Why those of us dedicated to the Zionist dream need to forge out of this crisis a federal, democratic State to end our internal cultural strife
Yes, we should protest the blitzkrieg of legislation seeking to radically restructure the balance of power in Israel’s government, but as the 2011 cost of living protests taught us, protesting is not enough. The ruling coalition’s attempts to control the courts, the police, the labor unions, and the press have exposed the fundamental weaknesses of the 74-year-old “temporary” governmental structure we have here in Israel. Yes, we should block these attempts to aggregate power. To do so we need to develop a clear vision of what a stable governing system would look like for the diverse and multifaceted people of Israel.
To block attempts to aggregate power under a single ruling coalition we need to develop a clear vision of what a stable governing system would look like for the diverse and multifaceted people of Israel
To develop such a vision we need to start by admitting that the current structure of Israel’s democracy is inadequate. To be fair, it was never supposed to be the way we governed ourselves: the current system was a temporary measure put in place by our transitory government that, in Israel’s own Declaration of Independence, was supposed to last only six months until a constitutional assembly would be convened.
The 1948 War of Independence and the power-loving culture of the ruling coalition at the time, the left-wing Mapai, kept our country under centralized political control for decades. Many of Israel’s current social and cultural grievances have their justified roots in this period. It was not until the 1970s that we saw hard-won checks and balances established within the State’s bureaucracies and courts to ensure such centralization of power never happened again. 74 years later, the legal and institutional duct tape we used to hold our Jewish democracy together can hold no longer. We desperately need to reform our entire political system.
We also need to admit that the majority of our strife is cultural in nature. Identity, not economic or political ideology, is the main determinant of Israeli votes today. While most Meretz and Shas voters would agree on a majority of social safety-net principles, as would a large part of Yesh Atid and Likud, Israelis vote in blocks representative of their primary identity: as secular Ashkenazi Jews, traditional Mizrachi, national religious, secular Arab, religious Muslim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and so on. Despite so much in common, our cultural particularities are tearing us apart.
We need a vision for a Jewish Democratic State of Israel that would minimize our cultural clashes while maximizing our opportunities to discuss substantive issues. We need a State that does not create a zero-sum cultural game, a State where power cannot be centralized and wielded by a single party representing a particular cultural group. A State where each of our cultural groups feel a sense of agency, representation, and self-determination. A State that gives expression to the beautiful tapestry of the mixed multitude of Israel. I like to think of it as the 12-State Solution.
The institutional duct tape we used to hold our Jewish democracy together for 74 years can hold no longer. We need a new framework to give expression to the beautiful tapestry of the mixed multitude of Israel. I like to think of it as the 12-State Solution.
The 12-State Solution is my catchy yet tongue-in-cheek name for a federal Israeli State composed of different districts, states, mechozot, or, as the scholar Judd Yadid called them when he introduced me to the idea over a decade ago, Nahalot. It is a vision for a political system rooted in the ancient traditions of our people prior to the Davidic takeover: a union of tribes, a collective composed of interdependent groups who recognize they are part of one nation but have their own particularities. It follows the advice of the Prophet Samuel to reject an earthly king and live free as a collection of diverse and vibrant people who join together out of shared values and history while enshrining the freedom to express our uniqueness.
When you think of it, it is only natural that such clashes would occur. We began our modern independence in the land of Israel as a mash-up of 800,000 refugees from across the world. We are now a global micropower of over 9 million souls, more populated than 66% of European countries, and exponentially more diverse. Within our borders we have diverse cultural groups who share certain aspects of their identity, and fervently disagree on others. Think of it like a family: we started off the two of us in a studio apartment. We’re now a community of over 20 trying to agree on how to live in that same studio. How could we not be fighting all the time! Instead, let’s give each community its own room, and find commonality through calm deliberation over the dinner table.
Practically speaking, to transition our State into a federal, politically mature governing platform we would begin by upgrading our existing regional governing bodies to provide greater autonomy on domestic policy matters currently reserved for the national government. We would then bring together representatives from each of these regions into a second house of parliament. While our current Knesset will continue to discuss shared values and responsibilities, our newly formed congress of representatives would deliberate on budgeting and domestic infrastructure. Luckily, we do not need to figure out the mechanics from scratch: this is how nearly every country of our population size around the world already operates. By uniquely expressing the dignity of our difference in the details, we will finally achieve our age-old dream of living freely and peacefully in our land.
Let us seize the opportunity to bring about a future where cultural differences are celebrated through political diversity. Let us build a federal future where each of our communities can be free to express their values while celebrating our commonalities as Children of Israel.
Let us seize the opportunity of the current unrest to bring about a better, more productive future where cultural differences are celebrated through political diversity. Let us join organizations such as the Israeli Movement developing regional representative councils and build on the open rebellion by over 170 Israeli mayors and municipal leaders who rejected the Coalition’s intention to carve out the Haredi educational system from their jurisdiction. Let us add to our protests the rejection of centralization of power in general. And let us build a better, federal future where each of our communities can be free to express their values while celebrating our commonalities as Children of Israel.