Online Primer

By Noah Nissani

Copyright 1996 -- Authorized free distribution of non-modified copies for non-commercial purposes.

Chapter I



I Introduction
II The Nomenclature Mess
III The Political Cartesian Space
IV Basic Principles
V Historical Antecedents

Chapter II     Chapter III     Chapter IV     Chapter V

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During the 18th and 19th centuries, a period characterized by unprecedental social change and progress, Liberalism was the prevalent ideology in Europe and America. The atmosphere of liberty and free enterprise lead to rapid development of science, technology and industry. Physics moved from Newton to Einstein, alchemy transformed into chemistry, medicine jumped from Hippocrates to Pasteur. Technology and industry replaced human labor with steam and electricity, horseback and human foot with automobiles and airplanes. Slavery, the stigma that put to shame humankind from the beginning of prehistory, disappeared from the Western world.

Today, following the collapse of the antiliberal ideologies that bloodied the 20th century, the world is turning its face to this old ideology, i.e., turning one century backward, in a return to a lost direction. But there are many nations, including Israel, that have nowhere to return, as they never knew what Liberalism is. Furthermore, remnants of the totalitarian ideologies which prevailed for so long are clearly discernible in the thinking of a great number of people who presently proclaim themselves as liberals. This contributes to increase of confusion about what Liberalism really is, calling for a modern exposition of classic ideas, adapted to the language and needs of our time. Although the main purpose of this work is to help Israel, my country, in its transition from Marxism to Liberalism, it is also intended to be of interest for the general public.


You can hardly find a political label that has not had contradictory meanings in different times and places. For example:

  • "Socialism" stood in the beginning for "Liberalism with social concern", and the earliest Socialists -- Claude Henry Comte de Saint Simon (1760-1825), Robert Owen (1771-1858), Francois Fourier (1772-1837) -- advocated cooperatives of farmers to improve their ability to compete in the free market.
  • Later, following the "Scientific Socialism" of Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95), "Socialism" denoted a totalitarian ideology which maintained that private property should be replaced by social ownership, the bourgeoisie should be eliminated, and religion should be suppressed. The terms "socialist" and "social-democratic" became then synonymous with "communist", i.e., referring to a totalitarian ideology, absolutely opposed to Liberalism.
  • Later still, after Lenin changed the name of the "Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party" to the "Communist Party", "Socialism" came to denote a non-revolutionary variant of Marxism, related to the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party.
  • Simultaneously, the term "Socialist" was even integrated into the name of anti-Marxist movements, such as the "German National Socialist Party."
  • Presently, the majority of the Socialist and Social-Democratic parties have switched from support of Marxist social ownership to support for private ownership and free enterprise. Wherever these parties are in power, they are attempting to privatize enterprises which they themselves nationalized some years ago. They tend to call themselves "liberals" despite their support for extensive governmental intervention in areas that Liberalism classically attributes to private activity. This obscures the meaning of "Liberalism", and forces authentic liberals to seek alternative labels such as "classical liberals", "libertarians", etc..

There are a number of political definitions such as Fascism, Nazism, and Totalitarianism, which are usually used in a deprecatory sense, that seem to have lost their specific meaning and retain only a strong negative connotation. Consequently many people support ideas, some of which are very attractive, without being aware that they are affiliated with these rejected ideologies. In the present work we will try to avoid any evaluative connotations, limiting our concern to the field of ideas.


Any ideology or regime can be placed in an imaginary 3-dimensional Cartesian space, whose axes are determined by the ideological bipoles: Liberal-Totalitarian, Democratic-Autocratic and Judaic-Nazi.


In this diagram the terms Liberal, Totalitarian, Judaic and Nazi are used in a narrower sense than that ascribed to them currently. The Liberal-Totalitarian axis only pertains to the division of roles between individuals and the government: The greater the number of functions assumed by the government, the more totalitarian it is, and vice versa. The principles of equality and fraternity, despite their primary significance in liberal ideology, do not find their expression in this axis, because they are also supported by totalitarian ideologies such as Marxism. Given that they are fundamentals of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim common heritage that are rejected by Nazism, they are plotted along another axis, whose poles have been named Judaic and Nazi, respectively.

Liberty, the first term in Jean Jacques Rousseau's (1712--78) classical triad of liberal principles, is divided into various subtypes, each of which finds its place on the appropriate axis. The liberation of slaves, for example, is a natural corollary of the principle of equality, although it was only implemented after the Industrial Revolution, a product of free enterprise, made slavery unnecessary. Freedom of religion, on the other hand, results from the liberal restriction of the governmental sphere, and political liberty depends on the democratic characteristic of the regime.

In order to exemplify the use of the political Cartesian space, a comparative plotting of Liberalism and the Israeli governmental regime with the establishment of the state in 1948 and at present (1996), is shown in Graph 1. The plotting of Liberalism is straightforward since it clearly pertains to the Liberal, Democratic and Judaic extremes of the respective axes. However, in order to apply to the Israeli regime, a some explanation is required:

* Plotting on the Liberal-Totalitarian axis:

Israel is a totalitarian state in which every aspect of the citizen's life, from the cradle to the grave, is controlled by the government and affiliated institutions, such as the Histadrut (the highly politicized Israeli worker's organization) and the Rabbinate:

  1. The main branches of the economy are owned by the government and the Histadrut. Other branches such as agricultural production and commercialization, and public transport are monopolized by politicized organizations with strong links to the formerly dominant Marxist party. The narrow margin remaining for private initiative is subject to a complex system of bureaucratic licensing and privileges.
  2. Religious legislation and tribunals of the officially recognized religions control the issues of matrimony and divorce. Each citizen is subject to the law and tribunal of his "official" religion, what makes matrimony between persons of different religions impossible . Mixed couples and those lacking a well-defined official religion must marry abroad. The only officially recognized branch of Judaism is Orthodox, and Jews belonging to other branches can only be married by Orthodox rabbis. In addition burial procedures are controlled exclusively by recognized religious institutions, and measures to provide a solution for burying those without an official religion have only been introduced recently.
  3. Education is controlled by the government, and only three educational streams are recognized in the Jewish sector: state, state-religious, and independent. Ideologically they are: Zionist secular, Zionist religious, and non-Zionist religious, respectively. Staff members in the first two streams are employed by the government, and the religious orientation of the last two streams is Orthodox. A separate education system exists in the Arab sector.
  4. Until recently, neither a constitution nor any other legal resource limited the all-powerful Knesset (Parliament). Only in the past few years some Basic Laws concerning citizens rights have been enacted, allowing for some control of the Knesset by the High Court.

Thus, the Israel regime of 1948 must be placed, in our diagram, close to the Totalitarian end of the Liberal-Totalitarian axis. From 1948 to 1996, the deficiencies described in clauses 1) and 4) have been tempered to some extent. The leftist parties have abandoned Marxist ideology, and free enterprise is universally supported, at least on a theoretical level. The Histadrut has lost some of its enterprises, and government companies are targeted for privatization. Consequently, even though the Israeli regime has moved toward the Liberal pole of the Liberal-Totalitarian axis, it still remains in the totalitarian branch.

* Plotting on the Democratic-Autocratic axis:

Since its founding (1948) Israel has enjoyed a multi-party democratic regime. Its democracy, however, is strongly affected by the dependence of a large share of the population on jobs controlled by the government and the Histadrut. Furthermore, all of the radio stations, and later the only television channel, are government owned until recently. At the same time, the so-called independent press, which relied on the politicized enterprises for funding, hardly dared to criticize the government during the first years of the State's existence. Hence, although the Israel regime of 1948 deserves to be plotted on the Democratic branch of the Democratic-Autocratic axis, it is still some distance away from the Democratic end of this branch. Here again, similar to the plotting on the Liberal- Totalitarian axis, the negative factors described above have been tempered to some extent. Consequently, Israel enjoys today a better democracy than in 1948, namely, it has moved to the left along the Democratic-Autocratic axis.

* Plotting on the Judaic-Nazi axis:

Israel's Declaration of Independence ensures equal rights to all citizens, without racial or religious discrimination. Certainly, there is no Israeli law that formally violates this principle. However, the unrestricted power of the Knesset has allowed for discriminatory measures against Arabs, and non-Orthodox Jewish sectors. Therefore, although the Israeli regime of 1948 has been plotted on the Judaic branch of the Judaic-Nazi axis, it was unfortunately at an appreciable distance from the end of the Judaic branch. In its evolution from totalitarianism to liberalism, which has already been described here, Israel has been also moving along the Judaic-Nazi axis toward a more satisfactory position, but still it is a certain distance away from the Judaic extreme.


Liberal ideology can be summed up by Rousseau's slogan, which served as symbol to the liberal revolution that took place on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the 18th century: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." These are also the basic tenets of the Jewish- Christian-Muslim common heritage, which are constantly repeated throughout the Bible. However, these principles have been also adopted in totalitarian ideologies, although their totalitarian meanings differ from those ascribed to them by Liberalism. The following paragraphs will elucidate these terms, pointing out the difference between their liberal and totalitarian interpretations.

Below is a quick test that helps clarify the liberal meaning of "Liberty." Given a choice between two alternatives, which option is the liberal corollary of the following expressions?:

1) "Nobody can tell me what I must do."
a) Because I am free to do what I want.
b) Because I am not free to do what I want.

2) "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes". (Judges 21, 25)(1).
a) This description portrays a situation of chaotic anarchic.
b) This description portrays an ideal free society in which everyone does his/her duty.

The above Biblical description refers to the period of approximately two centuries that runs from the conquest of the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua till the coronation of King Saul, (app. 12th & 11th centuries BC.) According to Biblical testimony, the people of Israel were governed at the time by the Elders of Israel and tribal judges. These last appear administering justice and leading the people in defensive wars against external aggression. In other words, they fulfilled the two major functions of a liberal government: ensuring internal and external peace, allowing the free and undisturbed functioning of society.

However, worried by the Philistine menace, the Elders of Israel petitioned Samuel for a king: "Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations." ".. and go out before us and fight our battles." (1 Samuel, 8.) The answer of Samuel is perhaps the oldest and best testimony in favor of Liberalism recorded by history: "This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day." The Bible description of God's reaction to the Elders of Israel's request is also very meaningful: "And the Lord said to Samuel: Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them." Thus, the Bible refers to the liberal regime in which "everyone did what was right in his own eyes," as the reign of God.

"Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought." (Lord Acton 1834 - 1902). All of us, the great majority of the people, are peaceable, honest, law-abiding citizens who devote their lives to their family and their civil duties. None of us does what he wants, but what he must do, namely, "what is right in his own eyes." Therefore, it makes no sense for somebody to tell us what to do, because we are not free to do otherwise that what we are actually doing. On the other hand, there is no reason to assume that the government knows better than the citizens what is the right thing to do. This does not mean the absence of law. On the contrary, in its liberal sense, liberty essentially means the submission of all, individuals and government, to the law and to the dictates of conscience. "The law ought to be supreme over all, and the magistracies should judge of particulars, and only this should be considered a constitution." (Aristotle, Politics, IV, IV.) (2). However, the law must be restricted to what is absolutely necessary for the proper functioning of society, and must avoid conflict with individual conscience.

Liberal freedom entails individual responsibility for one's own welfare and for that of one's family. Totalitarians reject the liberal notion of liberty, asserting that for the poor it means the liberty to die of starvation. Real liberty, they say, is liberty from misery and need. Pretending to free them from need, they in fact transform the citizens into protected asylum-dwellers who depend on the authorities for the satisfaction of their needs. After the collapse of the Marxist regimes, and in light of the misery, crime, prostitution and ecological devastation they have left behind, the outcome of this fallacy has become universally apparent.

In its liberal meaning, equality implies the abolition of all birthrights that were broadly accepted in the 18th century, and the equality of all human beings of any race, religion, or nationality. Liberalism also demands equality of opportunity for youth in developing their natural potential by means of accessible adequate instruction. The liberal idea of equality differs from its Marxist counterpart in that Liberalism accepts that the incentives of differential retribution and private ownership are essential to the effective functioning of society, and that therefore, despite their being a contributing factor to social inequality, they result in general welfare.

Fraternity, viz, solidarity between neighbors, is an individual duty which, like responsibility for family's welfare, originates in a natural human feeling. Although they can be regulated by law, experience shows that both duties are voluntarily fulfilled when there is no governmental intervention. For example, the Buenos Aires Jewish community, which numbered approximately 300,000, maintained in the 1950s, without any state support or external contribution, an extensive net of communal institutions which included: A dozen educational centers (one of them with nearly two thousand pupils from kindergarten to high school), teacher's seminars, a center for Hebraic studies, a hospital, a home for the aged, an orphanage, three large clubs for social cultural and sports activities, numerous synagogues, burial services, social and economic assistance, publishing houses, two daily newspapers and many weekly and monthly journals, theater, boy scout and youth organizations, Zionist and anti-Zionist organizations. In addition to this extensive local activity, the Zionist organizations collected considerable sums in support of Israel.

In comparison voluntary social activity in Israel is nearly non-existent, and even the seemingly voluntary associations such as those of new immigrants are financed by the Ministry of Absorption and the Jewish Agency. The cause of this seems to be the fact that nearly all social and welfare services are provided by the state, the Histadrut and organizations supported by Jewish communities abroad.

Assistance to the needy is an obligation inherent in the liberal principle of fraternity. Therefore, the point is not whether such assistance must be provided, but whether this function can be better fulfilled by the government than by private organizations. We Israelis have a sad experience with government efficiency. All of us remember, for example, the days when telephone services were provided by the state, and how many years it took to receive a phone line. Once this service was handed over to a company, even if it was a monopolistic enterprise owned by the state, there was considerable improvement(3). If this was the case when the beneficiaries of government services emanated from the most influential sector of society, what about services intended for the needy? Only the hardhearted would support that the needy deserve such inefficient treatment (4).


Highly developed liberal concepts are found in both sources of Western civilization: The Hebrew and the Greek cultures. For example, the Biblical discussion quoted above, in which the Elder of Israel asks Samuel for a king, clearly involves the idea of the "social contract" -- the original liberty voluntarily surrendered in exchange for security provided by a central power -- which constitutes the basis of the political philosophy of many of the most prominent precursors of modern Liberalism: Thomas Hobbes (1588- 1679) John Locke (1632--1704), and Rousseau (1712-78).

The Biblical assertion that a sole couple is the common ancestor of all human beings, and that three brothers are the fathers of all races, constitutes the philosophical-religious basis of the liberal principles of universal equality and fraternity. Furthermore, equality and fraternity for all inhabitants, citizens as well as strangers, are ones of the most repeated Biblical commandments: "Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt " (Deuteronomy 10:19.) "One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you" (Exodus 12:49).

In addition a Biblical antecedent of religious tolerance and legitimation of the existence of different but moral equivalent religions is found in Micah's prophecy (8th century BC), which foresees the adoption of the Biblical moral precepts by many nations that have not adopted the Jewish religion: "Many nations shall come and say: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord. To the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us his ways, and we shall walk in his paths.... For all people walk each in the name of his god. But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever." (Micah 4, 1 - 5.) This prophecy can be viewed as the Biblical root of Deism, i.e., belief in a universal God without accepting a specific revelation and dogma, which is a form of religiosity shared by numerous liberal thinkers from Edward Herbert Baron of Cherbury (1583--1648), Anthony Ashley Cooper 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671--1713), Thomas Paine (1737-1809), and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to Albert Einstein (1879-1955).

An advanced liberal political philosophy is found in the Greek classics, culminating with the scientific-philosophical work of Aristotle (384-322 BC.), whose ideas in all fields of human culture, from physics to ethics, have dominated Western culture for centuries. In his book Politics, Aristotle studied existing, possible or even utopian regimes, and established many of the liberal principles later formulated by Montesquieu in The Spir it of the Laws (1748). Furthermore, in his approach to the issue of common versus private ownership, Aristotle appears to be precursor of Adam Smith: "Property should be in a certain sense common, but, as a general rule, private; for, when everyone has a distinct interest, men will not complain of one another, and they will make more progress, because every one will be attending to his own business." (Aristotle, Politics, II, V).

All the elements of a modern democratic government are present in the Athenian constitution. An executive forum consisting of nine members was headed by an Archon, a King, and a Polemarch, who handled civil, religious, and military issues, respectively. A legislature was composed of two houses: the Council of Areopagus and the Council of Four Hundred. Finally, judicial power was vested in the Law-Courts. More significantly, we see in the Athenian constitution a definite separation of powers, which is of the essence of any liberal regime. See Aristotle,The Athenian Constitution, Parts 3 & 4

Despite the fact that the two sources of Western civilization -- Bible and Greek classics -- are clearly oriented toward Liberalism, it did not appear in Western Europe until the 18th century. Its appearance was the natural outcome of a series of interrelated cultural developments that began with the Renaissance in the 14th century:

