Jews & Globalization

Jews (not surprisingly) fall on different sides of the issue, but Jews and Israel have also been the target of anti-globalization anger.

A massive anti-globalization rally was held in Washington, D.C., in April 2002, at which tens of thousands of demonstrators lambasted multinational corporations for what was called their callous exploitation of people and the environment. However, corporate greed was not the only thing on trial that day: A number of protestors carried signs equating the Magen David, the Star of David, with racism, and comparing Israeli government policies to fascism. How did this revered symbol of Judaism and the Jewish state become targets of anti-globalization rage?

jews and globalizationJews, it is true, played an outsized role in the creation of systems that gave rise to modern corporate capitalism, which is the economic force behind contemporary globalization–the unprecedented flow of capital and commerce across international borders, and the accompanying monoculture that espouses personal fulfillment and material advancement as the highest values. A World Jewish Congress paper, published in 2001, notes that Jews “have always supported globalization…Jewish existence in the Diaspora has been based for hundreds of years on globalization, and in many periods it has been the Jews who supported and spread the concept. In reliance on their ability to build international ties connecting different Diaspora communities, the Jews have always promoted globalization, and have served as its agents.”

Forced Globalization

The WJC paper emphasized that historic Jewish dispersal, most of it involuntary, has forced Jews to live in far-flung communities. Thus isolated, Jewish cultural and religious survival necessitated the establishment of global business and social connections, the success of which required no apology. (One measure of the early success was that at the end of the 17th century, Jews held one quarter of the shares of the Dutch East Indies Company, the archetype of the multinational corporation.)

Two Jewish traditions in particular contributed to this success–halakhah and the beit din, religious law and rabbinic courts.They provided the insurance that allowed Jews to develop systems of international trade based on trust, that is, on credit, a novel advancement that preceded secular-based civil laws that would later come to regulate business done across great distances and national boundaries. These Jewish innovations made trade safer and easier, prompting both Christian and Muslim rulers to employ Jews as their bankers and business partners.

However, wealth breeds jealousy. When mixed with historical religious and ethnic intolerance, lethal stereotypes often result. For Jews, this meant suffering widespread anti-Semitism, sometimes even in nations where their economic contributions were paramount to the prosperity of the non-Jewish population. Today, this antagonism is continued by many on the extreme left- and right-wings of the burgeoning anti-globalization movement, which has combined its critique of the excesses and materialist values of free market capitalism with unquestioning support for the Palestinian people, who are seen as suffering because of Western political and economic colonial designs.

For many in the movement, Israel is not a nation reconstituted, but a colonialist enclave that survives only because of the support of the United States, the nation that has benefited most from globalization, and is therefore blamed for all its ills. Through this association, Israel has become an anti-globalization bugaboo, and anti-Semitism is tolerated in this social protest movement.

Jewish Involvement in Today’s Activism

It’s little wonder, then, that the organized Jewish community keeps its distance from even more moderate anti-globalization groups, in contrast to the active participation of liberal Catholic and Protestant Christian churches. However, this has not precluded growing numbers of individual Jews from speaking out against globalization. Most are on the liberal-left end of the Jewish political and religious spectrum, although more traditional and conservative voices are also critical of globalization.

Regardless of their particular orientation, however, it is not globalization per se that they object to, but rather the distortion or rejection of long-ingrained Jewish values by the globalization process that prompts their ire. “There is nothing in Torah that relates directly to globalization,” says one critic, the Jewish Renewal rabbi, writer, and Tikkunmagazine editor Michael Lerner, a leading leftwing American Jewish voice. “But if globalization is just the latest twist on the worship of materialism, then it has become idolatry, the antithesis of monotheism, and that, my tradition tells me, is to be opposed.”

On the left, critics such as Lerner argue that Judaism’s call for social justice–the prophetic demand that we work for tikkun olam, “repair of the world”–means Jews must involve themselves in efforts to lessen globalization’s onerous repercussions. Activist and Jewish Renewal Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, also invokes Jewish tradition in arguing for direct action against globalization’s inequities. His imagery is Judaism’s most enduring symbol of arrogant authority, the Egyptian pharaoh of the Exodus saga who persecuted Jews even after he was warned to desist from doing so by Moses.

