Israel is broken - but cantonizing it can fix it - opinion

Can we still fight the disenfranchisement that spews from the mouths of our newly elected representatives, or should we throw in the towel and start over somewhere else?

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Flee or fight? It’s a question I’m hearing a fair amount these days following the formation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition of fearmongers.

The debate is whether we’ve reached – or soon will reach – a tipping point where the Israel we know and love is no longer recognizable, and what the best response should be. Can we still fight the disenfranchisement that spews from the mouths of our newly elected representatives, or should we throw in the towel and start over somewhere else?

Spoiler alert: I’m staunchly in the fight vs flight camp. But I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that I sometimes wonder what it would take to make me leave this place.

My wife, Jody, and I both agreed that if at some point the non-Orthodox Jewish communities of which we are proud members – Kehilat Zion and Nava Tehila in Jerusalem – were banned, we might not be able to see our future here.

Other issues are repugnant to us, too – unilateral West Bank annexation, doctors and merchants receiving legal sanction to refuse services to people whose lifestyles go against their religious beliefs – but where we pray is a particularly personal trigger.

Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, writes about “the tolerance paradox” where “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” That is, “if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The flip side: that same intolerance may very well result in enough infighting and mistrust within the coalition that it won’t see out a full term. As Yossi Klein Halevi notes in The Times of Israel, “Sooner or later this coalition will unravel. The nature of hatred and greed is to turn against itself.”

LET’S SAY that the government does implode on its own and, this time, when the opposition returns, propelled by a public so disgusted by the desire to return Israeli Judaism “to the ghetto,” as The Jerusalem Post’s Amotz Asa-El described it, it wins a comfortable majority. Is it time to rethink our political system?

Yes, we’ve tried that before – who can forget the change to direct election of the prime minister in the 1990s? That ultimately backfired, and the law was subsequently reversed.

But times are different now. The system is so clearly broken, we may have no choice but to fix it.

Possible solution: Cantonize Israel

Cantonization may be the answer – not between Israel and the Palestinians, but within Israel itself, where disparate and bickering geographic regions would be granted the ability to govern themselves as they wish, while a national government would still provide security and other services.

Haaretz writer Carlo Strenger described the canton plan in 2014.

“Like in Switzerland, Germany and the US [where individual states often have very different policies toward their citizens], the central government’s responsibility and authority should be cut back to the domains that can only be dealt with nationally, like the military, nationwide transportation and ecological management. The rest should be delegated to smaller units.”

“Like in Switzerland, Germany and the US [where individual states often have very different policies toward their citizens], the central government’s responsibility and authority should be cut back to the domains that can only be dealt with nationally, like the military, nationwide transportation and ecological management. The rest should be delegated to smaller units.”

Carlo Strenger

This kind of approach “could create a more livable status quo,” he added in an article he penned for the Swiss website Journal21.ch. “Only cantonization will prevent Israel from devouring itself from within.”

So, if the fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox (haredim) and National-Religious of Jerusalem want to run the country’s capital according to Jewish law, let them do so with their own locally elected officials.

Let them collect taxes and pick up the garbage and tear down illegal construction in their own communities.

The same goes for Tel Aviv or the North or the South of the country. Public transportation on Shabbat would finally become a reality. There would be no more fights over closing restaurants and shops on the day of rest. Reform rabbis could marry whomever they wanted in the canton of Greater Gush Dan.

I would even be willing to leave Jerusalem and move to the center of the country to actualize such a plan.

If this sounds like the plot of a dystopian TV series, you wouldn’t be wrong. The Israeli show Autonomies posited an even more extreme version of this scenario, where a purely halachic state of Judea, with Jerusalem as its capital, is separated completely from the rest of the country, not just as a connected canton.

Naturally, things don’t go as expected (it’s a TV drama, after all). But the very real demographic trends on which that program based its predictions seem unstoppable. By 2050, haredim will account for close to a third of Israel’s Jewish population. (According to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics released earlier this month, 16% of the total population of Israel is on track to become ultra-Orthodox by the end of this decade.)

In that case, will there be enough haredi men in the workforce to pay taxes (don’t even get me started about army service), or will Israel become a failed state as analysts like Dan Ben-David, president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, regularly forecast?

The last few years of elections have been all about two camps: Right and Left, pro-Bibi or “change.” Shmuel Rosner suggests that’s not the right way of seeing what’s happening in Israel today. There is the “everything will be okay” camp and the “we are headed for a cliff” camp, he writes in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

I want to believe, perhaps naively, that everything can still be OK. But it won’t happen by burying our heads in the sand. Cantonization is just one idea.

So, I turn the question over to you, dear readers: What are you going to do to fight and not flee? 

The writer’s book Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com