Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Laissez-Faire Conservatism in Israel? Judaism Says No

This past July, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), one of the most influential political organizations in the United States, held its inaugural Israeli conference (this in addition to the Tikvah Fund that has held a similar annual Conservative Conference these past few years). This is ironic, if not outright paradoxical, given the Jewish halakhic ethos of social justice, concern for the poor, and many commandments of similar ilk (treating the stranger in our midst).

As the Times of Israel reported back then (, CPAC was a big success, if that’s measured by being sold out (2,500 seats). Unsurprisingly, many attendees were American olim, bringing their political-ideological baggage along with their Aliyah. Conservatism, of course, is a longstanding and legitimate ideology – not to be confused with “reactionism” that seeks a return to some “idyllic” past. But if Conservatism stands for anything, it is respect for a nation’s particular culture and heritage. It is here that problems arise.

The CPAC conference focused on Israel’s foreign policy: Trump’s positive support for Israel, the need to be militarily strong, and so on. The Bible would seem to agree with the need for strong self-defense, given the number of wars (and accompanying commandments) found throughout – although there are clear instances where the Almighty warns that “discretion is the better part of valor” (e.g., Jeremiah, chapter 27, especially verses 12-13). Overall, though, Israel is continuing the Jewish tradition of strong self-defense, and even trying to keep its moral bearings during warfare.

However, when we turn to domestic issues within the context of the State of Israel, the modern Conservative approach should actually be the opposite of what CPAC and other conservative ideologues are pushing – for two reasons. First, conservatism stands for incremental reform, fully understanding that radical – not to mention revolutionary – change usually ends disastrously. If Israel’s socio-economic ideology and policy was Socialist from the start (even before the State’s establishment), then a sharp shift towards laissez-faire economics is patently unconservative. Indeed, “disaster” is precisely what happened when the Likud first came to power in 1977 and attempted a wholesale shift in economic policy. By 1983-84 Israel was suffering from 400% hyper-inflation (yes, 400%!), accompanied by a stock market and banking system collapse.

The second problem is far deeper, as noted above: Jewish culture. Yes, we have had our Rothschilds, but they are the exceptions to the historical approach of relative socio-economic equality in the Jewish tradition. Examples abound: all land sales reverted back to the original owners every Jubilee (50-year period) in order to avoid landowning concentration; slaves were freed every seventh Shmitta year; many mitzvot were promulgated to protect the poor (e.g., paying salaries on time); charity for the down-and-out became de rigueur practice, with charity boxes in all synagogues and even a holiday commanding charity disbursement (Purim’s matanot le’evyonim), with another providing an exemplary charity narrative (Boaz commanding his workers to let Ruth glean wheat without obstacle); strangers were to be treated as kin, a la Ruth herself (directly contradicting today’s Conservative mantra to ban non-Jewish immigration); and so on.

As for “taxation,” here too the Bible was all in favor: tithes (20%) were paid to the Levites who served in the Temple; Israelite kings could commandeer all able-bodied men to serve in the army when necessary.

True, there was no conception of “Socialism” back then – but neither was there any idea regarding Capitalism. What counts is the socio-economic ethos, and that was clearly more in line with what we today call “Social Welfare” than “Laissez-Faire Capitalism.”

Interestingly, the Times of Israel report noted that the star of the conference was Ben Shapiro, a guiding light of American Jewish Conservatism. As he went through his usual “spiel” praising Republican foreign policy, denouncing left-wing “wokeness”, and pontificating on other cultural issues, the audience responded with enthusiastic applause. And then he arrived at Israeli socio-economic policy, as the report noted: “Ben Shapiro did criticize Israel for its bureaucracy and obstacles to a free-market economy, drawing muted applause.

It seems that the Israeli audience (despite the American contingent, still mostly sabras) understood something that American Conservatives don’t – or don’t want to – understand: Israel is not the U.S.; Israel has its own Jewish and Zionist socio-economic policy; Israel has already seen what the unfettered market economy can produce (economic disaster).

Not for nothing is Israel called the Jewish State. Conservatives of all national backgrounds (here and there) would do well to apply their own “conservatism” to that central fact.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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