The Diaspora and the Homeland: Political Goals in the Construction of Israeli Narratives to the Diaspora

Shahar Burla. Israel Affairs. Volume 21, Issue 4. 2015.

The works of contemporary scholars of nationalism deal with what is termed the ‘political imagination’ of the nation state. In fact, these scholars employ imagination in order to discuss a process of collective unification and connection that constructs a mutual identity, a practice that can be traced back to the theories on epistemological imagination of Plato, Kant and Hume. Diasporas, like nation states, are based on mutual identity and ‘transnational imagination’. A review of contemporary scholarship of Diaspora studies shows that the distinctiveness of ‘transnational imagination’ lies in its ability to produce transnational mediation—meaning its ability to connect Diaspora communities and the homeland. In order to achieve this goal, transnational imagination employs agents of political imagination that are suitable for unification and connection. The trauma that led to the dispersal and, conversely, the formative events that can be framed as transnational, are among the central imagination agents that are capable of transnational unification. In other words, these events are not only tied to the different Diaspora communities, but are also able to tie different Diaspora communities together and also tie these communities to the homeland.

One of the primary tools used by the elite to influence political imagination is the ‘duplicating’ or ‘copying’ of imagination agents (images, myths, practices) and situations that have successfully altered the political imagination in the past. The elite of the homeland, when turning to its Diasporas, will attempt to employ successful imagination agents for its purposes, in order to turn it into an ‘active Diaspora’, in the same manner it turns inward to its own citizens. Therefore, there are three factors that influence the choice of narrative the homeland presents to its Diaspora: the narrative that is being told about the Diaspora in the homeland; the need to employ an imagination agent suitable for transnational framing, one which has been employed successfully in the past; and the political goal the homeland presents to its Diaspora.

On the basis of these three factors and the changes in attitude of the Jewish Diaspora, particularly the American one, towards Israel, there is a need to examine Israel’s contemporary usage of real or imagined trauma as an agent of political imagination which creates a narrative suitable for its political demands on the Diaspora: on the basis of fear of assimilation and the role Israel plays as an agent of political imagination in the battle against this fear; and on the basis of change in the internal Israeli narrative.

The importance and uniqueness of this study is twofold. For one thing, it addresses a gap in the scholarship that is concerned with the way the homeland in general, and Israel in particular, attempts to influence the identity of its Diaspora. For another thing, it examines the employment of the trauma as an agent of transnational imagination in the context of recent changes in the Diaspora and Israel.

The Relation to the Diaspora and the Negation of the Diaspora

Hobsbawm traces the first systematic use of the modern concept of ‘nation’ to the 1830s, which gave the forerunners of Zionism extensive historical experience to draw on. Trevor-Roper refers to this phenomenon as ‘secondary nationalism’—responding to and learning from Italian and German nationalism.

Armstrong argues that the awakening of nationalism relied on the ethnic identities that preceded it. Therefore, a glorious and rich joint past served as the basis for the awakening of the national spark of Zionism. Indeed, the methods and means employed by the fathers of Zionism to construct national identity and to produce political praxis relied on a shared history which included: the construction of a uniform narrative; terminology; periodization; selection; emphasis and trivialization; interpretation; and even the construction of a uniform ‘National Subject’. The process of selection is highly significant in relation to the choice of imagination agents for the Diaspora. The emphasis on specific imagination agents always comes at the expense of those who do not fit the presented narratives.

The first step a national movement has to make is to define its borders. In the Jewish case, the borders were of an ethnic/religious character. This kind of nationalism, termed ‘Ethno-Religious Diaspora Nationalism’ by Smith, is common to Jews, Armenians and Greeks. The study’s ontological approach argues that knowledge, or at least some elements of it, is socially constructed. However, similar to the Smith approach, this article looks at the balance between ‘ethno-religious–national’ elements of the Jewish Diaspora and its ‘constructed’ or ‘imagined’ elements. In other words, it bases its argument on the reasoning that there is a strong ethno-religious base common to the Jewish Diaspora which provides the elite (both in Israel and in the Diaspora) with material to construct it in a different manner.

Nationalism itself does not lean towards the ‘missionary’—to recruit foreign citizens, once the territorial borders of the state are fixed—but prefers to invest its greater effort in preservation. The Zionist case is different. Since a large number of Jews remain in the Diaspora and share a mutual history with the citizens of their respective states, the Israeli nation state is characterized by the continuation of an ethnically delineated missionary element.

