Can Moshe Feiglin Reconcile Libertarianism With Militant Israeli Nationalism?

The deputy speaker of the Knesset takes a hard line on individual freedom-and Gaza.


Moshe Feiglin
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A member of the governing Likud party and a long-time rival of its chairman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Moshe Feiglin currently serves as the Knesset's (Israeli parliament) deputy speaker. An advocate of personal liberty and self-identified libertarian on domestic policy, he's also a hawk who makes headlines with his hard-line stance toward Palestinians.

Feiglin has been vocal supporter of Israel's current military operation in Gaza and recently advocated turning Gaza into a new Yafo, a peaceful enclave in the southern part of Tel Aviv, largely inhabited by Israeli Arabs.

"There are two factors," Feiglin tells me about the conflict in Gaza. "Historically, Gaza has always part of Israel. There's no difference between Gaza and Yafo, for example, except that Yafo was recaptured in 1948. The whole discussion should be about rightness, not about occupation. Gaza belongs to the Jews."

In an open letter to PM Netanyahu, Feiglin argued for the killing of Hamas fighters and their supporters. Following the operation, hostile Palestinian families would be deported to a number of countries, first passing through tent encampments near the border with Egypt. After the operation Gaza would become a "flourishing Israeli city with a minimum of hostile residents," Feiglin wrote.

Feiglin's solution sparked outrage in Israel and abroad. In response, Feiglin told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that he's not advocating for genocide, but for removal. Feiglin's views seem to be rooted in the idea that to plant the seeds of a liberal order you must remove Hamas and those who fight Israel and bank on those who accept Israel's presence.

Whether this is feasible morally or operationally is another matter.

Controversial and unique

Indeed, Feiglin, a regular guest on Israeli TV and an eloquent and calm orator, is commonly perceived as one of the more controversial figures in Israeli politics. Politically he is a mixed bag, accompanying his hawkishness with strong emphasis on personal liberty within the state of Israel.

His brand of Orthodox Judaism coupled with a strong belief in domestic freedom within the rule of law, stand out among his peers on the right. For example, Feiglin has been an advocate of legalizing marijuana and ending U.S. aid to Israel. He also advocates ending the military draft, and calls for "free market capitalism tempered by charity."

When high-profile politicians such as Danny Danon and foreign minister Avigdor Liberman pushed for a loyalty oath or a biometric ID, Feiglin lamented that such laws would endanger the rights of the individual.

In fact, Feiglin has warned that "whoever thinks that the state is the supreme value edges uncomfortably close to fascism."

Perhaps the guiding principle of Feiglin's domestic political philosophy is best encapsulated by a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that can be found on his office wall in the Knesset: "Good men mustn't obey the laws too well."

"The quote applies to everything," Feiglin assures me. "Every responsible citizen should understand that we need laws, but on the other hand the country's political leadership should know that laws are not a religion. And most laws we simply don't keep so well."

Feiglin's positions may seem confusing because the Israeli political milieu, while deeply tribal, is broadly perceived—among pundits and constituents alike—as a battle between the right, seen as anti-Arab and religious, and the left, viewed as secular and pro-peace.

In addition to such simplified perceptions, politicians are defined and remembered for past indiscretions. In the eyes of Tel Aviv's left-leaning middle class, both Netanyahu and Feiglin are recalled for their opposition to the Oslo peace process of the 1990s.

However, now that even some of the chief architects of Oslo are speaking publicly against the peace process, Feiglin might find himself absolved of past sins while the antipathy towards Netanyahu runs deeper and is unlikely to change.

American parallels

There are some distinct similarities between the U.S. and Israel. Unlike other western style democracies, both countries have religious elements mixed in their founding principles. For an American observer, the rise of men like Feiglin is comparable to the rise of personalities, like bombastic tea party favorites Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in the U.S., who see a need to reconnect to those historical roots.

Feiglin asks Israeli Jews to embrace Judaism in order to gain and retain a deeper understanding of the role and purpose of the modern state of Israel.

"I want Israel to be a peaceful country, but enemies must fear us. The society must have a high moral level. It's not only about technology [Israel is known for its dynamic hi-tech/start-up sector]. The basis of the society must be liberty and this should be the main message," Feiglin says.

What about the special relationship?

While Feiglin clearly wishes to cultivate Israel's close relationship with the U.S., he is adamant about ending American aid to Israel.

"Israel, since 1967 has had a special connection to the U.S.. We've had 40 years of good relations, but at the same time, it's is built on the wrong concept: a concept of a big brother or even a father. This must come to an end. While we have common values and common interests, the relationship should be based on mutual respect," Feiglin laments.

According to Feiglin most of the aid Israel receives serves the interests of the American patron.

"It's not really aid. It's called aid for psychological reasons. Jews don't want to feel alone. We have no economic need for it. In actuality, the so-called aid is harming us by not letting us determine independently our security concerns. For example, Israel is planning to buy the U.S.-made F-35 fighter plane. Israel does not need this plane; it is forced upon us by the Americans. The plane works only with American-made missiles therefore harming our capability to conduct aviation warfare effectively."

Political prospects

Feiglin's hard-line views might be an easier sell in the eyes of the skeptical Israeli left when accompanied with emphasis on freedoms such as privacy, voluntary military service, and legalized marijuana. His libertarianism on economics and social issues puts him at odds with the Israeli mainstream, but might also add to his appeal to the disillusioned left, still in search of its post-Oslo identity.

In fact, when I ask my left-leaning friends in Tel Aviv how they feel about him, the answer is usually a few seconds pause followed by confused and uncharacteristically disjointed answers.

Indeed, while Feiglin's particular brand of libertarian-infused Orthodox Judaism is unique in Israeli politics, one wonders why there are so few with such views.

"Good news is that since I started my message of combining freedom and classical liberalism it has been catching on quite well. Revolutions often start from one man. Until now, we in Israel have been stuck in old conflicts," Feiglin says, hinting that the time might be ripe for a political shift.

It is difficult to categorize Feiglin as an advocate of one particular political ideology. He espouses extreme views towards the Palestinians, but advocates for a small state at home. He is unlike anyone else in Israeli politics.

Feiglin is an anomaly and for now, he has no place on Israel's traditional political spectrum, and may be denied higher office as a result. After all, in order to become a prime minister, one must moderate and often sacrifice one's views. In light of this, it's unlikely that Member of Knesset Feiglin will become Prime Minister Feiglin any time soon.