The Israeli Libertarians


A small movement for freedom begins in one of the most statist countries on the planet.

With Tea Parties all around us, President Obama’s approval at all-time lows and dissatisfaction with government seemingly ubiquitous, you might wonder if this kind of discontent is happening in other countries.

In Israel, one of the world’s longest-lasting bastions of socialism and concentrated state power, the flower of liberty has not yet started to bloom, but seeds are afoot. Boris Karpa, a graduate student of history at Tel Aviv University, is spearheading a libertarian uprising. His Israeli freedom blog is at Karpa agreed to an exclusive interview with the Weekly.

What is the history of libertarianism in Israel?

In general, libertarianism and market liberalism are not a big part of Israel’s history. Aside from an abortive anti-tax party in the 1970s and similar such marginal attempts, there’s precious few libertarian activists in this country. There are several think tanks, however, that do great work promoting libertarian ideas, especially libertarian economics, through seminars, press releases and so forth. I must especially commend the Jerusalem Institute of Market Studies, who focus on the promotion of Austrian economic thought.

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Why is it do you think that Jews and libertarianism don’t get along? I would have thought the pair would be a perfect match, with the shared focus on law and justice and freedom. Next week is Passover, the Jewish festival celebrating their exodus from slavery, one of the most libertarian holidays anywhere.

I think that the main issue is that, when you look back to the history of zionism, it didn’t grow up in a vacuum. Zionism was inspired greatly by the nationalist movements of Europe, and these movements were very influenced by socialism and collectivism. So the principal idea of classical zionism, which is what the dominant strain of zionism was called, was that the Jewish state must be socialist in some way. And that the capitalist, bourgeois life of European Jews – who as you know often tended to work as attorneys and engineers and white-collar bourgeois types – was a form of moral corruption. Therefore, the zionists felt they had to focus on creating something they called “The New Jew.” We’re talking about the leading faction of zionists here, the people who later held power in Israel for its first few decades. And so the New Jew had to be re-accustomed to manual labor. That’s part of why the Kibbutzim were created. The idea was to take this stereotypical Jewish attorney and make him into a hard-working farmer – a socialist, hard-working farmer.

That’s disgusting. I never realized that.

And of course they realized not everybody could be farmers. But the thing you need to understand about early Israel is that it was led by very statist people.

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This might be a difference between our countries. Americans are at heart very libertarian. They deeply believe in freedom and distrust government. Do you feel Israelis, at heart, are also freedom-loving people or do you feel Israelis are really and truly statist, meaning your road is much harder than ours?

I think our job would be harder, to some extent, than yours is, because Americans can fall back on the inspiration of people like Thomas Jefferson, who were not libertarians, perhaps, but who were anti-statist and understood the dangers of an out-of-control government. For us, these founder figures we look up to are people like Ben Gurion. But I think the average Israeli realizes at some level how high the taxes are, how crazy the bureaucracy is, that he’s lost freedoms and money to the ever-growing state.

But there are far older heroes for Jews. Do you think there are libertarians in the Old Testament? Who is the most libertarian?

Samuel, definitely Samuel, he’s the most libertarian guy. … [I]f you recall, originally, the Jews had no king. Their religious life was administered by the priests who also led them in battle, and some form of wise men they respected served as judges locally. The only police we have in the Bible are fellows who enforced order on the temple grounds. But at a certain point, the Jews decide that they want a king. And if the Bible is to be believed, Samuel gives a long speech warning them about all the evils a king can do – about the king taking a tenth of their income in taxes and drafting their sons to ride his chariots and his daughters to be his slavegirls. He goes on and on in this vein. You know, when the Israeli Center for Social and Economic Progress printed Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose in Hebrew, they printed Samuel’s speech on the front page.

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What is the biggest problem in Israel? What argument for liberty resonates the most with people?

I think the main problem in Israel is the bureaucracy. You see, government in Israel operates in a vastly different principle from American government. The U.S. has several levels of legislature, and when they want to make a new law, they pass a bill of 1,500 pages because they want to leave as little as possible to the bureaucrats. Here we have one legislature and some city councils that are virtually powerless. And the legislature passes a bill of 20 pages which creates bureaucrats, and they create regulations as they see fit. And so there’s an enormous army of bureaucrats in every level of government making rules and determinations and licenses, which every citizen must contend with if they want to do something.

Well, we also have tons of agencies, like the SEC, FDA, EPA, etc., who create their own rules, but you’re saying there’s something even more?

Absolutely. Because the rules are made by appointees. For example, we have the Beach Protection Council.

Sounds sexy.

If you want to have a new development on a beach, then after going through all the regular planning hoops, you must also get the council’s approval. And because their job, as they see it, is to protect beaches from those nasty developers. … Bottom line, the council measures its success in how many applications it denied. … Another example: The government made motor racing legal several years ago. But they made it conditional on a committee making up some safety regulations and so forth. And because the committee is still working on it, we still can’t have motor sports in this country. Can you imagine what would happen if Congress banned NASCAR?

This article originally appeared in the New Haven Advocate.

March 24, 2010