Test of Equal Citizenship: Israel between Jewish Ethnocracy and Bi-National Democracy

By Rouhana, Nadim N. | Harvard International Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Test of Equal Citizenship: Israel between Jewish Ethnocracy and Bi-National Democracy


Rouhana, Nadim N., Harvard International Review


NADIM N. ROUHANA is Associate Professor in the Graduate Program in Dispute Resolution at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

The view that Israel is a democracy--more specifically a Western-style liberal democracy--is generally taken for granted by the vast majority of its Jewish citizens, political elites, and scholars. In international scholarly and political communities, Israel is often referred to as the only democracy in the Middle East. Israel is defined as a "Jewish state," and in Israel, the political, scholarly, legal, and public discourse on the issue refers to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state." Indeed, one of the main arguments that was advanced in recent years by the Israeli left for withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza was the preservation of this dual character of Israel.

A Constitutional Contradiction

However, there is a fundamental contradiction between being a Jewish state (in the sense of being the state of the Jewish people) and a democracy. The contradiction is inherent in Israel's exclusive ethnic superstructure and its bi-national reality--in other words, between being a constitutionally ethnic Jewish state and a democratic state which belongs to all its citizens regardless of ethnicity. This contradiction, which until recently had been concealed under Israel's security preoccupation and the concomitant acquiescence and uncertainty of a small and firmly controlled population of Arab citizens, is becoming increasingly evident in the face of rising demands for equality and inclusion by a less complacent and rapidly growing Arab population.

At the core of the contradiction is the question of equal citizenship for Jews and non-Jews alike, which will increasingly become one of Israel's main challenges. The way this issue will be handled and ultimately resolved will affect not only the state's identity, but also the nature of its government, political culture--and perhaps most importantly--its internal stability and territorial integrity. Furthermore, while the specific political manifestations of this contradiction will be influenced by the future of the "peace process" with the Palestinian Authority and the future jurisdiction over the West Bank and Gaza, the issue itself is likely to assume an increasingly important position in the state's domestic agenda.

Israel is defined de jure as "Jewish state," but it is de facto a bi-national state--an Arab-Jewish state--in many respects. The most straightforward evidence of its bi-national reality can be seen in the demographic structure of the population of Israel within its 1967 borders. According to estimates of the Israeli Bureau of Statistics, the Arab population (which, excluding the Arab residents of East Jerusalem, accounts for more than 16 percent of the total population) will number about one million by the year 2000. Despite the higher birth rate among Arabs, the percentage of Arab citizens in Israel has remained at about the same level since 1948 due to immigration and naturalization laws explicitly designed to bring as many Jews and as few non-Jews as possible into the country. If East Jerusalem Arabs are added to the above numbers, every fifth person is an Arab. Thus, in demographic terms, Israel is as binational as South Africa, Sri Lanka, or Turkey (with 14-18 percent of the population made up of Europeans, Tamils, and Kurds in each country respectively).

The bi-national reality is also evident in the human geography of the country. Of the about 125 towns and cities in Israel with more than 5,000 residents, about 40 percent are Arab. The mostly unplanned physical expansion of the Arab community lays the groundwork for Arab metropolitan areas in parts of Galilee and the Triangle. In addition, many Arabs live in mixed Arab-Jewish cities such as Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Lydda, Ramle, and even Upper Nazareth, which was established after 1948 as a Jewish city.

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