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GLOBALIZING COMMUNITY: Jews in Space

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GLOBALIZING COMMUNITY: Jews in Space
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  SOCIAL ANALYSISIssue 45 1) April 2001 GLOBALIZING COMMUNITY: Jews in Space John Goldlust The Intemet mainly makes it easier for us  to  do some things we are already doing,and allows those with the resources to do some things they already wanted to do.(Calhoun 1998: 382)The past decade has witnessed both the increasing omnipresence of the personal computerin almost every area of public and private life, together with the promotion of the perceivedadvantages of getting connected to the Intemet and partaking of the riches availablethrough the word-wide web. In recent years, this has resulted in an exponential growth inthe number of individuals throughout the world who are. potentially at least, capable ofundertaking electronically mediated communication with each other. Both the promiseand the empirical realities accompanying this phenomenon have, not surprisingly, unleashedconsiderable speculation and debate. In much of this public and intellectual discourse, threesociologically pertinent foci continue to be ubiquitously present: what are (and what mightbe) the implications of these new forms of CMC on contemporary manifestations of community , identity and democracy ?As will be discussed at greater length below, Jews certainly represent one group withinmodem society that, in considerable numbers, appear to have enthusiastically and warmlyembraced this new form of communication technology. This paper represents a case-studyof the proliferating presence of Jews in cyberspace that seeks to place this trend into abroader historical and sociological context. In doing so I will propose some tentativeinterpretations on the widespread appeal of CMC for many areas of contemporary Jewishlife, with particular reference to current conceptualizations of Jewish community andJewish identity . Such an overview of the plethora of Jewish Intemet sites also invitessome tangential considerations as to whether, as some observers have proposed, this newcommunication technology facilitates the bypassing of established power structures andconversely encourages more widespread grass-roots , democratic participation in societaldecision-making. The Idea of Community — TradiUonal , Modern and Virtual At its outset, the emerging intellectual analysis and critique of modem industrial society —one that gained considerable momentum from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards— articulated an important conceptual (and often moral) dichotomy between the forms ofsocial relations associated with the idea of community (continuous/intimate/face-toface/multi-dimensional) often in stark contrast to that of society (fleeting/impersonal/ remote/pragmatic). As Cerulo and Ruane (1998:399-400) have noted, such a dichotomy is centralto the conceptual schemata developed in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth century bya number of writers now designated as classical sociological theorists. It is certainly  quite    pronounced in the work of Ferdinand Toennies  jGemeinschaft  and  Gesellschaft),  EmileDurkheim (mechanical and organic solidarity) and Georg Simmel (locals andmetropolitans). They also note that each of these dichotomies seeks to describe normativefortns of social relations before and after modernization. While not an essential elementwithin the conceptual schema of every social theorist since, I think it would be fair tosuggest that this residual thread remains central to a number of anthropological andsociological fields that examine the historical impact of social change.Social theorists who do share this line of thought tend to attribute the capitaUst-drivenglobal transformation towards industrially-based modernity (and more recently, the tumtowards post-modernity) as also primarily responsible for the ongoing and widespreaddestruction, diminution and disintegration of the type of local, intimate social community,most strongly associated with pre-modem and/or traditional social formations. Eitherimplicitly or explicitly, it is some version of this ideal type of social relations that alsoprovides a point of reference for recent and ongoing debates on the role that might beplayed by CMC in stimulating the growth of virtual communities. The current techno-logical means that enable individuals to be connected electronically are considered by someto therefore dissolve the time/space limitations of geographical proximity, a requirementthat previous sociological/anthropological understandings posited as the very essence of theconcept of community.The debates invariably revolve around a conceptualization of community that evokes theimagery of interpersonal intimacy, multifarious kinship relations, cross-cutting ties of mutualobligations and cultural uniformity, one that is most strongly associated with traditional , small-scale , village , country town or urban neighbourhood forms of spatial and socialorganization. It is also widely assumed that this sort of social fomiation and. as aconsequence, this type of relationship are currently in decline . However, with the rise ofthe Intemet has also come the emergence of a substantial number of ongoing.^ generallyinterest-based, groups that draw together geographically dispersed individuals who continueto interact via cyberspace, but who may rarely, if ever, meet face-to-face. Certainly sincethe considerable interest and commentary that followed the publication, in 1993, of HowardRheingold s book  The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electric Frontier),  suchcomputer mediated groups have been widely labelled as virtual communities, a term thatin itself shows an apprehension about equating online communities with real com-munities (Watson 1997:129-30). A great deal of heat has been generated in debating suchquestions as: do such virtual communities reflect the widespread need for community feltby many, that is not currently being met elsewhere? Is virtual community a natural exten-sion of traditional or even modernist ideas of community, or rather, does it represent aradically and categorically different kind of post-modem social relationship? Will thespread of the Intemet facilitate the arrest of, or even the reversal of the trend withinmodemity and post-modemity towards the death of community ? And. should the termcommunity be applied at all to the type of relationships mediated by electroniccommunications? (Harasim 1995; Jones 1995; Rheingold 1993; Smith and Pollock 1998;Watson 1997; Wellman 1999;WeUmanera/. 