The balance between the Zionist investment in the Diaspora and its investment in Israel shifted once the Jewish community in the Land of Israel became significant again: more and more effort was put into the building up of the developing community in Israel. The political Zionists Herzl and Pinsker did not negate the existence of Jewish diasporas after the establishment of the state; but the Jewish leadership in Israel, headed by David Ben-Gurion, began to develop a discourse that did negate the Diaspora. The ‘negation of the Diaspora’ was, in fact, the flipside of the myth of the ‘new Jew’, the antithesis of the Jew in the Diaspora. The declaration of independence outlined the symbolic (and, to a great extent, legal) relationship between the people of Israel and the State of Israel; and, by proxy, also outlined the relation between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

‘The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here its spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here it attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books’.

These opening lines from Israel’s Declaration of Independence present the land of Israel as the physical and spiritual epicentre of the people of Israel. Following coordination with Jewish leaders in the Diaspora, it was decided not to call Jews explicitly to immigrate to Israel in the declaration, although the declaration does state that it will be open to the immigration of Jews ‘for the Ingathering of the Exiles from all countries of their dispersion’ and that the Jewish people in all diasporas must ‘rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the task of immigration and development and [to] stand by them in the great struggle for the fulfilment of the age-old dream—the redemption of Israel’.

Though the historical changes in the post-World War II Diaspora in general, and the political, cultural and financial successes of US Jewry in particular, have increasingly rendered the ‘negation of the Diaspora’ anachronistic, the concept formed the basis of the original narrative presented by Israel to the Diaspora and the affirmation of the principles of the historical discourse. At its heart stood the historical trauma attending the millenarian dispersal of the Jews in the Diaspora. This trauma, the Jewish exile, ensued in the historical homeland and thus the establishment of Israel constituted a historical redress to this trauma by restoring the Jewish people’s centre of gravity to its original source.

Within the borders of the homeland, in the context of the secular Israeli discourse, the Diaspora was framed as an abnormal form of existence. The main narrative regarding the relation between the Diaspora and the State of Israel depicts Israel as ‘protecting and salvaging’ the helpless Jewish people who remain in the Diaspora. According to the narrative, the Jew could only fulfil himself in his ancestral homeland. Both concretely and metaphorically, the State of Israel assumed the role of the dominant partner in the relationship with its Diaspora.

According to Israeli historian Anita Shapira, the Eichmann trials and the pre-June 1967 war ‘waiting period’ were the turning point for the change of the narrative. This period was characterized by the fear among the Jews in Israel of a recurrence of the Holocaust. The Jews of the Diaspora emerged as a true ally and a potential shelter for the citizens of Israel. This new tendency, of connecting to Judaism, getting to know the Diaspora and shattering the exilic image of Diaspora Jews, has continued until the present. Around the 1980s, this notion, which circulated inside Israel, began to include even a certain idealization of Israelis who live abroad. Some Israeli youngsters began to perceive the possibility of living in the Diaspora as a ‘dream’ or an ‘experience’. Accordingly, Israelis who emigrated and became economically and culturally integrated within Diaspora Jewish communities became role models and ‘cultural heroes’.

Official Israeli Narratives for the Diaspora

Images of, and references to, the Diaspora made by official Israeli authorities (the prime minister, the head of the Jewish Agency, the president of the state) reveal two main contradictory narratives, simultaneously underscoring Israel’s strength and weakness.

The first narrative presents Israel as a firstborn, powerful brother who aims to protect the physical and spiritual existence of the Jewish Diaspora. According to this narrative, the Diaspora is under the threat of a future trauma and Israel, born shortly after the Holocaust, is the solution to this threat: in times of war, as in times of peace, our mission never falters; our efforts never cease; and throughout our work we are prepared and committed to meeting all the needs of Jews both in Israel and around the world. During crisis and calm, emergency and stability, the Jewish Agency mobilizes its global network of partners to afford relief and rescue.