  • The Renaissance (14th-16th cent. CE) introduced classic Greek and Roman art, scientific thinking, and philosophy into medieval Europe. This cultural collision generated a spectacular awakening of the European genius: Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Shakespeare are only a few in a large list of representatives of this luminous dawn of European culture. Greek and Roman philosophy and democratic regimes supplied all the political elements needed for the future rise of Liberalism.
  • Gutenberg's (1400-68) invention of the printing press opened a new era in human history -- the Book Age. Books and newspapers become a new and powerful medium for communication between individuals and nations. Culture become universal, as distances and oceans no longer obstruct expansion of ideas. Montesquieu is more widely read in America than in France. The Bible and the classics are now accessible to everyone. The world undergoes a cultural revolution of unprecedented proportions.
  • The religious Reformation of the 16th cent.: Criticism aroused by the Renaissance was also expressed in the area of religion, where Martin Luther (1483-1546), Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), and John Calvin (1509-64) demanded the right for individual judgment of the Sacred Scriptures. The Bible, printed and translated into European languages, became obligatory reading for a large share of the European and American population, which became directly influenced by its liberal principles. (For more information on the religious Reformation from a catholic point of view click here)
  • The revolution in physics and astronomy, which began with Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642), reaching the peak with Newton (1642-1727). They dared to challenge religious dogma and bimillenary Aristotle's scientific authority introducing new freedom into the scientific thinking, which penetrated to the philosophical, religious and political fields. They also provided the basis for the technological developments that brought about the industrial revolution.
  • Philosophical developments in the 17th century, represented by Descartes (1596-1650) and Spinoza (1632-77), who established a rational basis for faith, opening the way to the advent of Deism, and the ensuing religious tolerance espoused by most of the founders of Liberalism in the next century.
  • The Masonry, a secret international liberal organization of uncertain origin, which emerged in London in 1717. Some of the most influential liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries were masons, including the three great liberators of America -- George Washington, Jose de San Martin and Simon Bolivar. Masonry's tradition claims that it was founded by the Phoenician builders of Solomon's Temple, who returned from Jerusalem imbued with liberal Biblical ideas. Its meeting sites are called "temples" and are decorated with two columns named like the columns of Solomon's Temple: Jachin and Boaz (2 Chronicles 3, 17.) Tools of working masons are found between its symbols and guarded secrets. Faith in God, the Great Architect, is a requisite for being accepted as a member of the lodge, but no distinction whatsoever is made between religions.
  • The industrial revolution that began in Britain during the mid of the 18th century, setting in motion a rapid transformation of social structure, which brought on new problems that demanded new solutions. It was initiated by the mechanical innovations introduced in the textile industry by James Hargreaves (?-1778), Richard Arkwright(1732-92) and Samuel Crompton (1753-1827), who used water-stream energy to perform faster and better labor that previously demanded human effort. At about the same time, James Watt's (1736-1819) improvement (1769) of Thomas Savery (1698) and Thomas Newcomen's (1712) steam engine provided man with new and powerful sources of energy.
  • Finally, the Enlightenment or Age of Reason. This philosophical movement, which prevailed during the 18th century, advocated rational criticism of all accepted beliefs and assumed truths.

<\UL> It was against this background that Liberalism emerged, with the scientific-philosophical works of Montesquieu (1689-1755) on politics, Adam Smith (1723- 90) on economics, Joseph Priestley (173 3-1804) on religion and education, and numerous other thinkers who covered all fields of human life, shaping Liberalism its current form.


(1) Biblical quotations are taken from the new King James version. Return

(2) Quotations from Aristotle's Politics are from Benjamin Jowett's translation. "Constitution" in Aristotle's nomenclature is what we now would denominate "Liberal Democracy", while Aristotle's "democracy" refers to uncontrolled ruling of the majority. The following quotations can contribute to clarifying Aristotle's nomenclature: "whereas constitutional rule is a government of freemen and equals." (Politics I, VII.) "In our original discussion about governments we divided them into three true forms: kingly rule, aristocracy, and constitutional government, and three corresponding perversions: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy." (O.c. IV, II.) Return

(3)The press announces that in the coming months, when two new telecommunication companies enter the market currently monopolized by the government-owned Bezek Corporation, the price of a call from Israel to America will be reduced from the current rate of 3.53 to 0.62 NIS per minute, i.e., nearly 1/6 of the current rates and even less than the cost of a call from Haifa to Tel Aviv!!.(Haaretz, Nov 7, 96.) Return

(4) Bankruptcy of American federal welfare policy. The press has recently publicized the decision of the American federal government to transfer the welfare services to state governments. This decision, massively supported in both houses by Democrats and Republicans, was ratified by 328 against 101 representatives. It was also ratified by President Clinton, who has been quoted saying: "I will sign the law because the present welfare policy has collapsed" (Haaretz August 1996.) It is difficult to understand how the state governments will be more successful in administering welfare than the federal government was. Furthermore, statistics show that during the last 30 years, and concomitant with expansion of state welfare and tax increases, the social activity of the American citizens was reduced by up to 50%. "Membership records of such diverse organizations as the PTA, the Elks club, the League of Women Voters, the Red Cross, labor unions,... show that participation ... has declined by roughly 25 percent to 50 percent over the last two to three decades." (Robert D. Putnam, The Strange Disappearance of Civic America, The American Prospect n o. 24, Winter 1996).

We see here a case similar to the social activity of the Jews in Israel compared to that of the Argentinean Jewish community. In both cases a culture focusing on social concerns was destroyed by excessive government activity. The problem is how to rebuild such a destroyed civic culture. Return

(5) Hobbes has been included in order to provide a complete perspective. However, in contrast to Locke and Rousseau, his approach to the social-contract idea was hardly inspired by the Biblical episode that is evoked. Furthermore, his support for absolute sovereign would hardly enable him to be included among the precursors of Liberalism. Return


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