Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

The Idea of Diaspora: Its Distinctive Role in Transnational Politics

Homeland and transnational politics represent an interesting subcategory of international relations studies and most certainly represents a central feature within Jewish history.

How We Define Diaspora?

Diaspora is a transnational community that defines itself as a singular ethnic group based upon its shared identity. Diasporas are perceived as transnational political entities, ‘operating on ‘behalf of their entire people’ and capable of acting independently from any individual state (their homeland or their host states).”[1]

The term “diaspora” is taken from the Greek to mean, “to be scattered about”. Today, India may have the world’s largest diaspora with more than 18 million Indians living abroad, mostly in Southeast Asia. Among European nations, Ireland and Portugal, produced significant diasporas, tied in part to the poor economic performance of these countries in earlier time periods, forcing many of its citizens to seek economic opportunities elsewhere.

A typology of diaspora definitions was created in the late 1990’s; examples include the classical (Jewish) diaspora, a labor diaspora, a cultural diaspora (the Caribbean), a victim diaspora, a business diaspora, an imperial (British) diaspora, and a “deterritorialized” diaspora. [2]

In a 2010 study, there is an explanation of how differing generations “hold” their vision of “homeland”. As an example, first generation diaspora communities are more likely to retain a closer connection, even embodying the notion of “return”. Later generations, by contrast, have a more detached connection to the idea of homeland.[3]

There are also specific types of diaspora communities, “trade diasporas” are intentionally created to promote trade and cultural routes. Over time, China and Lebanon have established such intentional communities.  A second form involves “imperial diasporas” such as the ones formed by England and France, during the 18th and 19th centuries designed to maintain and serve the empire.

Ethnic diaspora communities today are seen as core features of the international system.  Diaspora constituencies can mobilize in order to maximize their domestic political influence.

“A diaspora can exert significant pressure in its homeland’s domestic political arena regarding issues of diaspora concern.”[4]

Among the questions that political scientists are interested to know:[5]

  • To what extent do political and other ties matter across national boundaries (Political Transnationalism) and, in turn, how do states manage their relations with members of the national community abroad?
  • In what ways are state–diaspora relations different for authoritarian states than for liberal democracies, and are diasporas democratizers? Why do some states tolerate dual citizenship while others do not?
  • Turning to other facets of relations between countries and their diasporas—in matters of homeland conflicts, do actions of diasporas increase or decrease the likelihood of conflict, and what is their role in post-conflict resolution and development?
  • Ethnic interest groups have influenced foreign policy in both host and home states, and diasporas’ growing role in diplomacy has been reflected in the emerging subfield of diaspora diplomacy.

More recently, such transnational communities can extend their influence on third-party countries as well as international organizations and in the process bypass their homeland or their host nations. Based on historical models, it is rare for the complete diaspora population to return to the homeland. Yet, the emotional and cultural connections tend to remain significant for diaspora constituencies globally.

Key Elements to the Jewish Diaspora Story:

As we now diaspora has and continues to play a critical, even dominant role in Jewish life. In their respective books on Jewish power, Both Ruth Wisse and David Baile address the economic, cultural and political characteristics of the Jewish diaspora experience.[6]  The key elements involve how and why Jews were able to effectively manage their minority status in societies across the globe involved a number of factors:

  1. The historical legitimacy of a community’s claims give credence to its political standing.
  2. Jews living in the diaspora would take on the values and practices of the majority culture, adopting the politics of accommodation as a survival technique.
  3. A community’s access to key social elites contributed to its political clout.
  4. Power must be seen as illusive and changing. At times, access points for minorities are blocked or can be withdrawn. The pressures of operating in new cultures would generate the need on the part of Jews to retool their skills to effectively compete in the marketplace.
  5. The development of these self-governing structures made these communities self-sufficient. A culture of continuity and survival emerged that not only permitted Jews to operate as a minority culture but would prepare them modernity and nation building.
  6. The web of transnational networks of communication and trade represented a critical tool in the developing a network of information and common practices.

Political Scientist, Daniel Elazar, outlined the historical diaspora patterns of Jewish organizing and the political constructs that were constructed to internally govern Jewish communities. He writes:[7]

Not having a functioning territorial state of their own and not even being concentrated in a particular territory, the Jews emphasized the temporal and organized time in the service of Jewish survival and self-expression. Halakhah (literally, the way) emphasizes the organization of time, the rhythm of its passage and the obligations of Jews to sanctify those rhythms.