Helping individuals recover from loss and trauma, restoring communities shattered by terror or war, and offering refuge for Jews escaping persecution are an integral part of the Jewish Agency’s activities. Within this framework, immigration to Israel (Aliya) is depicted as a process of social and economic success and the only means by which Jews will be able to find a safe haven and reinforce their identity. In the absence of the ability to carry out Aliya, Jews should donate money so as to secure Israel’s, and their own, future; so that when they need help, Israel will be able to provide it. Depicting immigration as a goal reinforces the privileged status of Israel. Diaspora Jews are depicted as passive, in need of rescuing from the threat. In the words of a Jewish Agency video:

There are places around the world where Jews, who assumed that they could live their lives freely, may need to be rescued. For over 60 years, the Jewish Agency and its partners have kept an unwavering promise to the Jewish people: to bring any Jew, from anywhere in the world, to safety in Israel.

The image of ‘Israel as a rescuer’ places emphasis on actions that have already been carried out elsewhere. This image strengthens the transnational connection between different Diaspora communities, particularly those located in host countries of a different (and poorer) economic and political nature (such as in the developing world). This is how the Jewish Agency’s actions in response to crises affecting the Diaspora Jewry are depicted:

In times of war, as in times of peace, our mission never falters; our efforts never cease. And throughout our work, we are prepared and committed to meeting all the needs of Jews both in Israel and around the world. During crisis and calm, emergency and stability, the Jewish Agency mobilizes its global network of partners to afford relief and rescue.

It is not only the rescue that is to be done by Israel. If they wish to live a full Jewish life, Diaspora Jews must immigrate to Israel. In the words of former Prime Minister Ehud:

The State of Israel has benefited tremendously from the Diaspora’s contribution. Israel has benefited from 3 and one half million olim, bringing the country’s Jewish population to more than 6,000,000. On its 60th anniversary Israel boasts one of the strongest economies in the world […] and Israel remains an oasis of democracy amidst autocratic regimes. Yet at the same time a serious crisis is facing world Jewry. At [a] time when the State of Israel is flourishing, the Jewish People outside Israel meets [sic] unprecedented challenges.

The second narrative presents Israel as fragile. Israel is presented as a country living in the bleak reality of ‘a nation that dwells alone’, under the constant threat of a future trauma. This bleak reality is also attributed to lingering anti-Semitic sentiments that put the existence of the state at risk. As a result, Israel needs financial, political and diplomatic assistance to secure its domestic and international position. In other words, while the first narrative depicts the State of Israel as the solution to the millenarian trauma, the second depicts it as the one that needs saving from a new trauma. In the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

The establishment of Israel and the remarkable return of the Jewish people to their homeland did not end hatred towards the Jews. It merely redirected it. The old hatred against the Jews as a people has been transformed into a new hatred against the Jewish state. In fact, the decades following the Holocaust, during which it was unacceptable to say certain things about Jews, can now be clearly seen as a notable exception, rather than a new norm.

The Holocaust, as an imagination agent, takes a central role in this narrative. The threat of a second Holocaust is hovering over Israel, this time from a nuclear Iran:

We are a tiny country that faces threats not faced by any other nation. There is a nation not far from here that is developing nuclear weapons, atomic bombs, openly calling for our destruction, calling for wiping us off the map. Its terror proxies work every day to advance that goal. These threats have been heightened considerably by an unlikely coalition that has brought together the forces of militant Islam with morally confused fellow travellers in the free world, and both forces work to deny Israel the most elementary rights to defend itself.

The superiority of Israel in relation to the Diaspora is emphasized by the employment of anti-Semitism as an imagination agent in the context of both narratives and by the depiction of Israel as both the leading force in the battle against this millenarian hatred and the answer to the Holocaust. In other words, in the first narrative Israel leads the global battle against anti-Semitism as the ultimate response to the Holocaust, while in the second it is depicted as a victim of anti-Semitism and under threat of a second Holocaust.

The use of anti-Semitism and historical or future traumas as imagination agents echoes the narrative of the ‘separatist Jew’, a narrative that reinforces the dependency between Diaspora Jews and Israel. Israeli academic Danny Ben-Moshe describes the narrative of the ‘separatist Jew’ in the context of the events that followed the Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010:

If anti-Semitism remains perennial and, at least in part, explains the reason for Israel’s haranguing in the international community, all Israel and the Diaspora have is each other and the bond between them will grow. However, so too will a sense of isolation by the Diaspora in their communities and of Israel in the international community as a result of real or imagined anti-Semitism. Israel and the Diaspora are forced under the most unfortunate of realisations to be very much brothers-in-arms.

The motif of the ‘brothers-in-arms’, employed by Ben-Moshe, is implicitly present in the use of anti-Semitism as an imagination agent, as well as in the depiction of Israel as the weak party in need of help in this case. However, the two ‘brothers’ are not depicted as equal. Despite its call for help, Israel is still depicted as the dominant and more important brother who must be protected and supported by the Diaspora, but without exerting any real influence.

Trauma, Relations with the Host Country, and the Political Imagination of the Diaspora

One of the core assumptions of this article, informed mainly by the ideas of Anderson and Hobsbawm, as well as other modern thinkers, is that political imagination is of a constructivist character. In other words, the unifying and constructivist character of political imagination allows it to be employed by the elite as a tool for identity construction. The power of the hermeneutical community to influence imagination creates a strong bond between imagination and modern-instrumental theories of nationality. According to these theories, nationalism is not self-constructed but a product of the socio-cultural process, shaped by the political and intellectual elite in order to motivate individuals and create social cohesiveness. Therefore, these approaches argue that the elite invented—in fact ‘imagined’—nations.

According to the modernist approach to nationalism, it is assumed that the elite has influence over political imagination. However, as we shall see, this influence is not ‘causal’; that is, it is not a direct and clear influence. In fact, the influence of the elite is seriously constrained and can be more accurately described as a ‘potential to influence’. This is due to the instability of political imagination and to the fact that the ability to introduce an imaginary element into the political sphere depends on the intersection of historical circumstances that correspond to existing practices. The action of the elite in this field is dependent upon two conditions: firstly, the elite must be conscious of its power and potential influence over political imagination; secondly, the elite must have political and organizational capacity. The interference of the elites in constructing and directing political imagination transforms the imagination of the community into a goals-oriented imagination—performative imagination.

The main purpose of the elite is to coordinate the imagination agents and the desired political goal. In other words, there is a relationship, intuitive or deliberate, between the chosen goal and the imagination agents. The elite tends to re-employ links that have successfully effected political imagination in the past. Thus, there is an attempt to reconstruct events, tactics and imagination agents that successfully penetrated political discourse in the past. The primary agents of political-performative imagination are: images, practices, ceremonies, historical memory, myths and so on. These practices have a special place within the process of performative imagination as they fulfil a unifying, recruiting function. Sometimes their mere existence serves as a political goal in itself (encouraging donation to the homeland or to the Diasporas, for example). As a historical review of Diaspora studies shows, trauma has shaped the Diaspora more than any other factor, both in the past and in the present.

Until the 1980s, scholarship on the concept of Diaspora mostly focused on the Jewish context. In the last three decades, however, sociological scholarship on the Diaspora has increased and the boundaries of the discourse have shifted significantly. From a discourse that frames the Diaspora as a unique case characterizing the Jews, in contrast to ‘natives’ or ‘immigrants’, many scholars have discovered the appeal and possibilities of employing the concept in relation to the status of many and diverse groups of immigrants.

In the second edition of his book Global Diasporas, Robin Cohen divided Diaspora studies into four stages: the first was defined according to the main idea of the dispersal of a nation in two places or more, following a traumatic event, while preserving the ties with the homeland. The traumatic historical circumstances of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, leading to the exile of the Jews from the Land of Israel, serve as the basis for the centrality of trauma in the articulation of the diasporic experience. The formation of the Diaspora (the exile) was perceived by the Jews as the result of trauma, creating a feeling of victimhood in the face of a pitiless oppressor. On the basis of dispersal and trauma, discussions of the Greek Diaspora were added to the scholarship later on. In the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of Diaspora became more inclusive and began to include the African, Armenian and Irish Diasporas. The dispersal from the homeland was rooted in trauma for these Diasporas as well. Discussion about the Palestinians as a group that scattered following the establishment of Israel and the formation of the ‘refugee problem’ following the Israeli War of Independence were added later on and aroused controversy. The specific traumas that led to the formation of each Diaspora shape its characteristics in distinct ways, both in its own eyes and in the eyes of others. The centrality of the sentiment of victimhood had put down roots in the tradition and culture of these groups and was linked with the yearning to return to the historical homeland. This yearning is perceived as the goal and central axis in the shaping of a culture. During the second and third phases of Diaspora studies, the use of the concept of ‘Diaspora’ extends to refer to groups that did not necessarily experience the trauma of exile from the homeland, such as groups of immigrants, ethnic groups and marginalized groups. Some of these groups received the term ‘Diaspora’ reluctantly, from the outside environment or the academy; and some adopted the term themselves.

