(JNS) The second Israeli Conservatism Conference, sponsored by the Tikvah Fund and the Friedman Center for Peace Through Strength, took place in Jerusalem on May 26. The message of the conference was spreading the message—bringing conservative ideas to a country with a socialist political tradition.
“Unlike in the United States, where most young people are becoming more and more progressive, in Israel, it is exactly the opposite. More and more young Israelis are blending classical liberal tendencies with conservative ideas,” said Amiad Cohen, director-general of the Tikvah Fund, Israel, (the organization is based in New York).
This year’s conference attracted 1,200 people, double the attendance at the first, held in 2019. It’s a clear sign for Cohen that Israel’s conservative movement is gaining ground. Many of the conference-goers were also young and full of enthusiasm.
For Cohen, educational initiatives are critical as Israel pivots from a resource-poor developing nation into a robust free-market economy.
“Our problem is that the state started with socialist ideas,” Cohen told JNS. “All the legal institutions we have, the intellectual institutions, are socialist. The State of Israel built the relationship between the individual and the state in a way exactly opposite to what prevailed in the western world.”
The problem is still deeper, because Israelis’ access to alternative ideas—conservative ones—is lacking, said Cohen, noting that only a third of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” a fundamental work in classical economics, has been translated into Hebrew. Israeli students in economics and political science have told Cohen that their first exposure to Adam Smith was through Tikvah Fund seminars.
“Academia here is useless. The books that they teach are not only one-sided, but of a very low level; they are one-sided and unsophisticated,” he said. “The goal of the conference is to expand our outreach from, let’s say, 10,000 people, to hundreds of thousands through a conference that will have a public impact.”
The Tikvah Fund in Israel puts out a conservative magazine, holds 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 as seen through a conservative lens were covered at the conference, from energy to sovereignty to the judiciary. Several featured speakers would have been familiar to American conservative audiences, including historian Victor Davis Hanson, presidential adviser Elliott Abrams (also chairman of the Tikvah Fund), former US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Mideast analyst Caroline Glick. Stars better known in the Israeli conservative firmament included journalist Amit Segal, Israel’s former National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, former NBA star Omri Casspi, author Gadi Taub and 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 novel and interesting ideas on the right is incomparably larger than what’s going on on the left,” said Taub. “The left is sinking further and further into the stupidity of woke ideology and identity politics, which are the politics of gestures, of empty ideas. However, the left still holds centers of power in culture, so we need to organize. We need to exchange ideas.”
For Taub, the current political divide can be boiled down to the battle between “globalist elites” and “national citizens.”
“We are the national citizens. They can call us conservative. They can call us populist. But we have two main traits: We support the nation state and we are liberal democrats. The globalist elite has turned woke and progressive. It’s clearly anti-nationalist. It’s clearly anti-democratic, and it’s increasingly anti-liberal,” he said.
He said the divide expresses itself in Israel between those who support a Jewish state and those who support “what they call, misleadingly, a state of all its citizens—that is, a non-Jewish or multinational state,” said Taub.
The conflict between citizens and globalists was one of the key topics touched on 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 that “all of these problems that we’re experiencing in the United States revolve around the death of the citizen,” noting that exclusive privileges only enjoyed by citizens 50 years ago are now open to anyone residing on US soil, save for one—holding public office.
America’s elites give their loyalty to world bodies, like the International Criminal Court or the World Health Organization, believing they are wiser because they are more ecumenical, or cosmopolitan, he said.
A number of conservative groups and book publishers lined the hallway outside auditoriums where conference panels took place during the afternoon. Boaz Arad, founder of the Israeli Freedom Movement, a libertarian group that had 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 Israel’s conservative movement has going for it is that it’s easy to introduce new ideas into the debate given the country’s intellectual tradition. “The moment books by Ayn Rand entered the Israeli market, for example, they became best-sellers,” he said.
Arad views as “irreversible” Israel’s free-market advances, which have eroded the country’s originally socialist economy. “Once people have tasted freedom in economics, or ideas, it’s hard to return them to the cell,” he said.
David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel under the Trump administration, gave the keynote speech, in which he argued that Israel needs to make decisions of national import without worrying what America thinks.
“A grown-up nation decides for itself, by itself, what is best for its citizens. Respect yourselves and your right—I would say your sacred obligation—to chart the right course for the Jewish state. That’s what a grown-up nation does,” he emphasized. “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.