The Jewish People in the Age of Globalization

January 1, 2006
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Anita Shapira

In the past decade, a slew of new concepts have cropped up, refocusing attention on the question of Jewish identity in the 21st century: globalization, the clash of civilizations, the struggle between Western civilization and Islam. And amid all these, we find the Jewish people with, on the one hand, the State of Israel, a sovereign Jewish state caught up in the power struggle of international and Middle Eastern politics, and on the other hand, the Jewish Diaspora, under the sway of global processes for better or for worse.

What has globalization changed for the Jewish people? Is it a new situation in comparison with previous generations? Historian Simon Dubnow defined the Jewish people as an am olam, a people whose home is the entire world. In Hebrew, the term “am olam” connotes time as well as space: an eternal people that has managed to survive from antiquity to the modern world. The term came to emphasize the lack of a Jewish need for territory in order to sustain Jewish identity. In the 20th century, two other terms emerged that engaged Jews in conceptual systems striving for a supranational world: one was cosmopolitanism, the other internationalism.

The term “cosmopolitan” (citizen of the world) expressed the desire of many Jews to be free of a national identity and adopt instead a supranational citizenship. The term suggests the disintegration of the Jewish collective into isolated individuals, each navigating a separate course through the world. It says more about the non-Jewish world than about the Jewish world: the latent assumption is that the non-Jewish world has already shed national particularism and is ready to move on to a more advanced stage in human history, in which everyone will be able to find a place anywhere on earth. Before the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Jews were sometimes accused of cosmopolitanism – that is, a lack of loyalty to the native country and ties to supranational frameworks, usually Jewish ones. The term “citizen of the world” had become a disreputable label, identified with a lack of homeland roots and targeting Jews.

In a world where Jews filled the role of outsiders, it was only natural for us to seek salvation in theories of universal redemption that cross national borders and states, abolish differences of religion and of origin, and predict the coming of a just kingdom on earth in which Jews would stop being foreign. These redemptive theories spoke of a universal human brotherhood, or at least in the name of a downtrodden brotherhood oppressed by rulers. Internationalism was a slogan aimed at the world’s capitalist forces, which were identified with all that was wrong and exploitive. The Jews identified with the slogan because it was consistent with the Jewish longing for a kingdom of heaven, with the recognition that not all was right with the world, and with the hope that when equality dawned, Jews too would find redemption in society at large. “The redemption of man and nation” was the slogan incorporated in Jewish internationalism. The internationalist solution was to solve not only the problem of the individual Jew, but the existential problems of the Jewish collective as well.

Where does globalization stand vis-à-vis these concepts? Globalization does not pretend to solve the world’s problems or to institute a reign of justice on earth. It has no prophets, nor have Jews adopted it as a banner. Globalization is a nearly spontaneous phenomenon, propelled by technology rather than ideology. The use of global man’s power base for economic optimization has become possible in our times largely because of the revolution in communications and computerization, which facilitates the spanning of geographical space to create a business arena limited only by economic feasibility. In this respect, globalization is the ultimate capitalist dream come true: nothing stands in the way of economic activity driven solely by market principles.

Globalization causes an erosion of local identities as the world witnesses large-scale population movement based on the need for manpower in Western markets. Globalization, though, also hones an awareness of local identities, leading to the appearance of various kinds of ethnic or religious particularistic phenomena. History teaches us that periods of rapid social and cultural change sprout movements seeking a return to one’s roots, to the past, to a definite national identity. Such movements have generally not been kind to Jews.

In an age in which everything has been reduced to a commercial commodity, how do the Jewish people preserve their identity? How is identity preserved in an age of cultural sameness? How is solidarity preserved when the pendulum between private and collective interests swings forcefully towards the individual? How is collective memory and a commitment to cultural heritage preserved in an age of cost effectiveness? This was one of the cardinal problems of Zionism: how to create the Jewish collective, the common denominator, at a time when all common denominators related to a general culture outside of the Jewish arena. Zionism generated the focus that positively harnessed Jewish creative energy to the endeavor of settlement and cultural rebirth, thereby lending meaning to the Judaism of tens of thousands of people pondering their Judaism in a world increasingly abandoning religion.

The Jewish state is not immune to the global trends. Nationalism is out of fashion these days, and young intellectuals are seeking ways of avoiding this label. For them, globalization became synonymous with “normalization,” namely, shedding the Jewish component of the state of Israel and becoming a civil society, “a state of all its citizens.” But other groups feel threatened by the very idea of Israel losing its Jewish specificity. The polarization between those who welcome globalization and those who wish to close the gates against it is one of the defining features of Israeli society today. This polarization, however, affects mostly the extremists. The vast majority of Israelis enjoy the benefits of consumer society, but are worried by the economic and social changes brought on by globalization. The inequality in Israeli society becomes a source of anger and deep concern. The privatization process seems to undermine the bonds of social solidarity and cultural identity, hence strengthening the centrifugal forces of the globalization. Nationhood is still powerful, but the meaning, the content of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, is a cause for self-questioning.

One of the features of globalization is a devaluation of knowledge, a delegitimization of knowledge, both religious and secular. Among Jews, this process is particularly evident: a respect for knowledge, whether religious or secular, was always part and parcel of Jewish tradition. To the culture of malls and McDonalds, it is important to pose an alternative of ideals that would offer values and morals: an understanding of a common past that empowers and justifies the present; a common heritage and identification with am olam. The first step would be to cultivate the Hebrew language not only in Israel, but in the Diaspora. If we wish to preserve Jewish identity, we must create a common cultural tradition. In the Second Temple Period, it was customary to announce the start of a new month by lighting beacons on mountaintops. This was how our forefathers ensured adherence to a common calendar. We must start lighting beacons, symbolizing the deep bonds that connect all segments of the Jewish people. We have no control over globalization as a worldwide economic process. But the counter-reaction to it must come from us, out of the recognition of our cultural uniqueness, our pride in it, and our desire to sustain it, even in the face of sweeping sameness.

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Anita Shapira is the Ruben Merenfeld Professor in the Study of Zionism at Tel Aviv University, specializing in modern and contemporary Jewish history, especially social and cultural history and questions of identity. She published numerous books and articles on the history of Zionism and the Jewish community in Palestine and the state of Israel. Her best known works are Berl Katznelson: a Biography of a Socialist Zionist and Land and Power, the Zionist Resort to Force, 1882-1948. Her most recent book is a biography of Yigal Alon, The Spring of His Life , for which she received the Shazar Prize in Jewish history. This essay is adapted from a paper given at the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture Academic Convocation 2004 in Jerusalem.

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