Do Israeli Liberals Need a State of Tel Aviv?

There are moments when I feel that Israel’s democracy is truly threatened; but there are also moments where I take a wider perspective.

A few days ago I wrote that basically it is at this point illusory to speak of an Israeli society: there are at least four sub-cultures that hardly communicate with each other. Israel already has four different educational systems: a secular (that no longer educates the majority of children), a national-religious, an ultra-Orthodox and an Arab one.

I suggested to legalize the de facto partition of Israel into four states along the lines of the different education systems, and to create a confederation of an ultra-Orthodox, a right-wing Zionist, a Palestinian and a secular-liberal state. This seems particularly appropriate given that, along with others like A.B. Yehoshua I assume that at this point the two-state solution is dead.

Tel Aviv coffee shop 29.03.09
David Bachar

Some readers were puzzled: is the proposal for a four-state solution an expression of desperate irony, or is it meant seriously?

If I’ll be honest, the answer is: that depends when you’re asking. There are moments when I feel that Israel’s democracy is truly threatened; that the minimal common denominator required for coexistence and cooperation no longer exists.

Let me give you some examples: When I wrote the op-ed for Monday, I had not yet seen the article on Benny Katzover, one of the leaders of the national-religious camp in Israel. He is quoted as saying "the main role of Israeli democracy now is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its role, and it must disassemble and give way to Judaism. All leads toward recognition that there is no other way but to place Judaism at the center, above all else, and this is the answer to every situation."

Some readers might think that Katzover does not represent the national-religious camp as a whole. There may certainly be some dissent there, but Katzover’s position is accepted by many central figures in the national religious world. There is an interesting interview with Rabbi Elyakim Levanon (unfortunately only in Hebrew), a central figure in this camp. He says that there is no doubt that Israel will be ruled by the Halakha in the future; that it will not be a democracy, but a monarchy with the Messiah at its head.

In these moments, or when I watch Likud MK Ofir Akunis say that Senator McCarthy was right in every word he said, I feel that there is no way that coexistence in a liberal democracy is possible. The chasm in values and basic assumptions is just too big. It just doesn’t seem to make any sense to try to argue with people who live in a different moral and political universe.

In these moments I want a state of Tel Aviv (that could include Haifa, Herzlyia and many other basically liberal areas in Israel), even if I have no clue on how to practically delineate it; a place I can share with citizens with whom rational discussion is possible. Because there is common denominator for discussion with national-religious Rabbi Dov Lior’s explanations why it is halakhically justified to kill gentiles under certain circumstances, and that gentile sperm leads to barbaric offspring.

Then there are moments where I take a wider perspective.

I try to remember that the majority of Israelis do not want a new Kingdom of Judea, complete with the Third Temple and priests sacrificing cattle and sheep to the Lord. Most Israelis just want to live safe and decent lives; they want to be sure that they can send their children to school in the bus without being afraid of terror attacks.

I try to remember that Israel is a post-traumatic society; that in October 1973 Israel’s government was afraid that the country was lost; that Israelis don’t feel that they are a superpower, but a small country surrounded by an environment that has not truly accepted its existence.

To this day, two-thirds of Jewish Israelis believe that only the two-state solution can bring peace, but do not believe in a viable partner on the Palestinian side. They want a simple answer to a simple question: “How can you promise that if we leave the West Bank, it will not become a basis for rocket attacks on central Israel as Gaza did after the disengagement?”

Of course nobody in his right mind can give such a promise. And that includes Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyad, even though I believe their intentions are peaceful, and that they truly just want dignified lives and political self-determination for their people. They cannot guarantee that Palestinian society will not be radicalized again and turn toward violence. As a result it is difficult to convince Israelis to take risks for peace, even if I believe that this is the right way to go, and that Israel’s security will increase by clear borders that can be defended by the IDF’s superior power.

I try to remember that the U.S. went through dark periods indeed; that racial segregation persisted well into the second half of the twentieth century; that Senator McCarthy’s totalitarian Committee for Un-American activities was in existence not more than half a century ago; and that we have lived to see America electing an African American president after all.

I try to remember how long it took the French to finally let go of Algeria.

I try to remember that Israel is a young country composed of immigrants from dozens of countries and cultures; that all democracies have gone through major upheavals, even civil wars, until their identities and political structures stabilized; that Spain, Greece and Portugal were dictatorships a few decades ago; and that fully one-third of EU states were ruled by communist regimes two decades ago.

From this perspective, Israel’s social, political, economic and cultural achievements of 64 years are stunning, and its troubles are more than understandable.

These are the moments when I feel that we need to hang on; to try winning the hearts and minds of the perplexed; that the Liebermans and Dov Liors of the present will fade into the dustbin of history as Franco and McCarthy did; and that Israel’s creativity, irreverence and openness to the world will carry the day.