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.

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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.

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Ira Rifkin

Ira Rifkin is a national correspondent for Religion News Service based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval.