Diasporas with a Difference: Jewish and Georgian Teenagers' Ethnic Identity in the Russian Federation

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Diaspora 6:3 1997 Diasporas with a Difference: Jewish and Georgian Teenagers' Ethnic Identity in the Russian Federation1 Fran Markowitz Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Ever since the late 1960s, when Fredrik Barth urged us to move away from the idea that ethnicity is constituted by "cultural stuff and to focus instead on the boundary that demarcates groups, anthropologists (and their perhaps more radical half-siblings in cultural studies) have cast into doubt the primordial or essentialist nature of ethnic groups, to say nothing of ethnic identity. Earlier studies focused on the groups themselves—how they display and are constrained by their identity as immigrants, minorities, ethnics, "persistent peoples," and even "marginal men" (sic)—while more recent investigations have taken up the "borderlands" where groups meet, confront each other (Rosaldo; Rouse), and become zones of hybridized cultural production (Bhabha). In a related vein, ethnicity is also explored as one of many possible intersections of power and culture, and ethnic identity becomes a crazy-quilt of namings and "being-called" (Probyn 25). Indeed, Stuart Hall informs us that "identities are never unified, and in late modern times, increasingly fragmented and fractured, never singular but multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic discourses, practices and positions" (4, emphasis added). The overall effect of these approaches is to abandon searches for absolute definitions and universalistic explanations ofthe phenomena of ethnicity and ethnic belonging in favor of a declaration that everything is constructed, situational, contested, and pluralistic. Well and good: this analytical shift to process, contention, and contingency is something I endorse and write along with, both as an American and more recently, as a hyphenated, hybridized, transnational , cosmopolitan immigrant-expatriate-repatriate Israeli, shuffling and shifting identities in each airport and at every site I call home. But when the focus moves away from me to the dozens of teenagers I interviewed not long ago in Russia, to say nothing of their parents there, and to the hundreds of formerly Soviet, always Russian (or at least Russophile) Jews-or-not with whom I've lived over the years in New York, Jerusalem, Netanya (Israel), and Chicago, I cannot help but think: Oh, Stuart, Oh, Homi, Oh, 331 Diaspora 6:3 1997 Renato, Oh, Elspeth—you may have got it all wrong, for you've never met the Soviets! Yes, there were borderlands and hybridizations in the Soviet system, but they were willed away under the dictates ofan essentializing nationalities policy that made ethnicity and ethnic identity fixed, stable, and indisputable. Now, seven years after the Soviet Union gave way to the Russian Federation (and fourteen other independent states), it is important to see what difference this Soviet legacy makes as young Jews and Georgians in Russia try out the various ethnic understandings at their disposal to forge identities and identifications that resonate with the puzzling political realities in which they live. I therefore offer this essay as a consideration of "diasporas with a difference." Beyond its pleasing alliteration, I chose the title "Diasporas with a Difference" for several reasons. First, it reflects a decision to concentrate on a particular subcategory of ethnic group—that of dispersed peoples. Certainly both diasporic and in situ ethnicized minorities may result from similar confrontations with conquest and colonialism, but because depending for a place to live on a host's sometimes capricious goodwill makes a difference, each subgroup's relations with the dominant society, and thus their dynamics of self-construction, will be quite different. Limiting the parameters of this inquiry to diasporas makes it conceptually possible to make valid comparisons between their subject positions and identities. Next, in calling this article "Diasporas with a Difference," I ask thatwe ponderthe details ofdiaspora as theyinfluence the particular Jewish and Georgian ethnic identities under discussion. For the sake of brevity, I use James Clifford's summary of William Safran's definition (83-4), in which diasporas are groups that possess a history of dispersal, myths/memories ofthe homeland, alienation in the host (and we ask, does it always have to be a "bad host?") country, a desire for eventual return, or support of the homeland, and a collective identity importantly defined by the relationship. (305) Does the Clifford...
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)331-353
Number of pages23
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1997


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