Am Johal: Israel's Democratic Facade
- Western Media and Israel's Democratic Facade
by Am Johal
Despite Israel's identity and international reputation as a Western
liberal democracy, Israeli academics such as Sammy Smooha have
identified Israel as an `ethnic democracy.'
This implies serious consequences which not only have the potential to
deviate from the traditional definition of a liberal democratic
nation-state, but has implications on how international law is
interpreted and applied. In fact, the very premise of defining the
nation-state as an `ethnic democracy' imply a differentiation of
rights which are ethnically based in favour of the majority.
The definition or the term may reflect reality, but in its very
premise as an `ethnic democracy' may violate the basis by which
traditional views of democracy, international law and human rights are
In the case of Israel which is widely viewed as being in the Western
democratic tradition by western media, it is defined in academic terms
as an ethnic democracy by some and an ethnocracy by others. Laws and
policies designed to meet these demands invariably collide with the
development and systemitization of human rights in the international
context. Within this definition of ethnically based political
systems, most of the Middle East has a well documented history of
compromising human rights domestically based on international laws and
Smooha identifies liberal democracy and consociational democracy as
the main variants of the democratic form. Liberal democracy is the
prevalent form of democracy and is firmly established in places such
as the United States and France. Consociational democracy is
prevalent in places such as Switzerland and Belgium where large ethnic
groups are brought in to the democratic system through power sharing
and various systems of proportionality. Nation-states such as Canada
utilize a form of multicultural democracy which combine features of
these two types of democracy.
Smooha makes the argument that states which have a record of ethnic
nationalism are practicing a diminished form of democracy based on
favoring the ethnic majority of the nation-state. He cites countries
in Central and Eastern Europe such as Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia,
Northern Ireland and Israel as examples where "these and other states
are internationally accepted as democracies despite their digression
from the Western tenets of centrality of citizenship, equal rights and
Smooha characterizes some of its features in the following way:
"The ethnic nation, not the citizenry, shapes the symbols, laws and
policies of the state for the benefit of the majority. This ideology
makes a crucial distinction between members and non-members of the
ethnic nation. Members of the ethnic nation may be divided into
persons living in the homeland and persons living in the diaspora.
Both are preferred to non-members who are `others', outsiders, less
desirable persons, who cannot be full members of the society and the
state. Citizenship is separate from the nationality, neither a
necessary nor a sufficient condition for membership in the ethnic
nation, unlike the situation in the West where the idea of a civic
nation is prevalent."
Ethnic democracy may meet the minimal and procedural definitions of
democracy but by taking the ethnic nation, rather than the citizenry,
as the cornerstone of the state, "the state privileges the majority
and strives to advance its interests rather than to serve all its
citizens equally. The minority cannot fully identify itself with the
state, cannot be completely equal to the majority and cannot confer
full legitimacy on the state."
Smooha identifies four factors conducive to the emergence of ethnic
1. The primary condition is the pre-existence of ethnic nationalism
and the ethnic nation which influences the form of governance. 2. The
existence of a threat to the ethnic nation which requires the
mobilization of the nation-state to cope with internal and external
threats. 3. The majority's commitment to democracy, without which a
non-democracy would emerge. 4. When the minority is either small or
disorganized, the majority can opt for a workable ethnic democracy
without renouncing its domination. Facing a very large or too strong
a minority, the majority may choose ethnic non-democracy because it is
too difficult to maintain democracy.
Conditions of stability for ethnic democracies include a clear
numerical and political majority for the main ethnic grouping in the
country. In Israel, where the Arab Israeli minority and Palestinian
populations are growing at a faster rate than the Israeli Jewish
majority, the public sphere includes debates around what is defined as
a potential `demographic threat.'
Smooha defines a second condition as the majority's sense of threat.
A third feature includes non-interference in an `external homeland.'
A fourth feature is `non-intervention against, or even support for,
ethnic democracy by the international community as an important aspect
of maintaining stability.'
In traditional liberal democracy, Rousseau made a distinction between
the general will and the will of the majority. Societies based on
justice, equality and freedom may need to rely on the general will to
a greater degree than the will of the majority. Smooha acknowledges that:
"...Ethnic democracy is conceptually inadequate because it can be seen
as a contradiction in terms, an impossible unity of equality and
inequality. It is a confusing and dismissable overstretching of the
concept of democracy because a regime that by definition denies full
equality of rights cannot and should not be construed as
democratic according to this criticism, ethnic democracy and
Herrenvolk democracy are similarly non-democratic because they share
hegemonic control and tyrrany of the majority."
Smooha makes the argument that ethnic states maintain a democratic
façade and "it is retained only as long as the majority is able to
exercise its hegemony."
Benjamin Neuberger argues that ethnic democracy does not meet the
minimum requirements of democracy and that the system and process is
more akin to a semi-democracy. In his view, ethnic democracy does not
meet the basic requirements of the procedural minimum definition of
democracy which include the premise that all citizens enjoy full
rights and secondly, that the "equality of rights they enjoy does not
stand in contradiction to any hierarchical principle."
Smooha, in addressing the claim that ethnic democracies may serve to
freeze internal conflicts, argues that such systems can moderate deep
ethnic cleavages. He argues that, "as a mode of conflict regulation,
it is superior to genocide, ethnic cleansing, involuntary population
transfer and systems of non-democratic domination."
Smooha however does not address the question of whether the system is
morally just or whether the application of unequal rights can actually
lead to long-term stability. There is a legitimate argument that
governance on this model could perpetuate existing cleavages which
could continue to exacerbate social ruptures and inequality.
Smooha cites Arab Israeli Member of the Knesset and critical scholar
Azmi Bishara in presenting the view that:
"ethnic democracy is objectionable because it misrepresents a
non-democracy as a democracy, thereby legitimating the illegitimate.
It is maintained that ethnic democracy wrongfully serves as a
normative model for democratising states and as a tool for justifying
injustices perpetrated by non-democratic states and majorities."
Israeli jurist Yehuda Cohen makes the argument that since democracy is
secondary to the existence of the ethnic nation, ethnic democracies
can work and even allow for some collective and individual equal
rights for minorities to the extent that the application of those
rights do not impinge on the national character of the state.
In this sense, the academic terminology and its presentation as a
normative model does in practice legitimize the practises to an extent
even if it reflects the working reality of the system.
Ruth Gavison has argued that there are some elements of allowing for
equal rights of minorities which are irreconcilable with principles of
equality and justice.
Smooha identifies four normative ways of dealing with the nature of
ethnic democracy. He identifies defining ethnic democracy as a form
of lesser evil because it allows for maximum freedom and openness
while maintaining stability and the interests of the majority as "a
mode of conflict management that is superior to violence, domination
and other non-democratic modes."
Smooha also identifies ethnic democracy as a pragmatic response to the
temporary necessity of maintaining order within a conflict
environment. In the extension of this argument, relatively new states
which face existential threats are justified in setting up structures
to harness the state apparatus for the purposes of ensuring national
survival and enacting `a set of policies commensurate with
`affirmative action' in favour of the ethnic majority.'
This is also a flaw in his argument in that ethnic democracy has
become the long-term reality of the state and serves to exacerbate
tensions within the country and outside of it. Whether maintaining
that status is more or less dangerous than a more advanced form of
democracy is difficult to empirically verify. However, it could be
effectively argued that as a process of state building, maintaining
order in a conflict environment and implementing a political agenda,
it is remarkably effective if international law and other human rights
obligations are not part of the evaluation.
Smooha makes the additional argument that ethnic democracy is
compatible with universal minority rights including UN treaties such
as International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights. There are also European Council agreements such as the
European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Framework
Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. This is a
questionable argument since many civil society organizations and
international bodies regularly cite the violations of these covenants
in the enactment of discriminatory legislation practiced by Israel.
Additionally, a more advanced system may merely create a new model of
codifying inequality in order to meet the basic requirements of
maintaining an ethnic state.
The other argument for the justification of ethnic democracy as a mode
of governance despite the disequilibrium inherent in its supposition
is that liberal democracy also has structural flaws which support
elite formations and corporatist interests. As every democracy is
flawed by its structural bias, so to is an ethnic democracy. This
relativity in interpreting the status and legitimacy of a democracy
must be weighed against the normative values and standards of the
existing international system.
Another element in ensuring a Jewish majority in the state is the Law
of Return which guarantees Jews the right to return to and settle in
Israel. The law also works to deny the right of 3.5 million
Palestinian refugees to return to the country and remains a
contentious issue. At the Camp David Accords and many other peace
processes, there are some allowances for some return but the issue is
addressed through financial compensation. Additionally, restrictions
on citizenship through marriage for the spouses of Arab Israelis who
are Palestinian are still a matter for debate at a public level.
Israel's use of Hebrew as the official and dominant language is also
an important aspect of its nationhood and identity. Although Arabic
is also an official language of Israel, it is not dominant and is
limited in its public expression in public and private institutions
and is the subject of cases of discrimination brought before the courts.
Additionally 93% of the land in Israel is controlled by the state or
Jewish public bodies. Public institutions and planning authorities
engage in discriminatory planning practises and policies as part of
the process of land usage according to civil society organizations.
There are policies in place which displace Arab Israeli citizens from
land in order to support Jewish settlement policies.
Smooha cites three perceived threats to Israel which form part of the
basis of the argument that states under duress will tend to organize
around a political form and system which benefits the dominant group
that seeks to maintain its nationalist aims and ambitions.
The first threat is the perceived threat in the region for Israel.
Since Israel is much more interested in integration with the West and
although it has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan,
neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and other
Muslim states continue to raise issues with its existence in the region.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosted a racist international
conference about the denial of the Holocaust in December 2006.
Secondly, Arab citizens of Israel are perceived as an internal threat
due to their growth as a population and their increasing political
sophistication. They are accused of being disloyal and some
politicians in Israel regularly refer to the "demographic threat" in
Israel and openly advocate forms of ethnic transfer.
Smooha also cites anti-semitism and other forces which work to
undermine Jewish culture and tradition in the diaspora as a threat to
The very premise of ethnic democracy belies an acknowledgement of the
status quo policy framework which openly discriminates on the basis of
ethnicity. This may be accurate in explaining how things are, how
they have developed and the ideas behind policies that may arise in
the future to protect to the greatest extent possible, the Jewish and
democratic nature of the state. Historic injustices to the Jewish
community also help explain some of the official forms of historical
justification for the political system which has been created in
Israel due to the trauma inherent in Israeli collective identity.
Independent critical journalist Jonathan Cook from Britain argues in
his latest book, The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State,
that issues of demography are at the root of many of Israel's
contentious public policies. Former US President Jimmy Carter argues
in his latest book that the Israelis and Palestinians must pursue
peace or live with an ethnically divided state.
Though Zionism emerged from Eastern European roots in response to the
anti-semitism which existed there, it was also firmly attached to
Western values and forms of governance from its inception. Its
largest supporters were influenced by both social democratic and
liberal democratic values. After the establishment of the state,
Israel has consistently stayed in the Western tradition, rather than
join the non-aligned movement with other social democratic countries
at the time such as India and Yugoslavia.
Smooha has argued that the willingness of Israeli governments to
withdraw from occupied territories has largely been due to the
demographic debate which exists within the borders of Israel. By
supporting an independent Palestinian state in theory and, by setting
up an ethnic democracy within its own borders, Israel has continued
with its policies of attempting to maintain both a Jewish and
democratic state at least in its facade. This has, in turn, affected
the basic human rights of Palestinians and Arab Israelis.
Daniel Levy cites two significant challenges in the short-term:
1) While the world waits for the next pronouncements of Israel's
cabinet, new, often devastating, realities are being shaped by
bulldozers, builders, and bureaucrats. The construction of the
separation barrier, deep inside Palestinian territory in some places,
creates a physical as well as mental obstacle for those who believe in
and advocate a realistic two-state solution these facts raise the
possibility of a cumulative undermining of the viable two-state
solution through settlement expansion that on some day passes the
point of no return either the magic formula for finally freezing
settlement construction must be discovered, or the focus needs to be
undone for a peaceful solution to prevail. 2) The greatest threat to
the two state solution may in fact be the tenuous position of the
Palestinian center and its prospective replacement by a leadership
that abandons the two-state paradigm (eg. Hamas) Abbas and his group
symbolize reform, democratization, and non-violence, all wrapped up in
the most evocative image in the Muslim world today the Palestinian
cause. If this trend loses out to the forces of violence and
extremism in Palestine, then the regional and global spill-over effect
could be catastrophic.
Edward Said in his collection of essays and articles, The End of the
Peace Process, remained critical of the official peace process and
argued that the Oslo Accords of 1993 simply created a legal structure
around the administration of occupied lands without setting up a
permanent two-state solution. In his view, the Oslo Accords merely
legitimized the Israeli occupation and de facto control over occupied
lands. Said remained a supporter of a future one-state solution.
The Israeli policies and governing philosophy which contribute to this
approach is partially premised on some basic assumptions. First, that
the international community will not intervene on behalf of the Arab
Israeli population. Secondly, that the regional Arab countries will
not intervene on behalf of Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the
The Israeli state's distortions from the liberal democratic practices
become the concern of civil society when normative models deviate from
international standards and obligations related to human and
collective rights. Critiquing Israel on this basis is an effective
methodology to build domestic and international support for
institutional reform as a framework of engagement and in building
broad domestic support for reform.
Civil society organizations have also been important in bringing
issues of equal rights related to the Arab Israeli population to the
United Nations and other regional bodies such as the European
Parliament. Human rights reports have also begun to more thoroughly
document policies which would be seen as discriminatory and are
identified as distortions from the traditional liberal forms of
democracy which Israel attempts to model.
Smooha makes the argument that Zionism began as an ethnic nationalist
movement in Eastern Europe and has utilized a Western form of
democracy to meet its ideological and philosophical ends effectively
to a large degree. Its support from Western interests in particular
has been instrumental in its development and continued ability to
manage complex regional tensions. The US, the European Union and
individual European nation-states have been crucial to its very
survival in terms of being able to buttress differing Arab nationalist
movements in the region who have taken on the Palestinian cause or had
diplomatic disagreements with Arab neighbours.
Israeli academic Illan Pappe has challenged extensively the founding
narratives of the Israeli state and has written extensively of the
removal of Palestinian Arabs in what is now Israel. He has regularly
debated Israeli historian Benny Morris on the accuracy of documented
Israeli history. Morris has recently argued that ethnic transfer of
Arab Israelis should be viewed as a realistic public policy option if
Israel is to maintain its Jewish and democratic character.
According to Smooha:
"Ethnic democracy is located somewhere in the democratic section of
the democracy-non-democracy continuum. Ethnic democracy is a system
which combines the extension of civil and political rights to
individuals and some collective rights to minorities, with
institutionalization of majority control over the state. Driven by
ethnic nationalism, the state is identified with a "core ethnic
nation," not with its citizens at the same time, the minorities are
allowed to conduct a democratic and peaceful struggle that yields
incremental improvement in their status."
The level of coercion which such an approach implies clearly has a
traumatizing effect on the polity which is the subject of differential
treatment. The development of a political agenda, the sophistication
of methods to win legislative advances and other aspects of social
practises apply within this context.
Smooha goes on to argue:
"Israel proper qualifies as a political democracy on many
counts Notwithstanding concerns that Israeli democracy is an
"overburdened polity" it has thus far functioned quite
well Simultaneously, Israel is a special case of an ethnic state. It
defines itself as a state of and for Jews, that is, the homeland of
the Jews only the state extends preferential treatment to Jews who
wish to preserve the embedded Jewishness and Zionism of the state."
In a critique of Smooha's model of ethnic democracy and the way it is
applied to Israel, As'ad Ghanem, Nadim Rouhana and Oren Yiftael have
"extend ... previous questioning of the model's viability,
sustainability, and content, and to question its empirical and
theoretical claims and coherence. We acknowledge, of course, that
important democratic features are practiced in Israel, but make a
distinction between these features and a democratic state structure,
which is lacking in the current regime."
This criticism of Smooha's model of ethnic democracy by Ghanem,
Rouhana and Yiftael is presented on the following basis:
1. Though Smooha makes a distinction between individual and collective
rights, the limitation imposed on collective rights also entails the
violation of individual rights and, hence, the breaching of a
fundamental democratic principle of individual civil equality. 2. That
Israel cannot be considered as an archetypal example of an ethnic
democracy, nor can the process of Judaization be historically isolated
out of context since it is still in process. They argue that this
merely legitimates the "tyranny of the majority" basis of ethnic
democracy. 3. The rupturing of state boundaries through the
development of settlements and by the political engagement of the
diaspora community. The traditional definition of `demos' is
distorted within a conflicted state environment. Structural ethnic
expansion and undefined borders also add to this critique. These
issues include "civil inequality and lack of minority consent, ethnic
exclusion, and problems in the definition of state boundaries.
Together, these deficiencies cast doubt on the model's empirical and
theoretical value." 101
On this basis, the three argue that basic principles of equality and
consent are absent in the Israeli state system.
They also make a more problematic assertion which Smooha has been
unable to refute adequately:
As an ethnic state, Israel makes equality between Arab and Jew
impossible in practise or in theory. It is membership in the Jewish
people, not citizenship in Israel, that is the chief criterion for the
claim of state ownership. The state system is predicated on a
constitutional arrangement that contradicts the conditions of equal
citizenship and, therefore, democracy.
The three make the argument that assimilation in to Israel for Arab
Israelis will be difficult as long as the Israeli Jewish citizens
receive preferential treatment. They cite Human Needs Theory in
explaining that equality and identity are basic needs that are not
subject to negotiation. On this basis, they argue that legally
sanctioned ethnic inequality is a major source of ethnic tension and
conflict in the region. Smooha refutes this point by arguing that the
regional equation forces Israel to follow these policies.
Additionally, mainstream political debate includes right wing elected
politicians openly calling for the ethnic transfer of Arab Israeli
citizens, such as Member of the Knesset, Avigdor Lieberman. The
Mossawa Center, an NGO representing Arab citizens of Israel, reacted
critically to the announcement of Lieberman as Deputy Prime Minister
in the following way in a press release:
"The Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for the Arab Citizens of
Israel, calls upon the international community to act against Prime
Minister Olmert's coalition agreement with Yesrael Beitino and Avigdor
Lieberman's appointment as minister for strategic threats, deputy
prime minister and member of the security cabinet. Lieberman's
racist propaganda and platform to transfer the Arab community of
Israel are blatant violations of human rights, contradicting not only
the international agreements signed by Israel, but the democratic
values of the state as well. With such influential political
positions, Lieberman would have a frightening amount of power to make
his outright racist position a reality at the price of the human
rights of the Arab minority in Israel."
Underlying these polemic and existential debates about political
systems is the process of time utilized by state authorities to redraw
boundaries and implement policies in the short and long term which
alter the basis of the conflict such as the construction of the
Separation Wall, the expansion of settlements and other policies which
place at their center the Judaization of the land where Arab Israelis
and Palestinians are not equal partners.
Since September 11th, the expansion of using security concerns as the
primary means of pushing forward policies which further legitimize
unequal rights is of very real concern to Palestinians and Arab
Israelis. Additionally, policies of unilateralism continue to serve
Israeli interests in the broader perspective. How the European Union
engages in these matters of human rights remains an important question.
Defenders of Israel argue that many social and political movements in
the Arab world have the destruction of Israel as their prime
organizing principle. As such, as a state which faces existential
threats within a conflict environment, Israel is justified in pursuing
policies in the name of strategic security and defense. If the
threats did not exist, Israel would not need to follow such hawkish
policies according to this view.
Furthermore, by placing normative democratic principles on to a
long-term conflict environment, they argue that such critiques are
lacking full contextualization and do not adequately acknowledge the
extent of the threats which Israel faces.
In responding to Smooha, the three state an important point:
"As shown in a wide body of literature, there is little theoretical
rationale, moral justification, historical evidence, or political
foresight in expecting that a national minority should accept unequal
status within its own homeland, especially when its minority status
within the homeland is based on its recent collective dispossession.
Considering equality as a continuum on which the constitutional
position of the subordinate group can only improve but never reach
full equality, as the model of "ethnic democracy" would have it, is an
innovation that can become a recipe for protracted social conflict.
Inequality becomes a central issue of mobilization and political
consciousness to the subordinate group that can be maintained only if
the dominant group is willing to use force as its ultimate means of
control, thus violating one of the essential ingredients of democratic
They also argue that improvements in socio-economic conditions of the
minority may in fact continue to lead to destabilization due to
increased awareness, capacity and ability to participate in public
On this basis, they make a clear point which coincides with Hungarian
dissident Istvan Bibo's theme of fear utilized in undemocratic states
as a form of coercion:
"Thus the viability of the model is, by definition, based on control
and not on consent a clear violation of democratic practice."
Other writers and thinkers, such as Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing
Consent, would argue that even Western liberal democracies have deep
structural flaws and are subject to distortions by elite formations.
Marx, Gramsci, Althusser and Foucault make similar critiques from
different perspectives. Even post-structuralist thinkers like Juergen
Habermas view the understanding of distortions in state systems as
fundamental to understanding power arrangements. However, the
baseline of appropriate assessment standards either philosophically,
theoretically or built in to international conventions has not been
thoroughly established at the practical or institutional level.
In criticizing Smooha, the three cite Alex de Toqueville's warning
against the "dangers associated with constitutional tyrrany of the
Additionally, it is their contention that it breaches the fundamental
principle of the protection of minorities. Arab Israeli citizens feel
alienated by the primarily Jewish symbols of the state including the
flag and the national anthem.
They argue that legislation which reinforces the Arab's inferior
status continues to be ratified at the political and legal level
including land development policies, housing evictions and demolitions
and restrictions on citizenship through marriage.
They also argue that the potential for upward mobility and the
establishment of rights for the Arab minority as part of an historic
evolution has limits which are irreconcilable with basic principles of
equal rights. Furthermore, settlers in occupied territories receive
at least 18 Knesset seats which is more than the number of elected
Arab Members of the Knesset. The Palestinian diaspora also lacks the
political lobbying power and acumen of the Jewish diaspora in Western
Based on the current legal framework of Arab Israeli citizens,
Yiftachtel makes the argument that Israel should be correctly
identified as an ethnocracy since it is:
" a more appropriate analytical term to account for the structure of
the Israeli political system, which is neither democratic nor
authoritarian. In ethnocratic regimes, the state is appropriated by
one ethnic group and its diasporas, relegating other groups to a
secondary type of citizenship."
In responding to Smooha's argument in support of calling Israel an
ethnic democracy, they also make the argument that the political
agenda of the Orthodox Jewry is inherently undemocratic and reliant on
religious foundations which are fundamentalist in basis. Due to the
political clout of the Orthodox Jewish community, they are able to
build a political agenda which can be perceived as undemocratic to the
Arab minority due to its impact on the minority population. This
means that classical democratic themes such as demos and ethnos are
distorted by the actual system, process and outcomes of government
That the Western media continues to support the idea that Israel is
the only democracy in the Middle East is built on a highly
questionable framework. There is a human rights problem in the entire
Middle East, including inside Israel.
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