Democracy in Israel/Palestine Today


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February 27, 2019

Democracy in Israel/Palestine Today

Ethnic Democracy or Ethnocracy?

  • Democracy
  • Ethnocracy
  • History
  • Israel
  • Jewish
  • Middle East
  • Palestine
  • Religion

This essay was originally published on February 27 2019.

During a roundtable debate on Israeli television in the last election cycle, the major candidates, excluding the two major parties Likud and Labor (as is the custom), offered final word after a vigorous exchange of ideas. Centrist Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party began his comments with the following comments. “There were many disagreements tonight. But it is important to know that even if we disagree, we are all Jews so….” At this point Arab List candidate Ayman Odeh interrupted him and said, “No, we are not all Jews, and that is precisely the problem.”

This anecdote captures a core political dilemma of modern-day Israel, a nation-state that defines itself as both “Jewish” and “democratic.” Odeh is the head of the Arab List (the third largest party in the Knesset behind Likud and Labor) and yet he is summarily, and unconsciously, excluded from the conversation with the four words, “we are all Jews…”. Israel is colloquially called “the only democracy in the Middle East” but technically, it is a much more complicated story. The tension in the ethno-centric identity of the state (“Jewish”) and its professed aspiration of equal citizenship (“democracy”) has been noted from the moment that formulation was codified. Most recently debates have centered around two possible ways of understanding Israeli democracy. Below we sketch these two models and then weigh in on how recent developments affect the various theories.

The first model for defining Israeli democracy is proffered by Sam Smooha and Ruth Gavison’s notion of “ethnic democracy,” and the second is a newly-coined term “ethnocracy” advocated by Oren Yiftachel, As’ad Ghanem, and others. Both begin with a similar observation: Israel does not fit into the reigning models of democracy: liberal, consociational, and Herrenvolk (Smooha 2001). Liberal democracies such as the U.S. are polities where ethnicity plays no legal role in the definition of citizenship; consociational democracies such as Belgium are when ethnicity, broadly defined, is accepted as a major principle in the organization of the state, but no one ethnic group dominates the others. Individuals are accorded civil and political rights, but politics at the national level is centered on consultation among elites of each of the state’s major ethnic groups (Lijphart 1969). In consociational systems, the state is not identified with any of the constituent groups and tries to reconcile the differences between them. Herrenvolk democracies such as apartheid South Africa are where democracy is restricted to one master ethnic group and denied to all other groups, regardless of their numbers. Generally speaking, we do not consider Herrenvolk polities functional democracies while liberal and conociational polities are considered democracies.

Smooha, Gavison, Yiftachel, Ghanem and others argue that Israel does not meet the criteria of these models and thus a new term is required. Despite this consensus, however, there is significant disagreement about whether this category should be conceptualized as a sub-type of democracy like consociationalism or as a non-democratic form of governance like Herrenvolk democracy. Regimes of this type are driven by a core ethnic nationalism that serves as the identity of the state itself (“Jewish”). Minorities enjoy citizenship (voting rights, passports, etc.) but are second-class citizens and are excluded from the national power structure (they do not serve in the military, they are excluded from ruling governing coalitions, etc.). Smooha gives four examples of other regimes that resemble the Israeli case: Northern Ireland from 1921-1972, Canada from 1867 to the 1960s, Poland between 1913 to 1935 and Malaysia since the 1970s. On this reading only Israel and Malaysia are ethnic democracies today as defined by Smooha. Other cases such as Japan are excluded because Japan does not have an ethnic minority population large enough to resemble the Israeli situation whose ethnic minorities constitute more than 20% of the citizenry.

Smooha is quite critical of Israeli democracy, and considers it flawed in many ways, since he admits ethnic minorities are deemed to a marginal status with few if any collective rights. He argues, however, that it still constitutes a democracy because the marginalized minorities have the potential for a life as second-class citizens that offers them enough agency to lived fulfilled individual and collective lives. Smooha argues that while they are constitutively and programmatically denied legal equality, the democratic nature of the regime provides sufficient political openings to allow minorities to incrementally improve their status within the polity, even if total equality is unattainable by design. In his recent book Beyond the Nation State, Dmitry Shumsky shows that the ethnocentric model was not always the Zionist vision. He documents how Zionist thinkers from Jabotinsky to Ben Gurion initially envisioned Israel as a multi-national, even bi-national, state where minorities would be guaranteed full equality with both individual and collective rights. For a variety of reasons, ideological and historical, the ethnocentric model won the day.

Before moving to the ethnocracy model, Smooha’s critics note that his model of ethnic democracy is limited to Israel proper and does not include the West Bank. This, they argue, is illegitimate because after half a century of occupation with more than half a million Jewish Israelis living in the West Bank, Israel today cannot be evaluated as separate from that reality. In the West Bank, the segmented style of rule resembles a Herrenvolk democracy quite similar to South Africa. In the West Bank, the authority of the Israeli regime among the Jewish population “‘relies on citizens’ compliance with the law and their acceptance of the rules of the game,’ which in turn provides power to authorities.” In contrast, “the segregated Palestinian polity within Israel delineates a different model. The essence of the military rule is force. Military decrees, fear, brutal violence, and manipulation maintain order in the Palestinian community (Alimi 2007, 34). Unlike the Palestinian population living in Israel proper, Palestinians in the West Bank have no citizenship, they are stateless, and thus they have no agency within the state they are ruled by. While the Palestinian Authority (PA) has limited authority within the West Bank, it functions more to police the territory than to legislate it, and the PA is, in many ways, an appendage of the Jewish state apparatus with limited autonomy. The PA, for example, coordinates closely with Israeli authorities on security matters in the West Bank and Israeli security forces conduct military raids in areas of the West Bank officially under PA jurisdiction on a near daily basis. In addition, by maintaining control over the collection of Palestinian taxes, the Israeli government maintains significant economic leverage over the Palestinian Authority. Its decision to withhold all or part of these funds, as it has most recently done in protest of PA money transfers to the families of Palestinians accused of terrorism, fundamentally undermine the PA’s ability to function as an independent body. Therefore, journalistic critics such as Peter Beinart argue that Israel is both a democracy and not a democracy simultaneously, depending on where you live. When asked about Israel as a Jewish and democratic state Palestinian-Israeli Knesset member Ahmed Tibi (who is now the most veteran Israeli Parliamentarian) said it more succinctly, “If you are a Jew, it is a democratic state and if you are an Arab, it is a Jewish state.”

The two most prominent advocates of “ethnocracy” are Oren Yiftachel and As’ad Ghanem. Yiftachel (2006, 3, 12) defines ethnocracy as follows.

Ethnocratic regimes promote the expansion of the dominant group in contested territory and its domination of power structures while maintaining a democratic façade…Ethnocracy manifests in the Israeli case with the long-term Zionist strategy of Judaizing the homeland…the very same territory is also perceived by most Palestinians as their rightful historical homeland, invaded and seized by the Jews….the state is the main vehicle of the regime, providing institutions, mechanisms, laws and legitimate forms of violence to implement the projects articulated by the regime.

The exercise here is not to weigh-in on the claims and counter-claims in this description but to describe a particular political structure and how it functions within the broad definition of democracy. The “façade” of democracy, Yiftachel suggests, is precisely that which Smooha uses to defend Israel as a functioning democracy. Smooha and others talk of Arab “Israelization” or the limited integration into Israeli society that structurally demands separation. For example, intermarriage between Jews and Arabs has no legal foundation in Israel. Even if we say this is because the Israeli rabbinate controls marital laws, the rabbinate is still an official arm of the state and thus its policies have state sanction. There are also two separate education systems, very few Israeli Jews attend schools with Palestinian Israelis. Even if we argue that this is preferred by both sides, the structural apparatus is one of inequality in regards to financial and others resources. The “separate but equal” model, which is at the heart of the consociationalism but absent in the Herrenvolk democracy model, is not even an aspiration in the Israeli system. Here Yiftachel argues, “Israelization in the sense of accepting Jewish exclusivity and privilege and the Arab inferiority that comes with it, and in accepting Israel as the state of the Jewish people, in an illusionary identity at best and a distorted imposition at worst the failure to offer – even theoretically – equal citizenship means that the only identity Israel can provide is, at its center, one that enforces inequality and exclusion” (Yiftachel 2006, 94-95).

For Yiftachel and others, the “Jewishness” of the state is not simply a reality on the ground but a constitutive part of the state legally such that it does not compliment democracy but frames it. For example, the 1964 Yerdor case that makes the “Jewishness of the state” a “constitutional given,” the 1985 revision of the Basic Law makes a political party “illegal” if it does not define Israel as “the state of the Jewish people” and the 2017 Nation-State Law denies all collective rights whatsoever to any collective apart from the Jews.

As’ad Ghanem and Ibrahim Khatib offer another intervention into the ethnocratic thesis: the security argument. It is, of course, well known that security is often used to justify extra-democratic means and tactics to ensure the safety of the (Jewish) population. They argue however, that in Israel, security is used not only to insure physical safety but the ethnic character of the state itself, and more importantly, these two very different categories are often interchangeable in regards to the bracketing of democratic processes related to the Arab minority. Because Israel is defined constitutively, and legally, as a “Jewish” state, the Jewishness of the state becomes indistinguishable from the state itself. “The Jewish identity of Israel is tantamount to its physical existence and is, consequentially, a fundamental part of this existence from a national security perspective.” (Ghanem and Khatib 2017, 893). Thus when the minority threatens the Jewish nature of the state, even though it does not threaten its (Jewish) citizens physically, “security” can be used as a valid excuse to enact extra-democratic means of protection. Thus the state can restrict the calls by Palestinian-Israelis for a bi-national state, or BDS, by legal injunctions as a form of security (BDS does not necessarily threaten the state as such but rather its Jewish character). Ghanem and Khatib argue that the weaponizing of security to extend beyond the physical safety of the citizen to the identity of the state itself in an example of how an ethnic minority is denied the ability to function as a flourishing collective necessary in a truly democratic framework.

