How an Israeli thinker became one of Trumpism’s foremost theorists
Posters hanging with pictures of President Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, with a message in Hebrew reading “No to a Palestinian state sovereignty, do it right!” in Jerusalem on June 10. | Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images The Israeli writer Yoram Hazony is one of the American right’s most celebrated thinkers — and the personification of a quietly influential Israel-American right-wing world of ideas. It is a peculiar irony that one of the most influential theorists of President Donald Trump’s “America First” style of conservative nationalism is an Israeli citizen. Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute think tank in Jerusalem, has become a mainstay of the American right. Michael Anton, a conservative academic who served as one of Trump’s senior advisers from 2017 to 2018, drew on Hazony’s vision of nationalism in formulating what Anton describes as “the Trump doctrine” in foreign affairs. Hazony’s new American organization, the Edmund Burke Foundation, held a 2019 conference that featured speeches from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, and then-National Security Adviser John Bolton. Hazony emerged out of an increasingly influential yet little-known Israeli-American conservative nexus. Though born in Israel, he spent his formative years in the United States, his worldview molded by his time as a Princeton undergraduate during the Reagan years. And though he built his career in Israel, the institutions he helped create there were funded in part by American donors — part of a broader campaign to establish an American-style conservative movement in a country with a very different kind of right-wing tradition. During a trip to Israel, sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I explored the influence of Hazony and the broader American-Israeli conservative intellectual movement. It is a world that holds extraordinary sway in the current Israeli Knesset (parliament), closely aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. Relative to some others on the new Israeli right, Hazony is not a pivotal figure in Jerusalem. (He declined to comment for this article.) But his rising star in Washington, and even some European capitals, points to something important about the globalization of conservatism: that right-wing movements from different countries are increasingly influencing each other, putting aggressive nationalism at the center of the broader Western intellectual and political right. Hazony isn’t just a popular conservative writer: He is the embodiment of one of the most significant global trends of our time. The Israeli-American conservative nexus Eli, the West Bank settlement Hazony moved to after finishing his American education in the early 1990s, is one of many illegal Jewish communities in the majority-Palestinian territory. Started by a handful of settlers in 1984, Eli today boasts a population of over 4,000, growth that has come at the expense of nearby Palestinian communities. During my trip, I drove up Route 60, the major north-south thoroughfare in the West Bank along which Eli sits. From the highway, Eli doesn’t look like a particularly remarkable place: a collection of the characteristically Israeli light-colored homes with red roofs that dot the West Bank, clearly distinguishable from nearby Palestinian villages. You see small communities like this all around the West Bank, each one creating an Israeli-imposed security bubble that can justify land seizures and cut off Palestinian communities from each other. Eli is one cog in the vast machinery of the West Bank occupation; the larger and more entrenched these communities get, the harder it is to imagine Israel ever evacuating them — a seemingly necessary step if a contiguous, viable Palestinian state is to be created. Eli is a physical symbol of the most aggressive right-wing form of Israeli nationalism, a religiously informed territorial maximalism that sees Jews and only Jews as the rightful owners of the biblical Holy Land. Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images A picture taken from the Palestinian West Bank village of Lubban ash-Sharkiya on January 16, 2017, shows a Palestinian woman standing in front of a view of the Jewish settlement of Eli. David Vaaknin/Washington Post/Getty Images A Palestinian village in the background behind houses at the West Bank Jewish settlement of Eli. This expansionist project has been helped along by American money. An investigation by Ha’aretz, Israel’s center-left paper of record, found that evangelical Christian organizations and donors contributed between $50 million and $65 million to settlements between 1998 and 2018. But American money hasn’t just supported the physical infrastructure of Israeli nationalism, it has also funded its intellectual infrastructure, a network of think tanks and publications that has helped entrench the settlers and their worldview in Israel’s halls of power. Of the many US donors to right-wing Israeli causes, none loom as large in the intellectual realm as an organization called the Tikvah Fund, founded by American-born billionaire Zalman Bernstein in 1992. At the time, the right-wing intellectual tradition in Israel was institutionally weak — a point that became quite clear to Hazony after his time in the United States, where the conservative movement was more clearly established. “In most countries, the role of defending the idea of the nation — the preservation and deepening of its heritage, its texts and holy places, and the wisdoms and social crafts which its people have acquired — belongs to political conservatives,” he wrote in the inaugural issue of Azure, an Israeli conservative journal he founded in 1996 and whose archives are currently hosted on Tikvah’s website. “What passes for a ‘national camp’ in Israel, the [right-wing] Likud and its sister parties, has no tradition of intellectual discourse to speak of. It has no colleges, no serious think tanks or publishing houses, no newspapers or broadcasting.” Tikvah has worked to change that, shelling out $10-15 million annually — a meaningful investment in a small country like Israel — to create and sustain conservative institutions. (Tikvah also operates in the United States.) Foremost among Tikvah’s Israeli grantees is the Kohelet Policy Forum, a libertarian and nationalist organization that Ha’aretz described as “the right-wing think tank that quietly ‘runs the Knesset.’” Yechiel Leiter, a senior fellow at Kohelet, told me that the Ha’aretz headline was “way overstated” but agreed that his organization has real clout in Jerusalem. “Kohelet is influential, though it by no means runs the Knesset,” Leiter said. “An [economist] colleague of mine ... he’s producing a policy paper every few weeks. And believe me, it is read by everyone serious.” Tikvah has supported other conservative think tanks, like the Institute for Zionist Strategies and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. It has created ideological publications, including the hard-right news site Mida and the policy journal Hashiloach — though neither of these is as influential as Israel Hayom, a free daily tabloid funded by American billionaire and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson. Tikvah has also built educational institutions, such as the Jewish Statesmanship Center, aimed at training Israeli public servants. Thinkers in the Tikvah orbit generally take anaggressive line on the conflict with the Palestinians, including a hardline defense of the West Bank settlement movement. Their papers and articles defend the wisdom and legality of the settlement enterprise; this June, Leiter published an open letter to American Christians calling on them to lobby Trump on behalf of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. It was signed “your friend from Eli.” “There is no right-wing movement in Israel. What you see is a settler’s movement,” says Stav Shaffir, a former member of the Knesset for the center-left Labor Party. This aggressive approach to security policy is quintessentially Israeli, strengthened by American money but hardly invented by it. Tikvah’s approach to the economy, on the other hand, is an attempt to import a version of all-American libertarianism that’s only weakly rooted in Israeli political thought. Free-market economics are not historically popular in Israel, a country founded on a social democratic economic model that has traditionally enjoyed support from leading political parties. Despite a significant amount of deregulation and privatization since the 1980s, the voting public still supports the main pillars of Israel’s welfare state. The 2019 Israel Democracy Index, an annual assessment of public opinion, found that over three-quarters of Israelis support budget increases for health, education, and social services — while fewer than 5 percent support cuts. Tikvah and its allies believe this Israeli supermajority is in dire need of some foreign education. “Israel still needs to break free of the socialist mindset of its founding fathers,” Eric Cohen, Tikvah’s executive director, wrote in a 2015 essay. “Here is a clear instance where importing external ideas, in this case the ideas of the best free-market economists, can serve Jewish interests, Jewish values, and the success of the Jewish state. And here, too, American Jews have a role to play — and credit to claim.” These organizations are not always so interested in advertising their role in bringing American ideas into Israel. Cohen did not respond to my request for comment on this article; Moshe Koppel, the chair of the Kohelet Policy Forum, downplayed his organization’s ties to the United States. “Kohelet has no substantive connections with American NGOs and takes no position on any American issues not directly related to Israel,” he told me in email. That may well be true, but there’s no denying the role American funding plays in the organization’s work: Kohelet receives millions annually from a Philadelphia-based 501(c)(3) called the American Friends of Kohelet Policy Forum. When I called the phone number listed on the organization’s tax filings, a man told me this was not the American Friends of Kohelet Policy Forum and hung up. Hazony, perhaps the paradigmatic case of an Israeli whose worldview has been shaped by time in the States, has been a player in Tikvah-world. The organization provided early funding for perhaps his most influential creation, Jerusalem’s Shalem Center — a right-wing think tank that has morphed into Shalem College, Israel’s first American-style private liberal arts college. Alex Kolomiensky-Pool/AFP via Getty Images Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to attend a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on October 15. But today, he is not on Shalem’s day-to-day leadership team, instead running the less-well-known Herzl Institute. Though he once worked closely with current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — another Israeli right-winger who spent significant time in America — the two men had a falling out some time ago. Observers of the Israeli intellectual and media scene I met with in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv described Hazony as fairly marginal in domestic politics, even as the Tikvah-Kohelet world more broadly grows in influence. “He’s so out of touch with the actual sensibilities of Hebrew-speaking Israelis that I think he’s completely irrelevant,” Avner Inbar, the co-founder of the progressive think tank Molad, told me. “Institutionally, the founding of the Shalem Center was influential. But it’s not him, personally.” Leiter had a more positive view of Hazony, describing him as “an intellectual force to be reckoned with.” At the same time, he agreed with Inbar that his influence was greater outside of Israel than within. “I don’t think his book on nationalism has drawn the same interest in Israel as it has in the United States,” Leiter said. Hazony’s career arc, then, is something like a boomerang: the American conservative project of strengthening the Israeli right coming back home to the States. How Hazony universalized American-Israeli conservatism When Donald Trump became the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, it became clear that the old conservative paradigm did not adequately represent what the Republican Party had become. The party of free markets had been taken over by a trade skeptic who (disingenuously) promised to protect Medicare; the party of American empire had been taken over by a man who (disingenuously) claimed to oppose America’s wars in places like Iraq and Libya. There was an urgent need to explain what he really stood for and how he had won — a task that the old American conservative elite, steeped in pre-Trump conservative dogma, wasn’t well-equipped to do on its own. Enter Hazony. In a September 2016 essay in Mosaic (a Tikvah-funded conservative journal), he argued that Trump’s ascendance, together with the Brexit vote, represented an emergent divide in global politics — between nationalists, who believe countries should be free to choose their own destiny, and liberal imperialists, who wish to dissolve national borders and impose their secular, deracinated vision on an unwilling world. “The painful debate over Donald Trump’s personal qualities and qualifications for the presidency has made it difficult to sustain a thoughtful discussion about the issues —primarily, the issue of American national self-determination — that catapulted him to the center of political attention,” Hazony wrote. “But no matter what happens in November, the political fault line that has been uncovered at the heart of Western politics is not going away.” If you read Hazony’s work carefully, it becomes evident that his vision for the global right is a universalization of the Israeli settler’s mindset: a religious nationalism that has some key points of agreement with Trumpists and the European far right. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images A man wrapped in a Trump campaign flag walks in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market during the Jewish holiday of Purim on March 11. One of the core tenets of Zionism is that Jews are not fully safe in other countries; so long as they do not have their own state with a powerful military, Jews are fully at the mercy of non-Jewish national majorities who have proven themselves to be hostile time and again. On the Israeli right, Zionist self-determination fuses with a (somewhat justified) sense that Israel has been unfairly targeted in international organizations like the United Nations into a doctrine of extreme self-reliance. The rest of the world will hate us no matter what, the logic goes; we should ignore what they think and take actions we think are best for ourselves — including seizures of Palestinian land in the West Bank justified by Biblical entitlement. The depth and power of this thinking really struck me when I visited the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, just outside the Palestinian city of Hebron. There’s a little park there named after Meir Kahane, an Israeli American rabbi infamous for his advocacy of violence against those he saw as threats to Jews or Israel. Kahane was convicted on terrorism-related charges in the United States in the 1970s and banned from running for the Knesset in 1988 on grounds that he and his Kach party advocated for anti-democratic and racist ideas (this was after he won a seat in Israel’s 1984 election). Today, Kahane is celebrated as a hero by many in places like Kiryat Arba. The park there named after him houses the gravesite of Baruch Goldstein, a follower of Kahane’s who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers while they prayed at the Cave of the Patriarchs (a holy site in Hebron significant to both Jews and Muslims). When I walked over to Goldstein’s tombstone, I saw a smattering of small pebbles on top of it — a sign of care for the dead in Jewish tradition — left by his contemporary admirers. The inscription refers to Goldstein as a “martyr,” one who “gave his life for the Jewish people, its Torah, and its land.” Hazony penned a ”heartfelt farewell” to Kahane after his assassination in 1990. While disavowing Kahane’s politics, including his “predilection for violent solutions,” he credited a meeting with the late rabbi at Princeton in the 1980s as a significant influence on his understanding of his own Judaism. “We found ourselves drawn to Kahane in spite of ourselves because, unlike any other Jewish ‘leader’ we had ever met, he was willing to say what needed to be said,” Hazony wrote, describing the influence of Kahane on himself and his college friends. “He returned to us the belief that Judaism could have truth on its side, that it could be something we didn’t have to embarrassed about, that we should be proud to wear a kipa and make our stand on the world stage as Jews.” “There is no right-wing movement in Israel. What you see is a settler’s movement.” In his 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony argues that international organizations and progressive Europeans alike mistreat Israel not primarily out of anti-Semitism per se, but out of a more generalized disgust about what Israel stands for. They believe in a world without borders and without defined nations; Israel is the exemplar of a country founded on the ideals of national self-determination and exclusive national rights to land, the antithesis of what progressives want the world to become. Anti-Israel sentiment “is driven by the rapid advance of a new paradigm that understands Israel, and especially the independent Israeli use of force to defend itself, as illegitimate down to its foundations,” he writes. “If Germany and France have no right to exist as independent states, then why should Israel?” In this way of thinking, Israel — by choosing to “make its stand on the world stage” as an avowedly Jewish state — is at the forefront of a global struggle over borders and nationalism. Trump, Brexit, and electoral victories by European far-right populists like Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland represent Western conservatives finally waking up and joining the war against globalist imperialism that Israel has long been waging. Of course, this valorization of national self-determination is selective: Hazony’s book-length attack on “imperialism” never once mentions Palestinians. National conservatism’s moment Hazony’s political vision, which he calls “national conservatism,” has proven enormously attractive among segments of the American conservative movement. His book was omnipresent in the conservative press after its 2018 release. The 2019 National Conservatism conference in Washington, DC, thrown by Hazony’s Edmund Burke Foundation, has been referred to by one popular conservative writer as that year’s “most important intellectual gathering.” Its keynote speakers were some of the leading figures in the post-Trump “future of conservatism” conversations — Sen. Hawley, Fox’s Carlson, and venture capitalist Thiel. Hazony is working with some A-list American talent: Christopher DeMuth, the head of the influential American Enterprise Institute from 1986-2008, currently serves as the chairman of the National Conservatism Conference. Somewhat ironically, given Hazony’s links to the Tikvah network, the way he talks to American audiences about economics sounds more traditionally Israeli than American free-marketeer. In his 2019 National Conservatism conference speech, he criticizes the pre-Trump American right for elevating the ideals of the free market over values of national cohesion and religious principle. “These conservatives, in particular, forgot everything they ever knew about how to conserve anything,” he said. “They lost interest in the Bible, in Christianity and Judaism. Neither nationalism nor religion had any hold on them any longer. All that interested them was economic liberalism and the rights of the free and equal individual. Instead of conservatives, they became a revolutionary movement.” You see here how the efforts to build cross-national ties between intellectual movements can morph the animating ideas behind them. American donors worked to reshape Israeli conservatism, effectively injecting American ideas into the Israeli political bloodstream. Now one of the Israeli beneficiaries of this American largesse has become more influential in America than his home country, thanks to fortuitous political timing. He is using that influence to pitch an Israeli version of conservatism that preserves the nationalism but eschews libertarianism — and American conservatives are listening. The United States isn’t the only country where Hazony’s thinking finds receptive ears. In early February, just before the pandemic shut the world down, the Edmund Burke Foundation hosted a National Conservatism Conference in Rome. Notable speakers included members of parliament in Sweden and the UK, a leading Polish member of the European Parliament, and French far-right politician Marion Marechal (granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the country’s leading far-right party). The marquee guest was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, widely seen as the most effective right-wing nationalist leader in Europe. Antonio Masiello/Getty Images People hold Trump flags during a demonstration for personal freedoms in Rome, Italy, on September 5. During his appearance, Orbán — who invited Hazony to his office to discuss his book in 2019 — identified himself and similar leaders in Central Europe (like Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party) as exemplars of the kind of “national conservatism” the conference was promoting. “What I represent here is not just a success story of a country, but a success story of a region. And everywhere in this region the governments are based on national sovereignty. They’re all national conservatives,” Orbán said. “You can have great hopes and expectations that the renovation and a new current, a new blood to national conservatism could come from Central Europe.” The point here is not that Orbán’s ideas and doctrines sprung from a close reading of Hazony’s work. Rather, Hazony’s idea of a nationalist conservatism is consistent with the vision of Hungary that Orbán has been working towards since 2010. The Israeli-born, American-trained thinker is theorizing what the Hungarian politician is actually doing — and what Trump has been establishing in the United States. There is an increasing sense of a “nationalist international” — the idea that various right-wing parties need to band together and fight against the liberal-progressive vision for a more globalized world. Some of the efforts to codify this idea, like Steve Bannon’s laughable organization called “The Movement” in Europe, have failed. But the success of the American intervention in Israeli politics, and the global rise of Yoram Hazony, shows how it might actually work: how globalization can fuse political traditions of distinct conservative movements, connecting the halls of power in Washington to the settlers in Eli. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. 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