William Safran’s article in the first issue of the journal Diaspora is considered the starting point for the commencement of the second phase. Safran continues to treat the Jewish case as the starting point for Diaspora studies, but claims that other groups can be considered Diasporas as well. He includes groups that were not traumatized by leaving the homeland; or experienced relatively light trauma, emigrating in small numbers while retaining the possibility of returning to the homeland. He argues that these groups experienced emigration-related difficulties as well. Thus, one can include the emigration of Japanese, Indians and Chinese as examples of Diaspora communities that have been created through work emigration, with less severe characteristics of trauma.

The third phase was characterized by the attempt to deconstruct and recreate the core concepts of homeland, homeland, native land, ethnic/religious community and trauma. For instance, the concept of ‘origins’ was replaced by a virtual concept of ‘true belonging’. A more flexible and fluid interpretation of these concepts enables their application to groups whose common denominator is gender, class or ideology. This concept thus became attractive for post-colonial thinkers, who continued to treat trauma as a central element in the experience of Diaspora. The element of trauma continued to play a central role in the construction of Diaspora identity, but was not necessarily related to, or occurring in, an actual homeland. Cohen remarks that this phase in the shaping of the concept was done by researchers who could not express their agenda in the context of the earlier stages of the conceptual framework. The approach of the third phase aroused much criticism, central among which was the claim that the concept has been ripped out of its context. If the category of Diaspora applies to everything, then all context and analytic value is lost. The concept is not intended as a tool for all agendas and cannot be a solution to all problems.

Cohen argues that the core of the fourth and present phase is an attempt to combine the constructivist and post-modernist approach that characterizes the second and third phases with the more traditional characteristics of the Diaspora. Tölölyan for instance, argues that a connection to a certain territory is necessary when employing the concept. Brubaker cites the conditions of the dispersal (whether traumatic or voluntary), the orientation to the homeland (real or fabricated) and the preservation of the boundaries of the Diaspora as crucial elements at the heart of the concept. Cohen refers to an updated work, while Safran employs a more flexible interpretation of the relations between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. In his view, when life in the Diaspora becomes more secure and comfortable, the need to identify with the homeland diminishes. This was the case, he continues, in the relations between American Jews and the state of Israel. The flexible concepts of ‘a found home’ in the host country and ‘a virtual home’ in the homeland took the place of the concept of homeland/homeland. In the case of the Jews, the shift in concept manifests itself in the desire to return to the homeland being replaced by tourist visits to Israel and participation in summer camps. Consequently, the potential for a sense of connectedness to cultural elements of the host country, which are not necessarily connected to cultural elements of the homeland, is produced. Cohen cites the importance of trauma in the fourth stage as producing and maintaining tension with the host country. This tension, according to Cohen, has a positive effect on creativity.

The work of Martin Sökefeld refers to ‘Mobilizing Diasporas’. According to this concept, a Diaspora may be formed even when there is a disconnection between its formative trauma and the reason and timing of the group’s migration from its native land. Sökefeld examines the processes through which a group undergoes mobilization and is turned into a Diaspora. He employs theories of social movements. Social movements bear a lot of resemblance, despite significant differences, to Diasporas. For instance, research on social movements examines forms of collective action that challenge existing forms of social and political structures by raising new demands and finding new ways of action. Sökefeld refers to Diasporas that were not considered to be such in the past; they developed into Diasporas only after a distinct formative event. For example, the Kashmiri Diaspora in Britain was not identified as a Diaspora and was not characterized by a distinct self-identification as a Kashmiri community. Security problems in Kashmir, on the Hindu–Pakistan border, facilitated the creation of a distinct Kashmiri identity which was followed by the creation of the Kashmiri Diaspora. The importance of a formative event may be identified also in relation to existing Diasporas, or to ‘classical’ diasporas that scattered following a trauma. For instance, the identity of the Jewish Diaspora, as we will see later, is influenced by the Holocaust and demonstrates links between the historical trauma that led to the formation of the Diaspora as well as to a subsequent trauma that shaped it.

The imagination of the Diaspora is distinct from other forms of community imagination through its link with transnational communities. In other words, individuals may maintain a relationship with relatives who live in other countries, but they will not comprise a Diaspora without an imagination that transforms them into a community. On the other hand, defining a Diaspora as a transnational imaginary community does not presuppose the existence of transnational social ties. The transnational relationship to the community may be completely imaginary and symbolic.

