Israeli Secular Liberals Must Demand Autonomy

We secular liberals carry most of Israel’s economic burden; we pay outrageous taxes, and get very little in return.

A few months ago Netanyahu appointed a committee to solve one of Israeli society’s most intractable problems: inequality of military service, as two sectors, ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis do not serve at all. Netanyahu has now dismantled this committee because its proposals led the ultra-Orthodox parties to threaten to leave the coalition. We can safely assume that no satisfactory solution will be found after sixty-four years of Israeli history.

What is to be done about the army, then? Aluf Benn, in a courageous and incisive blog has taken up a suggestion made by Ehud Barak when he was the IDF’s Chief of Staff in the 1990s: to abandon mandatory conscription altogether and professionalize Israel’s army. Even though there are strong reasons, economic and professional, to go down this road, Barak abandoned the proposal when he went into politics. The idea that service in the IDF is the glue that holds Israeli society together remained an untouchable dogma.

Aluf Benn argues that this is a myth that has long ago ceased to correspond to reality and no longer serves any constructive purpose. He argues that Israel will be better off in every respect, if it moves towards the model of a professional army. It will solve one of the central, justified grievances of Israelis who serve in the IDF. It is also likely to streamline the operation and make it much more manageable.

Benn’s ideas indirectly touch upon a much deeper problem, though: not only the army that has ceased to hold Israeli society together. The stark truth is that at this point there is no such thing as Israeli society. There are a number of sectors, often called tribes in Israeli parlance, which hardly communicate with each other, and do not agree on the most basic core values.

A society must have a minimal common denominator to function, and it may well be the case that Israel has crossed the point where this is no longer possible. I have in the past argued that we must begin to think about possible confederate structures, and I am asked, time and again, whether I meant this proposal seriously. I think that given the depth of discord in Israel, we should become more serious in considering confederate structures, a model that has been applied successfully in a number of countries ranging from Canada and Belgium to Switzerland.

The confederate model is particularly appropriate in countries composed of ethnic or linguistic groups with strong cultural differences – and Israel certainly fits this description. A confederative structure might allow the various sectors to live according to their own values, without having to impose them on each other by often distasteful political maneuvering.

This may become plausible if we look at Netanyahu’s original coalition: The parties of the settler-movement are staunch ethnocrats; some of them are outright theocrats; some of them unabashedly in favor of apartheid. The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy basically wants nothing to do with the state’s affairs except financing of their education system. Shas is an ethnic-religious party milking the system built on resentment against the historic Ashkenazi elites that humiliated their parents, (never mind that this elite hasn’t been in power for thirty-five years).

Yisrael Beitenu roughly corresponds to European right-wing parties like Le Pen’s National Front; its power base is built on immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who believe in strong government rather than democratic process. It competes with the Likud for right-wing credentials exhibited in anti-liberal legislation.

In other words: even Netanyahu’s former, narrow coalition has no real common denominator. It is composed of tribes with very different worldviews. It was held together by one factor only: hatred for liberal values.

So far I haven’t even mentioned two large disenfranchised minorities: Israeli Arabs have never really been part of the political process; they have never participated in government; they are severely disadvantaged in land-allocation and infrastructure development and feel alienated from the country.

The other substantial disenfranchised minority are secular liberals. Our values are shared by less than one third of Israel’s society. Demography is against us: the ultra-Orthodox and the national-religious firmly believe that their high birthrate will allow them to gain control over the country within a few decades, and if current trends continue, this will indeed be the case. 

We secular liberals carry most of Israel’s economic burden; we pay outrageous taxes, and get very little in return. To add insult to injury, we are hated by the majority because, on purely meritocratic grounds, we maintain the pillars of Israel’s civil society: academia; the legal system and the mainstream media; and the most productive sectors of Israel’s economy, the R&D and high-tech sectors that are largely responsible for Israel’s ascent into the OECD.

Most of us feel that the country no longer reflects our core commitment to a society that combines meritocracy and social solidarity. Hence we took to the streets in last summer’s social protest, but ultimately to no avail: the other sectors held on to their advantages, and we lost. Currently the attempts to revive the protests have been beaten down brutally by the police. They were thwarted by refusal to grant protesters the right to demonstrate, and MKs like Miri Regev called us radical left-wing anarchists.

What are we to do? I think secular liberals stand to gain from a confederate structure, and we should learn from the Haredim and the settlers who already de facto live in such a structure: Haredim have so far maintained almost complete autonomy within their cities in Israel and so have the settlers east of the Green Line.

Secular liberals should ask for the same; not just de facto, but de jure.        

We should ask for a confederative structure in which most taxes will go to the various cantons, as in Switzerland. Like the national-religious and the Haredim, the Liberal-Secular Canton of Tel Aviv-Haifa (I’m open to suggestions for other names) will have its own educational system, but we will no longer pay for the other systems that systematically violate liberal values. We will pay for universities and colleges, but no longer for yeshivot that educate their students to be theocrats.

Because we will no longer have to pay millions to relocate settlers from one outpost to another and build highways for them, we will be able to bolster Israel’s badly underfunded film industry and support ailing world class dance companies like Bat-Sheva and support promising writers with stipends as many other liberal democracies do.

Because we are a minority, we will unfortunately have no influence on Israeli foreign policy, but we’re already used to this: We haven’t had any such influence for a long time, as the success of Israel’s colonization of the West Bank shows.

Finally I would like to emphasize that many other tribes and sectors will profit from this confederative proposal: Neither MK Anastasia Michaeli nor MK Uri Ariel will have to be threatened by overt homosexuality in their respective cantons. The Haredim want to minimize contact with secular Jews anyway, because they are afraid that this might seduce their youth into adopting a secular lifestyle. And Benny Katzover will be able to turn his canton into the theocracy he wants it to be.

So, instead of hating each other, a confederative structure might enable all Israelis to live according to their values and conscience.