Origins and uses of the terms
Diaspora has been a common phenomenon for many peoples since antiquity, but what is particular about the Jewish instance is the pronounced negative, religious, indeed metaphysical connotations traditionally attached to dispersion and exile (galut), two conditions which were conflated. The English term diaspora, which entered usage as late as 1876, and the Hebrew word galut though covering a similar semantic range, bear some distinct differences in connotation. The former has no traditional equivalent in Hebrew usage.
Steven Bowman argues that diaspora in antiquity connoted emigration from an ancestral mother city, with the emigrant community maintaining its cultural ties with the place of origin. Just as the Greek city exported its surplus population, so did Jerusalem, while remaining the cultural and religious centre or metropolis (ir-va-em be-yisrael) for the outlying communities. It could have two senses in Biblical terms, the idea of becoming a 'guiding light unto the nations' by dwelling in the midst of gentiles, or of enduring the pain of exile from one's homeland. The conditions of diaspora in the former case were premised on the free exercise of citizenship or resident alien status. Galut implies by comparison living as a denigrated minority, stripped of such rights, in the host society. Sometimes diaspora and galut are defined as 'voluntary' as opposed to 'involuntary' exile. Diaspora, it has been argued, has a political edge, referring to geopolitical dispersion, which may be involuntary, but which can assume, under different conditions, a positive nuance. Galut is more teleological, and connotes a sense of uprootedness. Daniel Boyarin defines diaspora as a state where people have a dual cultural allegiance, productive of a double consciousness, and in this sense a cultural condition not premised on any particular history, as opposed to galut, which is more descriptive of an existential situation, that properly of exile, conveying a particular psychological outlook.
The Greek word διασπορά (dispersion) first appears as a neologism in the translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, where it occurs 14 times, starting with a passage reading: ἔση διασπορὰ ἐν πάσαις βασιλείαις τῆς γῆς (thou shalt be a diaspora (or dispersion) in all kingdoms of the earth) (Deuteronomy xxviii:25), translating 'ləza‘ăwāh', whose root suggests 'trouble, terror'. In these contexts it never translated any term in the original Tanakh drawn from the Hebrew root glt (גלה) which lies behind galah, and golah, nor even galuth. Golah appears 42 times, and galuth in 15 passages, and first occurs in the 2 Kings 17:23's reference to the deportation of the Judean elite to Babylonia. Stéphane Dufoix, in surveying the textual evidence, draws the following conclusion:
galuth and diaspora are drawn from two completely different lexicons. The first refers to episodes, precise and datable, in the history of the people of Israel, when the latter was subjected to a foreign occupation, such as that of Babylon, in which most of the occurrences are found. The second, perhaps with a single exception that remains debatable, is never used to speak of the past and does not concern Babylon; the instrument of dispersion is never the historical sovereign of another country. Diaspora is the word for chastisement, but the dispersion in question has not occurred yet: it is potential, conditional on the Jews not respecting the law of God. . .It follows that diaspora belongs, not to the domain of history, but of theology.'
In Talmudic and post-Talmudic Rabbinic literature, this phenomenon was referred to as galut (exile), a term with strongly negative connotations, often contrasted with geula (redemption). Eugene Borowitz describes Galut as "fundamentally a theological category The modern Hebrew concept of Tefutzot תפוצות, "scattered", was introduced in the 1930s by the Jewish-American Zionist academic Simon Rawidowicz, who to some degree argued for the acceptance of the Jewish presence outside the Land of Israel as a modern reality and an inevitability. The Greek term for diaspora (διασπορά) also appears three times in the New Testament, where it refers to the scattering of Israel, i.e., the Ten Northern Tribes of Israel as opposed to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, although James (1:1) refers to the scattering of all twelve tribes.
In modern times, the contrasting meanings of diaspora/galut have given rise to controversy among Jews. Bowman states this in the following terms,
(Diaspora) follows the Greek usage and is considered a positive phenomenon that continues the prophetic call of Israel to be a 'light unto the nations' and establish homes and families among the gentiles. The prophet Jeremiah issues this call to the preexilic emigrants in Egypt. . . Galut is a religious–nationalist term, which implies exile from the homeland as a result of collective sins, an exile that will be redeemed at YHWH’s pleasure. Jewish messianism is closely connected with the concept of galut.’
In Zionist debates a distinction was made between galut and golus/gola. The latter denoted social and political exile, whereas the former, while consequential on the latter, was a psycho-spiritual framework that was not wholly dependent on the conditions of life in diasporic exile, since one could technically remain in galut even in Eretz Israel. Whereas Theodore Herzl and his follows thought that the establishment of a Jewish state would put an end to the diasporic exile, Ahad Ha-am thought to the contrary that such a state's function would be to 'sustain Jewish nationhood' in the diaspora.