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The Rise of Conservatism in Israel

Israeli society was long perceived as culturally, socially, and polit­ically liberal, similar in orientation to societies in North America and western Europe. Its more recent rightward turn has thus triggered much hand-wringing—both at home and among friends abroad. Those whom Menachem Mautner terms Israel’s “liberal for­mer hegemons” (LFHs), secular Ashkenazi Jews in law, media, business, and academia, have reacted to their apparent loss of status with anxiety and fear. Overseas, Israel’s left-leaning friends now note with alarm how, as the title of French intellectual Diana Pinto’s 2012 book put it, Israel Has Moved.

Though Israel’s conservative turn is unmistakable, its critics over­state it for three reasons. First, many elements of Israel’s original Zionist framework would be considered conservative today, particularly its strong nationalism and defense of national sovereignty. Sec­ond, the idea of liberalism itself has shifted, meaning that those who have not followed are considered to have shifted rightward—even if they have not moved at all. Those who exclusively promote universalist values and individual choice are suspicious of those who insist that such commitments need to be balanced with values based on the par­ticularity of specific communities. Third, Jewish religious culture is inherently conservative, emphasizing traditional institutions, norms, family, and a particular identity. Its extraordinary capacity to repro­duce itself—even in the absence of a state—means that these traditional values have repeatedly reemerged in Jewish groups throughout history.

This may surprise those who have criticized the conservative turn, but Israelis’ return to tradition has resulted in a greater commitment to democratic governance, civil liberties, and individual freedom com­pared to the policies and positions of Israel’s “liberal former hegemons.” Looking ahead, Israel needs to rethink parts of its constitutional order and social contract to better reflect the myriad social changes that have occurred over the past half century. This would entail greater flexibility for its various communities while maintaining both a healthy nationalism and a healthy democracy—something most Israelis seek.

Judaism’s Imprint on Israeli Conservatism

From 1930 until 1977, Israel was dominated by the Mapai (Labor Party). Mapai’s leaders believed that society should be national, mod­ern, secular, and collectivist. They used the state to shape both the economy and society, with government playing an extensive, inter­ventionist role in both. While Jewish identity lay at the foundation of Mapai nationalism, Mapai also perceived themselves in opposition to the preceding two thousand years of Jewish tradition. They spoke and wrote in terms of a new, national culture of “Hebrewness” (e.g., He­brew University) and of Zionism as a “negation of the exile,” rather than as a continuation of the culture that preceded it.

Although the Labor Zionist elites set the terms of reference for national culture during this period and tried to assimilate everyone to it, a large part of society refused to absorb it. The new Hebrew cul­ture was incredibly “thin” when compared to traditional Jewish culture. As Mautner writes, “the culture of the Yishuv, and afterwards Israeli culture, has been far richer in contents and practices than the narrower Hebrew culture constructed from scratch in the first half of the twentieth century.” The latter was quite incapable of supplanting the old culture and its roots in religious Judaism. Within a generation or two it could no longer inspire meaning or even sustain itself, dis­solving into a mere appendage of Western liberalism.

Over time, while the original Labor elites weakened, other parts of Israeli society—the more Jewishly rooted parts—gained strength, and with it the political power to challenge the original elites. Religion and tradition, which naturally produced thick cultures with deep roots and rich meaning, reemerged—even to some extent among the children of the former liberal Ashkenazi Zionists. For many, as Maut­ner notes, Jewish tradition, exhibiting continuity with three thousand years of history (that is, no longer skipping over the two thousand years of Rabbinic Judaism that the “Hebraicists” sought to bracket) became an important new source of identity, even if not all were moved to recur to a traditional lifestyle.

Today, the enduring and crosscutting influence of Jewish religion and tradition is reflected in several ways in Israeli society. First, it is evident—and embodied—in the growing value placed on family with­in the country. Tel Aviv likes to present itself as a city of hedonism and heterodox lifestyles, but the statistics are clear: Israel is a family-oriented society. Jewish women in Israel have a birth rate higher than any in the Western world (and it is now, on average, higher than the Arab birth rate in Israel). This phenomenon characterizes all parts of the Jewish community in Israel, from secular north Tel Aviv to the religious strongholds of Ofra and Bnei Brak. At the same time, motherhood does not prevent Israeli women from being teachers, lawyers, architects, professors, computer programmers, and entrepreneurs; the rate of Jewish women’s participation in the labor force is higher than the OECD average.