A formative event is not sufficient for the creation of a community; these events are only significant as long as they are perceived or framed as formative. In order to frame the event effectively to allow mobilization, there is a need for ‘agents of the diasporic imagination’. These are collective agents that relate to all members of the Diaspora and create a new discourse, on the basis of negotiations with the different groups of the Diaspora.

As the review of the third-wave thinkers makes clear, a common assumption in Diaspora studies is that the use of fixed models should be avoided. At the same time, not every group that perceives itself as a Diaspora does indeed constitute one.

On the basis of the above review, trauma appears to be a central element in defining the identity of the Diaspora. Two characteristics enable trauma to become a central element in the group definition: first, the historical circumstances of the development of the ‘classical’ Diaspora (Jewish, Armenian, Irish, African) and, second, the ability to frame the trauma as transnational—meaning that it is as significant to the different Diaspora communities as it is to the homeland.

Another significant point is the understanding that the ability of framing according to circumstances enables the building of a ‘new trauma’ on the foundation of the original trauma. The Holocaust and the foundation of the state of Israel were new circumstances that allowed the Israeli elite to attempt to construct the relations between the Diaspora and the homeland according to their goals.

Israel’s Political Goals in Relations to the Diaspora

As evident from the above review, agents of the collective imagination in the Diaspora will be shaped on the basis of the transnational relationship, trauma, differing borders of the Diaspora and the rest of its distinctive characteristics. During the phase of interpreting and choosing the imagination agents, the elite attempts to influence the process of creating the agents in order to adjust them to its goals as much as possible. Its primary goal is to adjust the event, the imagination agents and the desired political goal. Thus, there is a relationship, intuitive or deliberate, between the chosen goal for the imagination agents and the event. The imagination depends on the formation of clear boundaries for the group it is directed toward: geographical borders, language border, ethnic origins, etc. These borders create groups that have a shared common denominator. In turn, imagination agents operate within and on the basis of these borders. Without these borders, the task of uniting and connecting is impossible. The success of the introduction of agents into the community changes the borders of imagination itself, and will, later, produce a need to change the agents themselves.

The Israel–Diaspora relationship, the traditional political goals of Israel in the Diaspora, as shaped during the period of ‘the construction of the nation’, includes Aliya (immigration), donation (financial aid), information and political pressure on host countries (in diplomatic jargon, the Diaspora is seen as a ‘power multiplier’). These traditional goals are based on laws, acts, different governmental decisions, declarations of prime ministers and presidents, history and the activity of official organizations that operate in the field. The process of choosing goals that will be directed by the homeland to its Diaspora is a political process that does not easily change.

Trauma as a Political Imagination Agent for the Jewish Diaspora

The fact that, in the context of the present discussion, trauma is treated as an ‘agent of political imagination’ does not mean that it is not ‘real’. The connection between historical and future trauma and the status of Israel may well exist, but the present discussion will not address this issue. Regardless of this issue, the connection between the status of Israel and trauma is real, primarily because it is imagined as real. The use of the concept of imagination in the traumatic context is, first and foremost, related to the capacity of a trauma to function as an agent that can connect individuals within a specific community and between several communities that have not experienced (in the vast majority of cases) manifestations of that trauma.

In the discussion below I will present a model that exemplifies the way in which trauma plays its part as an agent of political imagination aimed at motivating activity in the Diaspora. At the centre of the model is the role of the agent, enhancing the relationship between Diasporas and the homeland, not only through the constructed narrative but also through its relation to the trauma and the anticipated political goal. This is how a narrative is created that includes a trauma, has a transnational element (meaning the unification of the three angles of the triangle) and includes the political goal.

Trauma links the communities of the Diaspora that have experienced or will experience its manifestations; it links members of the community that might experience its manifestations and it links Israel, through the threat of trauma, with members of the community. The trauma also links Israel and the Diaspora because, when the time comes, Israel will aid both the individual and the community should they be in danger of another trauma.

The assumption that specific traumatic emotions connect with specific outcomes (including in the Jewish case) have been empirically examined in a study by Whol, Branscombe and Reysen, who claim that the Jewish people ‘expressed a greater desire to behave in ways that would strengthen the in-group the more [an] extinction threat was salient’. They found that when Jews were reminded of the Holocaust it resulted in an increased desire to engage in in-group strengthening behaviour. As a conclusion they suggest that the threat of extinction ‘triggers collective angst, which should in turn promote in-group strengthening behaviours’ and that groups that have experienced the possibility of extinction are likely to feel anxious about the future or, specifically, a future trauma.

