Divide Israel Into Cantons

Israel's various cultural groups agree on little other than security; it's time to follow the Swiss, Germans and Americans and devolve power to the local level.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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An Israeli flag blows in the wind in Beersheba, Israel, during a flyover (illustration)
An Israeli flag blows in the wind in Beersheba, Israel, during a flyover (illustration)Credit: AP
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Haaretz commentator Rogel Alper’s recent call to stop paying taxes reflects the feelings of many in Israel, who feel that they work very hard, pay most of their income to the state and receive very little in return. Part of this is due to the incredible tax burden on Israelis, imposed both directly and indirectly. But even more of it is due to the fact that most Israelis feel their tax money is not spent according to their own values, priorities and worldview.

It is time to recognize that the rifts in Israel’s population are so deep that the fiction of a common ethos must be given up. National solidarity at this point extends primarily to questions of security, and not much else. Israeli’s chronically low confidence in the Knesset and government is due not only to politicians’ weaknesses, but also to their impossible mission of unifying groups that have very little in common.

Israel’s population is composed of cultures whose worldviews differ so radically that it is has become impossible to find a common denominator. On the national level, this is reflected in the constant arm-wrestling in the Knesset over the budget, and the result is mostly a series of bad compromises that leaves all parties bitter, angry and resentful. Liberals are furious they pay for religious services and West Bank settlements they do not want; Israeli Arabs feel they are consistently discriminated against; the Haredim feel their school system is not sufficiently funded, and all Israelis feel other groups threaten their way of life.

It is important to point out, though, that Israel is less unique than might be thought. Political Scientist Benjamin Barber’s recent insightful book, “If Mayors Ruled the World,” shows that the citizens of most liberal democracies are highly dissatisfied with the functioning of their parliaments. This is in part due to the over-ideological character of many political parties and to the fact that parliamentarians can only gain visibility through outrageous pronunciations meant to generate strong emotions — mostly hatred for some other party or ethnic group.

Barber contrasts this with the generally high satisfaction with municipal government in places ranging from New York to Stuttgart to Palermo. Mayors and municipalities have little time and energy to waste on ideology. They need to solve problems from garbage disposal to clean water; from traffic jams to building permits, and they must do so quickly. The result is mostly pragmatism, efficiency and constant attention to citizen’s needs.

Barber also points out that ever-more people identify much more with their cities than with their countries, and this holds true from the United States to Italy — and even to Germany, where the central government is highly efficient.

The consequences for Israel are clear. Like in Switzerland, the U.S. and Germany, the central government’s responsibility and authority should be cut back to the domains that can only be dealt with nationally, like the military, nation-wide transportation and ecological management. The rest should be delegated to smaller units.

The question of course is how these units are to be defined. There are models for such redefinition, like Judd Yadid’s master’s thesis on the re-delineation of Israel’s districts, supervised by professor Gideon Biger at Tel Aviv University. Yadid’s thesis is primarily concerned with ways to manage the tension between Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations, but a similar approach is possible when it comes to the various sub-groupings of Israel’s Jewish population.

The Swiss and American models are of use here. U.S. states diverge considerably in their core values. Some states, like Oregon, endorsing gay marriage and medically assisted death, whereas other states do not. Swiss cantons enjoy a very high level of autonomy that extends to their education and health systems and matters of personal status; the municipality rather than the federation marries Swiss citizens. Switzerland is also relevant to Israel because it has succeeded in maintaining national unity over a small area with a population size roughly like Israel’s, with four languages and substantial cultural differences.

The cultural differences in Israel are bigger than in Switzerland and probably the U.S. too, and the animosity between different groups here has led to the point where national religious, Haredi, Liberal and Arab citizens are afraid they can no longer live here. Moving towards a form of cantonal autonomy for Israel’s various groups could bring us all the relief that we can live and let live without stepping on each other’s toes.

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