In 2004-2005, American Jewry will celebrate the three-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of its founding. Attention will focus in multiple directions: the majority American ambiance and its stances toward Jewish immigrants; the diverse ways in which Jews have adapted to America; the creative directions Jewish life has taken in America; and the problematics of Jewish existence in an open society. The issue that I would like to focus upon briefly takes us back to the Old World and involves the willingness, indeed the desire, of Jews to relocate in the New World in 1654, the ongoing migration of Jews to America thereafter, and the incessant Jewish movement within America as new frontiers have recurrently opened.
The early and continuing migration of Jews westward should hardly be taken for granted. To be sure, a Jewish propensity for migration has regularly been assumed, out of a sense that Jews have been forever a wandering group, a people whose history comprises a seemingly endless series of displacements. Such a sense of the Jewish past, however, is largely rooted in theology. A close look at the realities of Jewish migration suggests that, for long periods of time, Jewish population patterns were in fact quite stable. Indeed, we can identify a critical turning point at which Jews broke out of the prior limits of their settlement, began moving to new areas, and rooted themselves in large numbers in western Christendom. This turning point and its implications should be properly acknowledged as critical to the subsequent movement of Jews westward into the exciting and challenging New World.
Jews and Christians have long been in theological agreement on the dispersion of the Jews, purportedly throughout the world. They have further agreed that this dispersion, seen by both faith communities as exile from the Promised Land, resulted from Jewish sin. The two communities have disagreed, however, on the duration of this dispersion. For Jews, it was to be temporary, culminating in Jewish redemption; for Christians, it was to be permanent, ending only with full Christian redemption, signaled inter alia by Jews completely abandoning the Jewish faith.
Christians have, over the ages, perceived this dispersion/exile exclusively in negative terms. While Jews have by and large concurred with this negative assessment, it has been possible at points of crisis for Jews to view the same phenomenon positively. For example, the Iberian-Jewish historian Abraham ibn Daud, bemoaning the demise of his beloved Andalusian Jewry, took comfort in the fact that God had spread his people throughout the world, thus establishing a broad network of safe havens for endangered Jews and Jewish learning. (1) Faced with the threat of ecclesiastical censure of the Talmud in 1240, Rabbi Yehiel of Paris purportedly told his Christian auditors that they had in fact only limited power over the Talmud. God had taken the precaution of dispersing the Jewish people and their centers of study throughout the world. While the Talmud might be condemned and destroyed in northern France, Jewish life was sufficiently diffused so that the Jewish tradition and heritage would surely survive. (2)
With the advent of modern historiography, it has been possible to view the dispersion of the Jews in more mundane and at the same time more realistic terms. Jews have clearly been a highly mobile people, from early in their history onward. The Bible itself projects an image of the people of Israel as a mobile people, with the patriarchs leaving Mesopotamia for Canaan and the Israelites coalescing as a potent and divinely-led people in Egypt. While the biblical narrative focuses on the centrality of the Promised Land to Israelite history and vision, it does not obscure the reality of defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, with exile of the northern tribes into Mesopotamia, or defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, with exile of the Judeans once again into Mesopotamia. The later strata of the biblical corpus treat at some length the experiences of Jews living outside the Land of Israel under Persian domination. The permission granted by Cyrus to return and rebuild Jerusalem did not result in the disintegration of the new centers outside the Land of Israel; indeed, a number of Jews rose to positions of power and influence in their diaspora locales.
Subsequent to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, permanent centers of Jewish population existed in Mesopotamia and throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin. The Mesopotamian center was destined for very long...