In the context of the models describing the two different narratives, either financial donation or immigration is the anticipated political goal. The trauma, as an imagination agent appearing in both narratives, corresponds to the political goals. In the first model, the trauma stands at the heart of a narrative depicting Israel as ‘protective and salvaging’. Israel’s role, among others, is to rescue the Jewry of the world from expressions of anti-Semitism. This ability is linked to the fact that Israel was established as a ‘response to the Holocaust’. The Holocaust, in this case, serves as the central trauma that shaped the Diaspora as it is known today. In the context of the narrative, the trauma is framed as an event that can jeopardize the entire Jewry of the world. This is an event that can unite different Jewish communities, members of each community, and the communities and Israel; this unification, of the three angles of the triangle, is the essence of transnational imagination.

The political goal that the homeland presents to the Diaspora directly relates to the imagination agent; thus, investing in Israel’s prosperity becomes the logical response of the Diaspora, like an insurance certificate against the anti-Semitic threat. The image of the insurance policy is an explicit and recurring one. In the words of Salai Meridor, one-time head of the Jewish Agency: ‘When a Jewish boy or a girl immigrates [o’lim] to Israel today, they buy, or we buy ourselves or them, an insurance certificate for their Jewish future’. The insurance certificate and investment in Israel, perceived as acquiring insurance, also correspond directly with the Holocaust; they serve as a guarantee that a second Holocaust (trauma) will not take place. The image of the ‘insurance certificate’ demonstrates the link between the trauma and the goals: in order to insure yourself and Israel against another trauma, you need to donate money or make Aliya.

In the context of the second model, trauma, as an agent of the political imagination, sits at the centre of a narrative depicting Israel in a state of danger. The Jewish state is presented as weak and as suffering the most from anti-Semitism, which has changed its character from individual to collective hatred and is now directed primarily at the Jewish state which puts it in a danger of future peril, first and foremost an Iranian-originated nuclear catastrophe.

In short, the choice of trauma as an imagination agent is related to the capacity of the trauma to strengthen the transnational bond between the Diaspora community, the homeland, sister-Diaspora communities and the anticipated political goal. The trauma connects Diaspora communities that have experienced and/or might experience a traumatic event; connects the members of each community that experience its manifestations; and links Israel, whose current public reputation is the result of that trauma, to the members of the communities. The trauma also connects Israel to the Diaspora by virtue of the fact that, in time of need, Israel will aid both the community and the individual in the event that either of them suffers expressions of anti-Semitism or face a future traumatic event. Thus, a situation is created where the strength of the trauma as an agent capable of performing transnational framing is employed by the elite of the homeland in the pursuance of desired political goals.

One may go even further and argue that the desired political goal of the Diaspora is in itself a product of the elite’s attempt to unite the homeland and its Diasporas by presenting mutual expectations in a similar manner to the operation of sympathetic imagination developed by David Hume: in other words, the ability of imagination to penetrate the views and sensations of the other, or to function as a mirror to the other, and, through this, connect the individual to the public interest. Reference to the chosen goal as a common expectation facilitates the understanding of the goal as part of a specific narrative.


The historical and the future imagined trauma as agents of the political imagination, employed by Israel towards the homeland and described in the models, correspond to the political goals presented by Israel to the Diaspora, as well as to the more prominent characteristics that construct the transnational relation among Diasporas and between the Diasporas and the homeland.

In other words, Israel, the homeland, presents goals that are inherent in the Diaspora’s character, such as fundraising or encouraging the movement back to the homeland, and employs characteristics inherently connected to the character of the Diaspora, such as trauma. The influence of the goals over the imagination agents and the influence of the characteristics of the Diaspora over the imagination agents directed at the Diaspora, construct narratives of a certain kind. These narratives are limited in their ability to reach individuals outside the closed community they are directed toward, whether those persons are part of the ethnic group or not. The reason for that is the exclusion of other imagination agents that are related to the relationship between the homeland and its Diaspora. Put differently, imagination agents that do not fit the goal will not enter the discourse, even if they fit other goals and even if their employment might contribute to an expansion of the limits of imagination. Exclusion occurs in the process of selecting descriptions of the Diaspora’s history: some issues never arise, such as the positive elements of the tension between the Diaspora and the host country; the condition of Holocaust survivors in Israel; questions related to Jewish identity; the inequality of the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. The employment of imagination that appears in the model strengthens the ties of imagination of the ‘triangular relationship’ and, at the same time, restricts its scope. Some of the excluded agents could be just as appropriate to describe the status of Israel–Diaspora relations. Other factors, such as the Diaspora itself, the Israeli academy and non-governmental organizations, compete with governmental authorities and introduce those elements into the discourse.

