It’s an honor to be here at the inaugural CPAC Israel or, as I like to call it, my bar mitzvah. I want to thank those who are working so hard to spread intellectual conversation about conservative values in the Jewish state, and all the organizations involved with this event tonight: Shibolet Press, publishing the very best English-language conservative thought in Hebrew; Sella Meir Publishing, bringing solid political literature to Israel; CPAC, with whom I’ve worked for years; and Tel Aviv International Salon, Israel’s largest speakers’ forum.
Our countries have something profound and vital in common: They are both gifts from God, blessed by Him, founded in liberty and consecrated to the idea that He is present in history, and that He guides history toward His ends.
As George Washington said in his first inaugural address, “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.”
And as Menachem Begin told Jimmy Carter: “What you have just heard about the Jewish people’s inherent rights to the Land of Israel may seem academic to you, theoretical, even moot. But not to my generation. To my generation of Jews, these eternal bonds are indisputable and incontrovertible truths, as old as recorded time. They touch upon the very core of our national being.”
But our countries also have much that differentiates us. And so tonight, I want to talk about something deeply important: what Israel can learn from America, and what America can learn from Israel.
Let us begin with what Israel can learn from America.
Israel is an amazing country. Despite a complete lack of natural resources, a tiny land area located in one of the most dangerous places on earth and a total population of 9.2 million, Israel has the 20th highest GDP per capita on the planet. Despite its small size, Israel has one of the most effective militaries on the planet, and one of the most technologically advanced. Israel ranks 13th in the world in unicorns—billion-dollar startups—and more startups per capita than any country on earth. This is due to the intelligence, hard work and social capital of the people of Israel.
Because it certainly isn’t due to the economic system of Israel, which is a dumpster fire.
And this is the first thing that Israel can learn from America: free-market economics work. They work to strengthen the living standards of your people. America’s dynamism is the result of a tax structure that benefits investment; the reverse is true in Israel.
In Israel, the overall tax burden equates to 30.5% of total domestic income; in the United States, the overall tax burden equals 24.5% of total domestic income. In Israel, the top individual income tax rate is 50%; in America, it’s 37%. In Israel, the top corporate tax rate is 23%; in America, the top corporate tax rate is 21%. In Israel, the top capital gains tax rate is 25% if derived by noncontrolling shareholders and 30% for others; in the United States, the capital gains tax rate is 15%. There is a reason that people flee Israel to avoid taxes. Then there’s Israel’s value-added tax, which is 17% on goods and services. There is a reason so many people from Israel leave Israel to do business in the United States.
Which brings us to the second problem: the vast bureaucratization of the Israeli system. Americans avoid the bureaucracy like a plague. America’s regulatory environment, particularly in Conservative-controlled states, is cheap and easy. To build a new home in Florida takes a few thousand dollars in legal fees and filing fees; a residential construction permit might take five to seven days for response; it might take six to nine months to build the home.
To build in Israel takes years upon years; on average, according to the World Bank circa 2017, it took 15 procedures and 209 days to deal with just a construction permit in Israel. There is red tape and then more red tape and then still more red tape. Every issue must be run through several different departments, none of which seem to talk to one another, unless you happen to have a brother-in-law who went to the Technion with someone.
And if you fall afoul of the law in Israel—or even if you are suspected of doing so—it’s shoot first, ask questions later: Your bank accounts can be frozen, your assets confiscated, all without showing guilt. There is a reason the World Bank ranks Israel 75th in the world in ease in registering property, 28th in the world in starting a business and 85th in the world in enforcing contracts.
And this brings us to the third problem: the unions. Nearly a quarter of Israel’s workforce is unionized. This is way down from the year 2000 when approximately 45% of employees in Israel were unionized, but 65% of the public sector is unionized. In fact, overall, some one-fifth of all Israeli employees work for the public sector, well above the average for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. Work stoppages are commonplace, and the number of disputes and strikes and their cost are way above the OECD average. In the United States, more and more states have been adopting right-to-work laws designed at taking away special union privileges, freeing up people to work when and how they want. In Israel, public sector unions punch far above their weight politically and politicians are simply afraid to cross them.
Which raises the problem of Israel’s governmental system. The chief problem here is not the political gridlock that seems common to the West these days. The chief problem is that an unelected bureaucracy seems to run an inordinate amount of policy. That’s because where the United States has an independent judiciary selected by the executive branch and confirmed by the legislature, Israel has a self-selected judicial branch that actually acts as a merger of the executive and the legislative branches. Thanks to the supposed constitutional revolution of 1992, the Israeli Supreme Court can now rule out of bounds perfectly legal acts of the Knesset, leaving an unelected and unaccountable set of oligarchs in charge of crucial national policies in the name of a nonexistent constitution.
What makes this particularly terrible is two things: First, the fact that the Knesset never gave this power to the Supreme Court. Second, the fact that the Supreme Court picks its own successors. This is totally insane. In the United States, the president, elected by a majority of the electoral college, selects justices to interpret a written constitution; those justices are then confirmed by the elected officials of the Senate. In Israel, Supreme Court judges are appointed by the president of Israel from a list submitted by three Supreme Court judges, two cabinet ministers (one being the minister of justice), two Knesset members and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association. Approval requires seven of the nine members of the committee, which means that the left-wing Supreme Court has complete veto power over anyone who is too moderate.
Just as bad, Israel’s attorney general is selected by unelected bureaucrats, including a retired judge from the Supreme Court, a former justice minister or attorney general, a Knesset member chosen by the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the Knesset, an attorney chosen by the Israel Bar Association and a legal expert chosen by the university law schools in Israel. That attorney general has a six-year term and veto power over Knesset legislation.
None of this is what a judiciary was designed to do. Alexander Hamilton wrote of the Supreme Court that its job was to interpret the laws, not make them. He wrote in Federalist 78, “The courts must declare the sense of the law; and if they should be disposed to exercise WILL instead of JUDGMENT, the consequence would equally be the substitution of their pleasure to that of the legislative body. The observation, if it proves any thing, would prove that there ought to be no judges distinct from that body.” Israel has adopted precisely the opposite, to its detriment.
In short, America’s governmental system is better than Israel’s, and it’s not particularly close.
Now, let’s talk about the flip side of the coin: What can America learn from Israel?
What can America learn from Israel, a tiny country of just 9.2 million people, a new country established within the living memory of many people? What can the most powerful country in world history learn from a country with enemies on all of its borders, a country that is routinely described as at existential risk, a country about whom major political forces promote the possibility that it ought to dissolve entirely?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. In the main, America has one major thing to learn from Israel: That a nation-state must have, at its heart, a nation. And that means that America must learn from Israel the necessity of common history, common culture and common destiny.
It is a truism of politics that when you are too close to something, you see the complicated inner workings. From the inside, Israel must look like a roiling country of disagreements and conflict, of dislike and antipathy, of unbridgeable gaps. From the outside, here is what Israel looks like: a country more solid in its identity than nearly any on earth.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously spoke on Yom Ha’atzmaut 1956 at Yeshiva University in New York. In that speech, he talked about the two covenants that bind the nation of Israel: brit hagoral, the covenant of fate, and brit ye’ud, the covenant of destiny. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the nation of Israel was bound by a covenant of fate: a “strange force” merging “all individuals into one unity.” A Jew, said the Rav, “cannot banish the God of the Jews from his world. Even if he desecrates his Shabbat, defiles his table and his bed, and tries to deny his identity, he will not escape the dominion of the God of the Jews, which follows him like a shadow.”
This is the story of the Jews for over three millennia: a people bound together by common history and common culture. Whether Jews come from Russia or Morocco, whether they come from Spain or Ethiopia, Jews share that common fate. They share a history: A history that begins with Avraham Avinu, and is passed down from generation to generation until the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai to Moshe Rabbeinu; a history that spans from the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE to the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967; a history that links the study halls of Yavneh with the yeshivot of Lithuania with the Talmud classes of Jerusalem; a history that carries forward from the Egyptian exodus to the ingathering of the exiles over the course of the last 150 years; a history that connects the Spanish Inquisition to pogroms of Tsarist Russia to Kristallnacht to anti-Semitic pogroms in Lod; a history that links the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva with the martyrdom of our great-grandparents and grandparents and parents and brothers and sisters in the Holocaust; a history that joins the vows of Pharoah to the vows of Haman to the vows of Hitler to the vows of the ayatollahs and Hamas and Hezbollah to wipe the Jews from the planet.
