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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The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster