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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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.

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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.