Libertarians among us: The groups pushing Libertarian ideology in Israel

There are powerful advocates of Libertarianism in Israel. As such, they are intentionally challenging the traditional liberal democratic values of the State of Israel.

 Entrance to the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Entrance to the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like so many Israeli intellectual and political phenomena, the Kohelet Forum, which is currently focusing on the so-called reform of the Israeli judiciary, has its roots in the American Libertarian movement. 

The Kohelet Forum, a relatively recent creation, is not the only expression of Libertarian thinking in Israel. Other organizations and programs have over many years been brought to Israel by American Jewish philanthropists and intellectuals advocating economic and socio-political principles which in part or whole are associated with Libertarianism. 

In order to understand why we are confronted today by what appears to be an unexpected ideological and institutional revolution, it is instructive to understand the origin of the Libertarian movement, its socio-political and economic principles and the role of American Jews in transmitting these principles to Israel.   

The Cato Insititute: American Jewish conservative activists and the Libertarian movement

Leading American Jewish conservative political activists are passionate advocates of Libertarian principles. They identify with the institutional center of the American Libertarian movement: the Cato Institute, one of the largest and most influential think tanks in Washington, DC. 

The Cato Institute preamble is rooted in 18th-century England when two men – John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon – began writing public letters in a publication titled The Independent Whig. After a year, their letters, which addressed a broad variety of public issues, appeared in the format of 138 weekly essays published in The London Journal

SIMCHA ROTHMAN in the Knesset on Wednesday: We are dealing with issues that are very complex. Members of the Knesset should understand them, the public should understand them.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)SIMCHA ROTHMAN in the Knesset on Wednesday: We are dealing with issues that are very complex. Members of the Knesset should understand them, the public should understand them. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Trenchard and Gordon wrote under the pseudonym Cato, named after a 1st century BCE Roman statesman. Cato the Younger was a conservative traditionalist who challenged Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate. He was an advocate of traditional Roman liberties as codified in Rome’s Constitution. And he passionately opposed the tyranny of Caesar and the corruption in the Roman Republic. In the face of Caesar’s successful repression of a civil uprising against his repressive rule, Cato committed suicide rather than accede to corrupt domination. 

The leaders of the American Revolution also identified with the legend of Cato who, for them, represented the ultimate example of sacrifice and courage in the struggle for freedom and the principles of liberty. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Nathan Hale quoted Cato as a model of inspiration. Patrick Henry, who dared King George to give him “liberty or death,” was modeling after Cato’s example.

It was, however, the take-away from the essays of Trenchard and Gordon in England which expressed the ideas and principles defining the essence of Libertarianism. 

In contemporary terms of reference, as defined by the Cato Institute in the United States, its “mission is to originate, disseminate, and advance solutions based on the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.”

The Cato Institute was established to act as a public policy research organization, a self-defined think tank which functions in broad areas of public interest. Located in Washington, DC, the $30 million Cato building houses a large staff of professionals, scholars, educators and support staff. 

Most of the Cato Institute’s annual operating income, currently some $45 million, is expended on programs focused primarily on public policy issues. Strategic targets include government, the media, and the academy. Its programs focus on educators and their students, in universities and colleges, as well as teachers in secondary schools. 

Cato’s outreach to policy makers in government is comprehensive and ongoing. A large professional staff offer Congressional policymakers and their staff relevant information and papers addressing legislation and analyses of critical national issues from the Libertarian perspective.  

 Cato experts appear in newspaper op-eds, policy papers and articles in the US and globally. Cato publishing likewise releases books by Libertarian scholars. Annually, more than 1,500 of its experts appear on live media programs. Many staff also appear in social media outlets which can reach millions. In addition, the Cato website hosts some 14 million visitors annually.

In keeping with its philosophy, the Cato Institute prides itself on a funding policy which precludes government support of any kind. All contributions are from private individuals, foundations or companies. In the 2022 annual report, the sources are reported to be $32.1 million from individuals; $2.9 million from foundations; and $1.2 million corporate. 

The current vice chairman and presumably next chairman of the board is Jeffrey Yass. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Yass is the 38th-richest person in the world at $33.5 billion.  

There are 16 Cato Institute board members, which include 14 wealthy, established businesspeople. No doubt, each of these board members is a substantial contributor to the Institute.

Advancing the mission of Libertarianism in Israel

The principles and interests of Libertarianism are addressed in a variety of ways to multiple audiences. Areas of study and focus include the Constitution and law; economics; politics and society; and international subjects. Most of the pressing current issues on the agenda of the world community of states and nations are addressed. These can include free speech and civil liberties; monetary policy; regulation and tax and budget policies; healthcare; social welfare; government and politics; trade policy; and global freedom.    

The mission of Libertarianism is advanced through the advocacy of its ideology, which is intended to ensure for all Americans, and presumably all people of the world, the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   

One way to win the support and the hearts of citizens in America and, no doubt, in many other parts of the world, is through the Libertarian opposition to high taxes, to trade and commercial regulations, and to environmental governance. Not surprisingly, Cato advocates played a major role in the shaping and application of policy in the Trump administration. Trump instinctively followed the Libertarian play list in his rejection of regulations relating to the environment; a tax policy favoring the wealthy; and in the affirmation of individual liberty, free speech; and by his rejection of foreign policy norms and commitments. 

Social Democrats and the advocates of liberal democracy and the idea of a just civil society which aspires to an equitable distribution of resources and wealth stand in conflict with Libertarianism. And in the case of Israel, Libertarian advocates naturally oppose the idea of a shared multi-ethnic, racial and religious society in which all have equal rights. In their thinking, the Jewish majority is supreme and should therefore enjoy preferred treatment and preeminent rights. As defined in Basic Law legislation, promoted by Israelis advocating Libertarians principles in 1988: “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people…in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination. The realization to the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people.” This law also affirmed that “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value, and shall act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”

In Israel today, the principles of Libertarianism are inherent in the policies and programs promoted by the Kohelet Policy Forum but not only. Other groups include the Tikvah Fund, the Ayn Rand Institute, and The Israel Law and Liberty Forum.   

Yass, the billionaire vice-chair of the Cato Institute, along with his business partner Arthur Danchik, have contributed to the work of the Kohelet Forum. Their contributions have been made anonymously through a network of funds. But Yass in particular is known in the State of Pennsylvania as extremely active in public life. In Pennsylvania alone, he has contributed millions of dollars to a wide range of activist causes engaged in everything from support for private and charter schools, right-wing conservative political candidates, and organizations opposed to unions, environmental controls, and in opposition to issues which approve abortion, recognition of trans youth and the teaching of what is described as “critical race theory” in public schools.

While Yass and Danchik have not sought to play an openly public role in Israeli life, their involvement in Israel with generous donations to the Kohelet Forum fit well with their worldview and may lead to a more public and weighty engagement with Israel’s political institutions. 

The Tikvah Fund: Advancing Libertarianism in Israel

The Tikvah Fund is a private foundation which from its outset was identified with its founder Zalman C. Bernstein, who took a Jewish first name in the latter part of his life when he discovered Orthodox Judaism and began to live an observant life. His name previously and the name of his Wall Street business was Sanford C. Bernstein and Company. It was one of the world’s largest independent investment companies, managing some $80 billion. Bernstein was an avid supporter of Republican candidates and policy organs.

Following his commitment to an Orthodox religious life, Bernstein moved his primary home to Israel and became a dual citizen. His interest at the time was in promoting Jewish religious life and formal and informal Jewish education initiatives. To that end, in 1984 Bernstein created the Avi Chai Foundation which functioned for some 35 years until it spent down its funding while phasing out its activities. It closed in 2019. The foundation focused its activities in three countries: Israel, the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia and Ukraine). The foundation funded dozens of programs in each country. The theme of the foundation’s work was to encourage Jews “toward greater commitment to Jewish observance and lifestyle and toward mutual understanding and sensitivity.” 

Many of the grants were given to programs and institutions related to the Jewish day school movement and camps. Others dealt with a rich and multifaceted variety of Jewish educational programs. 

The one remaining institution created by the foundation is Beit Avi Chai, a center in Jerusalem for “creation and expression of Jewish and Israeli culture and education.” 

After Bernstein’s death in 1999 and the sale of his Wall Street company the following year at a reported $1.5 billion in cash and 40.8 million shares in the new company, the Avi Chai Foundation received an unexpected deposit of half a billion dollars. The funds were allocated proportionately to foundation activities in the former Soviet Union, the United States and Israel. In addition, following the closing down of the foundation, by agreement, $130 million dollars was preserved as a permanent endowment of the Avi Chai Center.

The Tikvah Fund was Bernstein’s principal instrument for giving support to a range of organizations and institutions with which he identified politically and economically. He described it as “a philanthropic foundation and ideas institution committed to supporting the intellectual, religious and political leaders of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” But just as in the United States, where Bernstein donated all of his political contributions to Republican candidates and associated organizations, the philosophical focus of Bernstein’s activities in Israel were in support of individuals, organizations and institutions which advocate Modern Orthodoxy, political conservatism, capitalism and other Libertarian principles. 

