The word diaspora, as explained on Oxford Dictionaries Online, is most closely associated with the dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel. However, it is also defined as ‘the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland’. To learn more about diasporas around the world, we asked Kevin Kenny, Professor of History at Boston College and author of Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction to share some of his extensive knowledge.
By Kevin Kenny
- Diaspora came into widespread usage in the Jewish case when scholars in Alexandria translated the first five books of the Hebrew Bible into Greek around 250 CE. In this translation, known as the Septuagint, the verb diaspeirein and the noun diasporá described a condition of spiritual anguish accompanying the dispersal of the Jews by an angry God. In the words of Deuteronomy 28:25 (NSRV): “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth.”
- For 2,000 years the term Diaspora — with an upper-case D — was associated almost exclusively with Jewish history. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary cites Deuteronomy 28:25 in support of its primary definition: “the dispersion of Jews among the Gentile nations; all those Jews who lived outside the biblical land of Israel.”
- In the twentieth century, many other globally scattered groups began to use diaspora to describe themselves. Among the first to do so were the Armenians and people of African descent. For the latter, Exodus provided a central theme.
- Babylon is a central symbol in the lexicon of diaspora. After the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE, the Jewish elite was exiled to the city of Babylon. As depicted in Hebrew scripture, Babylon conjures up images of sorrow and despair. Members of the Rastafari movement today, likewise, use the word Babylon to refer to Jamaica and the West – the land of slavery and alienation. Yet Babylon, in both the literal and metaphorical sense, was also the site of immense cultural creativity.
- Since World War II, the idea of diaspora has proliferated to an extraordinary extent. One reason for this development was decolonization, which forged transnational bonds of solidarity among globally scattered populations, notably those of African origin. Decolonization also led to the expulsion and forcible remigration of many groups, especially those of Asian origin (e.g., ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and Vietnam or South Asians in East Africa).
- Another reason for the increased popularity of diaspora is the international recognition of refugees. There have been refugees in history as long as there have been wars, plagues, and famines. But formal recognition by the UN brought new attention to the problem. Today the various UN agencies classify 15 million people as refugees, in addition to another 15 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and 3.5 million stateless persons. In 2000 the UN designated the 20th of June as World Refugee Day.
- The massive scale of contemporary international migration leads some commentators to proclaim an Age of Diaspora. If the 217 million people currently classified as international migrants moved to an unoccupied country, they would make up the fifth largest country on earth. In 2000 the UN designated the 18th of December as International Migrants Day. Yet, as a proportion of the world’s population, the rate of international migration is lower than it was a century ago.
- Almost every diaspora involves the idea of return. Sometimes return is literal and physical, as in the case of the Zionist movement or the relocation of African-origin people from the Americas. More often, the desire to return is heightened by the knowledge of its impossibility; in these cases it can assume potent political, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. The great majority of African-descended people in the Americas, for example, could never hope to move literally to Africa — but this very fact helps explain the efflorescence of Back-to-Africa movements.
- The Gathering is one example of the recent movement by governments around the world to reach out to “their” diasporas, establishing new networks of commerce and culture and tapping into enormous financial and political resources. The Irish government, led by Enda Kenny, launched The Gathering, which per its official website “invites anyone who has a link to Ireland or just a love of the country, to come to Ireland for a series of events throughout 2013.”
- Ireland is by no means alone in this move; many other governments are doing much the same thing. Armenia, China, and India have special divisions and departments dealing with diaspora affairs. The African Union recognizes the African diaspora as its sixth region. Governments are experimenting with dual or flexible citizenship, including economic privileges and voting rights.
Today the term diaspora is used to describe migrants of every kind. But if migration and diaspora are synonyms, why are both words necessary? What does using the word diaspora explain?
Kevin Kenny is Professor of History at Boston College. His principal area of research and teaching is the history of migration and popular protest in the Atlantic world. His books include Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, and The American Irish: A History. He is currently researching various aspects of migration and popular protest in the Atlantic world and laying the groundwork for a long-term project investigating the meaning of immigration in American history.
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Image Credit: The Palmach Archive via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons