Opinion |

The Federalization of Israel Is an Existential Necessity

Israel must be transformed into a federation of largely autonomous cantons with jurisdiction over education, personal-status law and determination of public norms.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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How can national unity be preserved at the same time as allowing for the full expression of all the country’s myriad identities?
How can national unity be preserved at the same time as allowing for the full expression of all the country’s myriad identities?Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

The latest outbreak of Israel’s “Shabbat wars” grows out of Israel’s ongoing culture war. The clashes have broken out over everything from the use of ritual baths by non-Orthodox women and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall to the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox establishment on marriage and divorce. Now the Haredim are trying to block the carrying out of critical maintenance work on trains during Shabbat, while Shas leader and Interior Minister Arye Dery is, once again, threatening to close down Tel Aviv on Shabbat.

It so happens that I know the Haredi world quite well, and speak to many Haredim off the record on these matters. Most of them actually feel quite uncomfortable with the antics of their political and rabbinical leadership, and think that the confrontations with secular Israel are unnecessary and useless.

Privately many tell me that clearly none of the noisy fights will stop Shabbat desecration by secular Jews, and that stranding 150,000 Israelis because Haredi pressure stopped train maintenance on Shabbat isn’t going to bring anybody closer to Judaism, certainly not to the Haredim. It only increases secular Jews’ disgust at the Haredi rabbinical and political establishment.

And a surprising proportion of my Haredi interlocutors say, off the record, that everybody should live according to their own beliefs. Unfortunately they refrain from publicly criticizing their leadership over actions that are deeply destructive to Israeli society and harm its democracy.

The essence of a liberal democracy is that the state does not interfere with individuals’ beliefs and way of life as long as they don’t harm others. This core value of liberal democracy is under constant attack in Israel: Haredim and national religious parties do everything in their power to impose their views of what a “real” Jew is on others, and the political right makes it clear that you must be a racist and a chauvinist if you want to be a good Israeli and not a “traitor.”

An ultra-Orthodox Jew gestures during a protest against the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat in Jerusalem July 4, 2009.Credit: Reuters

Hence Ari Shavit’s call to find a language that will speak to the hearts of all Israelis is illusory: Liberal values, often mistakenly called “leftist” in Israel’s confused political discourse, are deemed “weak” and “un-Israeli” by Israel’s majority. At this point, at most one third of the Knesset believes in truly liberal democratic values; the majority is pushing for law after law to slash away at individual freedoms and minority rights

So it is not surprising that secular liberals feel their core values of freedom of belief, expression and way of life are under attack, and that they are alienated from the state they fight for and pay taxes to but which nevertheless tramples their rights and values.

But liberal Israelis are not giving in. The number of Israeli couples who marry abroad to avoid contact with a rabbinical establishment they despise is growing; gay rights are firmly established; we eat non-kosher food as we please; and we do not accept any Orthodox dictate of what it means to be Jewish. But the feeling that we constantly need to fight for our core values inevitably deepens liberals’ estrangement from the state.

This is why I have argued for many years that Israel must be transformed into a federation of largely autonomous cantons with jurisdiction over education, personal-status law and determination of public norms. As time passes, a growing number of Israelis, mostly secular liberals, are taking this idea more seriously because the level of internal hatred and tension in Israel is becoming unbearable.

The only way to stop Israel’s culture wars is to create a federal structure under which Haredim, national-religious and secular-liberal Jews and Israel’s Arab citizens can live with some autonomy. Paradoxically, this to a great extent is already the condition of life for Haredim and Arabs: They have their own education system, and the state doesn’t meddle with their way of life.

This makes Israel’s secular liberals the most disadvantaged group in the country: We don’t have an education system of our own, and the state keeps encroaching on the most private matters of our life. We should have the right to our way of life in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Herzliya and Ramat Hasharon without depending on the whim of some Haredi MK, minister or rabbi, in the same way that Haredim can live as they please in Bnei Brak, Mea She’arim and Geula.

The federalization of Israel is not a luxury, but an existential necessity. If the country does not move towards a new status quo of “live and let live,” Israel will be destroyed not by external enemies, but, as former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo recently said, by internal strife and hatred.

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