The Tikvah Fund was also a recipient of funds from the Bernstein estate. Initially, in 2001 it was monetized with approximately $150 million. 

 IDF reservists stage a protest outside the Kohelet Forum buildings in Jerusalem on March 9, 2023.  (credit: BROTHERS IN ARMS) IDF reservists stage a protest outside the Kohelet Forum buildings in Jerusalem on March 9, 2023. (credit: BROTHERS IN ARMS)

In the course of the early years of the Tikvah Fund, millions of dollars were allocated annually to the Shalem Center, a right-wing Zionist research and program center in Jerusalem. It was founded in 1994 by a controversial intellectual named Yoram Hazony. He is a biblical scholar and political theorist who had previously served as an adviser and speech writer for Benjamin Netanyahu. Hazony is today the chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, the sponsor of the National Conservatism movement, which in the US conducts the annual National Conservatism Conference, the model of the Israeli Conservatism Conference.

The Shalem Center closed in 2009, to be succeeded by the establishment of the Shalem College, a private Jewish liberal arts college. While the college has been approved by the Council of Higher Education in Israel to grant bachelor degrees, its attraction to many largely American donors is its unique core curricula, required of all students. With an emphasis on the humanities and social sciences, the Shalem College student is exposed to a broad field of human history, knowledge and multiple cultures. This contrasts with the Israeli higher education norm, which is to focus solely on one’s chosen field of study. Key administrative and academic positions have been held by politically conservative intellectuals and policymakers. 

Zalman Bernstein was an early supporter of the college. Subsequently, following his death, the Tikvah Fund continued to make grants to the college, totaling tens of millions of dollars.  

Bernstein was succeeded as chairman of the Tikvah Fund by Roger Hertig, a founding partner in the Bernstein company and a public figure in New York. He is known as a generous supporter of cultural and educational institutions, as well as an activist supporter of conservative political candidates, advocates of Libertarian principles.

The current chairman of the Tikvah board in Elliot Abrams. He, too, has right of center conservative credentials, having served in foreign policy positions in the Republican president George W. Bush and Trump administrations.  

In 2018, the Tikvah Fund granted the Kohelet Forum $125,000. Today, programs and activities of the Kohelet Forum are central elements on the Tikvah agenda. For example, the now annual Israel Conservative Conference is sponsored by the Tikvah Fund. So, too, is The Israeli Forum for Law and Freedom. It is notable that people associated with the establishment of the forum, such as Simcha Rothman, have performed principal roles in support of the current movement promoting a review and reconstruct of Israeli political and judicial institutions. 

Moshe Koppel, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, who founded the Kohelet Forum in 2012 and continues to serve as chairman, is listed in the tax report of the Tikvah Fund in New York as a trustee. 

Mida and the Jewish Statesmanship Center

The Tikvah Fund has also been a substantial supporter of Mida, a “public policy” website and The Jewish Statesmanship Center located in Kfar Adumin. The center conducted an intensive educational and training program for college students. Participants were selected based on their achievements and potential for advancing to positions of leadership in Israel. Based on the biographical sketch of the students the common thread among them is that their education and work experience has been in right of center religious, political or nationalist orientated programs. In 2018, Mida was granted $258,000. 

Mida and the Statesmanship Center was founded by Ron Baratz, a Hebrew University professor who in 2015 was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to serve as media adviser and head of public diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s Office. Initially, the appointment was not approved, since he was quoted as having made pejorative comments about Israel’s president and the defense minister, as well as calling US president Barack Obama an antisemite. His nomination was subsequently approved at the prime minister’s request, and Baratz served in the position in 2016-17. 

Mida propounds extreme right-wing conservative public policy positions, much like those advocated by Libertarians. Mida program presentations and articles tend to articulate passionate criticism of individuals, ideas, organizations and institutions that advocate progressive ideas or support the values of liberal democracy.   

Examples from recent Mida presentations are the following: On January 26, 2023, the Haaretz newspaper was attacked in an article titled “The Ministry of Truth on Shocken Street: For the thought police of the enlightened left, having a different opinion is an unforgivable sin.” And on January 31, the headline of the day’s report was “The Success of the (judicial) Reform Begins with Correct Hasbara: The entire public will be pleased with the fixing of the Judicial System.”    

