An Israeli home for America’s New Right

Far-right commentator Caroline Glick interviews Elliott Abrams at the Israeli Conservatism Conference, Jerusalem, May 26, 2022 (Fabian Koldorff)

Noam Sheizaf

+972 Magazine  /  July 18, 2022

A recent conference in Jerusalem showcases the Israeli right’s embrace of American-style culture wars, nationalist populism, and cults of personality.

“What is conservatism?” asks Israeli author and political commentator Gadi Taub at the opening of his presentation at the Israeli Conservatism Conference. The topic of the panel is “Israeli Culture — Myth Shattering or a Return to our Roots?” and, despite the dry framing, the main hall is packed. Sitting next to Taub is Roy Iddan, a successful television screenwriter, and Shai Golden, a journalist, novelist, and former editor of Haaretz Magazine, who now has his own morning show on the ultra-right Channel 14.

A few minutes earlier, when moderator Liat Koshizky — the only woman on the panel — introduced the three speakers, it was Taub who received the loudest applause from the audience, many of whom are from the national-religious camp. It’s a strange moment, considering the fact that just a decade ago, Taub published a book critical of the settler movement, warning that it posed the greatest existential threat to the State of Israel.

In recent years, however, Taub has undergone a personal transformation en route to becoming the leading intellectual of a new kind of Israeli right: one that has moved away from the debate over the occupation or the fate of the settlement enterprise. A podcast host, columnist for Haaretz, and the main critic of the so-called Israeli “deep state,” Taub now sympathizes with Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, as well as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the panel, Taub dedicates his time to speaking about how political correctness destroys artistic freedom. He makes a surprisingly nuanced case — I even find myself agreeing with a point he makes — but his overall tone is bitter and pessimistic, even angry. Golden, who made his move from the left to the right even more recently, sounds just as panicked. “Bialik [Israel’s national poet] wouldn’t have been published today because he is too Zionist […] A film about the Entebbe Operation would not have been approved,” he claims.

I wrote several stories for Haaretz Magazine back when Golden was its editor; he was always kind to me, as was Taub when we ran into each other at a cafe after I wrote a piece attacking him. Nowadays, their paranoid style makes me uneasy. The two belong to a small yet influential group of high-profile “former leftists,” which includes Haaretz’s literary editor, Benny Ziffer, who has become an avid Netanyahu supporter, author Irit Linur, who hosts a popular talk radio show on IDF Radio (and is also a speaker at the conference), and the libertarian attorney Ari Shamay.

That Linur, Ziffer, and Taub either previously or currently write for Haaretz does not hold them back from constantly complaining about left-wing censorship and progressive groupthink. This group of writers, each with their own style, represents a shift taking place in the Israeli right from religious conservatism and support of settlements to American-style culture wars, a cult of personality around Netanyahu, and Jewish nationalist populism.

Taken together, they introduce a certain sense of hipness, something strictly Tel Avivian, which separates the new right and the old one. And like their American counterparts, the use of irony and the shattering of liberal taboos are their main rhetorical tools. When Taub hosted Linur on his podcast, she opened by telling their audience she is speaking from her kitchen, “because this is where women belong,” a half-serious slight at the way so-called “woke” Israeli liberals see Linur. Taub, for his part, described how much he enjoyed the backlash to one of his tweets, which stated “You can’t solve the Palestinian problem because the Palestinians are the problem.”

But now, speaking before hundreds at the conference, Taub casts aside the irony and speaks directly: “The struggle now is not over the future of Judea and Samaria [the Israeli term for the occupied West Bank], but rather between nationalism and a global, post-national liberal elite that wants us governed by international treaties,” Taub tells the audience. “Being a conservative is being nationalist.”

Against the dead Zionist consensus

Held on May 26 in Jerusalem for the third time in four years, the Israeli Conservatism Conference, sponsored by the right-wing Tikvah Fund, aims to be the main intellectual hub for cutting-edge right-wing thought in Israel. Jewish billionaire Zalman Chaim Bernstein started the Tikvah Fund a year before his death in 1999, and in recent years, it has become increasingly active in right-wing policy debates, legislation, and activism.

The conference, modeled after the American Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), is one of its flagship projects. Yet the Israeli version does not include any current members of Knesset, a fact that allows its participants to avoid discussing the one issue that has divided the right over the past few years: the fate of Netanyahu, who is currently on trial over corruption charges.

As Taub rightly observes, the question of the settlements and the debate over a possible Palestinian state — which dominated right-wing events until recent years — are all but absent from the conference. Gone are the brochures full of warnings of rockets being fired at Tel Aviv from a no-longer-occupied West Bank, or cherry-picked quotes by PLO leaders meant to show that a Palestinian state is only the first step toward Israel’s destruction. Even BDS, the scourge of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and its hasbara industry, wasn’t mentioned at any of the panels I attended.

Instead, I pick up a booklet with a plan for ridding government ministries of their legal gatekeepers through a wholesale reform of the Israeli judicial system; a copy of Epoch Magazine, the Israeli version of the Epoch Times, the anti-Chinese American paper that has been publishing right-wing conspiracy theories and other Trumpian think pieces in recent years; and a brochure on “new immigration policies,” which includes an analysis of crime rates in the African asylum seeker community in Israel.

At the sign-in counter, every conference participant is handed a long essay in book format by Ronen Shoval, the founder of the far-right group Im Tirtzu, whose claim to fame was its vicious campaign against the liberal New Israel Fund. The essay is an analysis of a text by Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, which places the Jewish component of the Israeli state above its democratic one.

One of the popular stands is by “Shibolet,” a series of conservative books, published by the right-wing Sella Meir Press and the Tikvah Fund. Among its publications are books that have now become staples among the New Right, including Hebrew translations of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” and Ben Shapiro’s “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans,” along with Taub’s latest book, “The Mobiles and The Fixed — The Struggle of the Elites Against Israeli Democracy.”

The only reminder of the old Israeli right was a huge screen in the entry hall, displaying anti-union and anti-welfare state material. Conservatism can wear many clothes, but underneath them one will always find capitalism.

Bringing CPAC to Tel Aviv

There is something ironic in Taub’s rants about global elites at a conference sponsored by American mega-donors that seeks to introduce an American-style conservative agenda and its tactics to Israeli politics. But this contradiction is not unique to Israel; the American New Right is now a global phenomenon, with elites of its own, much like American liberalism. Yet while major Israeli left-wing organizations that receive foreign funding — from B’Tselem to this very website — were born out of a local context, the Tikvah Fund is a top-down operation, explicit in its promotion and importing of an American conservative terminology and agenda in Israel.

Take, for example, the Israel Law & Liberty Forum, one of Tikvah Fund’s flagship operations, which states on its About Us page that it is “inspired by the [American] Federalist Society,” a U.S. legal organization that has served as the breeding ground for new generations of hyper-conservative and libertarian lawyers and jurists. Similarly, the Israel Law & Liberty Forum operates as a network of conservative attorneys, judges, and law students, and promotes “judicial restraint, individual liberty, and limited government.”

The Tikvah Fund is also a donor to the influential Kohelet Policy Forum, a far-right libertarian think-tank. Kohelet has excellent contacts among top right-wing politicians, including former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked; is considered the engine behind the 2018 Jewish-Nation State Law; and helped inject a whole host of deregulatory and anti-union ideas into the Israeli mainstream.

But the Tikvah Fund isn’t merely a donor group. Its Israeli branch, located in Jerusalem, sponsors right-wing events and offers programs on Jewish history as well as free market and conservative political thought. In the days following the conference, I began receiving invitations for Tikvah Fund programming in my inbox, including an upcoming live conversation in Tel Aviv between Ben Shapiro, the star of the American New Right, and Amit Segal, Israel’s celebrity right-wing pundit. Co-sponsored by CPAC, the invitation refers to the pair as “the two most important conservative journalists in the U.S. and Israel.”

Next came an email from the “Argaman Institute,” another local Tikvah Fund operation headed by Im Tirzu founder Shoval, that “trains a new generation of Zionist intellectuals” to join “The Adam Smith Program” promoting a free market and limited government. The lectures are free, and participants are offered food, academic consulting, and a grant of NIS 12,000 ($3,500).

With its hybrid of neoconservative thinking and Trump-era populism, the Tikvah Fund brand has spread so rapidly that even Makor Rishon — the broadsheet of the national-religious settler elite — dedicated a long think-piece criticizing it. “The vigorous activities of the Tikvah Fund […] have turned conservative thinking in its American form to the dominant language on the Zionist Right,” observed Eitan Abramowitz last month. “This school of thought focuses on economic and political issues, but it is now entering the internal conversation of the religious public.”

In between conference sessions, I spot former Ambassador David Friedman, President Trump’s envoy to Israel and now the head of the Friedman Center for Peace through Strength, one of the event’s co-sponsors and speakers. Friedman, along with the late American-Jewish mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, is credited with two major moves by the Trump administration that broke with longtime U.S. tradition in the region: recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Israelis rightly interpret as de facto recognition of the annexation of the eastern part of city.

Despite a surface-level change in rhetoric, President Joe Biden has mostly kept Trump and Friedman’s policies in place. As we speak in the hallway, the former ambassador tells me he is looking for new partners. “This conference is the perfect example,” Friedman told me. “We can amplify the program, bring in some exciting guests, and bring more people.” His work today, he says, is primarily conducted in Israel.

