Is Israel a democracy or an ethnocracy?

Defenders of the Jewish state have unwittingly kicked off a much-needed debate about national identi

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The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) is one of the key Israel advocacy groups in the UK. In the last week BICOM has published a series of essays on 'Israel's democratic futures' (if that's a question, the answer is 'here's hoping'). BICOM's worry, as its chief Lorna Fitzsimons wrote in her introduction, is that "a notion is spreading in the West that Israel is fast becoming an illiberal ethno-democracy".

One of the contributions is an interview by BICOM's Alan Johnson of the US political philosopher Michael Walzer. At first glance, Johnson appears to be unafraid of posing the difficult questions - but Walzer's unchallenged replies are revealing.

Israel is not the state of the Jewish people; Jews outside Israel don't vote in its elections and non-Jews inside Israel do vote in its elections. The Jewish people are not sovereign in Israel; the citizens of Israel are sovereign there. I think there is a sense in which Israel, I mean green line Israel, is right now politically a state of all its citizens. The real difficulties are not political, they are cultural, and they arise in every nation state.

Unpacked, this is a wonderful illustration of the denial and diversion tactics deployed by those trying to reconcile the idea of a 'Jewish' and 'democratic' state. Walzer says "there is a sense" in which Israel is "a state of all its citizens" - but he presents no evidence, and quickly moves on in order to focus on "cultural" difficulties.

Walzer's response is just wrong (and he surely must know this).

Firstly, foundational to Israel's legal framework as a Jewish state is legislation passed in the first few years, specifically the Law of Return, the Absentee Property Law, and the Citizenship Law. These laws shaped an institutionalised regime of ethno-religious discrimination by extending Israel's 'frontiers' to include every Jew in the world (as a potential citizen), at the same time as explicitly excluding expelled Palestinians.

Search BICOM's essays in vain, however, for serious acknowledgement that Israel the 'liberal democracy' was founded on the basis of ethnic cleansing and mass land expropriation; that the only reason there is a 'Jewish majority' at all, is because of the historic fact of the forced exclusion of Palestinians from their homes and lands.

Secondly, there is a distinction in Israel between 'citizenship' and 'nationality', a difference missed by English speakers, who tend to use the terms interchangeably. Professor David Kretzmer, law scholar at Hebrew University and member of the International Commission of Jurists, has written how this concept of 'nation' "strengthens the dichotomy between the state as the political framework for all its citizens and the state as the particularistic nation-state of the Jewish people".

In the 1970s, Israel's Supreme Court rejected a petition by a Jewish Israeli who sought to change his nationality status from 'Jewish' to 'Israeli'. The ruling stated that "there is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish nation...composed not only of those residing in Israel but also of Diaspora Jewry". Then-president of the Court Shimon Agranat said that a uniform Israeli nationality "would negate the very foundation upon which the State of Israel was formed".

Thirdly, Israel continues to be in an official 'state of emergency', which the Knesset has annually renewed since 1948. There are still 11 laws and 58 ordinances that depend on the state of emergency, covering a wide range of matters.

Fourthly, Israeli law provides for the banning of electoral candidates who deny "the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people". Related to that, proposed bills can be rejected on the grounds that they undermine "Israel's existence as the state of the Jewish people". This is particularly instructive, given the emphasis placed by those trying to defend Israel's 'democracy' on the fact that Palestinian citizens can vote and be elected as MKs.

Fifthly, there is the legislated role of the Zionist institutions, the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organisation and Jewish National Fund. As I write in my new book, bodies intended to privilege Jews, by being granted responsibilities normally performed by the state, are thus "placed in positions of authority where they have the ability to prejudice the interests of non-Jewish citizens".

Those are a selection of elements in what makes Israel a Jewish state, as opposed to a state of all its citizens. But what has it meant in practice, for Palestinians living in this 'Jewish and democratic' state?

From 1948 to 1966, the majority of Israel's Arab citizens lived under military rule, a state of affairs used to expropriate land for establishing Jewish communities, as well as repress dissent. This is a vital part of the history, and makes it laughable that in one of the BICOM essays, Amichai Magen claims Israel has never had "a single episode of slippage into authoritarianism" (not for the Jewish population, presumably, is what he means).

In over 60 years, around 700 Jewish communities have been established in Israel's pre-1967 borders - but just seven for Arab citizens (and those were built in the Negev for 'concentrating' the Bedouin population). The average Palestinian community inside Israel has lost up to 75% of its land since 1948, while a quarter of all Palestinian citizens are internally displaced, their property confiscated for use by the state and Jewish towns.

An estimated 90,000 Palestinian citizens live in dozens of 'unrecognised villages', which suffer from home demolitions and a lack of basic infrastructure. Israeli officials openly talk of 'Judaizing' areas and tackling the 'threat' posed by non-Jewish citizens. Residency in 70% of Israeli towns is managed by committees that filter out those deemed 'unsuitable' for the 'social fabric'.

These are just a few examples of what Professor Oren Yiftachel has described as an "ethnocracy":

Despite declaring the regime as democratic, ethnicity (and not territorial citizenship) is the main determinant of the allocation of rights, powers, and resource ... [and] the logic of ethnic segregation is diffused into the social and political system.

In addition, all of this is without commenting on how, for 45 of Israel's 64 years, the Jewish state has military ruled over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who do not even have the limited protection afforded by citizenship (while settling the territory with Jewish citizens).

As Israeli jurist and founding member of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel Ruth Gavison put it, the Jewish state is

an enterprise in which the Arabs are not equal partners, in which their interests are placed below those of a different national group - most of whose members are newcomers to the land, and many of whom are not even living in the country.

Such honesty seems to elude Johnson, Walzer, and BICOM. It is encouraging that the Israel advocacy group feels forced to address the issue of Israel's 'democratic future' - not least because, through the weakness of their arguments, they are unwittingly contributing to the growing understanding of what lies at the heart of the continued lack of a sustainable, just peace.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

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Labour's Brexit policy is getting lost in translation

Labour politicians can agree on what words to say - but they disagree on the meaning. 

As far as Brexit goes, Labour agrees on the words and disagrees on the meaning. The party’s position is for a Brexit deal that puts “jobs first” and secures “the exact same benefits” as the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union has.

That was the position articulated by Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, in a series of interventions designed to clarify the party’s position after both Jeremy Corbyn and Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, both ruled out continuing membership of the single market and the customs union.

The advantage that Labour’s line has is that it unites the parliamentary Labour party, the membership, the trade unions and the leadership. The difficulty comes when you ask what the words mean.

For the bulk of the trade unions, the members and a large minority in the parliamentary party, “jobs-first” and the “exact same benefits” means the exact same arrangement: a Brexit that takes Britain out of the political structure of the European Union but retains the United Kingdom’s membership of the single market and the customs union. Not all of this group would agree that the only real way to have a “jobs-first  Brexit” is not to have one but they wouldn’t disagree all that strongly, either.

For a minority in the party in the country and the labour movement, and a narrow majority of the parliamentary party, “jobs-first” and “the exact same benefits” comes with a fairly hefty caveat – without the free movement of labour and/or the rules of the European Court of Justice, both of which rule out continuing membership of the single market or the customs union and guarantee both fewer benefits and job losses.

(People often speak of this group being represented by Labour MPs “from the North”: in fact the biggest and most vocal MPs advocating for this approach have seats in the Midlands and Yorkshire. Some of Labour’s North-West MPs are planning an intervention with Keir Starmer, who they feel is unfairly using their region as an excuse to beat back complaints from Labour’s London MPs.)

Among the minority of that majority in the parliamentary Labour party, “jobs first” means a radical programme of public investment and state aid that, they believe would lead to the creation of new better jobs and a rebalanced economy. The agenda of Labour’s pro-single market MPs and trade unions is, first and foremost, to defend existing jobs.

Both opinions are well-represented in Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle. And although the leader himself is a Eurosceptic of long standing who instinctively favours a more drastic exit, it is fairly far down his list of priorities, according to those who know him well. Pro-single market trade unions feel that this is an area where they might be listened to.

What the leader’s office agrees on is the need to avoid culpability. Their view is that the Brexit talks, both in their timing and the unrealistic expectations the public have for the outcome, are a Conservative problem and that Labour must avoid at all costs sharing the blame for a bad Brexit deal. (The leader’s allies often talk about the fallout from Britain’s exit from the exchange rate mechanism and the global financial crisis, when neither Tony Blair nor David Cameron were blamed for the failures of policies they had supported in Opposition.)

And that might be the biggest Brexit difficulty. Conservative Remainers will break away if they think they can force government concessions – they won’t rebel if they fear their votes will be cancelled out by Labour Brexiteers. But Labour MPs in leave seats are in the same situation. And that shared paralysis is probably the biggest barrier to a softer Brexit. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.