For more than a half-century, public debate in Israel has been dominated by two large sets of issues: externally, how to work for peace while maintaining maximum security; domestically, how to navigate the relationship between religion and state. But when it came to social and economic policy, debate gave way to across-the-board consensus: for decades, it was taken largely for granted that welfare-state economics and heavy government regulation made up the sine qua non of the good society.
The past few years, however, have seen a subtle yet quite dramatic change. Several new issues have become prominent in public debate, and acutely so during the recent election campaigns. The deficiencies and limitations of the regulatory welfare state are now openly discussed. So is the question of how to define Israel as the Jewish nation-state, and how to do so in terms of its national character—a question distinct from the persistent debates about religion and state.
Such issues happen to be central to the concerns of conservatives and classical liberals—and, indeed, more and more openly conservative voices have been making their views known. Thus, for example, a host of young politicians have championed far-reaching free-market reforms. For another example, after years of debate and gestation the Knesset last year passed a law declaring and defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and listing a number of specific manifestations of that definition (among them its flag, anthem, calendar, language, connection to the Jewish Diaspora, and immigration and settlement policies). In May 2019. the first annual conference on the subject of conservatism in Israel, sponsored by the Tikvah Fund, was held in Jerusalem, attracting wide media attention and close to one-thousand energetic and mostly young participants.
Clearly, then, something is in the air. How has it happened, and where is it headed?
Let’s begin with a curious fact: while the Israeli government’s policies have, for the most part, been anything but conservative—socialist is a more accurate term—Israeli society itself is rather conservative. To understand this latter fact, consider the three key components of what George Will calls the “conservative sensibility”:
- Great respect for tradition and cautious skepticism of revolutionary change.
- Identification with and concern for family, community, and nation.
- Jealous defense of individual liberty and economic freedom, along with resistance to forced collectivism and social engineering.
How does Israel score by these markers?
- Throughout the country a fair number of religious traditions are widely and seriously observed.
- Israeli families are on average both tight-knit and large. The average Israeli woman bears more than three children and, uniquely among OECD countries, even those women who identify as non-religious produce children at levels above replacement. In addition, when it comes to concern for the nation, most young Israelis serve in the military and many volunteer for extended duty.
- In the “Start-Up Nation,” the entrepreneurial spirit is very much in evidence.
Typically, the conservative sensibility is translated into policy preferences in standard ways. For one thing, to the extent that the state must involve itself in moral matters, it should do so in a way that respects traditional values (though on this point some libertarians might well question why the state must be involved in moral matters at all). For another thing, the state should let free markets function with only the minimum necessary interference. Finally, the state should robustly defend its borders, its citizens, and its foreign interests.
This is where the curious Israeli divergence between society and policy comes most visibly into play. On moral matters, Israel has, for instance, rather loose abortion policies; more surprisingly (to an American observer), these policies engender almost no public debate. As for the economy, apart from the successful high-tech sector it continues to be highly regulated, and both the country’s educational system and its broadcast communications remain extremely centralized. The one area in which Israel does pursue a standard conservative policy is in the defense of its borders and its citizens; but this is mostly because, if it didn’t do so, it would soon find itself without the need for any policies at all.
Why has a conservative society like Israel pursued such typically progressive policies on moral and economic matters? The answer is rooted in the very nature of the Zionist ideology upon which the state was founded.
Zionism began as a revolutionary movement. True, this fact alone would not have sufficed to divert Israel irrevocably from conservative values. After all, no less a conservative than Edmund Burke was a great supporter of the American Revolution (though not the French Revolution); sometimes, nothing short of a revolution can preserve tradition and ensure freedom. The more pertinent factor had to do with the problem that the Zionist revolution set about to cure. That problem was, in a phrase, the disease of exile: a disease incubated by centuries of Jewish life under Gentile oppression and discrimination.
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To cure this disease, Zionists sought to replace what they regarded as weak and desiccated communities with a strong and vital state, to replace religion-induced passivity with secular self-determination, and to replace horse-trading and huckstering with a return to the land and a centralized economy dedicated to the collective welfare of the citizenry.
These underlying values of the Zionist revolution have persisted until today, and that persistence explains in turn why free markets, and even prosperity itself, are seen by many in Israel as selfish, materialistic, and “exilic”: throwbacks to the circumstances of the pre-state European Diaspora. Similarly, any state policy that shows deference to traditional Jewish values is widely regarded as a form of religious coercion—another reminder of the claustrophobic circumstances of a segregated existence in which local rabbis might often serve as enforcers of behavioral standards.
These superannuated biases are slowly being outgrown, but policies rooted in them remain in place. Therefore, conservatives who wish to change those policies need to adapt their approach to Israeli sensibilities, and to pick their battles wisely.
With this in mind, we can begin to outline the key points of an Israeli conservative agenda.
The lowest-hanging fruit involves the economy, which is in radical need of decentralization. As things stand now, there are dozens of state-mandated cartels and monopolies still in place, mostly concentrated in the agricultural and food sectors. Israeli conservatives must forthrightly advocate the termination of each and every one of them, as well as the removal of all unnecessary tariffs.
As, again, things stand now, 93 percent of the land in Israel is still either owned or administered by the state. The housing market must be made more competitive by privatizing state-owned land, by reducing and simplifying housing regulations, and by reforming the tax policies that provide an incentive for municipalities to prevent construction within their boundaries.
The economic list continues. As things stand now, one-third of a company’s work force can force unionization on the majority. Israel desperately needs right-to-work laws as well as a policy of binding arbitration in the case of vital services, so that striking workers can’t shut down the country at whim.
And, as things stand now, the Education Ministry determines almost the entire curriculum for almost all Israeli schools. This must be undone. Restrictions must also be eased on television and radio broadcasting—Israel does not have even one non-state-owned radio station that broadcasts nationally.
All of this, challenging enough in itself, does not exhaust the to-do’s. Two other main areas need to be addressed, each of which is likely to be less familiar to Americans.
I’ve already hinted at the first, which involves defining the parameters of a Jewish nation-state and defending its special character. Roughly speaking, Israel needs to distinguish itself as a Jewish state through its immigration policies, its calendar, its language, and its symbols—and to do so without religious coercion and without limiting the rights of non-Jews. This is not a simple matter. It is basically what last year’s passage of Israel’s nation-state law made feasible, but the hard work of policy-making remains to be done.
Along the same lines, Israel must become more welcoming to olim: Jews returning to the land of their forebears. Here, a top priority is eliminating artificial licensing barriers that have kept many new arrivals out of competitive professions.
At the same time, the state must discourage illegal immigration. Here, too, the Knesset has acted by passing several laws designed to disincentivize such action. But the courts have struck these down.
Which leads to the second matter of special and urgent concern to Israeli conservatives: namely, the need to curb Israel’s judicial bureaucracy.
It would be hard to overestimate the powers that this bureaucracy has assumed unto itself. All limitations have long since been eliminated on who can petition the court (standing) and what kinds of cases the court can hear (justiciability). The grounds for ruling a law or a government action unconstitutional—and bear in mind that Israel has no constitution—have been so unreasonably expanded as effectively to allow the Supreme Court to intervene whenever and on whatever grounds it happens to disagree with a given law or action.
Moreover, after unilaterally declaring Israel’s Basic Laws to possess constitutional status (and hence to form the grounds for striking down ordinary statutes), the Court now threatens to strike down last year’s nation-state law—which is itself a Basic Law. As if that weren’t enough, the justices of the Supreme Court have turned themselves into a review panel for government appointments of every kind, and, critically, hold veto power over all appointments to the Court itself.
As this unchecked judicial power has been used in the aggressive pursuit of a progressive agenda on every front, Israeli conservatives will accomplish very little until they find a way to restrain the Court as well as the entire judicial bureaucracy and especially the Court-empowered office of the Attorney General.
This, then, is the multifront battleground on which Israeli conservatives must fight.
Up until now—and despite dealing with, by Israeli standards, fairly sympathetic government coalitions—Israeli conservatives have won a few battles but lost many more. To return where I began, however, there is this encouraging note: in public discourse, and in the “war of ideas,” conservatives and classical liberals have been gaining ground in Israel for nearly a decade, and are beginning to affect significantly the tenor of public discussion. In the long run, the character of the Jewish state will be determined not by the Supreme Court but, as is proper in a democracy, by the court of public opinion and in the voting booth.
This essay has been adapted from a talk given on November 10 at the Jewish Leadership Conference in New York.