The Torah of Globalization

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January 1, 2006
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Micha Odenheimer

Although history is full of surprises, my bet is that the globalization of the economy will be remembered in centuries to come as the most significant development of our lifetime. The definition of economic globalization is the integration of all the economies of the world into a single international market. In today’s model, this means the control and domination of the world’s economy by giant, politically powerful multinational corporations. Increasingly, these corporations decide what we grow and eat, what information we encounter, and even which laws will govern our increasingly small world. The struggle to determine the shape economic globalization will take is thus a sacred struggle for the human future.

As Jews who recognize that Judaism contains a vision for humanity, then globalization clearly presents us with a grave challenge and an unprecedented opportunity. Although the globalization of the economy is a process that began 500 years ago with European colonialism, the end of World War II with the concomitant expansion of American economic power and more recently the fall of communism mark astounding new phases in the totality of its scope. The ferocity of the new antisemitism not withstanding, it is fair to say that the process of globalization has gained exponentially in velocity at the very moment in which the majority of Jews are for the first time fully empowered citizens of democratic countries – first and foremost the U.S. and Israel – that are key participants in the global economy. We thus have both the opportunity, the freedom – and the urgent responsibility – to try to influence the future face of humankind.

The predominant voices of the mainstream media claim that globalization creates economic growth that will eventually wipe out poverty and increase democracy. Unlike many in the anti-globalization movement, I don’t think everything the United States does is wrong. I applaud the U.S.-led effort, flawed though it may be, to free the Middle East from Islamic and nationalist forms of fascism. But what I have witnessed in fifteen years of reporting from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean does not allow me the comfort of believing that globalization, in its present form, is good for the poor. In country after country, I have seen how the viselike logic of profit maximization crushes the poor and destroys their culture and dignity.

From Thailand to Mexico, farmers living in semi-communal villages have been forced off their land by a combination of violence, trickery, and the degradation of their environment and forced to sell their labor to factory, mine, or plantation owners. This process has been driven by governments, often corrupt, who took huge “development” loans from the West and must now produce what can be sold for dollars in order to service these loans. Economists have not devised ways to measure what it means to lose forever the chance to fish in a clean river, to raise children in a safe environment and transmit to them your ancient culture, or to grow food on your own land. Nor do their statistics account for the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of nonrenewable natural resources that have been extracted from Third World countries over the past few decades or the cost of devastating pollution that is the byproduct of growth.

What does Judaism have to teach about all this? The notion that economic power must be diffused and democratized runs through the Torah like a spine. The story of Genesis arcs from the exile from Eden – marking the end of the hunter-gatherer period in human history – and the beginning of agriculture to the Egyptian empire. In Egypt – paradoxically through the agency of Joseph – all land and wealth are concentrated in the hands of Pharaoh through the stockpiling of food in giant storehouses. The slavery the Jews experience is thus the inevitable result of the monopolization of political and economic power.

The liberation narrative of Exodus is marked by the miracle of the manna whose essential quality is that it falls in just the right amount to support each person for one day and cannot be stored even overnight. The social and economic dictates the Torah commands, including the equitable distribution of land to every family, the jubilee in which land returns to its original owners, the strict prohibition against interest, the dissolution of loans upon the sabbatical year, and others, are clearly aimed at creating a society in which money and power are not concentrated in the hands of the few. But Israel, unfortunately, does not succeed in establishing this kind of society, and the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah, Hosea, and others – rail against the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich. In particular, the prophets expose the nexus of political and economic power in which justice is perverted in order to serve the greed of the wealthy. The ideology prevailing in the West today, which holds that the free market is really free of political influence and that it will eventually bring benefit to the poor, would have evoked the bitter laughter of the prophets.

As Jews, we must bring our ethical genius to bear on the analysis, exposure, and repair of the current international economic order. We will need to focus on the regulation of international corporations, the promotion of grassroots democracy, and on the nexus between the battle for a clean environment and the struggle for social justice. And we must not forget that the prophetic voice raised against injustice emerges out of a faith that human beings have the potential to strive for something better, deeper, and ultimately more pleasurable – both as individuals and as a society. If we listen closely to the deepest layers of our tradition, we will begin to realize this truth: none of us will be free until all of us are. When we gain awareness of how enmeshed we are with all of humanity economically, and thus ethically, we will begin the work, in partnership with other spiritual traditions, of creating a new ethic for the global age.

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Micha Odenheimer is a writer, Orthodox-trained rabbi, and journalist living in Jerusalem. He has reported from Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Nepal, Burma, Haiti, and Indonesia. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, London Times, Foreign Policy Magazine , and other magazines and newspapers. He writes regularly for Haaretz.

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