Review: The Classical Liberal Case For Israel

  • February 5, 2024
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In War Guilt in the Middle East (1967) Murray Rothbard observes that libertarians are very clear on the principles of liberty, but less so on the details of specific events:

Now this kind of insight into the root cause of war and aggression, and into the nature of the State itself, is all well and good … But the trouble is that the libertarian tends to stop there, and evading the responsibility of knowing what is going on in any specific war or international conflict, he tends to leap unjustifiably to the conclusion that, in any war, all States are equally guilty, and then to go about his business without giving the matter a second thought. (p. 21).

Informing oneself of what is going on in specific conflicts requires a great deal of time and effort, as well as a sound grasp of the relevant history. This is the task to which Walter Block and Alan Futerman apply themselves in the Classical Liberal Case for Israel. The authors’ aim is to defend Israel by reference to classical liberal principles of justice based on self-ownership and private property.

The authors set out not only to defend Israel, but specifically to offer a defense consistent with classical liberal and libertarian principles of justice. Drawing upon Mises, they ask “What is, then, the bedrock of a free society? Private property.” Further, they take a Lockean view of self-ownership in asking “But what is the fundamental principle behind private property, and therefore, that sustaining a free society? It is Justice.” They trace land titles in the land of Israel to the original acquisition thousands of years ago aiming to show “an unbroken line of succession” since 135 C.E. which they present as proof of Israel’s claim to just possession of the land. They argue that “It was stolen from them some 2000 years ago, and the Hebrews are merely repossessing what would have come down to them in ordinary inheritance practices, from parents to children” (p 300).

Well, the Romans stole the land from the Jews around two millenia ago; the Jews never gave this land to the Arabs or anyone else. Thus according to libertarian theory it should be returned to the Jews. (p. 308) …

In his acknowledgements Walter speaks of his “great love and respect” for Murray Rothbard but adds that “He and I do not agree on the issues covered in this book.” Although much of the Classical Liberal Case for Israel is devoted to setting out the historical claim to land title in Israel, upon closer analysis it soon becomes clear that the authors’ most serious disagreement with Rothbard is not centered on questions related to “what is going on in any specific war”, for example their disagreement on whether Jews paid a fair price for the lands they purchased (p. 39 – 40) or whether the State of Israel is a lesser or greater violator of the non-aggression principle than other states (chapter 3), what really happened at Deir Yassin (p. 268, 269), the degree to which the British are culpable in this dispute (from p. 254) and similar issues. These are all issues on which people can and do disagree on the correct view of the facts. We argue that although the authors depict their disagreement with Rothbard as one concerning the application of libertarian principles of private property, creating the impression that the matter may be settled by “correcting” Rothbard on his understanding of these events, in fact the main thrust of the disagreement between them is one concerning the nature of Zionism. That is not to say that Zionism is the only issue on which the authors disagree with Rothbard (they also disagree, for example, on what is entailed in strike action: p 299), but it is the issue which is most essential in understanding the authors’ critique of Rothbard.

Classical Liberalism, Property Rights, and Zionism

The authors argue that a proper understanding of property rights can lead to only one correct view of Zionism. Further, they argue that to oppose the state of Israel is to oppose property rights:

The right of the Jewish People to inherit and develop the land of their ancestors is so deeply rooted in historical and cultural evidence that to dispute it is simply a farce. It is tantamount to denying the basic rights of private property in a broad sense. That is what the attack against Israel’s legitimacy essentially is—an attack against private property rights generally, for anybody at all. (p. xxv)

On that basis they argue that Rothbard is wrong about Zionism and thus in their view it follows that Rothbard is also wrong in his application of libertarian principles to the situation in the Middle East. In their view a correct view of Zionism would lead to a correct interpretation of property rights and vice versa. Thus the authors assert that “to be anti-Zionist is to be against the entire concept of private property” (p. xxvi).

Given that Rothbard is clearly not against the entire concept of private property, the authors conclude that Rothbard is “misapplying his own libertarian principles in the course of his invective against this one particular state” (p. 201 n. 15). This brings their argument round full circle – Rothbard’s view of Israel is incorrect, which has caused him to be incorrect in his understanding of the property rights foundations of Israel. But this merely begs the precise question which is in issue between them, as Rothbard does not see Zionism as being in any way conceptually linked to Lockean homesteading principles.

The book is dedicated to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose classical liberal views are highlighted by the authors: “Among the different perspectives of Zionism, we find that of Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the movement he founded, the Zionist Revisionist, as the best and most compatible with our classical liberal and libertarian approach. Jabotinsky was a classical liberal and thus a champion of individual liberty” (p. 44-46). They discuss in some detail Jabotinsky’s defense of free markets, private property and the minimal state.

Rothbard, by contrast, views Zionism as “committed to the blood-and-soil mystique of Palestine” (1967, p. 23). He regards Jabotinsky and the Zionist Revisionists as militaristic and fanatical, which is almost as far from Lockean homesteading principles as one could conceive.

It is fair to say that Jabotinsky is known less for championing Lockean principles of private property and free markets than for championing the right of Jewish people to a homeland and to defend that homeland by force if necessary. For example, Jabotinsky is quoted by Jake Wallis Simons in his comment on the recent case brought before the ICJ by South Africa as follows:

We do not have to account to anybody. We are not to sit for anybody’s examination and nobody is old enough to call on us to answer. We came before them and will leave after them. We are what we are, we are good for ourselves, we will not change, nor do we want to.

A similar sentiment is reflected in Ted Belman’s review of Block and Futerman’s book:

Israel can be whatever it wants to be and need not be what others want it to be. Too often demands are made on Israel to behave in a certain way that no one else manages to do. Even the liberal west isn’t liberal. We need not justify ourselves to anyone. Unfortunately for Israel, it is ruled by an extremely liberal court which constantly is at odds with the Knesset. In other words, it is too liberal for the people. Having said that, it is important for Israel to stress her historical and legal claims to the land which this book does admirably. But her existence doesn’t depend on such claims. It depends on the strength of her army and her economy.

Indeed so. Wars between nations depend on the strength of their armies and their economies, not on a correct application of homesteading principles. This is reflected in Jabotinsky’s defiant words quoted by the authors:

How much longer will this go on? Tell me, my friends, are you not tired by now of this rigmarole? Isn’t it high time, in response to all of these accusations, rebukes, suspicions, smears, and denunciations—both present and future—to fold our arms over our chests and loudly, clearly, coldly, and calmly put forth the only argument which this public can understand: why don’t you all go to hell? “What kind of people are we that we have to justify ourselves before them? And who are they to demand it of us? What is the point of this whole comedy of putting an entire people on trial when the verdict is known in advance? How does it benefit us to participate voluntarily in this comedy, to brighten up these villainous and humiliating proceedings with our speeches for the defense? “Our defense is useless and hopeless, our enemies will not believe it, and apathetic people will pay no attention to it. The time for apologies is over. (p. 238)

It is scarcely credible to argue that the key issue here concerns Lockean theories of mixing labor with the land. Jabotinsky’s words may tangentially evoke the Lockean notions of original acquisition which the authors wish to emphasize—“we came before them”—but the overall message of Zionism is not simply or even largely one of property rights and the right of an owner to defend himself and his property—it also reflects the determination to stake a claim to these particular lands under the banner of Zionism, which is why Rothbard refers to it as a kind of “blood and soil mystique”. Indeed as Block and Futerman observe, the case they make is essentially a Zionist case in this broader sense and not merely a case based on Lockean homesteading:

However, against all of its enemies, the Zionist project and the will of the Jewish people have prevailed. Israel is a strong nation, and the Jews are free in their own land. Zionism has succeeded. Theodore Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s dreams of a vibrant Jewish State in its own historical homeland are now a reality. And it will continue to succeed, as the Jewish People always have. (p. xxvi)

They also make the point that “if everyone else may form a state, why, then, so may the Jews” and “While Israel as a State is, according to anarcho capitalist libertarian theory, certainly vicious to a degree, it is certainly not “uniquely” pernicious insofar as states go.” Such arguments are not conceptually related to principles of homesteading but are more in the nature of a claim that the legitimacy of the only Jewish state should not be questioned if the legitimacy of all other states is accepted.

The authors are however keen to emphasize that although their book discusses these more general Zionist arguments their goal is not simply to address matters concerning sovereignty or national security but specifically to ground their defense of Israel in libertarian property rights theory. Therefore although the book covers classical liberal arguments about freedom, free markets, individual liberty, Israel’s right to exist and related issues it is primarily on this point, on the concept of private property, that they clash with Rothbard. They do not simply wish to defend Zionism, but to argue that opposing Zionism amounts to opposing private property rights in general.

The Case against Rothbard

In attempting to defend Israel by reference to libertarian theory the authors found it necessary to declare Rothbard to be wrong, a matter which they address in detail in chapter 6. Much attention in this chapter is devoted to whether Israel is more or less aggressive than any other state, but comparing Israel to other states has no necessary conceptual connection to a Rothbardian theory of property rights. The Ethics of Liberty is not a war manual and indeed Rothbard’s concern in War Guilt is not with Lockean homesteading but with the NAP and identification of who is the true aggressor in the Middle East. By contrast, the authors’ view is that in any war the only way to ascertain who the aggressor is by reference to principles of original acquisition. The authors consider that principles of property law are the only relevant benchmark by which a libertarian may ascertain war guilt.