1996).While all of these questions are of considerable interest, Craig Calhoun s contribution tothe debate suggests a more fruitful interpretive framework for my own initial observationson contemporary Jews enthusiastic embrace of the potential of CMC. In his recent article,13  Calhoun notes that, perhaps the excitement of the new technology has tended to encourageboth researchers and popular cotnmentators to focus on the explosion of the new CMC andthen look for community . However, he suggests it might be more profitable to look firstfor eommunities and then study the role of computers and other media of communicationwithin them (Calhoun 1998:380). Further, and this seems particularly pertinent when thefocus is on diasporic, etfinic communities, the Intemet matters much more as a supplementto face-to-face community organization and movement than as a substitute for it (Calhoun1998:382); and that one of its primary strengths so far has been to facilitate themaintenance of dispersed face-to-face networks (Calhoun 1998:383). Diasporic Community Jews and Ethnic Identity The expulsion and consequent dispersion of the Jewish population of Palestine in the firstcentury CE has historically represented, together with the Greek and Armenian, one of theprototype examples of  diaspora The term has become applied more widely and is nowused to refer to a range of trans-nationally distributed groups, the common characteristicbeing the tendency to continue to retain some identificatory connection with a commonethno-cultural heritage associated with a former 'homeland', even several generations ormany centuries after their ancestors original departure (Safran 1991; Tolblyan 1996). Thus,for example, since the early nineteenth century, there has been a significant presence of a'Chinese diaspora' throughout South East Asia; or. similarly, in the wake of the spread ofthe 'British Empire', the development of a 'South Asian diaspora' (Indians, Pakistanis, andBangladeshis). Furthermore, since the middle of the twentieth century, the size and spreadof these two 'diasporas' have expanded considerably, stimulated by shifts in immigrationpolicies among a number of 'first world' countries that had previously sought to excludethese groups from entry as permanent residents. In recent years, the use of the term 'dia-sporic community' has been taken up, both as a self-description and as a conceptualcategory, with reference to a number of other trans-national groups. Apart from thosealready mentioned, these include. African, Irish. Romany and Ukrainian diasporas.'Clearly, whether diasporic communities continue to exist for generations, or even n:ianycenturies, is the result of the intersection of particular factors and circumstances. From theperspective of the diasporic minority, the combination of powerful group boundarymaintenance mechanisms and strong motivating ideologies, from without and/or within, ismore likely to ensure group eonfinuity. A mutual construction of a strong sense of socialdistance and 'otherness' from the 'host society', invariably based on one or more perceiveddifferences of race, etfmicity, religion, culture or language, is usually quite effective. Thesemay often be further reinforced if accompanied by systematic patterns of socio-economicdifferentiation between members of the two groups, based on and/or resulting in highconcentrations of 'minorities' within one, or even a narrow range of occupations oreconomic sectors within the society.Undoubtedly. Jews have had one of the more extended historical experiences as adiasporic community. Thus, since their 'dispersion' almost two thousand years ago, thosewho remained identified as Jews have continued to form distinct ethno-religiouscommunities, living as part of a 'minority group' alongside, attached to. but not fully partof, their social and political surroundings. Both within the Islamic world of the Medi-14  ten-anean region, and, in late Medieval times, within the increasingly more powerfulChristian kingdoms and principalities of Central and Eastem Europe, alongside theiradherence to distinctive religious beliefs and rituals, the Jews also usually constituted aseparate juridical category subject to restriction in occupational choice as well as special,usually onerous taxation . Invariably residentially segregated from the majority population,Jewish communal life operated mostly through autonomous, political, juridical and socialcontrol that effectively resulted in many generations of Jews living out their lives cocoonedwithin an insular and pariah subculture (Cohen 1983:9-10).Another significant characteristic of the Jewish diasporic experience has been theimportance placed on continuous communication between these geographically dispersed'communities'. Such links were maintained through a constant stream of Jewish travellersincluding, among others, traders, rabbis, religious teachers, students, musicians andentertainers who passed from one community to another, bringing news, gossip, andoccasional correspondence. Where Jewish communities were small, as was frequently thecase, there was also limited opportunity for 'suitable' marriage partners, so matchmakingendeavours seeking 'acceptable' spouses invariably extended to other neighbouringcommunities which often further reinforced an extended web of kinship-based inter-connections across geographically widely dispersed Jewish communities. For Jews, per-haps more than for most otfier groups