Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Israel as Ethnic Democracy: What Are the Implications for the Palestinian Minority?

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Israel as Ethnic Democracy: What Are the Implications for the Palestinian Minority?

Article excerpt


THE QUESTIONS OF DEMOCRACY, citizenship, equality and domination are of crucial importance for the understanding of minority-majority relations in deeply divided societies. One of the main issues in multi-ethnic states which is still awaiting further exploration, research and theorization is: To what extent can democracy, in such societies, serve as a useful framework for abolishing or containing the various forms of a majority's domination -- political, cultural or socio-economic?

In Israel where the state is legally considered to be both Jewish and democratic, Israeli social scientists tended, until recently, to underplay the inherit contradiction in this definition, arguing that Israel is part of the enlightened, civilized and liberal Western-world, although geographically located in a region known for its infamous characteristics of despotism, irrationality and backwardness. Yet, this demagogic line of explanation could not hold forever, as in Israel lives a remnant of the indigenous Palestinian population. In 1997 they numbered about one million (within the pre-1967 Green Line), comprising 19 percent of Israel's population. The legitimacy and the proclaimed raison d'[hat{e}]tre of Israel as a state that attends to the needs and interests of the Jewish people -- both its citizens and those who reside in other countries -- relegate these Palestinians to a status of second class citizens, thus violating the principles of equality and shared citizenry which lie at the heart of the dem ocratic experience.

Recently, Sammy Smooha, a leading sociologist from Haifa University, offered the model of "Ethnic Democracy" as an explanatory scheme for the nature of the Israeli regime and the majority-minority relations. At the heart of this model -- which has been at the center of lively academic and public debate in Israel since 1990 -- lies the argument that the domination of the state by the Jewish majority and the nature of Israel as a tool for the achievement of Jewish goals are not opposed to the principles of democracy. The aim of this article is to locate this model in the framework of the general debate on Jewish-Palestinian relations in Israel, and to offer a critical appraisal. The main argument advanced in this paper is that Smooha's contentions represent continuity rather than a break from the mainstream scholarship in Israel as articulated by the modernization paradigm. His model of ethnic democracy does not offer any solution to the inherent contradiction between the particularistic nature of Zionism/the Israeli state on the one hand and its use of universalistic legitimizing discourse on the other.


Since the inception of the Zionist movement its leaders have been repeatedly confronted with the unavoidable "Arab problem", not least because the indigenous population has been able to resist. One solution that has been propagated by the Zionist leadership is the idea of transfer. [1] It even preceded the creation of the Zionist movement. Herzl reflected on the idea of transfer, and included it in his memoires in 1895, [2] two years before the convening of the first Zionist congress. Although the idea of transfer was popular among the Zionist leaders during the Mandate period, in their discussions with British and European politicians, they -- mainly the leaders of socialist Zionism -- tended to avoid dwelling on the demographic make-up of Palestine while emphasizing instead the nature of Zionism as a "progressive colonization." [3] The Zionist leaders used a western European discourse of "progress," "universalism," "the right for self-determination," and various forms of worker-ist theories, which have the ir roots in the enlightenment for rallying support, but Zionism itself was an ethnic exclusionist movement. Thus, a gap has already existed since the beginning between the nature of Zionism and the discourse used to support its claims. …

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