Stranger at Home: “The Holocaust,” Zionism, and American Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

Gabriel Sheffer, Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, edited by Kenneth Hart Green (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997).

David Vital, A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789–1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Jack Wertheimer, “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People,” Commentary (June 2006).

Ruth Wisse, Jews and Power (New York: Schocken, 2007).