October 20th, 2005

Eric Hobsbawm on the Benefits of Diaspora

The famous English historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote an essay entitled "Benefits of Diaspora" in today's issue of the London Review of Books. Despite a pleasing prose style, I found it longish, a bit rambly, and cast in too loose a form for the sort of claims it makes.

Interestingly, in his closing paragraphs, having ostensibly prepared us for his conclusions, he concludes that the state of integrated diaspora is the best there can be, and rejects both its alternatives -- ultra-orthodoxy self-segregation (thinking mostly of the US, I imagine), and the nationalist solution embodied by the State of Israel.

He neglects to address the issues that are considered key by the proponents of both alternatives -- assimilation and conversion for the orthodox, and loss of sovereignty and the power of self-defense for the nationalists. To me, that's quite disappointing, coming from such a distinguished historian; I'd have expected him, even in a non-academic essay, to at least acknowledge, if not address, the concerns of the approaches he rejects.

He also does not mention the fate of the revived Hebrew language, existing and thriving in and thanks to the native Hebrew speakers in the State of Israel. In this increasingly anglophonic world, Hebrew culture without a continued State of Israel would be doomed, and would necessarily revert to being cultivated solely as a hobby of disparate handfuls of learned Jews in the diaspora, as it had been in 19th-century Europe. Hobsbawm himself is not a member of the Hebrew culture, so naturally it does not concern him very urgently, but, again, the man's scope certainly made me expect some attention to this matter, as he extols the virtues of diasporic existence.
  • Current Mood