We can pretend that history doesn’t exist, or that the world’s Jew-haters have moved beyond their hatred for Jews. After all, they assure us that the Jews no longer need a state of their own, that we live in a more tolerant age, that if only the Jews would give up their stubborn insistence on survival as a nation, all would be well. Of course, these are precisely the same people who also make excuses for those who attack Jews at supermarkets in France and on the streets of Brooklyn and at checkpoints in Judea. Haman had the same complaints: “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from those of every people.”
We can ignore that history at our own peril. But history will not ignore the Jews. Ever.
Israelis understand the brit hagoral. They understand it because history is all around them, at all times. They can run from it; they can pretend that Israel’s enemies will suddenly put down their arms, that if Israel abandons Hebron or the Gaza Strip or eastern Jerusalem that magically, history will end. But history doesn’t end. And increasingly, Israelis have realized this. They realize that the historic tie between the Jews and the Land of Israel cannot be severed, even when it is broken; that no matter how much Israel may want to be the same as all other nations, it will never be so.
As God told the Jewish people, “And I shall take you unto me for a people, and I will be to you God.”
Israelis understand this. They understand Jewish nationhood. The single best indicator of this simple fact is the fertility rate in Israel. Israel, because it is comprised of people who understand the worth of their nation and its need for survival, represents the only Western country with a fertility rate above replacement rates. In fact, even the most politically liberal areas of Israel reproduce at a higher rate than other countries: In the Tel Aviv district, the fertility rate is 2.49; in the Haifa district, the fertility rate is 2.35; and, unsurprisingly, in Yehuda and Shomron, the fertility rate is reportedly 4.58. Israel is a growing nation with a commitment to its own survival.
Then there is the brit ye’ud. Rabbi Soloveitchik describes the covenant of destiny this way: “The beginnings of the Congregation are embedded in the tradition of the people’s ancestors at the dawn of its existence. Its end is rooted in a common vision of the end of days. The people of the Congregation are witnesses to the events that have passed and to the miraculous future that has not yet arrived. The Congregation encompasses not only those who are alive today but everyone who has lived and who will live from the dawn of humanity until the end of days. The dead who have passed on are still alive within the confines of the Congregation, and those destined to be born are already alive within its jurisdiction. A Congregation is a holy nation that does not fear fate and does not live against its will. It believes in its destiny and of its free will sanctifies itself for its realization.”
Israelis share a common destiny. And they know this. It is embedded in their founding documents. It is embedded in their national anthem, literally titled Hatikva, the Hope: “The hope that is 2,000 years old, to be a free nation in our land, the land of Tzion, Yerushalayim.” It is embedded in Israel’s Nation-State Law, which calls for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles, the development of Jewish settlement as a national value, the Jewish Sabbath and festivals as “established days of rest in the state,” and which acknowledges, “The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, religious and historic right to self-determination.” Israel is inextricably intertwined with the destiny laid forth for it in the biblical history that lays out its raison d’être: To be a nation that embraces the book of the covenant, saying, Na’aseh v’nishmah.
What does that commitment entail? It entails a recognition that Israel has its own unique mission: a mission to recognize the special connection between Israel and the land; to fulfill the promise that if Israel keeps God’s covenant, “you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples … you shall be to Me a mamlechet kohanim v’goi kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This does not mean that the State of Israel ought to be a theocracy. It does mean that the State of Israel must always be connected to its Jewish roots, and must be bound by the central principles of Judaism: To be a light unto the nations through virtue and responsibility, a beacon to the world through freedom and duty.
