Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
Often translated as dispersion or scattering of a people, diaspora cannot be discussed without contrasting it to terms that appear in its place, namely, the figure of the immigrant, the migrant, the ethnic or religious minority, the postcolonial and increasingly the transnational. They are all figurations of travel and effects of movements across borders, and in this sense, have a profound vantage point on what it means to inscribe and be inscribed by themes common in travel writing, such as displacement and dwelling, longing for an elsewhere and contact with/as an alien. Unlike transnationalism, however, diaspora is a concept more closely tied to movements of human beings, and unlike postcolonial or cultural minority, it is a term that has embedded in it an idea of movement. Robin Cohen (1997, ix), a widely cited scholar on diaspora, points out how diaspora is derived from two Greek words – ‘dia’ which means ‘over’, and ‘speiro’, a verb for ‘to sow’. If translated as ‘dispersion’, embedded in the term is a particular kind of movement – that is, movements defined by their landings in multiple sites, travel experienced as being carried by a trajectory out of one's hands, transitions with velocity and force, which are all metaphors found in diasporic writing as we see below. Specifically, what distinguishes diaspora as a key term in modern discourse is perhaps its link to the intellectual tradition of the Jewish diaspora. It is a tradition and historyof displacement and suffering that goes back to the biblical times of the Jewish exodus from the Holy Land and their dispersal and settlements around the globe.
Prompted by its wide critical usage, scholars have debated how diaspora should be conceptualized. The two main positions are, on one hand, proponents for anchoring the Jewish diaspora as the originary point or the ideal type to be used in developing diaspora as a concept (Cohen 1997; Safran 2004, 2005; Sheffer 2006), and, on the other, proponents for a more generalized framework that positions the Jewish diaspora as one of many (Clifford 1997b; Braziel and Mannur 2003). In support of centring the Jewish diaspora, William Safran (2005, 36) writes, ‘Diaspora [galut] connoted deracination, legal disabilities, oppression, and an often painful adjustment to a hostland.’ Here diaspora is anchored in the experiences of suffering as a point of departure for understanding a people's movement and connection despite their possibly diverse locations of dwelling.