Elazar in his extensive and significant work examines the various models of the Jewish diaspora experience, citing the critical political themes and practices distinctive to each, while affirming the general characteristics of Jewish political behavior over the centuries.

In contemporary times, when examining the relationship between the State of Israel and its diaspora, we can identify a number of key connecting elements, beginning with how Israelis understand and engage with this historic notion:

Israeli Jews across the religious spectrum strongly support the idea of Israel as a Jewish state and a homeland for Jewish people around the world. Overall, majorities of Jews say Israel was given to the Jewish people by God and that a Jewish state is necessary for the long-term survival of the Jewish people. Nearly unanimously, Jews support their diaspora population’s right to move to Israel and receive citizenship, and most agree that Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel.[8]

Yet, beyond the idea of connectivity between homeland and its transnational communities, there exist a number of challenging issues:

  1. What role ought diaspora communities play in influencing or shaping the homeland political, social and religious culture?
  2. Are there boundary lines for diaspora communities associated with criticizing and participating in homeland policies?
  3. What is the responsibility and role of the homeland state in influencing and/or defending its diaspora communities?
  4. How ought we to understand the idea of dual citizenship, and what place does it have in the diaspora-homeland relationship?

In analyzing this unique, historic, and essential partnership, how will this relationship alter over time as both the homeland and its diaspora partners experience social, political and economic change? If history brings with it any sustaining lessons, then we are likely to see, as we experienced in earlier Jewish statehood iterations,  two competing outcomes, periods of collective engagement and consensus and times of fissures and policy divisions, as such relationships reflect the differing perspectives and priorities of each partner at any given time!

Indeed, various trigger issues can evoke competing responses. Among the many diasporas that exist globally today, these matters are likely to produce tensions and differences with their homeland states. Among these items in this scenario include the role and character of the relationship of religion and state; civil and human rights considerations; foreign policy priorities and directions, especially as it impacts the welfare and status of diaspora communities; and the behaviors and expectations of the state’s political leaders. Such patterns can most certainly be identified in the context of the Israel-diaspora model.

These relationships must be seen as complex, evolving and transformative, both for the homeland state and for its diaspora partners.  No doubt, historic connections, religious values, economic realities, and cultural norms all contribute to and intersect with the nature of these significant partnerships.


I identified four contemporary models of transnational-homeland engagement:

  • Mature and Sustaining: Case Example: Spain and its relationships across Central and South America and India and its global network of communities. A longstanding set of arrangements and relationships where there are clear lines of communication but limited types of connection. Some of these transnational relationships carry with a long and somewhat complex history.
  • Minimal and Challenging: Case Example: The Peoples Republic of China and its diaspora communities. More sporadic and less formalized ties in part due to the nature of the regime in Beijing and the unwillingness of its diaspora to embrace this government. Some of these diaspora settlements date back several hundred years.
  • Dysfunctional and Contentious: Case Example:  Islamic Republic of Iran. A disconnected and rebellious diaspora seeking regime change by supporting homeland opposition groups and employing its network of connections to influence third-party governments and international organizations to oppose the current leadership. Although Iran has had diaspora connections for centuries, the more recently created communities appear to be more hostile to current homeland politics.
  • Evolving and Transformational: Case Example: The State of Israel.  Working through an array of formal and informal connections, Israel seeks to nurture through its network of relationships ties with its various diaspora constituencies (Mexico demonstrates some of these same patterns of connection with its diaspora community within the United States). These associations operate with different points of connection, on one level cultural and financial, others political and religious. These relationships, depending on the specific diaspora community, tend to be uneven, transactional, and at times, contentious.  Unlike the various other models introduced above, in this case scenario, there are significant religious and cultural ideas that frame a mystical and continuous bond among the actors, providing a unique historic overlay in shaping these connections!

The work on diaspora-homeland connections represents a rich and ever-growing field of inquiry. The particular characteristics of the Israel-diaspora relationship most certainly continue to take on new dimensions of study as the State of Israel moves in this its 75th year from its nation-building phase to its more established and recognized status within the international community.


[2] Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction,




[6]  Ruth Wisse, Jews and Power (New York: Schocken, 2007) and David Biale, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, New York: Schoeken, 1987)




About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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