Modern Israel’s Jewish tradition is also manifested in the growth of the Ashkenazi Haredim and other orthodox communities, includ­ing many Jews of Middle Eastern ancestry and even some Russians who have adopted the Haredi lifestyle. These communities insist on isolating themselves as much as possible from mainstream, Westernized Israeli society. Their ideals are not sought in the arena of citizenship but in the ascetic devotion of the Kollel scholar, though this is increasingly beyond the financial reach of most Haredim.

A third form of traditional influence has been even more important: although often considered European, Israel is culturally—though not economically or in education—more Middle Eastern than is typically understood by outside observers (Jewish and non-Jewish alike). In contrast to the diaspora, which is dominated by Ashkenazi Jews originally from Europe, half of Israelis are Mizrahi, with a back­ground rooted in the Middle East—coming from countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and their neighbors. Matti Friedman argues that this is the “real” Israel:

Half the country came from the Muslim world, and that in­forms everything about Israel—cuisine, behavior, music, reli­gion, politics. Many . . . think the basis of the country is the European Jewish world—Herzl and Ben-Gurion—and that the Jews of the Middle East then came and joined that story. I think it’s the opposite: Israel is part of the continuum of Judaism in the Muslim world, together with the remnants of European Jewry. And the Jews of European origin are becoming more Mizrahi here—in their behavior, their attitude to religion.

As Friedman observes, these Middle Eastern Jews “were always politically on the right,” committed to “traditional Judaism even . . . [if they] don’t call themselves religious or Orthodox,” and skeptical of any possibility of peace with the Palestinians. As such, the country “does not rest on socialism and secularism. It rests on a bedrock of Jewish identity.” The addition of mostly secular Russian-speaking Soviet arrivals (a fourth influence) from the 1990s complicates the picture to some extent, but on the whole these newer Israelis are more conservative than liberal, proud of their heritage, nationalist in orien­tation, and find anything that smacks of state socialism repugnant. The new Soviet arrivals are less concerned with identity but, as Fried­man reports, “ended up being kind of Middle Eastern. They don’t vote left. Few of them want anything to do with the left.”

Finally, one must consider something seldom comprehended abroad: how the experience of being a citizen, and often a soldier, in a Jewish state shapes the personhood of most Israelis. Their identity becomes “thicker,” defined by relationships and a sense of responsibility for those around them and for the nation itself. Jews experienced nothing like this for thousands of years, arguably not even in the Second Temple period when too many Jews gave allegiance to faction rather than country. For Israelis, their state is something in which they claim and share ownership. Their actions as citizens are governed by proprietary concern for the country’s survival, for they know that their own personal welfare is tied up with their country’s. This gives rise to a set of perceptions and behaviors often called conservative but for which the better term is perhaps prudential.

Politics and Policy

The Left lost its first election in 1977, after dominating politics since well before independence, and was replaced by the conservative Likud Party. But a change in electoral politics did not necessarily yield a change in the LFH’s influence across a wide range of powerful institutions. On the contrary, members of the former elite continued to dominate the judiciary and legal establishment, academia, media, unions, and the economy—and sought wherever possible to transfer the locus of power to these institutions and away from the politicians. They continued to assume they had the power to define the country’s “official” national culture—what everyone shared in common irre­spective of what subgroup they belonged to. And this establishment often tried to speak for Israel internationally as if only its perspective mattered.

Part of the problem was that the new prime minister, Menahem Begin, and his allies did not fully grasp what the sources of power were or how to exercise it. They had never won an election before, and were not quite sure what to do in the many areas they could control once they did. They had no overarching intellectual vision to compete with the dominant ideology, and they remained very much under its influ­ence. Members of the new right-of-center government were, with few exceptions, profoundly ignorant of eco­nomics.

For a long time, these new conservative leaders contented themselves with just manning the ship. There was no attempt to change direction domestically. The new leadership mostly deferred as the former hegemons claimed new prerogatives for courts, legal advisers, unions, cultural trendsetters, and academic policy wonks—with one major exception. Begin and his successors had clear ideas on foreign policy, and they were more willing to diverge from the Labor Party and its allies on major concerns like the peace process.

