Opinion

Israel Is on Its Way to Become a Country of City-states

Tomer Persico
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A passenger boards free weekend shuttle service in Tel Aviv, November 22, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Tomer Persico

After the public transportation system began operating on the weekend in a number of cities in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, we began to hear the word revolution being uttered more and more. Nonetheless, it is possible that even the people who have used this word may not have internalized just how dramatic a change is taking place.

It is obvious that the ability to be mobile on Shabbat in an urban space without a car is a refreshing change in its own right, and certainly as far as the underprivileged are concerned. The bite taken out of the obsolete “status quo” on matters of religion and state, which has been outdated for a long time, can provide a bit of comfort – but the story is much bigger than this.

Shifting the focus campaign for Shabbat transportation from the national to the municipal level has the potential to change the character of the entire country. This is multi-stage process – and public transportation is just one link – in which the issues of religion and state are privatized locally. It points up how Israel is gradually being divided into two separate countries with diverging public spheres.

The cities have entered the stepped into the fray over providing public transportation on Shabbat after having success in other fights in the religion-state realm. In July 2017, Givatayim banned religious Zionist nonprofit organizations from entering nonreligious state schools, and by so doing the city put an end in its midst to the creeping growth of religious influence in the schools that was being encouraged by the education ministry.

In addition, the city of Herzliya instituted regulations in September 2017, which increased oversight of those same nonprofit organizations in its schools. At the same time, Tel Aviv city hall decided to stop supporting projects said to be aimed at reinforcing Jewish identity.

In December 2017, before the passage of the “grocery stores” law in the Knesset, cities such as Rishon Letzion, Givatayim, Modi’in, Holon and Herzliya passed bylaws aimed at keeping those stores open on Shabbat. This initiative was a result of a determined civil campaign - a city-by-city battle that brought thousands into the streets to demonstrate against plans to shut convenience stores on Shabbat. Mayors, who unlike prime ministers are elected directly to their jobs, responded to the public pressure. They were influenced by the protests to an extent rarely experience by cabinet ministers or lawmakers.

In June 2018, the mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, announced that based on a legal opinion of the attorney general – which stated that the municipality had the jurisdiction to ban gender separation at city events – it would not allow any more separation between men and women at events being held in any of the city’s public spaces. And last week, the city council in Ramat Hasharon adopted a government report and totally banned the exclusion of women from any public spaces.

The trend is clear, and stems from a real need: The status quo on religion and state has not been updated for decades – though Israeli society has undergone enormous changes. Furthermore, ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist political parties have stepped up their attempts to wield greater religious influence in recent years.

Examples of the latter can be seen in the grocery store law and other efforts to assert religious influence in public, amid rejection of the Western Wall compromise, and the explicit threats made to outlaw holding professional soccer games on the Sabbath. There has also been an increase in never-ending struggles over the issue of work on Shabbat – whether for the railways or for the Eurovision song contest to be able to be held normally.

Attempts to cancel the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly have been blocked, and one can only dream about a day that civil or same sex marriage will be permitted. This is why local governments have become the default choice, and the cities where the population is homogenous with regard to a tendency not to abide by religious observance, are the ones leading the change.

But alongside the benefits for the secular, this trend also has negative dimensions. For one thing it divides Israeliness along tribal lines. Instead of a nation with a singular character, more or less, two different Israeli public spheres are taking shape. The Tel Aviv metropolitan area has become very nonreligious, as well as the north, with Haifa is in the lead. Carmiel has sanctioned and paid for public transportation on the Sabbath since 2017.

It’s possible that Haredi and religious Zionist local government will shift to the other extreme in response to this trend. In other words, it is possible that they will insist on gender separation, and even the exclusion of women, and seek to justify it by citing a need to uphold multi-culturalism and even because the “secular cities” are setting a precedent, and if they have taken the law into their own hands and broke down the dam, why should they be the only ones to change the rules?

Moreover, it is possible that cities will compete over attempting to offer nonreligious residents the largest basket of services possible. One should remember that the average socio-economic level of the secular Israeli is much higher than that of the average Haredi. Cities that want to attract young, nonreligious people could take pride in the large number of businesses open on Shabbat, public transportation on Shabbat, schools lacking any overt religious influence – and maybe even in the future – municipal registration of common-law marriages, additional school hours for science classes and promises to build non-denominational cemeteries.

This process will fuel itself, and Israel will eventually subdivide into a northern and and Tel Aviv metropolitan area for the secular and rich, and a southern and Jerusalem area for the more traditional-minded and poor. Needless to say, such a situation would have a negative influence on the health of society, its unity and harmony – the battles in the Knesset among the various blocs will grow even more fierce, and public solidarity will decline.

Those with fewer resources at their disposal will not receive all the services they require, or a good enough education to break free of a cycle of poverty. In comparison, the upper classes will fight a long-term battle against the power of the government, whose leaders will very likely be populists looking to profit from the incitement of the “Second Israel” against the “First Israel. “

We are still far from being such a state, and there are many factors that can counter this trend. But because we cannot rely on miracles, it is already worth observing the trend and to try and nip it in the bud. We must reach broader agreements concerning the issues of religion and state, such as the Sabbath, Kashrut and marriage and divorce – and create a new consensus-based Israeli approach that will prevent the coercion of certain lifestyles on the individual and preserve gender and sexual equality, while building a public sphere with a clear Jewish-Israeli character.

Similar attempts in the past, such as the Gavison-Medan Covenant and the Kinneret Covenant, were rejected out of hand by the Haredi community, which was unwilling to compromise. Now too, the chances to achieve a broad agreement are not great, but it may be possible that in light of the separatist process that has been taking place in the past few months, the leaders of the Haredi community will rethink – and maybe a willingness for compromise will come about. Israel is too small and fragile to split into a collection of city-states.

Dr. Tomer Persico is the Koret visiting assistant professor at the Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at UC Berkeley, and the Bay Area scholar in residence for the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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