Indeed, God has kept his promise. Israel is a miracle. It is a tiny outpost of freedom and democracy and virtue in a region filled with tyranny. It is a technological powerhouse, bringing new solutions and innovations to the planet. It has developed one of the two most moral militaries on the planet, along with that of the United States.
So, this is what America can learn from Israel: It can remind itself that its exceptionalism, its unique place among the nations, is no coincidence. America can remind itself that it too has covenants of fate and destiny. America can remember that it was founded as a nation rooted in certain principles—the principles of Judeo-Christian morality on the one hand and the promises of the Declaration of Independence on the other. America can remember her own history and refuse to allow it to be undermined.
And America can recognize her unique destiny—a destiny explained by Benjamin Franklin in his remarks to the Constitutional Convention of 1787: “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
Indeed, America has spread freedom to more people than any nation in world history; it has spread prosperity to all corners of the globe; America has liberated hundreds of millions and fed billions. That is because America is the greatest country in world history; America has a special history and a special purpose.
But America is forgetting that history and that purpose. In fact, that history and purpose are being purposefully undermined by those who despise what America stands for, and who wish to substitute utopias of their own for the covenantal destiny America represents. America is plagued with the view, common throughout universities and the media, crammed down by bullied corporations, pushed by leaders of the Democratic Party, that the United States was born in sin and corrupted by it through and through; that America is the country of slavery and racism, not the country of liberty and tolerance; that America’s Judeo-Christian traditions are the source of bigotry and evil, and that those traditions must be replaced by the cult of individual feeling, subsidized by society; that America has no business on the world stage because it is imperialistic and exploitative.
Those viewpoints have split America down the middle, between a country that sees the American flag and feels pride, and country that sees the American flag and kneels in shame; between a country that thinks America was always great, and a country that thinks that America has never been great; between a country that believes in absolute truths and accepted moral wisdom—truths like the fact that men and women exist and are not malleable categories, and moral wisdom like support for traditional heterosexual marriage and childbearing—and a country that believes that “my truth” trumps the truth, and that accepted moral wisdom is merely discriminatory dogmatism—that men can be women, women can be men and the summit of human existence lies in subjective sexual self-definition; between a country that believes that America’s destiny can only be fulfilled if it holds true to its founding ideals, and a country that believes that America’s destiny can only be fulfilled if America abandons those ideals in favor of a new approach to the world in which the only way that truth matters is a perverse “authenticity” at odds with reality and decency.
And it is no coincidence that those who oppose American exceptionalism also oppose Israel: 71% of Republicans have a positive view of Israel, compared with 44% of Democrats and independents who lean Democrat; a majority of those under age 30, some 56%, have an unfavorable view of Israel. That same group tends to fall heavily into the camp that believes America is exceptional only in its evil. And that group is gaining ground fast in the United States.
So perhaps that’s the last lesson America can teach Israel: don’t let that happen here. Don’t let the left destroy the covenants of fate and destiny. Cling fast to your principles. Do not be led astray by those who bless themselves in their hearts, saying, “I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.”
Instead, remember the covenants that make the Jewish nation—and the Jewish state—special. Recognize that the principles that make Israel great are not far off from you; they are not in heaven or beyond the sea. They are embedded in your families, in your lives, in the lessons you have learned from your parents and your grandparents and their parents and grandparents back to time immemorial. If you remember these principles, you will prolong your days upon the land.
For America and for Israel, that is our life and the length of our days. America has never known exile, but the Jews have; and as Israel knows, failure has tragic, horrific consequences. History is filled with pain and suffering, all brought on because Yeshurun grew fat and kicked. But we have the capacity—Americans and Israelis alike—to choose a different path. We have the ability to choose life, so that we and our children may live. Let us all choose life; if we do so, our enemies shall dwindle away before us, and we shall tread upon their high places.
Ben Shapiro is founding editor-in-chief and editor emeritus of “The Daily Wire” and host of “The Ben Shapiro Show,” the top conservative podcast in the nation.
This article is the text of a speech given by Shapiro at the International Conservatism Event co-hosted by the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Tel Aviv International Salon, Shibolet Press and Sella Meir Publishing on July 20, 2022.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.