Judaism and the Bottom Billions

The history of human civilization is a history of agricultural empires and continuous wars. Empire and war have been the two dominant institutions of all societies, past and present. However, while today’s globalized capitalist economy is indeed an empire, it is not necessarily beholden to a specific national base. The powerful are now dispersed globally; yet their power has become institutionalized within a Liberal world order that still functions through the nation-state but is not averse to bypassing its legitimate protective function.

Throughout history, wealth has always meant usurpation of the agricultural surplus by an elite class of warrior aristocrats at the expense of the peasantry. Famine and all forms of environmental catastrophe lurked menacingly behind this continuous social system of human enslavement. In a disunited human world, agricultural failure meant death and destruction in the time span of a short season. The only recourse was to appeal to the gods and to go to war. Other peoples’ surpluses became the insurance policy for drought and other forms of failure in human agricultural civilization. The redemption of human history can only mean the end of war and the end of human enslavement.

Judaism is first and foremost a political and economic philosophy which attempts to disassociate the Divine presence from any of the specific gods of war. Judaism is the recognition of the universality of a single G-d whose application is to unite the world and thereby redeem its people. The universal G-d means the end of war by means of the discontinuation of the usurped agricultural surplus. Human redemption is therefore the absence of both war and wealth in a new civilization of shared necessities under the auspices of a universal Deity whose sovereignty is based on the morality of human rights.

In ancient Israel, before the people clamored for a king, an independent peasantry ruled itself without recourse to either an aristocracy or its enslavement by a warrior class. This structure was unique in human history. But all around the neighborhood of this Age of Judges, the quest for empire ruled the direction of pagan history. Self-protection meant that the only way to fight empire was by the institution of empire itself. Even within a society apparently ruled by the Laws of Moses, the necessity of a royal authority impinged on the inherent rights of Israel’s free peasantry. Therefore the royal house of David and Solomon did not bring about an empire of peace. On the contrary, their reign was short-lived, and its consequences led to a divided kingdom and the ruin of ancient Samaria (the Kingdom of Israel).

The rule of the ancient kings of Judea meant that the rights of the independent and free peasantry were constantly being trampled upon. This oppression ushered in the Age of the Prophets. For the prophets, the misrule of the corrupt and evil kings would be punished by G-d through the agency of foreign empire. Here lies the central contradiction of Jewish history: Immorality toward the peasantry made self-defense, at least, possible, but self-defense without morality could hardly advance the mission of a people whose Universal G-d expected better behavior from them. In this contradictory world of oppression, empire, and war, and the juxtaposition of the Jewish quest for decency and freedom, the latter has yet to win out. Eventually the Jewish people lost their land in a vain attempt to secure their liberty against an extremely strong empire. And although this lack of sovereignty caused untold hardship in a diaspora whose final lesson was a global attempt at complete genocide (European Holocaust), within this world of dispersal the dream of the prophets went with the Jews wherever they went.

Now, miraculously, the Jews have fought their way back into history. Once again they are surrounded by enemies who dispute their claim to the land. War and empire are the very stuff of nations with armies and ruling classes. But after Nazi Germany, what choice did the Jews really have? Without a measure of worldly strength, all the hopes of the ancient prophets could still die ignominiously at the gates of a dystopian hell. However, this time history is different. The enemies around modern Israel are not pagans. They too believe in a universal G-d whose morality is disposed toward an egalitarian economic ethos. If true Islam is a belief system whose central dynamic is the peaceful unification of all the world’s tribes without recourse to war, then modern Israel, in cooperation with its neighbors and as a national engine of historic redemption, stands a chance. But what would this national/historic program entail?

Israel must not fear to be a Jewish state whereby all its citizens share in an equality of human rights. This means that the fruits of society must be shared without the disastrous institution of economic inequality. The dignity of all people must be respected, and the quest for global peace through local, regional and international action must become the paramount objective of Israel and its Islamic neighbors. Without both a separate partitioning at the Jordan River and the Green Line as well as a unique integrative central structure for the disputed territory and Jerusalem, peace throughout the entirety of the Holy Land (both sides of the Jordan River) will not be possible. But with this understanding, Israel and her neighbors possess the rich cultural history to begin to create a new religious foundation toward global emancipation from war and empire. This supreme example of an Islamic-Judaic partnership, as the first step in a global partnership, can become the moral anchor for a world adrift. As a human species, we find ourselves trapped in a sea of war, empire and ecological fragility. Our precarious existence also includes a vast economic inequality that threatens the very existence of hundreds of millions of people (perhaps even billions).

Today’s world has become an empire of global money (economic Liberalism) whose geometric progression has bypassed all ecological limitations and any sense of a moral reality. The richest people on the planet (the top 85) now possess the same wealth as the bottom three billion. And yet many of the institutions of this global empire — the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF and a multiplicity of hedge funds and wealthy endowments — have become even more ruthless predators. In the name of more advanced profits, they seek to steal (through unjust laws passed by malevolent dictators) the world’s prime agricultural lands and dispossess many of the world’s remaining peasants. In fact, for the billion people who go hungry each and every day on this planet, eighty percent of them live in a rural environment. Most have become landless and are without the financial resources to buy the minimum amount of food necessary to live a healthy life.

Yet an unfair and elite model of mechanized, centralized, and corporate control of food production — which is now being foisted upon the world as an example of so-called “efficiency” — contributes to not only vast inequalities in wealth, but also to nearly fifty percent of the global climate-change carbon pollution. Within this model, both water and soil are being mined as if they are limitless commodities, without regard to soil fertility or the future of underground aquifers or wells. This entire globalized economic system is an affront not only to Judaism, but to all three Abrahamic traditions. Yet the moral authority of our tradition, and the entire Islamic world, can do nothing to stop this new empire of money.

But Israel must speak up. It must stand with its neighbors — many whose untold millions face agricultural dislocation and future water wars — and demand a world of justice. This is the essence of Israel’s mission as perceived by its prophets. Yes, self-defense is important. And Israel must continue to be vigilant. But in the final analysis, a world at peace (through a global civilization of a free and independent peasantry) is the true meaning of G-d’s economic/political laws. Judaism’s holy mission is to help end war and empire. History can be redeemed, but only if Islam and Judaism can find a way to unite in the effort.

The rebirth of Israel must not be just about the survival of a people; it must also be about the rebirth of a dream. The prophets of ancient Israel are as relevant today as they were those many centuries ago. Perhaps they are even more relevant. Because in our generation we now have the physical capacity to unite the world. The only thing we (and our neighbors) lack is the will.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).