“Globalization is the pharaoh of our day, the absolute archetype of unaccountable power,” says Waskow. “It was the enslavement of workers that brought down upon Egypt a massive ecological catastrophe [the plagues], and that’s where we see globalization headed. What we need is described in Deuteronomy 17, where God puts limits on kingly power. That’s relevant to globalization if you understand the passage as limiting the power of the elite few to unjustly dominate the many, which sums up the sins of globalization.”

While some on the left, including Lerner and Waskow, are also highly critical of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel stands they see in the anti-globalization movement, other similar Jewish activists are less so. They argue, instead, that an alleged misuse of Jewish wealth and power gained from globalization is what’s stirred the movement’s antagonism, and that because of these gains Jews have a special responsibility to the anti-globalization cause–regardless of any disconcerting anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments. Those that take this position are themselves generally far removed from Jewish religious practice and the organized community, and are also among Israel’s harshest critics.

The more traditional critics, of course, also invoke biblical and rabbinic teachings in their discussions of globalization. The difference is, traditionalists tend to see resistance to globalization as more a reflection of the individual’s ongoing moral and spiritual struggle against corrupting influences than a cause for public activism.

Looking to Traditional Sources

Echoing Lerner, Orthodox Rabbi Asher Meir of the Center for Business Ethics of the Jerusalem College of Technology, likewise maintains that globalization is a neutral phenomenon that must be judged on the basis of intent and utilization. Quoting the Babylonian Talmud, Meir notes that Rabbi Ben Zoma (Berakhot 58a) expressed gratitude for the many individuals who combined to produce his daily bread. Whereas Adam had to do it all himself, including growing the grain, Ben Zoma was thankful to “find all these things done for me”–a statement Meir says bestows Judaism’s blessings on global trade, and, hence, globalization, at least in the abstract.

At the same time, Meir also notes that RabbiShimon bar Yochai criticized the Romans for establishing great commercial centers “in order to have a place for prostitutes, bathhouses to indulge themselves, and bridges in order to collect tolls” (Shabbat 33b). This leads Meir to conclude that although “worldwide markets are a good basis for prosperity and understanding, [Jews] need to be careful not to follow the example of Rome that used them as a bridgehead for immorality and domination.”


Still other traditional critics emphasize globalization’s corrosive effect on the Jewish culture and the State of Israel’s Zionist ethic. Noting that Israeli Jews are no less susceptible to globalization’s siren song than are other people, the late Rabbi Daniel J. Elazar wrote in a 1996 paper for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs that globalization has diminished Israel’s self-sufficiency while giving the Jewish state no added security.

Local industries, he says, have been undermined by the importation of cheaper foreign products, tens of thousands of non-Jewish foreign workers now live in Israel, and international cable television stations and other global media pound home the message that contemporary Western values are to be preferred over Jewish beliefs and customs–all to the detriment of what Elazar saw as needed Israeli resolve in the face of continuing Arab hostility. “Globalization,” Elazar pointed out, “…means accepting cosmopolitan global political expectations with regard to peace” along with new definitions of human rights, democracy, and the place of religion in the political arena.

Elazar labeled this new dynamic “post-modernization.” Others to his theological and political right have used an ancient Jewish term of denigration to characterize globalization’s new reality: Hellenism, a reference to the widespread acceptance in ancient Judea of Greek culture, the globalization of the day. Such is the language of Moshe Feiglin, a rightwing political and religious activist in Israel.

But put aside all labels, and the Jewish criticism of globalization comes down to a few essential points: The God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob, Rachel, and Leah frowns upon selfishness, indulgence, and exploitation. Additionally, Jews are not to surrender their identity as a people as defined by their Judaism and relationship to the Land of Israel. To the degree that it encourages the former and discourages the latter, globalization runs afoul of the tradition and its subversiveness is suspect.

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