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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There is no mandate for cutting immigration at the expense of living standards

Leave voters were asked if they would pay a price to cut immigration. The answer was clear. 

The Tories are in a mess on Brexit. The nation remains divided. But everyone accepts the need to prioritise reducing immigration, even at the expense of lower living standards.

These are the three key truisms of post-referendum Britain. But it turns out that only the first of those two propositions is actually true. The third, that there is a popular will to lower immigration at almost any cost, is not true at all. The latest poll from YouGov shows that even a majority of Leave voters are unwilling to accept any reduction in their living standards at all in order to curb immigration.

In the era of "fake news", it is important to begin with the facts. YouGov conducted its latest poll on Brexit on January 11 and 12. It found that the nation was indeed split and only marginally changed from the June referendum outcome.  In this poll, 44 per cent of all voters said they would to Remain and 43 per cent said they would vote Leave. This is well within the margin of error (as was the June referendum itself), and there was little recorded movement from one side of the divide to the other.

By introducing the question of immigration the YouGov pollsters made the responses much more decisive, and quite at odds with the received wisdom on the issue. YouGov asked only Leave voters what is the maximum amount of money they would be willing to lose "in order to regain control of immigration". The responses ranged from nothing at all to accepting a loss of over £200 or month per month and all points in between. The clear majority opted for nothing at all. They were willing to make no financial sacrifice at all. 

Remember, this is solely among Leave voters. It cannot be ruled out that some minority of Remain voters are willing to give up income to see immigration. But this would surely be a minority, possibly a tiny one. Therefore, the overall majority of voters, Leavers and Remainers combined are not will to let their living standards fall in order to lower immigration.

This stands in complete contrast to widespread assertions that the narrow Leave win in the referendum was "really" about curbing immigration. Theresa May herself has said that voters gave a very clear message they wanted tighter controls on immigration.  But of course immigration was not on the ballot. We know that popular sentiment is not pro-immigration. How could it be when voters have been told for years that it is the cause of all their woes?

Still, the clear evidence from the latest YouGov poll (and others) is that voters are unwilling to accept any decline in their living standards to achieve lower immigration. This makes it clear that immigration is not the paramount issue. Living standards are, as they usually are.

This has clear implications for all political parties. YouGov’s poll shows us that Labour cannot win by promising to cut immigration at the expense of living standards, which would surely follow any decision to quit the single market. Indeed, 65 per cent of the 2015 Labour voters voted to Remain. Among the minority Labour Leavers, two-thirds would not be willing to see any fall income in order to reduce immigration. The net result is that just 1 in 10 Labour voters in 2015 are willing to cut see their incomes fall to curb immigration.

Labour’s winning strategy will be to focus on its economic programme for government. Our electoral strategy will show people how Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell's economic plan can make the overwhelming majority of people better off. And keep on showing them. The reactionary Tory agenda can only make people worse off.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health.