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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Another trade minister walks away from David Cameron's failed project

Francis Maude is lucky enough to be able to walk away from this Government and their failing policies – if only the rest of us could do so.  

After just nine months in the role Francis Maude has announced he will be stepping down as trade Minister. It means David Cameron will have gone through four trade ministers in six years.

The nine months that Maude has been in the role have not been happy ones – for him, or the British public.

Our trade deficit in goods has grown to a record £125bn and our overall trade deficit has risen to £34.7bn. Meanwhile, under the Tories the current account deficit increased to its largest level since 1830 – when the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister.

We’ve also seen a widening gap between the Chancellor and the Trade Minister in that time. While initially championing Osborne’s much vaunted “£1 trillion trade target by 2020” recent weeks have seen Maude pouring cold water over the target – referring to it as a “big stretch” and indicating it is unlikely to be met. The “stretch” he refers to is the whopping £350bn that the Office of Budget Responsibility says Osborne’s 2020 target will be missed by.

Despite saying yesterday that he would be stepping down having devised a plan to tackle Britain’s huge trade problems these new figures – incidentally released on the same day as Maude announced he’d be leaving - are evidence that if there is a plan, it’s done no good so far.

While Maude might be able to just walk away from Britain’s dire trade situation others aren’t so lucky. Domestic export industries such as steel and manufacturing, where output is still lower than 2008, have come under huge pressure in recent years from soaring energy costs and cut price competition from markets such as China.

Boosting exports is key to tackling the historic deficit, but the government shows no sign that it really understands this. While Osborne fails to provide crucial support to the steel sector, which has seen devastating job losses, he isn’t failing to take every opportunity to court the increasingly unstable Chinese market which leaves Britain even more exposed to global headwinds. It was just a few months ago the Bank of England warned that if Chinese GDP were to fall by three per cent relative to its trend then the output in the UK would be around 0.3 per cent lower as a result, yet Osborne is undeterred.

It is workers in Britain that will be paying the price for these failing policies. Those losing their jobs at Tata steel, small manufacturing businesses suffering in the industry’s stagnation and many other ordinary workers are not lucky enough to walk away from the situation like Maude.

Their situation is compounded by the Government attacking ordinary people on middle and low wages in other ways.

Although Osborne pledged in November to stop all tax credit cuts, he is still going ahead with a proposed cut to the income disregard costing 800,000 people an estimated £300 a year. This is on top of the IFS’s analysis from just a few days ago that shows the Government’s planned cuts to Universal Credit will see 2.1 million working people lose out by an average of £1,600 a year.

And coming down the line Osborne’s ‘tenant tax’ which will force all but the very poorest council tenants to ‘pay to stay’ – charging them huge market rents to stay in their home – which many will be unable to afford.

Under the new measures a couple earning £15,000 each per year – scarcely over minimum wage each – would be asked to pay market rent for their home, or reduce their working hours in order to take them out of the income bracket.

Osborne claims to want the Tories to be ‘the Party of the workers’ but this policy shows how much of a farce that is. People who work hard on low pay will be forced from their homes.

Maude is lucky enough to be able to walk away from this Government and their failing policies – if only the rest of us could do so.  

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South.