‘Autonomies’, or How Israel Exorcises the Demons of the Future

The series ‘Unorthodox’ and ‘Shtisel’ are global hits that brought haredim into the home and question the cinegeny of the Orthodox world today, when its characters become mainstream points of identification. For K., Noémie Issan-Benchimol evokes a series that has not yet been released in Europe, available in the United States – and in Israel, of course, where it has provoked discussion: a dystopian series, ‘Autonomies’ imagines Israel split in two: here, the autonomous territory of Jerusalem run by an ultra-Orthodox religious group; there, a secular state with Tel Aviv as its capital …


Autonomies – Photo Credit – Hot


Just a few weeks ago, in what now seems like a distant past, Israeli comedian Assi Cohen, who plays the character of Shaouli in the satirical program Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country), delivered a monologue on the occasion of Israel’s third parliamentary elections in less than two years. In this hilarious – painfully hilarious – monologue, which went viral on the Hebrew-language Internet, he called for a civil war in Israel, the only way to unite and reunite this people who have nothing to do with each other, except to have fled persecution in the world and found themselves together in the same mess, in the shelter of their ancestral land. He said that all the great nations having experienced their civil war, there was no reason why only the Jews, “the official religion of the Bible” should not experience theirs. In the middle of the monologue, he slipped in this phrase: “Ashkenazi versus Sephardic, ultra-Orthodox versus secular, everyone against everyone…except you Arabs, you this time, you’re going to sit on the sidelines and watch, we’ve fought enough and has it gotten us nowhere.”

It so happens that current event show us that the Arabs of Israel refuse to sit on the sidelines and let the Jews wage their internal wars and settle their intra-community neuroses, their ruptures, their oppositions between religion and secularism, liberal values and ultra-nationalist values. They, too, are an integral part of the game, or rather of the tragedy. Yet these oppositions, the intra-Jewish ruptures, do exist.

« Deux Etats pour deux peuples »

Autonomies, the one-season dystopian miniseries by Ori Elon and Yehonatan Indursky (the same people who made Shtisel) allows Israel, through fiction, to put its finger on this internal problem, bracketing the question of conflict between Jews and Arabs in order to focus on Jewish sectarian battles. There are no Arabs in Autonomies, there are not even religious Zionists or the so-called “hilltop youth.” There are only two political entities, hypostases of two basic tendencies, which iterate in tragic mode what all Israelis already acknowledge in humorous mode: the country of Tel Aviv and the country of Jerusalem. The Zionist country and the Jewish country. The democracy and the theocracy. A secular and technological state whose capital is Tel Aviv and a religious autonomy in the land of Israel, whose constitution is Hebrew law, ruled by an imaginary Hasidic sect, whose capital is Jerusalem. The dystopia presents an alternative reality in 2018 (the release date of the series).

The thesis that I would like to defend in this article is that Israeli fictions, and particularly the series Autonomies, praised throughout the world for their quality, also criticized as instruments of soft power, additionally have a real and deep cathartic social function. These series exorcise, by staging them, the demons that are incipient within Israeli society. Thus, Israeli cultural production is not afraid to think and represent its worst nightmares of the future, in the present.

I do not know if many people in Israel have noticed, since he does not look like himself in both contexts, but Assi Cohen also plays the main character in the series Autonomies, Yona Broyde. In the satirical program, he looks like a redneck, with his curls and nasal voice. In Autonomies, a one-season dystopian miniseries, he is profound, tragic.

The Only Jewish Theocracy in the Middle East

The first scene of the first episode begins with a very common scene. Members of the Orthodox Jewish funeral home, the hevra kadisha, go to pick up the body of a young man who has died of cancer in Bnei Brak, a town near Tel Aviv that is now ultra-Orthodox. The dead man is not there, neither is his companion Anna, but it was his desire to be buried in Jerusalem, his hometown. The first meeting between Yona and Anna occurs in a space of empathy and consolation. Yona and his co-worker from the funeral home take the body down and place it in a box. Then one gives the other pornographic DVDs, and a bag stuffed with, other deliveries to be made within Jerusalem. Yona refuses to place the bag in the coffin, saying: “No Jew deserves to have pork in his coffin”.

Autonomies – Photo Credit – Hot

They return to Jerusalem and for the first time we see the sign at the entrance to the city, in three languages, Hebrew, Yiddish and English: “Jewish Autonomy in the Land of Israel”. Ultra-Orthodox soldiers, dressed in a long coat and a “guard” armband, inspect the cars that enter. They do not inspect the coffin, Yona and his friend make their delivery: the pig for one, pornographic DVDs for the other, a book by Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, for a free thinker. The choice of the book is not by chance. The Peloponnesian War is indeed the story of the war between Athens and Sparta which ranged the Greek city-states on two sides in an ultimately fratricidal struggle.

Even before we see the repression typical of theocracies and authoritarian regimes of all kinds, we see at work what is its sine qua non: smuggling, freedom purloined, the underground life off the radar. What is striking, as a spectator, is the simultaneous cohabitation of two contradictory feelings: a feeling of familiarity, and a feeling of strangeness. Familiarity with the religious customs, the fact that certain neighborhoods already live de facto under the authority of Jewish law. Strangeness in the face of the de facto secession and sovereignty of the ultra-Orthodox.

Even before we see the repression typical of theocracies and authoritarian regimes of all kinds, we see at work what is its sine qua non: smuggling, freedom purloined, the underground life off the radar. What is striking, as a spectator, is the simultaneous cohabitation of two contradictory feelings: a feeling of familiarity, and a feeling of strangeness. Familiarity with the religious customs, the fact that certain neighborhoods already live de facto under the authority of Jewish law. Strangeness in the face of the de facto secession and sovereignty of the ultra-Orthodox.

