How cantonization can save Israel

Carlo Strenger's picture

How cantonization can save Israel

Von Carlo Strenger, Israel - 23.01.2016

The year 2015 was very difficult for Israeli liberals. The country is becoming an illiberal ethnocracy, and we have to accept that we are a minority incapable of imposing our values on the majority

I therefore think that we need to radically rethink our position and strive toward cultural autonomy to preserve our identity and way of life.

Netanyahu's radically right wing goverment

In 2015 Netanyahu formed his fourth government, the most radically right-wing one that Israel has ever had. The younger Likud politicians and members of Habayit Hayehudi have intensified their efforts to transform Israel from a liberal democracy into an ethnocratic illiberal democracy, and they are no longer hiding their intent. Here is what the committee charged with producing the new high-school civics textbook, writes:

“An ethnic-cultural nation-state is a basis for strong solidarity among a majority of citizens because of the national connection between them ... [and a democratic political culture] does not exist to an equal  extent in all democracies and it is not a necessary condition for defining a state as democratic.”

Sense of crisis among Israeli liberals

This push for ethnocracy has intensified the profound sense of crisis among Israeli liberals. The commentator Ari Shavit warns that we have at most a decade to save the Israel we want. If we will not stop the expansion of the settlements and Israel’s transformation into an ethnocracy, Israel will change forever and lose its strategic alliance with the Western world.

I think Ari Shavit is right in the diagnosis, but gets the timing wrong: We have already lost the battle for Israel’s character, and the change of direction he and all liberal Israeli desperately want will not happen.

As political theorist and commentator Fareed Zakaria has argued, many democracies are illiberal. The war about Israel’s identity today is no longer about right vs. left, but about liberal vs. illiberal: Even a right-wing staunch liberal democrat like President Reuven Rivlin is attacked ruthlessly by Israel’s illiberal forces nowadays.

Our values are seen as a foreign implantation

The country’s dominant state of mind is nationalist and ethnocentric. If you look at the Knesset’s composition you’ll see that the parties of the ruling coalition (Likud, Habayit Hayehudi) and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu are largely opposed to the core values of liberal democracy, or are indifferent toward them (the ultra-Orthodox parties, Kulanu). Only three parties are committed to those core values: Meretz, Zionist Union and Yesh Atid, who together command less than one-third of the Knesset’s seats.

Western-style liberalism based on individual human rights is a minority position in Israel. We are, as strange as this may initially sound, in a situation quite similar to Israel’s Arab citizens and the ultra-Orthodox.

So far we have not been formally discriminated against, but this is changing: Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s demand that leftist NGOs need to wear special badges in the Knesset is a first indication of what is to come, because our core values are seen as a foreign implantation in the ethnocratic, illiberal regime Israel’s right wing is building. We must therefore reframe our goals and we must define ourselves as a minority that should have rights of its own.

I have in the past argued a number of times that only a federative structure can save Israel from its ongoing culture war. My previous proposals in this direction were greeted with much approval in the social media, and many readers wrote that they endorse the idea of a federal cantonal structure for Israel.

There is no common ethos in Israel

But we need a politician who has the courage to say what everybody knows: that there is no common ethos in Israel, and all groups should stop trying to force their beliefs and values down other people’s throats against their will – and Israel’s liberals deserve their freedom.

Some will say that this argument undermines Israel’s unity, but this unity is fictitious to begin with: There is no common ethos in Israel. The national-religious and the ultra-Orthodox have long ago carved out de facto autonomous regions. You cannot drive in either of those areas during the Shabbat, women cannot enter ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods or towns in modern-style dress and you cannot sell nonkosher food there.

Even Israel’s Arabs have a form of autonomy: They can keep their businesses open on Shabbat, and they don’t have the Chief Rabbinate intervening in their personal lives.

Israeli liberals are the most disadvantaged group in the country. We carry all burdens, and get none of the extra perks. Hence, we should demand to get similar autonomy to the ultra-Orthodox, the national-religious and Israeli Arabs in the areas where secular liberals are concentrated like Tel Aviv, Ramat Hasharon, Herzliya and Haifa.

We should demand a seperate education system

These cities or regions should be able to determine whether there is public transportation on Shabbat, whether you can buy nonkosher food. And we should be able to marry whom we want and how we want, and not have a rabbinate we do not recognize as an authority forced on us.

The same goes for education: As of now, Israel has four different education systems: the secular-national, the national-religious, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab system. It is clear that none of these reflects the values of Western liberalism – as Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s transformation of civic studies into a curriculum of nationalist indoctrination shows.

We should therefore demand a liberal-secular education system with a curriculum suits our worldview. Bennett can forbid representatives of Breaking the Silence to enter national-secular schools, and we will be able to forbid Im Tirtzu to enter liberal-secular schools. The ultra-Orthodox can forbid the teaching of evolutionary theory in their schools, and we will be able to forbid policies that support gender inequality in ours.

We share our values with the majority of Diaspora Jews

A final word about the identity of Israeli liberals. We share our values with the majority of Diaspora Jewry, and this means that the liberal-secular regions in Israel are likely to have closer links to liberal-minded Jews in the Diaspora than to Israel’s national-religious regions and communities.

Maybe this is no tragedy: After all, New York liberals have more in common with many Berliners or Parisians than they have with Bible Belt Evangelicals; many liberal Berliners have more in common with Tel Aviv than with xenophobic right-wing groups like Pegida or Alternative für Deutschland; and many Parisian liberals have little to nothing in common with members of Marine le Pen’s Front National.

Former President Shimon Peres has more than once spoken about the connection between Tel Aviv and New York – and we should enjoy and celebrate rather than lament this commonality.

*Der Autor ist in der Schweiz aufgewachsen. Er ist Professor für Psychologie an der Universität Tel Aviv und Publizist. Dieser Beitrag ist zuerst in "Haaretz erschienen".


Leider ist diese Minderheit viel zu schwach, um noch etwas zu ändern.

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