A Global People

December 1, 2004
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Shaul Kelner

THE GLOBAL ECONOMY’S swelling tide offers a stark choice: either learn to sail or get swept under. For Israel, this means thinking about the economic impact of political choices. Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres saw their Oslo Accords not only as land-for-peace, but also as land-for-prosperity. They swapped tribal grievance for trade and growth, using the deal to open once-hostile markets to export, shift resources to high-tech, and invest in the infrastructure needed to stay competitive.

Globalization is forcing Israel to choose between a vision of statehood that is primarily economic and universalistic or primarily cultural and particularistic. It is not an easy choice. Zionism emerged in an era that saw the state as a cultural project, the means by which a nation expressed its peoplehood. A century later, a more bottom-line philosophy has taken hold in the West: The raison d’être of any state is to promote individual opportunity and the welfare of its citizens. Where peoplehood fits into this vision is anyone’s guess.

The clash between these opposing views lies at the heart of Israel’s kulturkampf . While Israelis duke it out, their country and the world continue to change around them. An influx of migrant workers from Thailand, Nigeria, and other places is making Israel — already one-fifth non-Jewish — even more diverse. Elsewhere, supranational institutions like the European Union, multinational corporations like Exxon-Mobil, and transnational networks like al Qaeda ( lehavdil ), are weakening state sovereignty. For Israel, this raises troubling questions. If, for example, economics compelled Israel to shed its sheqel as France has foregone its franc , what would this mean for the Jewishness of the Jewish state?

These trends are unsettling Israelis who see their country as the bearer of Jewish hopes and dreams. Are they left only with a choice between defensive nationalism and drifting universalism? Hopefully not. Globalization can help tie Israel closer to a worldwide Jewish people, even as it makes Israel more vigorously multicultural.

From the time of the Babylonian exile and through the present day, Jews have always been a global people. It has taken a few thousand years, but the technology has finally caught up. Air travel, cell phones, satellite television, and the Internet have all democratized the experience of being part of a community that transcends place.

Zionism, of course, rejected on ideological grounds the notion of transnational communities. But today’s networked world is blurring the concept of place on which Zionism’s negation of the Diaspora rested. Who is in exile and who is at home when most Israelis have close family living abroad and everyone is meeting in cyberspace?

Globalization offers the rationale and the means to modernize Israel’s Jewish mission. Strength today no longer lies in core-periphery models, nor does power rest in states alone. World Jewry and Israel would be stronger if Zionism helped Israelis experience Jewish transnationalism, not escape it. They would be stronger if Israel treated itself less as the Jewish people’s mainframe, and more as a node in the Jewish people’s distributed network. And they would be stronger if Israeli public policy placed more weight on what is good for the economy rather than what is good for the Jews.

Herzl never envisioned a time when state power would be on the wane. But that era is now, and it will reshape Jewish peoplehood, hopefully for the better.

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Dr. Shaul Kelner, a sociologist, is a Senior Research Associate at Brandeis University's Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

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