Why did the Jews move around so much?

Contrary to the popular conception, it is argued that in the following the Babylonian exile, Jews did not experience expulsions or forced exiles.

Newly arriving Jewish refugees from the Holocaust at Haifa Port, 1948 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Newly arriving Jewish refugees from the Holocaust at Haifa Port, 1948
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Throughout the millennia, Jews moved from country to country – and sometimes from continent to continent – more often than others. Why?
Professor Robert Chazan of New York University, a leading Jewish historian, addresses this question in his book Refugees or Migrants: Pre-Modern Jewish Population Movement. In easily understandable language without academic jargon, Chazan discusses Jewish migrations over the sweep of Jewish history, from the Bible to the 18th century. He concludes that Jews usually emigrated not because they were exiled or expelled and not because they were fleeing from persecution. They were not refugees but migrants, looking for economic opportunities and a better life. He makes the point convincingly (and repeatedly).
In the sixth century BCE, the Babylonians did forcibly exile Jews from Israel. But contrary to the popular conception (more about this later), Chazan argues that in the following 1,800 years, Jews did not experience expulsions or forced exiles. The “Roman exile” after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE is a misnomer. Yes, some Jews were taken as slaves to Rome, the common Roman custom after quelling a rebellion. But the Jewish community in the land of Israel remained the center of world Jewry and this continued for at least two more centuries. Until the expulsions from northern and western European countries (France, England, Spain and Portugal) in the 13th-15th centuries, no other expulsions of Jews took place.
Of course, Jews did suffer discrimination – Chazan does not dispute that. But it did not result in Jews moving from country to country. Even during the cruel persecutions of the Romans in the 1st and 2nd centuries, Jews did not leave the land of Israel in any significant numbers. Later, in the 11th century, even after the Crusaders decimated major Jewish communities of the area now called Germany, the Jews did not leave. The same was true in the Islamic world, where the Jews also experienced persecution at times. Still, “violence or the threat of violence did not play a significant role in Jewish relocations throughout the Islamic world.” Jews were, nevertheless, “a particularly mobile element in society, alert to the advantages of relocation” due to their “desire for betterment.”

Aside from providing a comprehensive summary of Jewish history, Chazan also addresses issues of historiography, i.e. how Jews and others have interpreted and written about Jewish history. Jews often understood Jewish history as one of incessant suffering and wanderings. Based on biblical predictions, these were seen as God’s punishment for breaching His covenant. Christians also believed that God was punishing the Jews, but for them, it was for the crime of rejecting Jesus. In modern times, when historians no longer attributed historical events to divine providence, many gentiles and even some Jews tried to identify a Jewish flaw that could explain their suffering. Some Jewish writers and thinkers claimed antisemitism resulted from an inbred flaw in gentile society, or in some gentile religion(s). The Passover Haggadah describes hatred of Jews as inexorable, in a phrase that has only gained in popularity over the years, “In every generation they rise up to destroy us.”
Chazan rejects the entire premise that interpreting Jewish history means figuring out why Jews suffer. He acknowledges that he follows in the footsteps of Salo Baron (1895-1989), perhaps the leading Jewish historian of the 20th century. Baron opposed historians’ focus on Jewish suffering, calling their approach “the lachrymose [tearful] conception of Jewish historiography,” the tendency to portray Jewish history as a series of disasters instead of focusing on Jewish accomplishments and successes. Following Baron’s lead, Chazan summarizes most of Jewish population movements until the 18th century as part of a good news story. Jews, who for many reasons were more mobile than others, moved to improve their lot; at the same time, they benefited their new host countries. While the book does not cover the last two centuries of Jewish history, Chazan refers to them in his conclusion. He writes that a positive understanding of Jewish history is “happily” making inroads today, as more and more people now understand that Jews “enriched enormously Western life over the ages and especially since their entry into northern Europe – through their Nobel laureates, their Marxes, Freuds and Einsteins, and their overall stimulation of Western economy, technology, political thinking, scientific inquiry, social sensitivity and cultural creativity.”
The central theme of this book – the difference between refugees and migrants – is a crucial question today in Israel and throughout the world. Chazan steers clear of this current affairs debate, mentioning it only in the book’s opening paragraph. But it’s very hard to read Refugees or Migrants detached from the current political debates about appropriate attitudes to people who move or want to move to a new country in order to better themselves. Chazan’s insistence that through most of history Jews migrated in search of a better life ought to inform the attitude of Jews towards many contemporary others who migrate in order to better themselves.
Martin Lockshin was a professor of Jewish studies for over three decades at York University and is an ordained rabbi.
By Robert Chazan
Yale University Press
272 pages; $38