“A Jewish Response to Globalization” by Rabbi Micha Odenheimer

Reference: Uri L'Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice

Rabbi Micha Odenheimer is a contributing editor for Eretz Acheret Magazine. The founding director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, he currently runs Tevel b’tzedek, a service and advocacy program for Israelis and Diaspora Jews in South Asia. His articles have been published widely in newspapers and magazines in the United States and Israel.

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 era. 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 that economic globalization will take is thus a sacred struggle for the human future.

As Jews, we belong to a tradition that has fought against a market-centered vision of social life. For us, globalization clearly presents a grave challenge and an unprecedented opportunity. The globalization of the economy is a process that began five hundred years ago with European colonialism, but the end of World War II, the concomitant expansion of American economic power, and more recently, the fall of Communism and the subsequent international trade and banking agreements imposed by the World Trade Organization mark astounding new phases in the totality of its scope. The process of globalization has gained exponentially in velocity at the very moment at which the majority of Jews are, for the first time, fully empowered citizens of democratic countries—first and foremost the United States and Israel—that are key participants in the global economy. We thus have the opportunity, the freedom—and the urgent responsibility—to influence the future face of humankind.

The predominant voices in the mainstream media claim that globalization creates economic growth that will eventually wipe out poverty and increase democracy. 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 and oppressed. In country after country, I have seen how the vicelike 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 have been forced to sell their labour to factories, mining companies, or plantation owners. This process has been driven by governments, usually corrupt ones, which take huge “development” loans from Western powers and must now produce what can be sold for dollars in order to service these loans. Economists who judge economic success in terms of “growth” and Gross National Product 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 non-renewable natural resources that have been extracted from developing countries over the past few decades, or the cost of the devastating pollution that is the by-product 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, beginning with the Garden of Eden narrative. Whatever else the multi-layered story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is about, it can be read as a symbolic account of the emergence of humankind from prehistory, marked by innocence and nakedness, into the long era of “By the sweat of thy brow thou shall eat thy bread.”

Food Is the Original Capital

Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is connected, on a compressed, symbolic level, to the end of the hunter-gatherer period and the beginnings of agriculture. One of the great differences between gaining one’s food supply through agriculture and acquiring it as a hunter-gatherer is that staple foods offer a diet that is less varied, but always safe, while hunter-gatherers, who typically utilize hundreds of kinds of plants and fruits, must always be aware of the possibility of poison. On the simplest level, God’s warning to Adam that if he eats from the fruit of a certain tree he will “surely die” might be read as an allusion to this constant presence of danger in a hunter-gatherer’s food supply.

Over the past century, archaeological anthropologists have traced the ways that the beginnings of agriculture often turned on the human ability to transform a specific species from a poisonous to an edible state through, for example, the chance discovery and the subsequent cultivation of a harmless mutation of a poisonous fruit or plant. Perhaps this transformation is encoded in the snake’s assurance: “No, you shall surely not die.” And if, as Kafka says, Adam and Eve’s punishment was not immediate death, but consciousness of mortality, would not this consciousness coincide with the kind of conception of time necessary for the long-term calculations of horticulture and the domestication of animal species?

Whatever the merit of these interpretive conjectures, one fact is clear: the emergence of agriculture created, for the first time, the possibility of surplus, of the storage of food. Food is the original capital. Storage prevents starvation during lean times, and also facilitates the possibility of permanent human settlements with populations far larger than that of the largest hunter-gatherer collectives, which never exceed 150 to 200 people. But with the possibility of surplus and the resultant growth of the population came bureaucracy, social class, specialization, hierarchy, and oppression.

 

To read the full article, please visit the Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice website at: http://utzedek.org/socialjusticetorah/social-justice-articles/120-a-jewish-response-to-globalization-rabbi-micha-odenheimer-.html