The Israel Law and Liberty Forum: Israel's American Federalist Society

The allocations made to Mida and the Kohelet Forum in recent years speak clearly about the political principles and ideology of the leadership of the Tikvah Fund. Equally defining is the financial support given to the establishment in 2019 of the Israel Law and Liberty Forum. And, not by chance, this organization is modeled after the American Federalist Society, a far-right conservative Washington, DC-based organization established 40 years ago to identify, educate and train young conservative lawyers who may in their professional careers rise to positions of influence in society and government. The American Federalist Society takes credit for its success in identifying and contributing to the education of many lawyers in the American judicial system, including three of the existing conservative members of the American Supreme Court. 

Simcha Rothman, who is playing a leading role in the advancement of Knesset legislation to enable a process to overwrite decisions of the Supreme Court and to establish new procedures to select members of the Supreme Court, helped establish a relationship with the American Federalist Society to help guide the creation of the Israel Law and Liberty Forum. The Forum has developed its program with a strategy similar to that of the Federalist Society, which succeeded in establishing hundreds of branches at universities throughout the US.

In Israel today, the Liberty Forum has already established law student branches at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University and Reichman University. It is hardly a surprise that the deputy director general of Tikvah Fund Israel is Aylana Meisel, who serves as chairwoman of the Israel Law and Liberty Forum. 

The Ayn Rand Center Israel

Finally, one other institutional member of the right-wing family of advocates of Libertarian principles in Israel is the Ayn Rand Center Israel

The Ayn Rand movement is based on the writings and philosophical principles advocated by Ayn Rand, a Jewish Russian-born philosopher and writer who immigrated to the United States in 1926. She advocated what she called a philosophy of Objectivism in which ethics ascribe self-interest as rational selfishness. She rejected the principle of altruism as one’s moral obligation to live for the sake of others. It is the centrality of the individual, whose life and well-being take preference over all else. One must be free to pursue whatever path one wants in order to reach one’s self defined goal: Rand’s idea of “the virtue of selfishness.”  

Rand explained that Objectivism defines “the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness, that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that displays full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism.”

Rand’s values and ideas are consistent with those of the Libertarians. The advocacy of free enterprise and unrestrained capitalism are essential components of the principle of a free society in which the highest value is the liberty to pursue success and personal happiness.

The Ayn Rand Center Israel, which is registered as The Objectivist Freedom Center, sponsors public lectures and events for students and the public. It also engages in the advocacy of public policy. 

Several times in recent years the director of the American national office of the Ayn Rand Institute located in Santa Anna, California, was a guest of the Israel Center. He presented lectures to students and others and participated in public debate.

The American and, in effect, the international head of the Ayn Rand movement, noted in a recent report that one of the major activities of the American Institute is the annual free distribution of 400,000 copies of Ayn Rand novels in high school programs for advanced students. This is in addition to the reported fact that bookstores annually sell an average of 150,000 of the same books. The translation of Ayn Rand books into Hebrew has been a project of the Israeli organization.

Coincidentally, the president and CEO of the national office and archives at the Ayn Rand Institute in California is an Israeli named Tal Tsfany; and the chairman of the board, who has lectured in Israel a number of times, is an Israeli named Yaron Brook.

Israeli advocates of Libertarian principles: Where can they be found?

Israeli advocates of Libertarian principles can be found in different settings. As noted, student clubs function as study and advocacy centers at a growing number of Israeli universities. Professional associations of lawyers and academics advocate and promote study programs and lecture series associated with American and Israeli Libertarian-minded groups. Many participants may not be aware of the fact that the principles and values which they advocate are, in fact, a copy-cat of the essence of Libertarianism. 

The Kohelet Forum, the Tikvah Fund, the Israel Conservative public policy movement, the Ayn Rand Center Israel, the Mida public policy website, and The Israel Law and Liberty Forum each directly or indirectly criticizes liberal democratic public policy institutions and progressive government policies. They also argue that organized labor unions and public service professional organizations act in ways contradictory of and threatening to the principles and values of an unfettered capitalist economy.

One ought to keep in mind that the Libertarian principles of individual liberty, limited government and unfettered capitalism are central values of a growing number of influential Israeli organizations and institutions.  

They are powerful advocates of Libertarianism in Israel. As such, they are intentionally challenging the traditional liberal democratic values of the State of Israel.   ■

The writer is an Israeli Reform rabbi who has contributed to numerous periodicals and books in America and Israel. His recently published book, THE ARC OF OUR HISTORY – A Social and Political Narrative of Family and Nation, was reviewed in The Jerusalem Report and in the Reform Jewish Quarterly. Previously, Ringler directed the American Desk of the Israel Labor Party in support of the campaigns and policies of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.