in medieval and rnodemising Europe, these factors'normalized' the notion that the boundary of ethno-religious community could extend wellbeyond the local town or village. In a sense, this was a beneficial experience in the processof adapting to the subsequent emergence of the 'modem' collective construct of the'national' community, in that it institutionalized amongst Jews the sense of identificationwith a more abstract, spatially and numerically extended collectivity. A common identity asmembers of 'the Jewish people', adherence to a broadly familiar body of religious beliefsand practices and a distinctive language of prayer were able to transcend differences thatmight exist with respect to local language, dress, norms and customs of behaviour,differences that accumulated as the result of continuous residence over many generations ina wide variety of locales. Indeed, their overall experience is usefully represented inStratton's proposition that the Jewish understanding of Diaspora intersects in complicatedways with the organization of the modem 'western' world (2000:117).The nature of Jewish (as well as most other existing fonns of) community began tochange significantly with the rise of the nation-state. This trend was accompanied by thespread of modernisation in Europe, typified by, among other things, an increasing emphasison individualism and secularism in public iife.^ Thus, Jews were faced with a challenge anda dilemma:They welcomed thc(ir) emancipation, even if it nieant a surrender of corporateprerogatives. The Jews wanted to enter modem society because they sought theopportunities it offered .... But they wanted to preserve their collective Jewish tiesas well (Elazar and Medding 1983:24).One response was that some Jews, particularly in tbe larger cities of westem and centralEurope, began to discard behavioural practices associated with distinctive clothing,appearance and language use. As weU, some no longer gave as strict adherence to thecommunally reinforced value orientation that bad combined traditional religious adherencewitb a rejection of secular knowledge and culture. In short, for Jews keen on embracing the15  'modem world', there were considerable impetus to discard any element of their'traditional' identity that might be considered 'inappropriate' to broader integration andindividual acceptance into mainstream society. These trends worked towards redefining thesocial and individual meaning of religion which now came to be perceived as a voluntary,private affair of personal faith instead of the traditional, obligatory, public identity entailingresponsibilities to the religious group (Cohen 1983:18). However, this somewhat marginaland slowly developing Jewish engagement with and response to modernization wassignificantly accelerated as a result of the enormous population movements of the latter partof the nineteenth century that drew a significant proportion of Eastem European Jewrytowards the West, and in particular to North America.Certainly, there, but also in most other countries in which Jews have settled, the ever-increasing spread of the forces of secularization closely associated with the shift towards'the modem' has transformed the nature of 'Jewishness' from a form of group identificationthat assumed a commitment to a specific set of religious beliefs, rituals and practices to onewhere things fiave become much more complex. Thus, since the i950s, numerous researchstudies undertaken on contemporary Jewish communities in many parts of the worldconsistently reported that individuals who continue to perceive themselves as 'Jewish' maynow express tfiis via a positive relationship to one or more of a number of relativelyindependent 'components' of what has come to constitute 'Jewishness'. 'Jewish identity',it is argued, is a multi-dimensional phenomenon that, for any particular individual whoconsiders themselves to be Jewish, may or may not include ethnic, cultural, national,organizational, familial, psychological and religious dimensions (Himelfarb 1982; Karklins1987; Taft 1973; Webber 1997). Sociologically, Jews are most often now categorizedunder the more broadly inclusive rubric of 'ethnic group', although I would suggest that themore cumbersome term 'ethno-religious group' might still be a more accurate designation.Contributing to this complexity, but also, with respect to the Jewish response tomodernity, a particularly effective basis for ensuring group continuity and survival has beentheir widespread tendency, as a group, to develop, what one prominent observer ofAmerican Jewry has described as, a vast institutional network (Cohen 1983:43),represented by an extensive and intricately interconnected web of ethno-religiousorganizations. In most modem nation states, Jews have been at the forefront of establishingparallel ethnic organizations that concem themselves with ensuring a variety of availablesupport services for members of their communities. Indeed, as a precursor of the responsesof many immigrant groups who arrived after tbem, Jews who settled in the 'newer'countries of immigration (most notably, the United States, tbe UK, Canada, Australia,Brazil and Argentina), often drew on their lengthy historical experience as a relativelyautonomous 'minority' community. Thus, their cohesive and collectively oriented attemptsto 'reconstruct' many aspects of their previous communities was a response botb to theparticularistic social needs of individuals — a considerable number of whom were requiredto make a very rapid transition from more 'traditional' social formations and styles of life— but also operated as a key mechanism for sustaining ethnic group continuity. Indeed, astbe Canadian sociologist Raymond Breton (1964) observed more than a generation ago,Jewish immigrant settlement, particularly in those cities and neighbourhoods where the sizeof the Jewish population reached at least a few thousand, has frequently represented tbemost comprehensive manifestation of what he has labeled institutional completeness of16
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