Word of the Day / Shlilat HaGalut

Zionism implored Jews to 'negate' their exile by seeking emancipation in their biblical homeland.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
No other option aside from national self-determination is a viable answer to the millennia-old Jewish Question.Credit: Mulla Eshet

Poor Tevye, his daughter’s wedding ruined by Cossacks, his family evicted from its shtetl and scattered to the winds.

One of the most famous portrayals of Jewish Diaspora life, "Fiddler on the Roof" masterfully captures the uncertainty that plagued Jews in Europe for centuries. Not that Jews in other areas fared better -- the Jews of the Ottoman Empire, for example, lived in a less precarious state, but also faced systematic discrimination, were subject to the whims of sultans and bursts of anti-Jewish attacks, and were forced to pay a minority tax.

Enter Zionism, the self-described savior of global Jewry.

"Shlilat HaGalut" -- literally ‘Negation of the Exile’ -- forms the spine of Zionist ideology, which holds that no other option aside from national self-determination is a viable answer to the millennia-old Jewish Question.

The Jewish people would be saved not through assimilation, better integration or a more secure segregation, but only through return, en masse, to the Land of Israel. Emancipation was only to be found in their biblical homeland.

"Shlilat HaGalut" is unequivocal – life outside of Israel is unsustainable. To be "galuti" (diasporic) is inherently "shlili" (negative). Zionist ideologues and writers cast the Jews of the Diaspora as weak, rootless and compromised, and, in the words of David Ben-Gurion, "galut" equalled “material, political, spiritual, cultural and intellectual dependence – because we are alien, bereft of homeland, rootless and separated from the soil…”

Today, however, the Jews in Los Angeles, Toronto and Sydney arguably live more peaceful lives than their brethren in Sderot and Kiryat Shmona. Israel, while militarily powerful, is also fragile, owing to its size and perilous location. The country now lives under the shadow of rocket attack and its northern and southern borders bubble with Islamist militancy and sectarian violence. And let's not even get into Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons.

All of which has led some to suggest that Israel is one of the most dangerous places for Jews to live.

Despite the worrying resurgence of anti-Semitic violence in Europe and crime and instability in countries like South Africa and Venezuela, the majority of Jews today live in a relative golden age – particularly in North America and the British Commonwealth. Take the fact that three out of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices are Jewish, and five out of the ten richest Australians. Diaspora Jews have reached astronomical heights of influence and affluence, and nowadays "Shlilat HaGalut" seems blindingly passe.

On the flip side, others warn that the horrors of the Holocaust provide evidence for the existential need for a muscular Jewish state: Do not be lulled by your false sense of security – only drones and bombers emblazoned with the Star of David will prevent a second Holocaust. As history has shown, conditions change rapidly, and, without the sanctuary of Israel, Diaspora Jews have no last resort if or when state-sanctioned anti-Semitism surges again. Instead of waiting for the fickle winds of Jew-hatred to blow their way, they’re implored to come home, now.

Interestingly, the acceptable word to use when referring to the Jewish Diaspora in contemporary Israeli education and discourse is no longer "galut" or its sister word "goleh" but rather "tfutza," which translates as distribution or circulation (as in a newspaper run). It’s far more neutral and less judgmental in connotation, and begets the question: Why the watering down? A realization, no doubt, that Israel and the Diaspora enjoy a fruitful symbiosis -- and perhaps so as not to disparage Diaspora donors and activists who provide critical financial and political support for the Jewish state.