‘Israel’s role is to serve as a model’

Some issues on the American right’s agenda, such as its crusade against “wokeism,” are especially well received in Israel, a society famous for its lack of political correctness. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Tal Heinrich, a correspondent for Channel 14 and the conference emcee, opens the first session with a dig at what the conservative movement calls “gender ideology,” “it’s so great coming here from the United States, where you cannot say words such as ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ anymore.”

Other ideas do not travel so well. When Professor Victor Davis Hanson, author of “The Case for Trump,” speaks about the problem of a “society without borders,” it is impossible not to think about the ways in which Israel refuses to define its own geographic and social boundaries, or the distinctions it makes between citizens, residents, and subjects of its military rule. Caroline Glick, a pro-Trump arch-conservative who is interviewing Hanson onstage, is not the person to challenge him on such inconsistencies.

“The role of Israel is to serve as a model,” Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative and one of the principal intellectual architects of the “War on Terror” under George W. Bush, tells the audience later that day. Abrams, who eschewed Bush’s doctrine and gradually adopted Trumpism, is now the chairman of the Tikvah Fund’s board. “An example in military might, in innovation, in encouraging childbirth,” he goes on.

Encouraging childbirth? A month later, following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Israel’s liberal Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz announced he was easing access to abortion, while Amiad Cohen, the director-general of Tikvah Fund Israel, published a piece in Haaretz promising that limiting abortion rights would never become a right-wing issue in Israel. Rather than an ideological position, it seems this is part of a calculated agenda that refrains from raising issues that could alienate mainstream Israelis and thus create rifts in the coalition Tikvah Fund is aiming to build.

The new militias

When the Palestinian issue does make an appearance at the conference, it takes on a new form. In front of the stand belonging to Israel’s Defense & Security Forum (IDSF), a young bearded man invites Israeli military veterans to join a new government-backed militia called “The Israeli National Guard.” Those interested, the man says, can fill in their details on the designated website.

The impression is that the IDSF and the Israeli National Guard are related, but in fact they are not: the IDSF is a right-wing NGO that promotes hardline positions on security issues, while the National Guard is a new arm of the Border Police.

Still, the two share the same spirit. The former’s printed material focuses on the “external threat” posed by Iran and the “internal threat” posed by Palestinian citizens in the form of “a new wave of riots and arson attacks,” in reference to the violence that engulfed the country in May 2021. In other words, both organizations operate under a logic that views Palestinian protest — and perhaps the entire Palestinian issue — as a matter of law and order.

Palestinian citizens have become a central focus of the right in recent years, particularly since May of last year, which saw protests in mixed cities accompanied by severe violence between Palestinian citizens and Israeli Jews. The right-wing media has been using the term “pogrom,” eliciting the memory of the massacres of Jewish communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the Russian Empire, to describe these events, and there are constant references to “defenseless” Jews who are targeted in mixed cities (there is, unsurprisingly, very little mention of the Palestinians who were attacked by Jewish mobs).

The Israeli National Guard is the state’s response to May 2021: a new reserve force for the Border Police, comprised of 2,000 ex-soldiers who can be called upon on short notice for crowd control and public order assignments during such escalations. “Enforcement” and “governance” are the buzzwords for dealing with Palestinians in the mixed cities, in the Negev/Naqab, and in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli military control and which the right now regards as part of the state.

Yet the real objective of this discourse is not maintaining public order; as always, security is the pretext, but land and demography are the central underlying issue.

The IDSF, which describes itself as a non-partisan national security organization, promises that its activities will establish new Jewish settlements while “enforcing against and evacuating illegal Palestinian, Arab, and Bedouin construction.” Since the state rarely approves building permits for Palestinian homes, it is clear that what the IDSF really seeks is to take over as much territory as possible, and to keep it in Jewish hands.

The coded language, and the minor role the Palestinian national issue seems to play at the conference, betrays the degree to which the right has adapted to the one-state reality between the river and the sea. In the eyes of the New Right, the mixed cities, Area C, and the Negev are the new battle lines, where land is still up for grabs and facts on the ground will determine the future.

While diplomats, politicians, and think tank experts make empty platitudes about some future Palestinian state, the binational reality on the ground continues to take shape, and the right has correctly identified that whatever gains Jews make in this moment can and will be used as leverage in any future arrangement, or simply kept in Jewish hands. Contemporary American right-wing thought — manifested by different forms of anti-wokeism, irony, and so-called freedom of thought, undergirded by white nationalism, and translated and adjusted to the Israeli context — seems like the perfect vehicle for this project.

Noam Sheizaf is an independent journalist and editor; he was the founding executive director and editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine