If You Will It: Israeli Activists Envision 'Autonomous State' in Galilee

What's wrong with Israel? 'The unjustified war, the readiness to kill, the difficulty in conveying ideas and the crumbling democracy,' for a start.

Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
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Tamar Hoffman (L) and Julia Kislev (R).
Tamar Hoffman (L) and Julia Kislev (R).Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

Activists distressed by Israel’s financial hardships and alleged deteriorating democracy plan to set up an autonomous entity in the Upper Galilee named Free State.

The initiative was launched around six months ago by a handful of dreamers who held weekly meetings with the more modest goal of forming a self-sustaining ecovillage in the Galilee. But they soon discovered that land was expensive, and even if they pulled it off, they would still be bound by Israel’s laws and policies.

“We wanted persecuted people, refugees and Palestinians to join our village,” says Anat Rimon Or, a lecturer in the philosophy of education and one of the group’s leaders. “We realized that such a village, unless it’s located outside Israel’s borders, will be problematic for people without civil status.”

As Tamar Hoffman of Kibbutz Bahan put it, “It’s impossible to go on in this situation in Israel. Life is unbearable, especially if you care at all about others.”

A document on principles and goals has been posted on the Free State’s Hebrew-language website; key planks include waiving bank debt and letting people grow marijuana.

The clause “disengagement arrangements” says “the Free State’s residents recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democratic state within safe borders,” though “the Free State reserves the right to bring to trial judges who lend a hand to the violation of human rights in the Jewish democratic state.”

Asked if members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party could settle in the Free State, Hoffman says anyone can.

“But as in other ecovillages, the condition is that only people who accept the other can join — people who understand that we’re all human beings,” she says.

The Free State is reminiscent of two previous enterprises. One, New Israel, was launched in 2000 by people who wanted to establish a new Israeli state. The other, State of Judah, was designed by settlers to combat withdrawals from land Israel seized during the 1967 Six-Day War.

In South Africa toward the end of the apartheid era, partial autonomy for whites was set up under the name Orania in the Northern Cape. The Afrikaner-only town, intended as a stronghold for the Afrikaans language and the Afrikaner identity, still exists with some 1,000 residents. It has its own currency.

The Free State's organizers mention the Indian reservations in the United States and the Palestinian Authority as other autonomy models. Asked if they see the idea as practical or merely a protest move, Hoffman says "fifty-fifty. But with the right people it certainly could happen.”

I say it’s hard to see Israel, which fights for every empty hill in the West Bank, giving up land in Israel proper.

“Once you’re willing to live near the border, the state isn’t so tightfisted,” she says.

As Rimon Or puts it, “It seems like a joke or a fantasy, but it’s not so surreal. We can find 100,000 or 200,000 people who would be happy to leave. Instead of going to Berlin, they’d prefer to stay in the region. Israel would also prefer that.”

The project is no less socioeconomic than political. “We’ll drop the debts to Israeli banks of those who join us,” says Rimon Or. “This is because the economic situation forced working people to go into debt. An autonomous state will be a new start for them.”

Like being back in the FSU

People at first were surprised when Rimon Or told them of the idea, but they were soon convinced, she says.

One person to join the group recently is Julia Kislev, an artist and social activist who lives in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood.

“If they insist on the Jewish state in Israel, then we’re leaving, even though we’re Jews,” she says. “You want a Jewish state? We won’t stand in your way. But that’s it. You can’t force unity on people.”

Kislev immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1992 and compares the two places. “It’s like the way they would take people to a collective farm and tell them that things would be good,” she says. “For a secular Jew, not to mention a non-Jew, there’s no place in a Jewish state. So they can go to hell.”

It’s easy to find holes in the plan, but the people’s despair is real. Rimon Or notes “the unjustified war, the readiness to kill, the aggressive debate, the difficulty in conveying ideas and the crumbling democracy.” She wants no part of that.

“How much can we fight? It’s an impossible situation,” she says. “Since the [2011] social protest, we’ve been trying to fight, but there’s a complete rift between the struggle on the street and what the government decides.”

Rimon Or recently stirred the pot by writing on Facebook that the Islamic State’s murders of one person at a time were more humane than U.S. fighter planes' killings of several people at a time. She almost lost her job for what she calls that “half humorous” remark — and became her more eager to break away.

“Today you have to think four times before saying what you think; for example, that Israel isn’t right, that the democracy here isn’t a democracy. They keep repeating the mantra ‘don’t be right, be smart.’ When you’re protecting democracy and human rights, you have a serious problem,” she says.

“If you fight for what you think is right, you’ll be fired and go hungry. I was hungry during my studies and it wasn’t pleasant.”

So Rimon Or has toured the north of the country near the Lebanese border to check the lay of the land. “We chose the Upper Galilee so that we could leave via Lebanon, and also because of the fertile soil and the relatively sparse population,” she says.

I ask whether the enterprise wasn’t like running away from difficult problems like the opposition. Hoffman says: “I’d be happy to solve the problems. But I fear that the majority enjoys the existing situation.”

Either way, the Free State is proving particularly attractive to women. “It’s a framework that is suitable to the needs of women with children,” Rimon Or says. “Women want life, not struggle.”

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