An eloquent, controversial argument that says, for the first time in their long history, Jews are free to live in a Jewish state—or lead secure and productive lives outside it
Since the beginnings of Zionism in the twentieth century, many Jewish thinkers have considered it close to heresy to validate life in the Diaspora. Jews in Europe and America faced “a life of pointless struggle and futile suffering, of ambivalence, confusion, and eternal impotence,” as one early Zionist philosopher wrote, echoing a widespread and vehement disdain for Jews living outside Israel. This thinking, in a more understated but still pernicious form, continues to the present: the Holocaust tried to kill all of us, many Jews believe, and only statehood offers safety.
But what if the Diaspora is a blessing in disguise? In At Home in Exile, renowned scholar and public intellectual 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 and often rears its ugly head. 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.
Drawing on centuries of Jewish thinking and writing, from Maimonides to Philip Roth, David Ben Gurion to Hannah Arendt, Wolfe makes a compelling case that life in 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.
Wolfe moves beyond the usual polemical arguments and celebrates a universalistic Judaism that is desperately needed if Israel is to survive. Turning our attention away from the Jewish state, where half of world Jewry lives, toward the pluralistic and vibrant places the other half have made their home, At Home in Exile is an inspiring call for a Judaism that isn’t defensive and insecure but is instead open and inquiring.
Since Theodor Herzl formally organized the Zionist movement at the beginning of the 20th century, Jews have been divided between those who supported Herzl and those in Europe and America who were sympathetic to Israel but refused to consider moving there. When David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, urged American Jews to send their children to Israel, his suggestion met with hostility. This incident is seen as typifying the problematic relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. Wolfe (The Transformation of American Religion) thoroughly explores this issue, citing many known and some obscure authorities. His thoughtful argument gradually and powerfully supports his position that a symbiotic relationship between Israelis and Jews living elsewhere (mostly in the U.S.) is good for both. His attitude is especially cogent and timely as Israel encounters difficulties in academia and among former friends. Wolfe, a distinguished political science professor at Boston College, has written more than 20 books, none of them dealing with Israel. He explains his motivation for embarking on this study in an afterword, which might have been more helpful as an introduction to this fine analysis.