The drama series “Autonomies” has justly been hailed by critics during its recent six-part run on Israeli television. Its political premise is somewhat unlikely: In 2019, bloody clashes between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) community and the rest of the country lead to a separation between the “Haredi Autonomy” in Jerusalem and the secular “State of Israel” (“The Zionists”), whose capital is Tel Aviv. Passing between these two entities requires a visa and border inspection, and the economic situation in the Haredi Autonomy is difficult.
The intention of writer-director Yehonatan Indursky – himself of Haredi origin, but now living in Tel Aviv – is not political. The TV series takes place roughly in our present and focuses on a few personal stories, primarily in the Haredi Autonomy. Jonah Broide, the protagonist (played by Assi Cohen), is a good-hearted, small-time crook who smuggles little things like porn videos and books by Thucydides and Sigmund Freud – often for the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who lead the autonomy.
The Haredi Autonomy’s head, Rabbi Alexander of Kreinitz (brilliantly portrayed by veteran actor-singer Shuli Rand), will use Broide for a kidnapping from the State of Israel, which ignites events that drive the series (I will not reveal what these here are to avoid spoilers).
But watching “Autonomies” inevitably triggers political questions: Can Israel’s society survive? Or are the cultural, religious and ethnic chasms within the country simply too wide?
Over the last 10 years, I have repeatedly argued that Israel’s culture wars lead all communities to feel endangered existentially. The ultra-Orthodox feel threatened by the general public’s insistence that their sons serve in the Israeli army. They see this as the potential destruction of their way of life, something they believe in itself guarantees the survival of the Jewish people. The army-serving communities’ portrayal of them as parasites who don’t contribute either to Israel’s economy or its security only pushes them further onto the defensive.
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Israel’s religious-Zionist society constantly feels that the core of its belief system – settling the larger Land of Israel – is endangered both by international pressure and by Israeli liberals.
Liberals, in turn, feel threatened by ultra-Orthodox and traditional Jewish pressure for them to give up on core issues of their personal freedom. Haredi parties keep trying to outlaw nonkosher food in supermarket chains, and close restaurants and kiosks on Shabbat. Liberals feel their core value of personal freedom is in constant peril: They cannot marry according to their beliefs and whom they choose. Orthodox marriage rituals they often despise, including Orthodox laws of cleanliness, are forced upon them if they want to marry in Israel, so therefore many opt to get married abroad. Schools teach children values that their parents don’t endorse.
And then, of course, Israel’s Palestinian citizens feel excluded from full citizenship altogether. They are barely represented in the upper echelons of Israel’s business community and politics, even though more than a quarter of Israel’s physicians are Arabs – who still, time and again, suffer the humiliation of Jewish patients who refuse to receive treatment from them.
I don’t even want to go into the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. (I assume the many shots in “Autonomies” that show separation walls, seemingly between the Haredi Autonomy and the State of Israel, were taken at the existing barriers separating Israel from the territories.)
The seething hatred between the various groups reflects the depth of fear, humiliation, feelings of being exploited, and profound anxieties of being in danger of extinction. Israel is in no way unique in being a society torn apart at the seams by such fears and resentments.
A federative structure might relieve Israel’s various cultures from these fears of being endangered. Liberals could feel protected in their freedoms along large parts of the coastline. And the ultra-Orthodox should have a defined territory in which they can live their lives without being imperiled, as should Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
I do not claim that Israel’s cantonization would solve all of the country’s problems. But “Autonomies” shows that it could lead to the point where Israel’s various cultures could begin to appreciate each other’s beauty rather than feeling mutually threatened.
So far, this has primarily been possible in art. Shuli Rand, originally from a national-religious family, started his acting career as a secular liberal and then, together with his wife Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, turned to ultra-Orthodoxy. Both his acting and singing have been a bridge between cultures; Orthodox and secular Israelis happily attend his concerts, and his whole way of being emanates tolerance rather than hatred – even though he lives a completely Haredi life. Jews and Arabs have read Sayed Kashua’s books and Haaretz columns with pleasure, even though it seems he will not return to Israel from his self-imposed exile in the United States. And the list could go on.
We all need spaces to breathe, in which we can live autonomously. Otherwise we will continue choking each other.