From Shtisel to Autonomies: What Separates Conservatism from Fundamentalism

The series Shtisel, which has conquered the world with its touching, human, emotional and universal ultra-Orthodox characters, is in fact the light version of Autonomies, which is the dark, nightmarish version. The Orthodox characters are a priori part of the same world. The former are simply conservatives, wishing to preserve their traditions and decide for themselves what is the right way of life, who have an eccentric indifference or hostility toward the state. The latter are fundamentalists who want their form-of-life to be the only one and to be accompanied by state, police and legal constraints. Between the two, there is the vertigo of a seesaw.

Shtisel saison 3, Ep 9 – Photo Credit – Courtesy of yes Studios

In the series, the tipping point is located in the past, in the events of 1989, which are presented in the form of flashes. We understand that the civil war was triggered by the question of compulsory conscription of the ultra-Orthodox into the army, which is regularly the subject of bills, demonstrations and political compromises in Israel, and which would have led to the separation of the Zionist state and Jewish autonomy in Jerusalem.

One must note that the Autonomy is a non-state enclave. There is a functioning policing and legal apparatus, but the entity has no international recognition. It is the result of a radical separatism on the part of Ashkenazi Hasidim turned in on themselves. The Autonomy is the fruit of withdrawal. And here the show’s creators have done well to capture the political theory of traditional rabbinism, which centers not on the running of a state but autonomy within a state. In this sense, the Autonomy of the series is indeed a fictional embodiment of a rabbinical political theory implemented in the Land of Israel.

Who Owns the Child? Metamorphoses of the Judgment of Solomon and the Finaly Case in Autonomies

The main plot of the series is a modern transposition of two traumatic motifs of Jewish history: the Judgment of Solomon (who is the mother?) and the Finaly case (what is the religion of the child and who has the right over him?). (The Finaly case dealt with the religious identity of so-called hidden children in France, i.e., children who were protected from deportation during the Holocaust in being sheltered by Catholic families, and sometimes baptized.)

Indeed, a nurse, tortured by her secret, decides to reveal to two families, the family of the daughter of Rebbe de Kreinitz (the masterful Shuli Rand) and an Israeli family, that she had replaced the dead baby smothered of the one (the secular) with the living baby of the other (the religious). Thus, the little girl of the leader of the autonomy lives and grows up in a secular home, under the care of divorcing couple Batya and Asher Luzzatto (Dana Ivgui and Yaaqov Zada-Daniel, seen in Fauda).

Autonomies – Photo Credit – Hot

This case is an opportunity for the two legal systems to clash. The Autonomy rejects the authority of the Israeli court and the Rebbe instructs Yona, who is facing a murder charge after he unintentionally killed a man, to kidnap the child and bring her back to the Autonomy in exchange for the dropping of charges. Together with Anna, whom he calls Hannah, to further Judaize her name, and who has become his friend and lover, Yona Broyde, goes on a kidnapping mission in Europe, which will also lead him down the paths of transgression. The attitude of the Kreinitz Rebbe, which seems to be motivated by fanaticism, is also understandably motivated by pragmatism. The economic life of the Autonomy is catastrophic and the Council of Sages, its decision-making body, is soon to meet for a vote on reunification with the State of Israel. By putting this matter at the heart of the news, he is, like Saul using his daughter’s love for David for political purposes, in the role of any politician who wants to preserve his political power, at the risk of instrumentalizing those close to him, including his daughter’s maternal grief. There will be no spoiler of the series here, but let’s just say that the salvation comes from the women, who refuse readymade roles and the power games.

Hasidic Sects as Pieces of Deterritorialized Europe: The Desire for Exile

The genius of the scriptwriters is to have made the dynasty that rules the autonomy an imaginary Hasidic sect, the Kreinitz Hasidut. Following the old Rebbe’s withdrawal from political life, and the annexation of the Autonomy by Israeli forces, he returns, with a small circle of followers, to the town of origin of his sect, in the heart of Europe.

The existing Hasidic sects in Israel are almost all named after the European cities from which they originated and flourished, Satmar, Gur, Lubavitch, Breslev, Munkacz. After the destruction of the Jews of Europe, they were all relocated, depopulated and decimated, to Israel or the United States. This relocation, which had all the hallmarks of a simple translation and nothing of a transplant, which implies that something of the recipient interacts with the transplanted organ. These sects continued to live in this secular and democratic state as if in exile.

The return to Europe then perhaps symbolizes the return to the rejection of politics, to the rejection of sovereign life, to the acceptance that this foray into sovereign political life directed by Jewish law was a failure, and that instead of “the exile of Israel at the hands of Israel,” as some ultra-Orthodox describe the Jewish destiny in the State of Israel before the coming of the Messiah, they still preferred the exile of Israel at the hands of the Nations.

The series closes with a scene of epic intensity, with apocalyptic overtones, which is without doubt one of the most powerful scenes in Israeli fiction in recent years.

Dystopias are not the favorite genre of Israeli cultural production, perhaps because reality seems complicated and tragic enough as it is to add the scares of uchrony or dystopia. However, Autonomies proves through its phantasmatic incursion into a possible, and perhaps near, world that if reality is indeed tragic, the worst can always happen. And that one of the ways to prevent it is not to keep quiet, to avoid it, but to look it in the eyes, to name it, and to exorcise it. This land will probably not be saved by religion. It will perhaps be saved by culture.

Noémie Issan-Benchimol

Translated by Daniel Solomon

Contact the author

    Support us!

    You can help us

    With the support of:

    Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.