The authors therefore argue that Rothbard’s approach is wrong, and that the relevant principle in this context is whether the person launching the attack is trying to steal property or trying to get his own property back. This is the point discussed by Rothbard in the Ethics of Liberty (1998) using the example of a stolen watch:

Suppose we are walking down the street and we see a man, A, seizing B by the wrist and grabbing B’s wristwatch … we don’t know simply from our observation whether A is indeed a thief, or whether A is merely repossessing his own watch from B who had previously stolen it from him. In short, while the watch had undoubtedly been B’s property until the moment of A’s attack, we don’t know whether or not A had been the legitimate owner at some earlier time, and had been robbed ·by B. Therefore, we do not yet know which one of the two men is the legitimate or just property owner. We can only find the answer through investigating the concrete data of the particular case, i.e., through “historical” inquiry. (1998 p. 51)

In War Guilt Rothbard does not regard the Middle East question as analogous to deciding who stole whose watch. In War Guilt Rothbard is concerned with the propensity of all states to aggress against their citizens and he argues that “in virtually every war, one side is far more guilty than the other, and on one side must be pinned the basic responsibility for aggression, for a drive for conquest, etc” (p. 21).

Block and Futerman argue that in War Guilt Rothbard is addressing the wrong issue. Their view is that rather than questioning whether Israel is more guilty than her Arab neighbors (to which their answer is no), Rothbard should instead ask who homesteaded the land of Israel 3,000 years ago. This would lead him to the correct conclusion: that Israel is the true owner and is thus justified in using force to seize back and defend her land.

The authors’ charge against Rothbard is therefore that he does not delve deep enough into the annals of history to ascertain the first owner of the land of Israel:

In the end, Rothbard offers us a stark choice: libertarianism, or support for Israel. Our answer is, both. We think we can have our cake and eat it too, and maintain that we have offered above sufficient reason for this conclusion. Our claim is that Rothbard did not start his analysis as far back into the past as he should have, neither did he analyze the situation before and after the founding of Israel correctly. Had he started about more than two millennia ago as we did, we expect he would have written a very different essay on Israel’s right to exist, and the claim of the Jewish people over the land in contention. (p. 309)

The authors argue that their evidence of original acquisition by Israel is conclusive proof of the just entitlement to the land, from which it would follow that there is an entitlement if necessary to seize it and defend it. They argue that “Their goal was not to target or conquer civilian Arab lands, though conquering some areas was a defensive outcome of the War of Independence” (p. 266).

But Rothbard does not regard Zionism as a quest for libertarian justice rooted in private property and Lockean principles, so the authors’ argument that Rothbard erred in failing to trace Lockean acquisition of title back to its origins 3000 years ago merely sidesteps the very issue in dispute: a dispute on the nature of Zionism and whether Zionism is really an ideology rooted in libertarian theories of private property.

Who is the Aggressor?

Ultimately, a libertarian case for Israel can only be one that depends, as Rothbard says, on ascertaining which side in a conflict has “the basic responsibility for aggression”. The disagreement between Rothbard and the authors cannot be decided by theoretical analysis of property rights. It can only be decided by ascertaining who is correct on the historical facts. As Rothbard said:

But in order to find out which side to any war is the more guilty, we have to inform ourselves in depth about the history of that conflict, and that takes time and thought – and it also takes the ultimate willingness to become relevant by taking sides through pinning a greater degree of guilt on one side or the other. (1967, p. 21).

The authors assert that “Rothbard begins his analysis on the wrong foot” in attributing blame to Israel, and they regard Rothbard’s views on Zionism as “problematic” (p. 261). They attempt to show that Rothbard failed to understand the historical events he discusses in War Guilt. For example they argue that Rothbard failed to ascertain which specific lands were or were not “occupied” by Palestinians (p. 262) and failed to mention attacks against Jews (from p. 269). But ultimately this is nothing more than a dispute on the accurate interpretation of contested historical facts. It is not a dispute concerning principles of private property. The authors concede as much when they say “[Rothbard] thinks the Jews stole land from the Arabs, and [the Arabs] are justifiably trying to get it back. We, as fellow libertarians, would join him, if we thought his analysis correct … We part company from him, only, because we believe the very opposite: the Jews were the victims of land theft, not the Arabs” (p. 294).

That being the case, the authors have misfired in their claim that Rothbard’s views of Zionism reflect a mistaken application of libertarian principles. They argue that “The point we are making is that Rothbard’s attack on Israel, even if correct (which as we try to show, is not), is irrelevant”. The reasons the Arab nations invaded Israel in 1948 were absolutely unrelated to libertarian theories concerning justice in land titles.” (p. 298). But the authors fail to appreciate that the same is true of Zionism. The beliefs and goals of Zionism are, at best, only tangentially related to libertarian theories concerning just land titles.

