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

At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews - Alan Wolfe It's easy to have knee-jerk reactions to pieces of Wolfe's book, including, I have to say, the condescending-sounding sub-title, but I deeply enjoyed reading the arguments he presented in this book. On the face of it, or, rather, on the back of the book, this is simply a defense of Jews who choose to live outside Israel. While it has been suggested by others (as Wolfe documents well) that it is not possible to live a wholly Jewish life outside Israel, Wolfe believes that defining a wholly Jewish life is not so simple and can be achieved anywhere in the world. He's not anti-Israel, he just thinks it's okay for Jews to live anywhere they please.

Okay, I gotta say that this argument sounds characteristic of a milquetoast (and that may be the first time I've every actually written that word...), even if he documents every statement from the last 100 years from folks who say otherwise. But I had started this book hoping that it would actually include something much richer, and I was rewarded. There's great depth to his argument.

I'll just go ahead and say here that I'm not Jewish. But I'm fascinated with questions of identity, and the Jews, precisely because they have been living in exile for so long, have struggled with questions related to identity more thoroughly than any other people. I know I'm not alone in being deeply interested in Jewish arguments about identity because they provide important insight for all of us. [If nothing else, I present as proof the publication this year of [book:To Rise Again at a Decent Hour|18453074].]

The most important argument in the book was the dichotomy he drew between universalism and particularism. That is, the duty of Jews living their faith to fight injustice and oppression on behalf of all the peoples of the world (personified best, but not exclusively, by the Jews in the diaspora), and the duty to ensure their own survival (personified by Zionists). This isn't just about where Jews live, it's about their values and passions. Wolfe summarizes the central question of the book as "whether a concern only with themselves or with the needs of all is the best way to carry Jewish traditions into the future."

There are all kinds of complicated questions wrapped up in this that I really relish. And there are a couple of arguments that the author clearly wanted to make about how the debate is carried out, which were not questions I would come up with but were clearly important. He's disgusted by the equivalence drawn by some between the Holocaust and assimilation (saying that modern assimilation in the diaspora will accomplish the elimination of Jewish culture), and he wants to be able to criticize Israel without being called anti-Semitic. I gotta say I was with him on these two side issues -- his points seemed reasonable to me. But again, I'm really an observer here more than a participant.

The author does a great job of breaking down the big questions and presenting the arguments of Jewish scholars from many different viewpoints, while always making his own bias clear. It's a rather academic debate (I mean that in a good way), so it's not exactly chatty, but it's well written. I feel much more informed on the status of this debate, and it gave me a lot to discuss with others. It's not what I would call an easy read, but a very rewarding one.

I got this from the Goodreads giveaway program.