For thousands of years humankind had time to process change. Mainly because any changes to our environment were typically minuscule. We had the ability to digest information, analyse it, evaluate it, decide if it was in our long-term interests and whether to go for it or not. Enter globalisation. The process by which the world is becoming increasingly interconnected through rapid increases in trade, exchanges in culture, and the spread of technology and ideas through global media.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jews have had a significant part in the unfurling of this history-defining phenomenon.
Jews: A Case Study in Globalisation
The Jews are perhaps the world’s best case study for globalisation. Having been scattered across all four corners of the earth for more than two millennia, they maintained strong networks before the advent of the internet, and an unusually strong sense of identity, despite the threat of global homogeneity.
The archetype, and arguably the world’s first multinational corporation, The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, was granted a 21-year monopoly of Dutch trade with Asia. The company had tremendous power, not only to monopolise trade but to build forts, wage war, negotiate treaties, mint coins, establish colonies, and imprison or even execute convicts.
Lazarus Morris Goldman wrote in his book, The History of the Jews in New Zealand (1958), “At first the Jews [mostly Portuguese] did not invest in the Company, as they had no desire to pour money into a company which was in direct competition with them and which showed prejudice against Jews by prohibiting them from becoming directors…However, as the influence and power of the Dutch East India Company grew, the Jews gradually bought up its shares, and by the end of the 17th century became the principal stockholders in Holland, controlling a quarter of its stock.”
Clearly, the Jews would have been a natural demographic to be involved in global trade. Their social networks extended far beyond any other group at the time. Through shared traditions that transcended geographical regions, the Jews formed a sense of global operation.
A World Jewish Congress (WJC) paper, published in 2001, notes that Jews “have always supported globalization…Jewish existence in the Diaspora has been based for hundreds of years on globalization, and in many periods it has been the Jews who supported and spread the concept. In reliance on their ability to build international ties connecting different Diaspora communities, the Jews have always promoted globalization, and have served as its agents.”
The WJC paper emphasised that historic Jewish dispersal, most of it involuntary, has forced Jews to live in far-flung communities. Jewish cultural and religious survival necessitated the establishment of global business and social connections.
We Changed Enough to Remain the Same
Identity is inescapably plural, it divides in to us and them. Globalisation is inescapably singular, eliminating any and all differences. How have Jews navigated this dichotomy of being a unique, defined people on the one hand, and being citizens of the world on the other?
Two Jewish traditions in particular contributed to this success: halacha (Jewish law) and the beth din (rabbinic courts). They provided the assurance that allowed Jews to develop systems of international trade based on trust, a novel advancement that preceded secular-based civil laws that would later come to regulate business done across great distances and national boundaries. These Jewish innovations made trade safer and easier, prompting both Christian and Muslim rulers to employ Jews as their bankers and business partners.
We could point to the Jewish diamond trade in Europe as a prime example of an industry where trust is so high that risks and partnership costs fall to almost zero. That, coupled with the numerous Jewish laws explicitly pertaining to honest business dealings, has resulted in strong business ties that simply cannot be replicated elsewhere.
The secret of Jewish survival, however, has always been a remarkable combination of consistency and adaptability. Throughout history the Jewish people retained a core of beliefs, an attachment to the Torah, a set of values, and a sense of community. But they always found a way of adapting to the changing times, responding to the challenges of every new historical age. Halacha means ‘to move’, we usually think of law as rigid but halacha is dynamic, affording the Jewish people the ability to change enough to remain the same.
Jews: The World’s Global Tribe
In fact, modern-day Israel has become a microcosm of global differentiation within the boundaries of one nation.
According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2008, of Israel's 7.3 million people, 70.3% were born in Israel, mostly second or third-generation Israelis, and the rest are immigrants to Israel – 20.5% from Europe and the Americas, and 9.2% from Asia and Africa, including the Arab countries.
The Jews of Israel represent an ingathering of people from across the globe, and has represented a sharing of ideas, of ideals, of worldviews, of economics, of psychology, of culture, of experience, of persecution, of art, of philosophy, of religious belief, of custom, and of tradition.
This has made the Jewish people the world’s global tribe and an example of how to harness significant differences into one unified identity. Perhaps we could even suggest this is the global utopian future the prophet Isaiah (56:7) referred to when he proclaimed “For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”.