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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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."

'Post-Modernization'

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.

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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.