Today, however, this modus operandi has become unsustainable. Israel’s conservative culture is approaching a position of dominance. Not only have religious and right-of-center groups grown in demo­graphic importance, but Israeli society as a whole has become much more Jewish and conservative—diverse but unquestionably Jewish and conservative. In foreign policy, conservative views have come close to achieving the position of a consensus. In the elections of 2019, for example, the storm over the personality of Binyamin Netanyahu obscured the fact that conservatives not only dominated Netanyahu’s coalition but were also powerfully represented in Benny Gantz’s coalition. When American secretary of state Michael Pom­peo declared that Israeli settlements in Judaea and Samaria did not violate international law, both Netanyahu and Gantz welcomed the statement.

Domestically, conservatism’s influence has increased at different speeds in different areas. While instruction in Jewish subjects in Israel’s regular (non-Haredi, nonreligious Zionist) public schools has long been a flashpoint between Left and Right, there is considerable demand from traditional families whose children attend these schools for Jewish cultural and religious material to be incorporated into the curricula. These families absorb Jewish traditions through their im­mersion in local communities and synagogues—where private initia­tive naturally and quite successfully perpetuates beliefs and customs—and have no objection when similar themes are taught in the schools. Where the regular public schools cannot do this, families seek out private organizations to do so within the schools wherever possible. But often the education establishment resists. Meanwhile, the propor­tion of parents choosing “national religious” and Haredi schools con­tinues to increase.

Religion has long been a sensitive political topic in Israel because neither side of the secular-religious social divide is content to leave the other side alone. Narrow ideologues on both sides seek to impose coercive policies. Israel’s ultraorthodox parties took the lead in initiating laws that prohibit opening small grocery stores on Shabbat and in fighting the introduction of mass transit (buses) on Shabbat, whether publicly or privately operated. This has produced a reaction, with many cities declaring that they will not only not enforce the law, but will fund public transportation on Shabbat. On the other hand, Israel’s Supreme Court, dominated by progressives, has prohibited ultraorthodox communities from holding gender-separated cultural events in public spaces, effectively labeling the cultural lifestyle of a sixth of Israelis as a human rights violation.

On economic policy, the country has slowly shifted more in the direction of free markets, with the development, for the first time, of a popular constituency prioritizing economic liberalism over the past decade. Whereas previously economic adjustment was grudg­ingly accepted as a necessary evil by a population used to thinking that the job of the state was to intervene in the economy so as to ensure uninterrupted economic growth and full employment, now there is increasing popular understanding—partly due to the failures of two populist finance ministers who promoted economically un­viable housing programs in response to the 2011 protests against the rising costs of living—that departures from the free market, including overregulation, market concentration, and the power of organized labor, are things that can hurt ordinary citizens most.

Control of Israel’s powerful unelected institutions has become a flash point between the LFHs who still control many institutions and the conservative majority that regularly wins elections (even in the recent election, conservative parties won a majority of the seats; they were, however, divided on the issue of religion-state relations, giving an opening to the centrists). This struggle is most obvious at the Supreme Court. Since the 1980s, Israel’s courts have unilaterally enlarged the scope of their decision-making powers to include the determination of the content of laws, including what values should apply to them, and how material resources should be distributed—acting not only “beside the Knesset, but even above the Knesset.” In addition, the Supreme Court has used its ability to select new judges—the only other court in the democratic world to have such authority is India’s—to ensure it controls who sits on the bench in the future, giving it unparalleled power.

No less important is the dissatisfaction with other branches of the legal establishment. Binyamin Netanyahu did not create his right-wing coalition’s resentment toward the State Prosecution, the attor­ney general, and legal advisers more broadly (who in Israel are effec­tively appointed by other legal advisers, not by politicians). Criticism of these institutions is long-standing, and not only on the right. A long record of prosecutorial misbehavior led to a broad political consensus in favor of the creation of an inspectorate-general of the State Pros­ecution in 2014. The state prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, in collaboration with the Prosecutors’ Union, succeeded in turning the inspectorate into a nullity, however. Legal advisers have long claimed the authority to dictate policy to elected officials; in 2018 a deputy attorney general, Dina Zilber, with the support of the attorney gen­eral, asserted before the Knesset her authority to contest in public the views of her cabinet minister. A similar struggle is playing out in higher education, the media, and cultural institutions, all of which continue to be dominated by LFHs.

