Reporter's notebook

Ben Shapiro draws thousands to conservative, pro-Trump confab in Tel Aviv

Conservative Political Action Conference holds first gathering in Israel; speakers rail against liberal CNN and Europe and extol Israel for its unity and birthrate

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

American conservative media personality Ben Shapiro speaks at an event in Tel Aviv, July 20, 2022 (Nadav Cohen Yonatan, GoLive)
American conservative media personality Ben Shapiro speaks at an event in Tel Aviv, July 20, 2022 (Nadav Cohen Yonatan, GoLive)

Thousands of Israelis gathered in a Tel Aviv hangar on Wednesday night as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), one of the most influential political organizations in the United States, held its inaugural Israeli conference.

Conservative activists and top Donald Trump administration officials spoke about how much the former US president has done for Israel, praised Israel’s high birthrate and called on Israelis to fight on the conservative side of America’s culture wars.

But the key draw for many was celebrity pundit Ben Shapiro, who gave the evening’s keynote address. Several of the 2,500 people who crowded into Tel Aviv’s Hangar 11 for the event told The Times of Israel that they had not been aware that this was a CPAC conference, but had shown up to hear Shapiro.

Many attendees were American-Israeli, some dressed in a way that marked them as religiously observant Jews.

Matt Schlapp, CPAC’s chairman, spoke first, taking aim at the CNN news station, which he vilified for being too liberal.

“Do any of you watch CNN International?” he asked.

Some members of the audience booed.

“I knew I was going to love you even more!” he exclaimed.

“America believes that we have no greater ally in the Middle East and in the world than the people of Israel,” he went on. “But if you watch CNN, you might get a different idea.”

Schlapp said that CNN is part of a constellation of international forces that he hopes Israeli conservatives will join their American counterparts in combating.

“These forces are trying to divide America. They’re trying to destroy us. They’re doing that to divide us and make us weaker and to turn the American cause into a global cause run by the UN, run by the EU, by the WHO, run by the elite to tell people what they can and can’t do. I hope the people of Israel are rooting for those of us in America to save our country from these terrible forces.”

CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp and CPAC Senior Fellow Mercedes Schlapp at a CPAC event in Israel, July 20, 2022 (Photo credit: Nadav Cohen Yonatan, GoLive)

CPAC had begun holding conferences outside of the United States, in places like Hungary and Brazil, Schlapp said, in an effort to unite conservative movements across the globe. He said that Americans have something to learn from Israeli conservatives.

“Can you join with the freedom lovers of Korea and Japan and those brave voices in Hong Kong and the people of Australia and the people of Hungary and the people throughout Europe who are trying to do the right thing against all of these global forces that are in the way? And can you do something else? Can you teach Americans to be proud of why they are on this earth?”

The Wednesday event in Tel Aviv was jointly organized by CPAC, the Shibolet Press and Sella Meir publishing houses, and the Tel Aviv International Salon.

While The Daily Wire, a news site founded by Ben Shapiro, reported in June that the event would be a CPAC conference, the Tel Aviv International Salon sent out an email several hours before the event encouraging ticket holders to show up by 8:30 p.m., which happened to be after the CPAC speeches were scheduled to be over.

The email stressed that the Tel Aviv International Salon does not hold specific political views, writing that the organization is “nonpartisan and not-for-profit” and features speakers from “the left, right and center.”

Make Israel great again?

In recent years, CPAC has come to be associated with the pro-Trump MAGA wing of the Republican party, and several speakers on Wednesday evening effusively praised Trump — who may soon announce a reelection bid — for what they described as his contributions to Israel’s standing in the region. None of the speakers mentioned Trump’s potential rival for the Republican nomination, Ron DeSantis.

Introducing a panel of former US ambassadors and officials involved in Israel’s normalization with Arab countries, CPAC Senior Fellow Mercedes Schlapp described them as “Trump superstars” who “broke the mold of how people do diplomacy across the globe.”

She credited Trump with “getting things done” in the Middle East.

“I will tell you one thing about president Trump. When he wants to get something done, he gets it done. And we need more leaders like him to be a fighter in this world that we live in.”

Former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates John Rakolta said, in reference to the Abraham Accords peace framework, “I think that [Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner] is to be applauded in a great way. He had a completely new vision on how to achieve peace by bypassing the Palestinians and going directly to a country like the UAE, which was the first one.”

Former Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt praised Trump’s move to cut aid to Palestinians.

“For those of you that don’t know, president Trump did something very smart. He cut money to UNWRA,” he said referring to the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.

A CPAC-sponsored event in Tel Aviv, July 20, 2022 (Photo credit: Nadav Cohen Yonatan, GoLive)

The audience burst into applause and cheers.

“Why? Because it made absolutely no sense. Right?” said Greenblatt. “The Palestinian so-called refugees are the only people classified as such, generation by generation, and they live in these refugee camps. They have no future. They’re used as political pawns. And president Trump had enough. He said, the system is broken, it’s a waste of our money.”

Former US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, reported to be a possible secretary of state in a future Trump administration, suggested that Israel’s future would be better safeguarded by a right-wing America than a left-leaning Europe. He also warned ominously that America is in danger of losing its status as the leader of the free world.

“I’m generally a positive person, but unfortunately I have some bad news. You know, every great civilization has lasted roughly 250 years. America is looking at what’s happening to it and wondering, are we at that point? And think about it. The end of American leadership, the end of capitalism, human rights, the rule of law is a terrible thing for the entire world.”

Grenell said that this was happening because Europeans “have moved away from the West. They are solidly looking at a transatlantic relationship that is no longer Western-facing. And that is terrible not only for America, but it’s terrible for Israel.”

‘From where I live’

When the evening’s keynote speaker, conservative media juggernaut Ben Shapiro ascended the stage, many people in the audience rose to their feet, cheering loudly and trying to capture his image on their phones. Free seats were in short supply, and many people were standing throughout his hour-long talk.

Speaking at a rapid clip, without notes and seemingly from memory, Shapiro reeled off a list of statistics he said attested to the health and robustness of Israeli society.

“Despite a complete lack of natural resources, a tiny land area located in one of the most dangerous parts of the planet and a total population of 9.2 million people, Israel has the 20th highest GDP per capita on planet Earth,” he said.

Israeli journalist Amit Segal interviews conservative American media personality Ben Shapiro at Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv, July 20, 2022 (Nadav Cohen Yonatan, GoLive)

Shapiro also praised Israel for its high fertility rate, describing it as “the only Western country with a fertility rate above replacement rates. The only one.”

“In fact, it’s truly an amazing stat when you think about it. Even the most politically left-wing areas of Israel reproduce at higher rates than other countries. In Tel Aviv, the fertility rate is 2.49. In Haifa, the fertility rate is 2.35.”

Shapiro attributed this to Israelis’ sense of unity.

“From the inside, Israel has to look like a roiling country of disagreements and conflicts, of dislike and antipathy, of unbridgeable gaps, where nobody gets along. From the outside, which is where I live, here is what Israel actually looks like: a country more solid in its identity than nearly any country on planet Earth.”

Shapiro did criticize Israel for its bureaucracy and obstacles to a free-market economy, drawing muted applause.

He drew laughs when he mocked elements of the American left, whom he said believe that “men can be women, women can be men, both can be chickens, and the summit of human existence lies in the subjective sexual self-definition of each and every individual.”

Warning Israelis not to be influenced by leftist attitudes, Shapiro said, “Do not let any of this crap happen here, for the love of God. Do not let the left destroy the covenants of fate and destiny. Cling fast to your principles. Cling fast to your history.”

Large screens around the hall showed audience members listening raptly as Shapiro deftly wove together strands of theology, political theory and potshots at his political adversaries.

Conservative books on display outside a CPAC sponsored event featuring Ben Shapiro on July 20, 2022 in Tel Aviv (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

There was, however, a single moment of discord during Shapiro’s talk. During the question and answer session, Shapiro’s interviewer, Israeli journalist Amit Segal, asked him if he still supports Trump “when you see these horrifying pictures of people storming the Capitol.”

The audience erupted in loud boos.

“Sorry,” Segal said abashedly.

“It wasn’t the best, guys,” Shapiro conceded.

After the event, most of the attendees this reporter spoke to said they had been fans of Shapiro’s podcasts and columns before the talk and that the event had excited and energized them.

One woman in her 20s, who was browsing at a table laden with Hebrew translations of Jordan Peterson, Boris Johnson and Charles Murray, said she had had “tears in her eyes” during the event.

The woman, who had immigrated to Israel from a small village in Russia, said she had been troubled by the anomie and lack of boundaries she perceived in the liberal West. She had gravitated toward American conservative publications online, including Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire. She said she felt happy to be in a room with so many like-minded people.

“It’s about community. I’m so grateful to be here.”

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