Two more cases question Smooha’s thesis of ethnic democracy. One is suggested by Yiftcahel and the second by the recent dissertation by Yehuda Magid. Yiftachel argues that Israel’s ethnocentrism combined with its democratic “façade” creates a situation where ethnic conflict will be on-going. If Israel was a more Herrnevolk polity, it could use legal and military means to suppress and disenfranchise its ethnic minority (this is done more programmatically in the West Bank, much less so in Israel proper). This view was suggested by Meir Kahane in his argument against the viability of a “Jewish and democratic” state in the 1970s and rejected by his legislative colleagues. Israel has chosen to simultaneously maintain its democratic framework while continuing to diminishing the agency of its ethnic minority such that the minority will have sufficient opportunity to protest its status but no institutional avenue for achieving its goal of equality. Yiftachel argues this mix of ethnocentricity and democracy will perpetuate, and not, as Smooha argues, diminish conflict because the state’s commitment to democracy bolsters the perceived illegitimacy of Palestinians’ second-class status, while its dedication to ethnocentrism makes the attainment of equality impossible. The result will be a society in perpetual conflict, and a regime that does not meet the minimum conditions of democracy.

Yehuda Magid makes a similar yet slightly different argument. Focusing on dominant group violence (in this case, settler violence against Palestinians) he writes, “Ultimately, as long as ethnonationalist sentiments remain entrenched, democratization is likely to exacerbate rather than moderate dominant group violence” (Magid 2019). Why is this so? Yiftachel argues that democratic structures will result in the ethnic minority constantly challenging its second-class status through quasi-democratic means (we say “quasi” because they rarely win in the courts). Magid argues that increased democratization will also result in countermobilization by the dominant ethnic group (the settlers) who will feel their dominant status is challenged by the possibility of minority (Palestinian) success. This countermobilization manifests itself in a number of ways, including the petitioning of political elites, non-violent direct action tactics, and violence against minorities. As the government loosens its ethnocentric grip on the minority population in an attempt to manage dissent, the dominant group (the radicalized settlers) will feel threatened and act out against the minority. In order to manage this intercommunal conflict, the government must crack down on the minority to protect the dominant group (reinserting its ethnocentric power) or crack down on the dominant group, i.e. its Jewish citizens, thereby weakening its ethnocentric mandate. In ethno-democratic systems, where the power of elites is dependent on the support of their dominant group constituency, public pressure will most often force the government to favor ethnocentricity over minority accommodation.

In sum, we acknowledge that in principle Smooha may be correct that as an ethnic democracy Israel has the potential to exist as a democracy where the ethnic minority will be second-class citizens who have sufficient recourse to goods and services such that they can live relatively fulfilled lives. However, in practice this is undermined by a number of conditions, including the over fifty-year occupation which places part of Israel in a Herrenvolk situation. But even without that, the direction the Israeli electorate has chosen in the past three decades has been to legislatively tighten Israel’s ethnocentric grip (The Nation-State Law, the Loyalty Law now being debated) while maintaining the promise of democracy that has created conditions of conflict rather than resolution. The problem is thus not simply the occupation – which arguably is now in a state of proto-annexation – but the complex relationship between the street and the legislative body, each of which seems to feed off the other to move the country further away from practical democracy (which maintains a democratic structure) and closer to an ethnocentric polity that leaves fewer choices for the flourishing of the ethnic minority as a collective body.

Work Cited:

Alimi, Eitan Y. 2007. Israeli Politics and the First Palestinian Intifada: Political Opportunities, Framing Processes and Contentious Politics : Routledge.

Ghanem, As’ ad, and Ibrahim Khatib. 2017. “The nationalisation of the Israeli ethnocratic regime and the Palestinian minority’s shrinking citizenship.” Citizenship Studies:1-14.

Lijphart, Arend. 1969. “Consociational democracy.” World politics 21 (2):207-225.

Magid, Yehuda. 2019. “Explaining the Occurrence and Dynamics of Dominant Group Violence: Uncertainty, Threat, and Israeli Settler Violence in the West Bank.” PhD Dissertation, Political Science, Indiana Univerity, Bloomington.

Smooha, Sammy. 2001. “The Model of Ethnic Democracy.” ECMI Working Papers.

Yiftachel, Oren. 2006. Ethnocracy: Land and Identity in Israel/Palestine: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington, the Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is presently completing a cultural biography of Meir Kahane, Meir Kahane: The Rise and Fall of an American Jewish Survivalist with Princeton University Press

Yehuda Magid is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Indiana University/Bloomington. His dissertation is entitled “Explaining the Occurrence and Dynamics of Dominant Group Violence: Uncertainty, Threat, and Israeli Settler Violence in the West Bank.” (Indiana University, 2019)


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