Israeli Conservatism and Its International Critics

Israel’s turn to conservatism has been caricatured in the West, chang­ing Western perceptions of Israel. In the United States, support for Israel is increasingly dependent on one’s political party. Republicans have steadily—and reactively—become more pro-Israel as parts of the Democratic Party have increasingly taken a harder line against the country, with a number of prominent progressives, such as Rep­resentative Ilhan Omar, questioning the whole relationship. Even some prominent liberal intellectuals have become more critical of Israel: Robert Kagan argues that the country is “turn[ing] away from the liberal order” internationally and abandoning the “difficult bal­ance between liberalism and Jewish nationalism . . . [with] a deliberate tilt in the balance away from liberalism” domestically.

American Jewry is also divided on ideological lines, with the more progressive parts openly and consistently critical of the country. For example, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rick Jacobs, has said that the country should not expect his movement to “support . . . the most misguided policies of its leaders. . . . It is beyond counterproductive.” He says donors should be “smart and strategic about all the money we give to Israel, and to contribute to things that align with our values [and] encourage the seeds of pluralism.” When Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s blunt deputy minister of foreign affairs, undiplomatically noted that American Jewry are “people that never send their children to fight for their country,” Jacobs called for her firing and a Princeton University Jewish group canceled a talk she was planning under pressure from progressive students. Orthodox groups on the other hand, which tilt rightward, had no comment. They are, in great contrast to the nonorthodox strands of Judaism, generally supportive of the country and its current government. They are also increasingly Zionist, even if most would never use the term.

A similar pattern is evident in Europe, where support for the country also increasingly depends on political orientation. In Britain, for example, the Right is mostly supportive, the Left is more likely to be critical; under its last leader, Jeremy Corbyn, it was explicitly anti-Zionist (and widely accused of being anti-Semit­ic).

Negative perceptions of Israel in the West may therefore be more a product of Western polarization—and the way polarizing rhetoric frames reality—than of anything within Israel itself. The fact that much of the mainstream media—which filters news about Israel to most Americans—is increasingly progressive does not help.

While Israel has moved to the right in some important ways—notably on the peace process—its commitment to the core ideas of liberalism—democratic governance, civil liberties, and individual free­dom—have if anything grown substantially in recent decades. This commitment is certainly greater now than it was in the country’s first few decades, and it is arguably greater than it would be under the LFHs if they still ruled. Moreover, given the recent rise of “cancel culture” in the United States, Israel is arguably more liberal—that is, classically liberal—in some ways than the United States.

Where Does Israel Go from Here?

Israel’s politics currently center on a conflict between the culture of the majority, reflected in the polling booth, and the culture of a mi­nority which retains enough power through unelected institutions to enforce its views. This situation is unsustainable. The country needs to renegotiate its social contract and constitutional order to reflect these social and political changes. What would this entail?

The Israeli state should more clearly recognize its role as the agent of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael and to a lesser extent worldwide. This has always formed the basis of its fundamental national policies (e.g., on immigration), but as Zionists became progressives, the LFHs increasingly downplayed this role. The emphasis—in, for ex­ample, legal interpretations—shifted towards individual rights with little regard for how these might affect communal interests, despite the fact that a majority of the population believes that the latter should take precedence on essential matters (e.g., illegal immigration, land policy, national symbols, and of course security). The 2018 Nation-State Law, which defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, was passed in order to enshrine this principle—his­torically a central com­ponent of Zionism—into law. The 2018 law includes Israel’s flag, language, anthem, calendar, immigration poli­cies, and connection to the Jewish diaspora as instantiations of that vision.

The key to closing the gap between Israel’s incipient conservative majority and the unelected institutions that exert so large an influence upon policy is to change the relative power of the Knesset and gov­ernment, on the one hand, and the legal establishment on the other. Just as the purpose of the judicial appointments in the United States, and indeed of constitutional courts in most democracies, is to prevent too large or permanent a gap opening between the values of society and those appointed to adjudicate them, so too in Israel the authority to appoint judges should return to what it was before 1953: appointment by the government with the consent of the Knesset.

The goal should be to enable the democratic majority to alter public policy so as to reflect its—Jewish—values, while continuing to guarantee by basic law the rights of individuals and communities to conduct their lives as they please. While Israelis of all social and cultural backgrounds exhibit increased interest in Jewish learning and values, many remain sensitive to anything they perceive as religious coercion. Conservative Israelis thus face a choice: Do they believe that conservative and Jewish values are best served when the state enforces them in the public square? Or do they believe they are best served when the state removes impediments to the free practice and teaching of Judaism to those who desire it, including within the public education system? Neither choice is cost-free.

This conundrum suggests that the state needs to rebalance its rela­tionship with society. On the one hand, it ought to withdraw its writ sufficiently to maximize the social, cultural, and economic autonomy of the various parts of Israeli society. For example, while a Jewish nation-state should insist that Jewish history and tradition are taught in all of its Jewish primary and secondary schools (and to a lesser extent in its Arab schools), it should allow local communities to decide how these are taught, and by whom. Similarly, while a Jewish state should insist that Shabbat and major Jewish holidays are days of rest, it should offer greater accommodations for different communities to decide how they want to interpret this.

On the other hand, the state needs to resist complete withdrawal, as has occurred with regard to the Haredim since David Ben-Gur­ion’s famous compromise with them in the early days of the state. This would entail normalizing their status such that no Jewish group gets a pass when it comes to serving the nation. Such rules create unfair privileges and weaken the ties that should be binding among citizens. Exceptions can be made for a small number, such as those who get accepted to the few elite religious schools, but sys­tem-wide accommodations for whole groups (such as those now granted to the Haredim) weaken national resolve. If military service is not possible, then some other form of national service should be required.

These prescriptions do not entail discrimination against the politi­cal or personal rights or property of any individual. They do not entail any curb on the right of communities to pursue their particular cultures, even if that culture is not Jewish or traditional. They do not entail curbs on freedom of the press, religion, academic liberty, or free expression, nor any abridgement of the authority of the courts to enforce these values.

Judaism’s conservatism—most notably its promotion of a strong national identity, emphasis on building a thick web of social institutions that are subsequently preserved across generations, strong com­munal aspects, high respect for individual dignity, emphasis on virtuous behavior, and generally positive attitude toward wealth pro­duction—explains its unique capacity to survive and flourish with­out a country for millennia against great odds and in a way no other civilization has been able to. Its model of sociocultural reproduction is highly effective. No progressive, secular equivalent would have been able to do the same precisely because progressivism denigrates the very social technology that supports such endurance. The revival of Jewishness in Israel (and of Orthodox Judaism in the diaspora) is a product of this incredible culture’s capacity to revive itself even after the devastation wrought by the Holocaust.

The renegotiation of Israel’s social contract would embrace ele­ments of conservatism and liberalism derived from many sources in the history of Judaism, Israel, and Zionism, and blend them in a way that reflects the evolution of Israeli society over the past seventy years. It would reflect the fact that, contrary to most recent commentary, Israel’s shift to becoming a more conservative society does not mean it is becoming more illiberal. The growth of conservatism and the emergence of various social groups that have more conservative values—most notably, the Mizrahi, Haredi, and Russian communities—are making Israel more diverse and more accommodating of difference. This is a sharp contrast to how the country was in its first few decades—a one-party state dominated by a single, all-encompass­ing ideology—as well as to how some on the left would prefer Israel now. Israel today is thus more liberal (in the original sense of the term) because its progressive, left-leaning elements are balanced by the growth of conservative values.

In fact, whereas the political consensus in most Western societies has broken down to a degree unimaginable just a few years ago—yielding a series of crises across the West—Israel has assembled a workable balance between universal and particularistic values without which no society that seeks to maintain its domestic liberty and national independence can survive. Israel’s blend of conservatism and liberalism thus offers an example of national reconciliation and balance that can serve as a model for other countries.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 3 (Fall 2020): 205–15.

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