On some levels, Israel understands that the continued usage of the two conflicting narratives described and the demand for immigration and fundraising are indeed inadequate for the current relationship between Israel and its Diaspora and for the challenges the Diaspora faces. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed these issues in a June 2008 address to the board of directors of the Jewish Agency:

With new realities, comes the need for a new paradigm! The old paradigm of the Diaspora as benefactor and Israel as beneficiary may no longer continue. For the past sixty years, Israel has been the project of the Jewish People. For the next sixty years, the Jewish People will need to be the joint project of Israel and Jewish communities around the world. Jews in Israel and around the world must be united not only in memorializing the past, but in preserving the future.

Tzipi Livni, one-time foreign minister, likewise mentioned the need for a reassessment of the narratives and the political goals:

Like any good family, the Jewish people have shown time and again how we can unite in times of crisis. When Israel faced its enemies on the battlefield or when Jewish communities abroad have been threatened, we have come together and recognized our collective responsibility for one another. But if this alone is the nature of the ties that bind us, it constitutes a failure of vision and of leadership. To define ourselves only by the threats we face is to allow our adversaries to define us. It is a definition founded in fear. This may be a mechanism for Jewish survival but it is not a prescription for vibrant and meaningful Jewish living.

However examination of the speeches of Prime Minister Netanyahu to Diaspora leaders reveals continued focus on the fear of anti-Semitism and a second holocaust, this time from the side of nuclear Iran.

The main conclusion of the above analysis is that a dissonance prevails among decision-makers and officials in charge of the Israel–Diaspora relationship. This dissonance stems from the persistence of demands for old goals in light of the desire to update the narratives. In actuality, as we have seen, Israel has not renounced its previous goals, including financial donation, immigration and information. The result of the dissonance, meaning the desire to change existing narratives on the one hand, and a lack of ability to get rid of old goals on the other, in addition to the demands of the Diaspora for financial transparency, lead to a phenomenon of particularization of goals. Particularization of goals refers to the emphasis on a specific goal, such as when authorities ask for a financial donation; for example, the desired goal is not presented as ‘a donation to Israel’, stemming from a need that is related to the bog narrative, but is, instead, presented as philanthropy for a specific goal in Israel.

The specified goals shape one main narrative that includes two complementary elements: the first is a mostly positive narrative that blurs or ignores complexities and problems. For example, the ‘security situation’, political and governmental problems, far-reaching social problems and even ‘peace’ do not assume a prominent place in the narrative presented. A second characteristic relates to the fact that the specific narratives focus more on the personal and community dimension, at the expense of the national dimension. This focus relates to the Diaspora’s conduct as well as to the conduct of the homeland. The two elements complement each other, since the focus on the personal and the community facilitates the blurring of national problems; and the blurring of national problems facilitates the presentation of the positive elements of the personal dimension.

This privatization of goals fits another characteristic of the Diaspora—the dimension of personal decision, as mentioned by Sheffer. However, as it bypasses the issue of the ‘grand narrative’ it lacks the motivating force of a powerful imagination agent such as ‘anti-Semitism’, which is capable of creating a transnational connection. Also, the privatization of goals does not provide an answer to the central issues that occupy the Diaspora, which are primarily identity problems.

The ‘spiritual centre’ envisioned by Ehad Haam was free of material demands, on the personal as well as the community level. According to him, the spiritual centre holds the potential for true and broad unification between the homeland and its Diaspora, thereby creating the transnational imagination needed by the Diaspora. The relationship between the spiritual centre and the rest of the Jewish communities was intended to be based on what can be termed ‘positive and spiritual imagination agents’, in contrast to a traumatic experience—meaning the construction of a society that will set a social and moral example. It may be, and this is an issue for further research, that it is precisely the imagination agents of a positive and spiritual character envisioned by Ehad Haam that would be more suitable to serve as the basis of the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora in the context of political imagination, especially at the present time.