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Breaking up (a country) is hard to do

It's difficult to imagine how one could split this country into two—but that doesn't mean a lot of serious people aren't increasingly tempted. Here's why.

The image immediately below is from the cover of Calcalist, a serious Israeli economic publication and website. The headline at the bottom right of the image reads:

Alternatives: Separation, Federations, a new People’s Council, a Constitutional Convention that would address democratic processes, a thick constitution, a thin constitution, an even thinner constitution. These are the leading proposals for repairing the State of Israel.

May be an image of ‎map, the Western Wall and ‎text that says '‎××›×›×œ×œ×™× מוסף תוכנית החלופה חדשה, עם מועצת פדרציות, היפרדות, הדמוקרטי, בהליך שתעסוק מכוננת אספה רזה: ממש חוקה רזה, חוקה שמנה, חוקה ישראל מדינת לתיקון המווילות ההצעות אלה טייטלבאום שלמה‎'‎‎

Here’s what’s worth noting. First, the cover assumes that everyone agrees that Israel is broken. About that, there’s no longer any serious discussion. And second, among all the options presented (including the Constitutional Convention, about which we wrote here), splitting Israel into two (or more) countries is included with all the others.

It may not be realistic (I don’t think it is), and Jewish history suggests that it would not work out well if it were tried (to put matters mildly). But that’s not the point. The mere fact that so many serious Israelis are discussing it and advocating it speaks volumes about what’s happening here now.

As you’ll see below, Israelis have actually been discussing it for years. It’s just that the idea is getting much more traction now; to have a feel for “Israel from the Inside,” one needs to appreciate what this is all about, where it’s coming from.

That —and not because I think it’s a good or implementable idea—is why we’re covering this topic further today, immediately below the schedule for this week.

Here is what we have planned for this week (subject to changes as the news cycle requires):

  • Monday: Professor Ruth Gavison, who passed away three years ago this week, was a profound legal mind of the sort Israel desperately needs today (available in full to everyone).

  • Tuesday (today): in “Breaking up is hard to do,” we will revisit the issue of dividing Israel into two countries, which though it remains (to my mind) entirely unrealistic, is an idea garnering ever more discussion. We’ll share a video that has gone viral in Israel as a taste of what many Israelis have had enough of, along with newer maps of the plan and discussions of it (available in full to paid subscribers).

  • Wednesday: a podcast (available in full to paid subscribers) with Professor Ephi Shoham, a scholar of medieval Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University who is also very active in the pro-democracy protests movement. Professor Shoham will discuss three topics which we will present over two days:

    • (1) His fear that the protests now roiling Israel could well end in violence

    • (2) Why, though he is a deeply committed religious Jew, what is happening in Israel now has led him to stop identifying publicly with the religious-Zionist community (and to no longer wear a kippah, for example)

    • (3) The looming possible strike of Israel’s universities, the precedents for long strikes, what the faculties might hope to accomplish by striking

    The first of those three topics we will cover on Wednesday, while on ….

  • Thursday, we will cover the second two in the latter half of the two-part podcast (available in full to paid subscribers): the crisis unfolding in religious-Zionism for some of its formerly most committed adherents, and the possibility that Israeli universities could delay the opening of the academic year as a protest against the judicial reform.

If you share our desire to forge a community of people engaged in reasoned discussion and respectful disagreement when it comes to Israel, please subscribe today.

Breaking up is hard to do: Should Israel become two states?

We begin with the video at the very top of this page. It went viral on Israeli social media last week. The very brief event (which undoubtedly did not feel brief for the soldier involved) takes place on a train. There’s a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) family taunting her and making fun of her. Why? For … being in the army.

The video is all over the internet, but, as far as we could see, nowhere with subtitles. So we’ve added the English for our readers and are reposting it here. As you listen (there’s not much to watch), note the following:

  • At around 00:27, one can clearly hear that it’s the mother’s voice. This wasn’t just the kids.

  • At 00:30, they note that she’s crying. Who wouldn’t? So just remember … a young woman, in uniform with a weapon (that you can glimpse in part), is reduced to tears after being taunted by a family that refuses to serve and is proud of it, and makes fun of her for doing so, calling her “garbage” and much worse.

  • At 00:39, they call her a “Shikse,” a very derogatory Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman, based on the Hebrew word which means “abomination.” She’s not Jewish?! There you have the reason many people think it’s time to call it like it is—have we become two peoples?

    (Of course, simply by being in uniform, this young woman has done more for the country than any of them likely ever will.)

It would be difficult to over-state the rage now directed at the Haredim in this country. (And as we’ll see below, the rage is directed at other groups, too.) Every Saturday night, in locations throughout the country, there is a chant heard over and over again. Listen carefully, you can pick it up here (it rhymes):

Im lo yihyeh shivyon
Napil et ha-shilton
Nafaltem al hador ha-lo nachon

“If there’s not going to be equality, we’re going to topple the government; you messed with the wrong generation.”