Neither of the protagonists fighting over disputed land in the Middle East can credibly claim to be fighting for libertarian principles. As the authors observe “We readily admit that there is no individual Jew who can trace his ownership rights over any specific piece of land from 2000 years ago. And this, indeed, would be the criterion for transfer of land titles if we were discussing individual rights. On the other hand, we can identify specific Jewish groups that have a right to certain areas, such as the Kohanim with the Temple Mount.” (p. 304, 305). In cases where the Jews were dispossessed by the Romans they argue that “The status of legal heir would be determined by the nearest of kin that could be determined genetically as well as culturally. If a plot cannot be attributed to a single heir, it would theoretically go to a group that could apply for equal shares in said land” (p 20). There being little likelihood of a single heir being able to trace his title back to135 C.E it follows that such claims to title would rest on genetic studies of paternal lineage to whom the land would be given (p 21). They suggest that “this could be done by dividing the territory via shares, and giving them to all who test positive for the same genetic markers that indicate shared paternal descent.” (p 22). Any Muslims who claim entitlement to the land would similarly be subjected to genetic testing: “wherever there is evidence of previous Muslim homesteading of land in the State of Israel that is currently occupied by Jews, title should be transferred to Muslims provided that cultural and genetic descent can be similarly proven by the other side” (p 22).

Whatever that theory of justice is, property rights based on ethnicity, DNA and genetic entitlement to ancestral lands corroborated by religious texts and cultural inheritance is not a libertarian theory of private property rights. As such it is the authors’ claims about Lockean homesteading that are irrelevant to Rothbard’s analysis of war guilt.

It is true, as Ayn Rand argued in her own defense of Israel, that liberty is likely to be advanced more by Israel than by the Arab states but that does not in itself mean that a defense of Israel is an application of libertarian principles. Rather, that point merely asserts that libertarian principles are more likely to flourish in Israel than in neighboring states. As Ayn Rand (cited in Rothbard, 1971):

When you have civilized men fighting savages, you support the civilized men, no matter who they are. Israel is a mixed economy inclined toward socialism. But when it comes to the power of the mind—the development of industry in that wasted desert continent—versus savages who don’t want to use their minds, then if one cares about the future of civilization, don’t wait for the government to do something. Give whatever you can. This is the first time I’ve contributed to a public cause: helping Israel in an emergency.

But quite clearly her argument is not predicated upon libertarian principles of justice. Rothbard’s (1971) answer to this was that no reason has been given to justify violation of the non-aggression principle:

Why? What is the overriding cause for which we must set aside libertarian principle, isolationist principle, and opposition to altruism; why is Israel’s “emergency” to be a claim on our hearts and pockets? Given Miss Rand’s militant atheism, it surely could not be the necessity for the reestablishment of the Temple, or the fulfillment of the old prayer, “next year in Jerusalem”; given her professed individualism, it surely could not be (one hopes) the Zionist call to blood, race, and soil. So what is it? Russia is of course dragged in, but even Miss Rand concedes that the Russian Threat is not the real issue here.

The real issue? Because “civilized men” are “fighting against savages”, and when that happens, says Rand, “then you have to be on the side of that civilized man no matter what he is.”

Deciding these types of questions, who is more or less to blame for a particular war and who is the true aggressor falls within the purview of historical analysis, foreign policy and the specific details of particular events rather than a theory of just acquisition of property.

The authors clearly disagree with Rothbard on how historical events unfolded but it does not follow that in a disagreement over who aggressed against whom, one party is defending private property while the other is “against the entire concept of private property.” It is merely a debate over contested facts, or at any rate the significance of contested facts, rather than a debate over the concept of private property.

The question of whether Israel has committed acts of aggression is not reduceable to Lockean homesteading principles, nor can the Ethics of Liberty be construed as a manual capable of settling wars between nations. Ultimately, in claiming that the dispute in the Middle East can be resolved through libertarian principles of private property Block and Futerman have lost sight of the complexity of the philosophical issues. They devote attention to showing, for example, the hatred that has historically been shown towards Jews (p. 252-253) but they are wrong to suppose that this is in any way related to a theory of private property and naive to hope that inter-racial hatred can be resolved by reference to property rights.


Murray N. Rothbard (1967). War Guilt in the Middle East. Left and Right, 3 (3, Spring–Autumn): 20–30.

Murray N. Rothbard (1971) Rand on the Middle East The Libertarian Forum, December. Republished in Lew Rockwell, August 1, 2014. Available at