The Modern Maccabees
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon, 20 Dec 99 16:22:12 -0800
Subject: The Modern Maccabees
X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649 -=[ Fun_People ]=-
[Fun_People - I should have sent this out last week when it was more
timely, but I was out of town, so I'm sending it now; it's still good...
Protest in Seattle: The Modern Maccabees
by Rabbi Michael Lerner
A few days before the celebration of Chanukah, 1999, tens of thousands
of demonstrators in Seattle took up the modern banner of ancient guerilla
fighters. Though the terms of the struggle are different, it's really the
same battle that Jews will celebrate by lighting candles for eight days
starting Friday night, December 3rd.
The struggle of Chanukah was about a massive Greek empire and its
Hellenistic culture which had taken over ancient Judea and attempted to
subvert the independent right of the Jewish people to shape its own
cultural, religious and political life.
The form of empire has changed. Today, there are 50 multinational
corporations which have gross incomes greater than that of many countries.
Corporate power is able to dictate the terms of trade and shape the cultural
and political life of many countries around the world.
The contemporary form of domination does not require colonial armies or
imperialist interventions. The "free market" allows for the concentration
of wealth and power in the hands of the few, and they in turn are able to
dictate to governments and to peoples around the world.
Yet these corporations are not satisfied with that. They have created
the World Trade Organization to extend their power back into countries whose
democratic processes have put environmental, labor and human rights
constraints on the reckless pursuit of profits uber alles.
The plan is simple: every country in the world will have to subordinate
their own environmental, human rights, and labor policies to that agreed
upon by the WTO. And the WTO, in turn, sees as its highest goal the creation
of unimpeded "free trade"--unimpeded by environmental, labor or human rights
concerns. So, when called upon to ejudicate disputes, it always sides with
corporate interests seeking to maximize trade and minimize moral or
The WTO is a perfect way for industry and government to pursue policies
that would be rejected by the peoples of the world were we given a voice.
In fact, from their standpoint, many enviornmental, food safety and public
health groups are WTO-illegal because they are seeking to impose "trade
barriers" (namely, environmental or human rights constraints).
The WTO's goal is to put severe controls upon nations and citizens that
try to protect the safety of their environment, their jobs, their food,
their rights. If the WTO has its way, even local rules restricting the
cutting of forests or fishing for endangered species could be stopped by a
foreign corporations, as could any attempts to require that profits be
reinvested locally or requirements to hire local workers.
Lori Wallach, Director of the Global Trade Watch Division of Ralph
Nader's consumer group Public Citizen, described in TIKKUN Magazine some of
what the shapers of these multilateral agreements on investment hope to
accomplish. One of the most powerful is this: that foreign investors and
corporations will be compensated for actions a government takes that
undermine their ability to profit from their investment. Any policy, from
taxes to environmental or labor rules to consumer protections, might pose
a potential threat to corporate profits and so could be challenged.
For example, had the WTO been operating in the 1980s, they might ahve
made it impossible for local cities or states to join the boycott of South
Africa, which would have been seen as a constraint of trade and made those
localities vulnerable to law suits under WTO plans.
Simlarly, foreign companies would have to be given "national treatment,"
i.e. treated exactly as if they were local companies. So, let's say your
city now favors local or mniority owned businesses to build municipal
buildings, roads, or to provide school. This attempt to build up local
control over the economy or to empower groups that had faced previous
discriination wuld be illegal.
It would also be impossible for any coutnry to regulate rapid capital
entry or exit, thus making all countries vulnerable to currency speculation
and financial crashes.
Most Americans oppose the substance of what the WTO seeks to establish,
but they have no effective political leadership ready to say so, because
our system of government requires that politicians amass huge campaign
monies from the very elites of wealth and power who see themselves
benefitting from the WTO. So, on this central issue facing Americans,
there's little to choose among Gore, Bradley, and Bush. They will all follow
President Clinton's lead of talking out both sides of his mouth, on the one
hand identifying with the "concerns" of the demonstrators while on the other
hand doing his best to strengthen and accelerate the WTO process of a new
"millennial round" of talks aimed at consolidating the power of this new
That's why many Americans, including central elements of the labor and
environmental movements, felt they had no alternative but to take to the
streets. They do NOT oppose increasing trade, but they insist that trade be
conducted in ways that ensure environmental restraint, respect for the basic
rights of working people, and human rights. The demonstrators had no
intention of throwing roadblocks in front of the many internet and new
technology companies that could easily demonstrate corporate responsibility
and whose entry into the world market would be a boon.
In response, the cheerleaders for the globalization of capital, like the
New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, describe the
demonstrations as "senseless" and "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates,
prtecitonist trade unions and yupppies looking for their 1960s fix."
The basic argument made by Friedman is "there is no alternative." There
is no way to oppose globalization, therefore the most rational path is to
whisper into the ears of the powerful and try to shame the major
corporations into being more socially responsible.
It was a similar argument that faced a small band of Jews when they
decided to oppose Hellenistic power.Many of their fellow Jews were following
the Thomas Friedman line: "there is no alternative, so lets see what terms
we can work out for ourselves if we cuddle up to the powerful." As a result,
the guerrilla struggle waged by Judah the Maccabee was not just a national
liberation struggle, but also had a civil war dimension between the
accommodators to "reality" and those who believed that there was a Force in
the world (they called it God) that made it possible to fight for what was
right even against overwhelming odds. Whether you think you believe in God
or not, if you think that the smart thing to do is to accommodate to
oppressive reality you are (at least in terms of the way we in Jewish
renewal think of God) an atheist, and you are a believer (no matter how much
you deny it) if you believe there is something about the universe that makes
such a struggle morally necessary and potentially winnable.
Wallach's organization has come up with a series of recommendations that
we endorse, including:
1. Prohibiting the WTO from challenging any enviornmental or health and
safety measures or from doing anything to restrict countries or localities
which seek to ban the import of foods or products that may pose an
environmental or health risk.
2. Public health concerns must be given priority over profits in reegard
to safeguarding consumer acccess to essential drugs and medicine--and all
legal constraints on each country developing these drugs and medicines in
ways that provide adequate consumer safety must be dropped. Any aspects of
the agreement that prohibit full access to health care, water, education
and sanitation must be dropped.
3. The WTO must drop any regulations or procedures which would interfere
with the ability of localities to maintaing legitimate nondiscirminatory
food safety measures or other health and safety regulations.
The miracle of Chanukah was that this small band eventually prevailed
(after many decades of struggle). That kind of victory has happened
throughout history when people realize that the Spirit is greater than the
wealth and power of the arrogant elites. It may take many generations here,
too, but the demonstrators in Seattle have taken a first toward the modern
miracle that will eventually lead to serious constraints on corporate
A major step in this direction would be the passing of the Social
Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would mandate that
corporations operating (not necessarily based in) the U.S. would have to
get a new coprorate charter every twenty years, which would only be granted
to corporations that could prove a history of social responsibiity as
measured by an Ethical Impact Report. In the March/April 2000 issue of
TIKKUN we will lay out more details, but one is important here: this
constitutional amendment would declare null and void any international
agreements that prohibited the U.S. or local governments from requiring
corporate social responsibility as a condition for their continuing to
function in that jurisdiction.
Eventually, it will be the abiity of the movement in the streets to
develop this kind of innovative strategy which will determine whether the
demonstrations become little more than a good moment. But lets not knock
moments of hope--they are critical for getting people through periods of
despair. That's why the Chanukah candles burn bright after so many years.
Don't let the lights go out.
--by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of TIKKUN Magazine, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun
synagogue in San Francisco, and author of Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing
and Transformation; The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope in an Age of
Cynicism; and forthcoming in June 2000 from Walsch books division of Hampton
Roads Publishing: SPIRIT MATTERS.
© 1999 Peter Langston