Commentary Magazine


Topic: Vladimir Jabotinsky

Imagining a Jewish Conservatism

There is a remarkable expression of market economics in the Mishnah, the Jewish law book, in the discussion of fast days, and it’s worth revisiting when reading this month’s typically incisive Mosaic essay on Jewish conservatism. The Mishnah discusses the establishment of communal fast days when the rains don’t arrive by a certain point in the season in which they are needed. If the drought continues, the leaders declare three such fast days in two weeks, with the fasts taking place on consecutive Mondays and Thursdays. The mishnaic text reads:

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There is a remarkable expression of market economics in the Mishnah, the Jewish law book, in the discussion of fast days, and it’s worth revisiting when reading this month’s typically incisive Mosaic essay on Jewish conservatism. The Mishnah discusses the establishment of communal fast days when the rains don’t arrive by a certain point in the season in which they are needed. If the drought continues, the leaders declare three such fast days in two weeks, with the fasts taking place on consecutive Mondays and Thursdays. The mishnaic text reads:

Public fasts are not to be ordered to commence on a Thursday, in order not to raise the price of victuals in the markets; but the first fasts are to be on Monday, Thursday, and [the following] Monday; but the second three fasts may follow on Thursday, Monday, and [the following] Thursday. R. José says, “Even as the first fasts are not to be commenced on Thursday, so also are the second and last fasts not to commence on that day.”

Beginning an unscheduled fast on Thursday would raise prices just when people need to begin their grocery shopping for Shabbat. According to this logic the second fast can be a Thursday because it’s known in advance, giving shoppers time to prepare ahead of time and causing less havoc in the markets.

What we have here is a rather amazing case of Jewish law being set according to market economics and the principle of unintended consequences. You could call such ideas “conservative” or “classically liberal,” such as they are–but of course they preceded thinkers like Milton Friedman by almost two thousand years.

We’ll come back to Friedman in a moment, but first: this month’s fantastic Mosaic essay. In it, Eric Cohen argues for a Jewish conservatism as a political project in response to the threats–demographic, security, and otherwise–the Jews face today. A summary can’t really do the essay justice, so read the whole thing. Cohen talks about the role of the family in fostering continuity; the purpose of Jewish nationalism; the primacy of economics; and other conceptual areas of this political program. But he also says, as well he should, that: “What such an agenda would look like—its programmatic content—is a task for a separate essay and another occasion.”

Cohen’s purpose is to establish the principles, and he does so with great insight and erudition.

But we should still think about how to fill in the blanks, and also make one important distinction. Cohen’s essay is so valuable because it weaves together disparate elements into a “Jewish conservatism.” Yet part of any program of “Jewish conservatism” will also be conservatism as practiced by Jews. And for that, we really do have some idea how it would look.

Israel is the most obvious testing ground for Jewish conservatism. It is a country ever in the process of breaking free from its socialist shackles, but the seeds were planted earlier.

When we discuss the promotion of democracy abroad, we often hear objections like: “There are no Thomas Jeffersons and James Madisons in Iraq.” True. And what makes the United States and Israel such easy allies is the fact that Israel did have Thomas Jeffersons and James Madisons (though it needed more of them; it could have used a full constitution, for example). One such founder was Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Jabotinsky rejected socialism and had a fuller appreciation of individual liberty than virtually any other Israeli founding father. Here is Jabotinsky on representative democracy:

What is especially difficult to understand is the mentality of those who yearn for “leaders.” The situation was completely different and better in my youth. We believed that every movement was made of people of equal worth. Each one was a prince, each one was a king. When election time came, they chose, not people, but programs. Those who were chosen were nothing but the executors of the program. We, the masses, would follow them and listen to them, not because they were “leaders,” but specifically because they were our “servants”; when you, of your own free will, chose a group of people and order to them to work for you, you had to help them–or remove them. Because you were obeying not their will, but only your own will, which was expressed in the election. … This philosophy of my youth was perhaps a complete fiction (like all human philosophies), but I much prefer it; it had more genius and more noblesse, even though it bore the name, whose prestige has declined–democracy.

When your nationalist movement has such men at the forefront, democracy and freedom are in the DNA of the state that eventually comes into being. Jabotinsky’s vision might not have been described as “conservative” then, but it sure is now. This focus on nationalism and democratic accountability is falling out of favor in the West, but any aspiring political program would do well to swim against that tide.

But we can get more specific than that, with examples, once the state was actually founded–actually, when the right finally won an election nearly thirty years after the founding of the country. Shedding the country’s socialist skin was not easy. But Israeli rightists were willing to take on the challenge, at least incrementally. Menachem Begin was the Likud’s first prime minister after the 1977 elections. He called on–you guessed it–Milton Friedman for assistance.

Avi Shilon’s biography of Begin probably has the best rundown of the Begin government’s economic plans. A brief summary is as follows.

Begin wanted Friedman’s help with his New Economic Reversal. Friedman called Begin’s reform plans as “daring as the raid on Entebbe.” Subsidies were eliminated. This was politically brave, since lower-income earners were a crucial voting bloc in Begin’s electoral triumph. Also cancelled were foreign-currency controls to open up trade and investment. In order to try to alleviate the deficit, Begin also raised the value-added tax.

But Begin still did not go far enough, and inflation hit. Shilon writes:

The desire to create a free market in an economy that had not known many changes since the establishment of the state was expressed, among other things, in the fact that the linkage mechanism that compensated wage earners for price increases and that had been in existence since the days of Mapai was not eliminated, thus negating the effect of the built-in mechanism of inflation, by which rising prices were supposed to reduce demand and inflationary pressures.

He was also hesitant to push a fuller privatization program. Additionally, he wouldn’t cut government spending where it needed to be cut to help manage the debt. “I want social justice without socialism,” he had said. It was a start, anyway.

Israel took a big step forward with the Economic Stabilization Program beginning in 1985. Though Labor’s Shimon Peres was prime minister that year, he was heading a national unity government at a time when Likud had the upper hand, and the program was overseen by the Likud finance minister, Yitzhak Moda’i. It was instituted to boost the shekel, and rein in government spending through various mechanisms. It also had the assistance of the Reagan administration.

The stabilization was successful. More such programs finally took place in 2003 when Benjamin Netanyahu, at the time the finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, instituted more reforms by cutting taxes and increasing privatization while keeping government spending in check. And of course we can’t forget Israel’s reputation as a “start-up nation,” in which the opportunity to take risks and innovate is a mark of pride.

Back in the U.S., many American Jews are already positively disposed toward market economics, which has given them unprecedented freedom and prosperity. But other issues, such as school choice and religious liberty, will play an increasingly significant role in their lives. On those issues, the conservative positions may become more attractive to practicing Jews.

I’ve deliberately left off support for Israel. Although these days the American right is far friendlier to Israel than is the left, there is nothing specifically “conservative,” just as there is nothing specifically “liberal,” about support for an ally and a fellow democracy like Israel. It ought to be part of any conservative political program, but I hesitate to say it’s conceptually conservative.

There are other examples I’m sure I’m missing, but it will only help to put meat on the bones of a Jewish conservatism that we have so many real-world examples of Jews practicing political conservatism. With that combination, a real Jewish conservatism can take shape.

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Coming Apart at the Seams: the Anti-Arab Incitement Must End

The killing of an Arab teen, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, in Jerusalem last week has added a harrowing dimension to the tragic series of events in Israel. Police have not concluded their investigation, but they initially leaned toward the explanation that the killing was done by Israelis in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens, whose bodies were discovered last week. The Israeli police have now made arrests that would seem to bolster that theory, with the Times of Israel reporting that “the investigation has led them to believe that the act was most likely carried out by Jewish extremists in revenge for the killing of three Israeli teenagers earlier in June.” If confirmed, it’s sickening; and those who worry about how this will affect Israel’s reputation in the international community are getting it exactly backwards: there is a more pressing concern than reputation at a time like this.

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The killing of an Arab teen, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, in Jerusalem last week has added a harrowing dimension to the tragic series of events in Israel. Police have not concluded their investigation, but they initially leaned toward the explanation that the killing was done by Israelis in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens, whose bodies were discovered last week. The Israeli police have now made arrests that would seem to bolster that theory, with the Times of Israel reporting that “the investigation has led them to believe that the act was most likely carried out by Jewish extremists in revenge for the killing of three Israeli teenagers earlier in June.” If confirmed, it’s sickening; and those who worry about how this will affect Israel’s reputation in the international community are getting it exactly backwards: there is a more pressing concern than reputation at a time like this.

And I don’t just mean the killing, to which I’ll return in a moment. The outpouring on social media of anti-Arab incitement has been shocking. The encouraging aspect to this has been the official denunciation of such incitement, both from the government, united in its revulsion of the incitement, and from groups of private citizens speaking out against it. Also encouraging has been the reaction of religious leaders. The Times of Israel reports that former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has spoken out against such lawlessness, and he makes a key point here:

Reaching out to “all our brothers, the people of Israel, the young among us,” Amar said, “I feel their pain. I feel the frustration. But we can’t lose our heads. There are soldiers, and policemen, and security forces, praise God. And we can rest assured that by the grace of God, they will take the correct and necessary steps” in response to the killing of the three Israeli students. …

Speaking to Israel Radio Tuesday, Amar said calls for revenge were liable to “destroy our nation from within.”

Indeed they are. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau echoed the sentiment: “The discourse about revenge is wrong morally, ethically and halakhically,” Lau said, adding: “We have to trust that the security forces will do their job properly and not think at all about taking revenge which can lead the entire region down a dangerous path.”

There need be no strategic consideration in denouncing the murder of an innocent boy. But beyond its own obvious moral repulsiveness is the question of what, if it’s true Israelis were responsible, they thought they were doing. Terrorism eats away at the fabric of civic life. Incitement rots the soul of a nation. We say this about Palestinian murder and incitement, and we say it for a reason.

Again, there are differences of course. The Israeli state does not condone it, and does not encourage it. And the voices of Lau and Amar have been tremendously important here, because they show that the leaders of the Jewish faith do not condone it. Israel’s founders had something to say about this as well. And though it may surprise those who have bought into a false reading of Israeli history, the figure we ought to look to for guidance here is Vladimir Jabotinsky.

When the Peel Commission in 1937 published its proposal to divide the land, it included the possibility of transferring Arabs out of the slice it apportioned to the Jews. It was not the left that recoiled from this but Jabotinsky. As Hillel Halkin writes in his new biography of Jabotinsky:

Nor was Jabotinsky enticed by the idea of Arab resettlement. People might call him an extremist, he said, but at least he had never dreamed of asking Arabs in a Jewish state to emigrate. If there would not be enough room for Arabs in a partition state, this was only because neither would there be enough room for Jews. It would be a “death sentence” for Zionism.

Jabotinsky did not believe the Arabs would be willing to peaceably accept the proposals for partition or coexistence. He was right, and violence followed. But he did not himself reject the idea of coexistence, nor did he think Zionism countenanced it. Jabotinsky also opposed, almost to the end of his life, terrorism against Arab civilians:

On a brief stopover in Alexandria in July 1937 to meet Revisionist leaders from Palestine on his way back from a second South African tour, he reportedly told them, “I see nothing heroic about shooting an Arab peasant in the back for bringing vegetables on his donkey to Tel Aviv.”

From his perch in Europe, Jabotinsky at first thought reports of Jewish terrorism against Arab civilians might be rumors to discredit the Revisionists. He said:

As far as I’m concerned, Palestinian Arabs in Tel Aviv are [as though] in their own home, because otherwise I can’t imagine law and order in Palestine. But even if this guideline isn’t followed, I could still forgive [the Jews involved] if they had gone [to the Arabs] and politely asked them to leave without laying hands on them. If there were blows or shoves, or seven Jews ganging up on one Arab, I only hope that our people [i.e., Revisionists] weren’t part of it. I would consider such a thing beastly, even if it happened during a pogrom [of Arabs against Jews].

Jabotinsky had, from a distance, lost command and control of his followers. But even when he, reluctantly, tried to rationalize Jewish violence, his excuses wouldn’t hold today and he almost certainly wouldn’t offer them because of what Amar said. The Jews fighting for a state in Palestine became desperate, as the British authorities’ response to terror was appeasement, and as the British sought to close immigration to those fleeing genocide, thus handing out death sentences to Jews by the thousands even as they were being eradicated at their points of origin.

Today the Jews of Israel have a state and the right of return and an army to defend themselves. The grief and anger being felt in Israel is understandable. The incitement with which it has recently manifested is, as Amar said, a self-destructive act–a betrayal, and not a defense, of the Jewish people.

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Fake But Original

The New York Times memorable headline on the falsified documents relating to George W. Bush’s military service — “Fake but Accurate” — has almost been matched by a Haaretz columnist’s description of Peter Beinart’s theory on Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu: he writes that the theory “may not be accurate but is nonetheless spectacularly original.”

Beinart’s theory — that what Netanyahu supposedly dislikes about Jews is what Vladimir Jabotinsky supposedly disliked about them — is not supported by the Jabotinsky essay Beinart cited as evidence for it. “Spectacularly original” does not seem quite the right phrase for what Beinart did.

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The New York Times memorable headline on the falsified documents relating to George W. Bush’s military service — “Fake but Accurate” — has almost been matched by a Haaretz columnist’s description of Peter Beinart’s theory on Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu: he writes that the theory “may not be accurate but is nonetheless spectacularly original.”

Beinart’s theory — that what Netanyahu supposedly dislikes about Jews is what Vladimir Jabotinsky supposedly disliked about them — is not supported by the Jabotinsky essay Beinart cited as evidence for it. “Spectacularly original” does not seem quite the right phrase for what Beinart did.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Beinart’s book, whose publication date is not until this coming Tuesday, is how quickly the new media was able to analyze his March 19 New York Times op-ed that excerpted part of the book’s conclusion. Before the end of the day, not only had COMMENTARY posted three stellar analyses (by Omri Ceren, Seth Mandel, and Sol Stern), but there were more than 20 other critical pieces — from the left, right, and center – elsewhere the same day. It used to take truth a long time to get its boots on; these days it can get dressed almost simultaneously.

The debate regarding Beinart’s op-ed and book continued after March 19 – the contributions later in the week by Gary Rosenblatt, David Wolpe, Naftali Moses, and Ruthie Blum are particularly noteworthy. Your best 20 minutes today might be spent watching the video of the impassioned sermon by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch (a self-described liberal) at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, entitled “Peter Beinart’s Offense Against Liberalism.”

After that, you might look at the list of Jabotinsky essays posted today at Boker tov, Boulder! His 1911 Passover essay, “The Four Sons,” could facilitate an interesting discussion at this year’s seder, recognizing the essay was written 37 years before the re-creation of the Jewish state for which Jabotinsky worked his entire adult life, including his final day.

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