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Is Israel a democracy or an ethnocracy?

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

Source: Getty Images

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.