(JNS) The second Israeli conference on conservatism, sponsored by the Tikvah Fund and the Friedman Center for Peace Through Strength, took place in Jerusalem on May 26. The conference message carried the message – bringing conservative ideas to a country with a political tradition.
“Unlike the United States, where most young people are becoming increasingly progressive, in Israel it is the exact opposite. More and more young Israelis are mixing classic liberal tendencies with conservative ideas,” said Amiad Cohen, managing director of the Tikvah Fund, Israel (the organization is based in New York).
This year’s conference drew 1,200 people, double the number of the first, held in 2019. It’s a clear sign for Cohen that Israel’s conservative movement is gaining traction. Many of the conference attendees were also young and full of enthusiasm.
For Cohen, educational initiatives are essential as Israel transitions from a resource-poor developing country to a strong market economy.
“Our problem is that the state started with socialist ideas,” Cohen told JNS. “All the legal institutions that we have, the intellectual institutions, are socialist. The State of Israel constructed the relationship between the individual and the state in exactly the opposite way to what prevailed in the Western world.
The problem goes deeper still, because Israelis’ access to alternative – conservative – ideas is lacking, Cohen said, noting that only a third of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” a seminal work of the classical economics, has been translated into Hebrew. Israeli economics and political science students told Cohen that their first contact with Adam Smith was through Tikvah Fund seminars.
“Academia here is useless. The books they teach are not just one-sided, but very low level; they are one-sided and unsophisticated,” he said. “The goal of the conference is to expand our reach from, say, 10,000 people to hundreds of thousands through a conference that will have a public impact.”
The Tikvah Fund in Israel publishes a conservative magazine, conducts educational seminars, and publishes a variety of translations of books by conservative thinkers, including Friedrich Hayek, Thomas Sowell, Jordan Peterson, and others.
A host of topics seen through a conservative lens were discussed at the conference, from energy to sovereignty to the justice system. Several speakers would have been familiar to conservative American audiences, including historian Victor Davis Hanson, presidential adviser Elliott Abrams (also chairman of the Tikvah Fund), former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Middle East analyst Caroline Glick. . Among the best-known stars in Israel’s conservative firmament are journalist Amit Segal, Israel’s former national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, former NBA star Omri Casspi, author Gadi Taub and the radio host Jacob Bardugo.
Taub told JNS that introducing conservative ideas such as the free market system, individualism and personal responsibility is extremely important in a country like Israel with a large bureaucratic state, high taxes, strong unions and entrenched socialist ideas.
“The amount of new and interesting ideas on the right is incomparably greater than what is happening on the left,” Taub said. “The left is sinking deeper and deeper into the stupidity of awakened ideology and identity politics, which is the politics of gestures, of empty ideas. However, the left still holds power centers in the culture, so we need to organize. We need to exchange ideas.
For Taub, the current political divide can be summed up as the battle between “globalist elites” and “national citizens”.
“We are national citizens. They can call us conservatives. They can call us populists. But we have two main traits: we support the nation-state and we are liberal democrats. The globalist elite has become awakened and progressive. It is clearly anti-nationalist. It’s clearly anti-democratic, and it’s increasingly anti-liberal,” he said.
He said the divide is expressed in Israel between those who support a Jewish state and those who support “what they call, wrongly, a state of all its citizens, that is, a non-Jewish state or multinational,” Taub said.
The conflict between Citizens and Globalists was one of the key topics in a discussion between Victor Davis Hanson and Caroline Glick. Hanson, whose most recent book is “The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America,” said “all of these issues that we have in the United States revolve around the death of the citizen,” noting that the exclusive privileges enjoyed only by citizens 50 years ago are now open to anyone residing on American soil except one – holding public office.
American elites give their loyalty to global bodies, like the International Criminal Court or the World Health Organization, believing they are wiser because they are more ecumenical or cosmopolitan, he said.
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A number of conservative groups and book publishers lined the hallway outside the auditoriums where afternoon lecture panels were held. Boaz Arad, founder of the Israeli Freedom Movement, a libertarian group that set up a table at the conference, told JNS that the conservative movement is a fairly new phenomenon in Israel. (His organization was founded in 2011.)
He said one thing the conservative movement in Israel takes to heart is that it is easy to introduce new ideas into the debate given the country’s intellectual tradition. “By the time Ayn Rand’s books entered the Israeli market, for example, they became bestsellers,” he said.
Arad considers Israel’s free market progress, which has eroded the country’s initially socialist economy, to be “irreversible”. “Once people have tasted freedom in the economy or ideas, it’s hard to send them back to the cell,” he said.
David Friedman, US Ambassador to Israel during the Trump administration, gave the keynote address, in which he argued that Israel should make decisions of national importance regardless of what America thinks.
“A mature nation decides for itself, by itself, what is best for its citizens. Respect yourself and your right – I would say your sacred obligation – to chart the right course for the Jewish state. This is what a mature nation does,” he stressed. “Not everyone will agree with you, but everyone will respect you.”
The conference ended on a note pleasing to nationalists but not globalists, as the audience burst into a spontaneous rendition of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.
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