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CPAC goes to Israel

Inside the American right’s effort to bring their ideas to Israel.

Four people sit on a stage. Behind them a large screen reads “Welcome to CPAC Israel.”
The first CPAC event held in Israel is part of a broader effort by CPAC’s leaders to build bridges between right-wing movements around the world.
Zack Beauchamp

TEL AVIV — Several hundred feet from the Mediterranean Sea, and several thousand miles from the Cuyahoga River, Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance (R) was working a crowd.

“If you listen to the fake news media, what they tell you is that Israel is all kinds of terrible things ... it’s disgusting,” he said in an improvised speech. “God bless you for caring enough about this civilization to protect it.”

Vance was a surprise treat for the VIP guests at the Israeli edition of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the most prominent mass gathering of the American right. The Wednesday event, the first ever CPAC to be held in Israel, is part of a broader effort by CPAC’s leaders to build bridges between right-wing movements around the world. In a brief interview after his speech, Vance told me that he thought it was a worthy goal.

“Obviously applying the proper humility if you’re talking about a different country, there’s a real opportunity,” he told me.

Vance started to give an example but was cut off by Richard Grenell, Trump’s former director of national intelligence, who wanted a selfie with Vance for his Twitter feed. Matt Whitaker, Trump’s former acting attorney general, popped in for a shot or two.

For all the American star power behind the event, it’s not clear how much of a CPAC event it actually was.

In the United States, CPAC is a massive multi-day affair with breakout sessions, panels, and appearances from almost all of the GOP’s leading figures. The Tel Aviv event, cosponsored with three Israeli organizations, was a single night built around a keynote address by the celebrity pundit Ben Shapiro — his first-ever public speech in Israel. One of the Israeli organizers, the Tel Aviv International Salon, had billed the entire event solely as a Shapiro appearance — though the “CPAC Israel” graphics on the stage gave a different impression.

The program’s intellectual goals were also beset by incoherence. For all their political affinities, the American right and Israeli right are fundamentally different ideological movements: descended from different histories and defined by different foundational beliefs. At times, there were obvious policy tensions between the speakers’ ideas, most notably on the proper role of the judiciary in the two countries.

The ostensible purpose of the event was to bridge some of those divides: to persuade Israeli conservatives to move toward American-style free market economics, and to push the American right toward a more aggressively Israeli version of nationalism. But while the Americans seemed enthusiastic about learning from Israel, it was far from clear if the feeling was mutual.

“What Israel can learn from America, and what America can learn from Israel”

At the VIP section of the event, a balcony overlooking the audience, conservative luminaries chit-chatted next to a very open bar. A British-Israeli gentleman sitting next to me had procured an entire bottle of scotch and insisted on pouring me a glass. I warned him that, being American, I was more of a bourbon man; we agreed to disagree on this point of national pride. (For the record, the scotch was pretty good.)

At this point, the main event had gotten underway. Matt Schlapp, the chairman of CPAC’s parent organization, was giving a characteristically populist address. Some of the notes fell flat, including a jarring comparison between American conservatives and persecuted Jews.

“They’re doing to us what people did to you for centuries and centuries: they’re taking down our statues, they’re changing our history, they’re telling us what’s right is wrong,” he said.

Whether the crowd really took in what he was saying was doubtful: many of them were talking over Schlapp. The auditorium, set up for roughly 2,500 people, was half full at best. My whiskey-drinking friend had a ready explanation.

“Nobody here cares what any of these people are saying. They’re here for Ben Shapiro. You can put that in your write-up,” he told me.

Had they been paying attention, they would have heard some of the apocalyptic rhetoric that’s become standard on the American right. “If we have timid people, then we are going to lose the West, we are going to lose America, and we are going to lose Israel,” Grenell declared, followed by a pause seemingly left for applause that never came.

Other speakers were more interesting. On a panel with Whitaker, Israeli right-wing legislator Amir Ohana proposed giving Israel’s Knesset (parliament) the power to overrule Supreme Court rulings, railing against “judicial oligarchy” in language that’d be perfectly at home on the American left.

“[It’s time] to bring more power to the people: to make us a country governed by the rule of law, not the rule of lawyers,” he said.

Ohana’s broadside, delivered on the heels of Whitaker’s praise for the right-wing takeover of the US Supreme Court, reflects fundamentally different political realities. In Israel, the Supreme Court is a nonpartisan institution whose members are appointed by an expert panel; its rulings upholding religious equality and Arab rights frustrate the Israeli right, which frequently accuse it of being part of a tyrannical deep state imposing a left-wing political vision on the country. A cynical observer might see the differences between Israelis and Americans on this point as crassly political: conservatives like courts when they deliver favorable rulings, and want to neuter them when they don’t.

Alas, the panel was too short for the speakers to explain why this suspicion might be wrong. The entire event, roughly five hours long in total, did not have the typical features of a CPAC conference that allow for more in-depth conversations. There were no breakout sessions on specific topics, no room filled with booths staffed by members of different conservative groups, no great hall where the conservative rank-and-file could schmooze. It was CPAC-minus, a plenary without an actual conference.

As the speeches went on, the crowd seemed to grow impatient. When one speaker was being announced — retired Israeli basketball player Omri Casspi — a young man with a buzzcut started complaining to a friend. “Better be Ben, bro,” he said.

In fact, Casspi was there to introduce Shapiro — perhaps the first time an NBA first-round draft pick served as the warm-up act for a political pundit. When Shapiro took the stage, the applause was thunderous.

Shapiro’s speech centered on a dual set of questions that served as a thesis statement for the entire night: “What Israel can learn from America, and what America can learn from Israel.”

In his telling, Israel had yet to fully embrace American-style free-market economics, calling the Israeli economic system a “kind of a dumpster fire” held back by high taxes and powerful unions. He also argued that Israel should take notes from the American political system when it came to judicial appointments, arguing that “America’s government system is better than Israel’s — and it’s not particularly close.”

Americans, for their part, needed to learn from Israel’s nationalist example.

“America has one major thing to learn from Israel: that a nation-state must have, at its heart, a nation,” he argued. “What that really means is that America has to learn from Israel the necessity of common history, common culture, and common destiny.”

Who is really learning from whom?

After Shapiro’s speech, leading Israeli journalist Amit Segal took the stage to conduct a Q&A with the American. Segal, himself a right-winger, clearly had some reservations about the idea that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party should take economic lessons from the Republicans.

“How can you expect Likud to not join forces with the unions when it should try and get support to annex the [Palestinian] territories?” he asked. (“My recommendation,” Shapiro said, “is that Israelis need to start seeing economics as a national security issue.”)

Segal had similar concerns when it came to America’s system for judicial appointments. “When we take a look at the US Supreme Court, all we see is yet another branch of [partisan] government: the Republicans vote for conservative decisions, and the Democrats vote against. Can we find something which is better than that?” he asked. (“No,” Shapiro responded, arguing that all court appointment systems had some political bias and that the American one was at least somewhat responsive to public will.)

On the court issue, there is some movement in the Israeli right in Shapiro’s direction — though their leading idea for court reform, giving Israel’s Knesset the power to override court rulings, would likely give him and other American conservatives hives if applied at home given their hammerlock on the Court. And Israel, like many Western democracies, has indeed taken deregulatory steps in the last few decades.

But on the whole, and especially on economics, Segal’s attitude seems fairly representative of Israeli attitudes.

Two years ago, I examined a series of well-funded efforts by American conservatives to export their ideas to Israelis — like the CPAC conference, but on a much bigger scale backed by tens of millions of dollars. I found that this movement had made some headway among certain conservative elites, but made limited progress with the mass public. Israel still has a far more extensive welfare state than the United States, and only a minority of the Israeli right has demonstrated much of an interest in changing that.

By contrast, the post-Trump American right has proven far more fertile soil for an Israeli-style nationalist message.

The leader of the National Conservatism Conference, an increasingly popular CPAC competitor with an even more explicitly nationalist bent, is an Israeli academic named Yoram Hazony. Hazony’s intellectual project is, implicitly, a universalization of the ideology of the Israeli right: a theologically inflected nationalism that argues government should reflect the character of the society’s majority groups through, for example, the promotion of its religious beliefs (with protections for minority rights).

In our interview, Vance name-checked Hazony as an example of someone doing real work connecting conservatives across national lines — citing, in particular, a recent statement of principles released by his outfit that called for “the tradition of independent, self-governed nations as the foundation for restoring a proper public orientation toward patriotism and courage.”

Hazony, interestingly, is also a critic of free-market economics. His influence with rising GOP stars like Vance and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) suggests that the Israeli-American right-wing exchange is not an equal one: right-wing Americans are becoming more Israeli in the Trump era without a similarly notable Israeli movement toward an American economic and political model.

When I asked Shapiro about this assessment over email, he quibbled with the idea that the American right, rather than American society writ large, needed to learn about nationalism from Israelis. “But,” he added, “you are correct that the Israeli public is quite mixed on free markets, and that the cross-currents on economics are fascinatingly different in Israel than they are in the United States.”

After the event concluded with a few audience questions, hundreds of guests milled around by the exits chatting about what they had just seen. Virtually all of them were speaking English, not Hebrew. I chatted with a few of them, with most saying they had come for Shapiro and skipped or ignored the panels.

The exception was one middle-aged man, who said he was thrilled by the presentation.

“It was eye-opening for Israelis to see what actual conservatism looked like, as opposed to the mishmash here,” he told me, with a clear American accent.