Zionism and capitalism: The quest for freedom

A fresh perspective.

Israeli flags 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Israeli flags 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
A few years ago, in the closing lecture of a Hebrew University course on “Values in Israeli Society,” the lecturer questioned the coherence of the values promoted by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. The lecturer explained that on the one hand, Netanyahu was strongly attached to nationalistic values, which are collectivist values.
On the other hand, he was also a capitalist, who believed in economic freedom, something associated with an individualistic outlook.
The professor who taught the lecture argued that this paradox could not be solved, and therefore Netanyahu was promoting policies which lacked coherence and direction. This was the closing message of his course. Unfortunately, there was, for some reason, no time left for questioning this thesis.
The fact is that nationalism and liberalism can coexist peacefully. History actually shows us that the places in which liberal economies flourished were places where there also was a strong sense of nationalism.
In this article, I want to argue that in the case of Jewish nationalism, capitalism is not only coherent with a strongly Zionist worldview, but rather is the most logical economic ideology to embrace.Zionism is freedom
Jews have been yearning to go back to the Land of Israel for almost 2,000 years. However, their yearning never brought about actual political action.
What happened in the late 19th century for Zionism to turn into a successful established political movement?
With the start of the Age of Enlightenment, and furthermore with the development of liberalism, the idea of individual freedoms came to light. The argument was made for all individuals to be able to rule their own lives according to their own will and thus to receive personal freedoms.
With the development of this liberal thought, the Jews also entered a period of “Jewish Enlightenment,” known as the Haskala, in which they attempted to gain personal freedoms. As all individuals were granted liberties, the Jews also wanted to receive those rights. Yet very quickly, it became clear that in order to get those rights they would have to sacrifice their Jewishness. Various models were presented such as, “Be a Jew inside your home, and a man on the street.”
However, they all failed, since Judaism is not a religion like Christianity that you can confine to your personal home, but rather touches all aspects of your life – including your national, historical and cultural identity. It is almost impossible to be fully Jewish while keeping your Jewishness “inside,” and many Jews were not willing to sacrifice their Jewishness.
Therefore, Jews, now thirsty for this freedom, continued looking for other ways. Some considered complete assimilation. However, Zionism quickly became one of the alternatives.
If Jews could not get their freedom in Europe, maybe it became time to go back to their historical homeland and get freedom there? Theodor Herzl, in his book The Jewish State, in which he outlines the initial vision of Zionism, put it plainly: “Perhaps our ambitious young men, to whom every road of advancement is now closed and for whom the Jewish state throws open a bright prospect of freedom, happiness and honor, perhaps they will see to it that this idea is spread.”
Freedom was the fuel that was meant to push Zionism forward. Zionism was the movement for the freedom of the Jewish people, after they failed to receive these freedoms in Europe.
Herzl’s grandson, Stephen Theodor Norman, described the success of this movement beautifully after visiting what was then called Palestine: “You will be amazed at the Jewish youth in Palestine... they have the look of freedom.”
Capitalism is freedom
Not surprisingly, modern capitalism was also the product of the enlightenment movement.
Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, was an important figure in what was called the Scottish Enlightenment.
Leaving aside the economic justifications for free markets, the moral justification is quite straightforward. Capitalists believe in smaller governments because they believe in freedom. Freedom stands opposed to constraints and limitations. The bigger the government, the more constraints there are. More regulations equal more limitations. Therefore, a small government leads to more freedom for the individuals living in that state.
Most capitalists agree that some government intervention is necessary, as we are required to sacrifice some of our freedoms in order to live in a functioning society. For example, it is hard to find people who believe that the state should not run the national military. However, what differentiates capitalists from others is the value which they ascribe to freedom, as opposed to those other values which can be advanced through government intervention.
In fact, freedom is important enough to them that they are willing not to intervene in people’s lives even if they are convinced that those people are doing the wrong thing. As Friedrich Hayek, Nobel laureate in the field of economics, said: “Our faith in freedom does not rest on the foreseeable results in particular circumstances. Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom.”
Milton Friedman, another Nobel laureate in the field of economics and one of the most talented spokesmen for capitalism, also explained this clearly: “A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it... gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”
Capitalism, in other words, is a movement for the freedom of the individuals.
People yearn for freedom
Academics often engage in impressive analysis of great depth, in which they classify different trends according to sophisticated concepts such as “individualism” and “collectivism.” After studying these concepts so deeply and analyzing society within this framework, it is hard for them to free themselves of this way of thinking – and to see that other people do not look at the world through their eyes, but rather through common sense.
Therefore, when Israel’s ruling party, the Likud, speaks both for nationalistic-Zionist values and for capitalist values, they see it as a contradiction which is impossible to truly solve. They are unable to look at the values behind those concepts.
In fact, the truth is very simple.
People like freedom. People want freedom.
Israelis, including Likud members, also want freedom. They want freedom for their nation and they want freedom for themselves as individuals.
As such, they believe strongly in Jewish Nationalism and in Zionism, the national movement for the liberation of the Jewish people. And as such, they also believe in the strength of capitalism and free markets to bring economic freedom to them as individuals.
This is no contradiction. Quite the opposite: If one of the core values of Zionism is freedom for Jews, then the most Zionist thing one can do is to encourage free-market economics in the Jewish state, so that its citizens will have a maximum of freedom! Yes, one of those movements is collectivist and brings freedom to the nation. The other is individualistic and brings freedom to the individual.
Yes, sometimes, on very specific issues, there is tension between both sets of values.
However, the common denominator is stronger than anything which differentiates between them. This common denominator is, as expressed in our national anthem: “The hope of 2,000 years, to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
The writer is an attorney who graduated from McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s honors graduate program in public policy. He is currently working as a research fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.