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What does “If there’s not going to be equality” mean? To different people out on the streets, it means different things. Some are worried that a de-fanged Supreme Court will prove unable to protect the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. Some are concerned about Israeli Arabs. For some, the issue is the LGBT community.

But for many (and these are not mutually exclusive, of course), shivyon, “equality”—the third word in the first line of the chant above—is short for another Israeli phrase, shivyon ba-netel, “equality in shouldering the burden.” That is a reference to Haredim, who do not work, do not serve in the army (of which they are proud, as you saw in the video above), and whose lives are largely funded by the tax payments of non-Haredim.

Patience has run out— which is why the video of the incident on the train went so viral. Everyone knows that many, many Haredim would not comport themselves that way on a train. But video went viral because of the attitudes to soldiers, the army, the state—those are far too pervasive. And hundreds of thousands of Israelis have had more than enough.

Interestingly, the Haredim themselves understand that they have enraged the larger population, and that massive payback is inevitable. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, I shared (with Stern’s permission) a brief anecdote about a meeting between Aryeh Deri and Yedidia Stern:

Rage at the ultra-Orthodox was compounded when Netanyahu tried to appoint Member of the Knesset Aryeh Deri, the leader of a Haredi party, to the position of finance minister. Deri was jailed after a 2000 conviction for taking bribes, was convicted of tax evasion a decade later, and then resigned from politics as part of a plea deal. Netanyahu is himself a defendant in several serious cases, but contends that as long as he is prime minister, he cannot be sent to jail. His plan to rehabilitate Deri’s career stoked outrage not only at the prime minister, who seemed to drop every norm for the sake of his own freedom, but at the Haredim as well.

Yedidia Stern, a former dean of the law school at Bar Ilan University and head of the Israel Democracy Institute, is now president of the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is widely regarded as one of Israel’s leading jurisprudential figures, and is also known to have a soft spot for the Haredim, for whose way of life he has great admiration. But, as he later told me, Stern went to see Deri at his home in March, as the brouhaha was unfolding. “You’re about to make thousands of Haredi children hungry,” Stern told him. Deri looked puzzled. “You’re in power now,” Stern explained. “But the left or the center is going to come back into power, now, in half a year, in a year, or maybe longer. But sooner or later, it is bound to happen. And when it does, the new government will not care one whit how hungry your children are, that their only hot meal a day comes from their school. The voters are going to completely turn off the spigot of government funding, and your community is going to sink even lower into poverty.”

Deri, Stern told me, stared at him in silence for a long moment. It was clear, Stern recalled, that Deri had suddenly understood.

Haaretz, too, has run major pieces pointing to the massive error some of the Haredi leadership understands that it has made:

Screenshot from https: //

As Haaretz reported in the very lengthy but fascinating piece:

Yishai Cohen, a journalist with the Haredi website Kikar Hashabbat, says he anticipates that this is only the beginning. “The Haredi MKs know that this is nothing yet, not even foreplay ahead of the demonstrations that can be expected in connection with the enactment of a military draft law [to exempt Haredim from military service],” Cohen says. “Now they are trying to practice damage control and to explain that they are not part of the [judicial] reform and are only supporting it because of their commitment to the coalition. But it looks like it’s already too late.”

Cohen is right that it’s too late. Stern is right that there’s going to be massive payback. It may come in six months, if the government falls, or in six years. But one day, the center is going to be back in power in Israel, and when that happens, the “reign of terror” that many feel the Haredim have imposed is going to end.

This rage is hardly directed only at the Haredim. Well known Mizrahim are chiming in and saying that “yes,” there’s a “second” Israel, but it’s not them. And the “real” second Israel is what is destroying Israel. Who is the “real second Israel” that’s ruining the country as far as they are concerned? We’ll see that just below.

It’s perhaps not surprising that there’s once again discussion of an Israeli TV series from a few years ago, called Autonomies. (To my knowledge, it’s not available with English subtitles; if you are aware of a place where those subtitles have been added, please let me know and we’ll share the link). The premise of Autonomies, which first aired in 2018, five years ago, long before anyone could have foreseen this particular crisis, is that Israel has already split into two countries. one secular and one Haredi.

What you will not learn from the trailer (spoiler alert) is that towards the end of the six part series, the leader of the Haredim, who heads the “Autonomy,” understands that he cannot win his battle against the influence of the “State.” So he declares a new strategy for how the Haredim will survive: It’s time to go back to Europe.

That, to be sure, was a suggestion on the part of the writers that was pregnant with meaning.

Here’s a glimpse at a trailer, which does have English subtitles:

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Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis