A few days before the celebration of Hanukkah, 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, the protesters were really fighting the same battle that Jews celebrate by lighting candles for eight days.

The struggle of Hanukkah 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 their own cultural, religious, and political life. Today, there are 50 multinational corporations that have gross incomes greater than those of many nations. 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 those few are in turn are able to dominate elections and dictate government policies around the world. Their allies in government created the World Trade Organization to extend their power further in countries whose democratic processes have put environmental, labor, and human rights constraints on the reckless pursuit of profits uber alles.

The WTO plan is simple: every country in the world will have to subordinate its own policies to unimpeded free trade. Any policy, from taxes to environmental or labor rules to consumer protections, that might pose a potential threat to corporate profits could be challenged. For example, if the WTO had been operating in the 1980s, the boycott of South Africa would have been seen as constraining trade, and might have been impossible for cities or states to join.

The WTO is the perfect way for industry and government to pursue policies that would be rejected by the peoples of the world were we given a voice. Leaders of the advanced industrial world created the WTO to advance free trade above all else--and now President Clinton and others can portray themselves as frustrated and powerless to have environmental and human rights issues taken seriously by the organization they created. I suspect that 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 funds from the very elites of wealth and power who benefit from the WTO.

The cheerleaders for the globalization of capital, like The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, described the Seattle demonstrations as "senseless." His basic argument is that "there is no alternative" (he calls this doctrine TINA in his best-selling book on globalization), and that 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.

There's nothing wrong with free trade and a free market, as long as they operate within the context of a world governed by God--a world in which the bottom line of money and power is subordinate to a higher bottom line of love, caring, ethics, and ecological sensitivity, as well as awe and wonder and a celebration of creation. The problem happens when the "realists" subordinate ethical and spiritual values and make free trade into a modern idol to be worshipped above all other values--and when they tell us that anything else is "unrealistic."

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 an ancient version of the Thomas Friedman line: There is no alternative, so let's see what terms we can work out for ourselves if we cuddle up to the powerful. The guerilla struggle waged by Judah the Maccabee wasn't just a national liberation struggle; it also had elements of a civil war between the accommodators of "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 believe that the only possibility is to accommodate an oppressive reality, you are (at least in terms of the way we in Jewish renewal see God) an atheist. And if you believe that there's something about the universe that makes such a struggle morally necessary and potentially winnable, you are a believer (no matter how much you deny it). The miracle of Hanukkah was that, after many decades of struggle, this small band prevailed.

Yet it was not their military prowess but God's presence in this event that we remember. In Jewish tradition, God is the force of transformation and healing, the force that makes it possible to move from what is to what should be, the force that makes it possible to struggle for the good even against overwhelming odds. When people connect to that force, victory becomes possible--which is why we say that God is responsible for the Maccabee victory. 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 step toward the modern miracle that will eventually lead to serious constraints on corporate domination. Those demonstrators were lighting a light of hope, just like the Hanukkah candles. Don't let the lights go out.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad