ISRAEL: Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine

By Peled, Yoav | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

ISRAEL: Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine


Peled, Yoav, The Middle East Journal


ISRAEL Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine, by Oren Yiftachel. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, xi + 294 pages. Appendix to p. 300. Notes to p. 309. Refs. to p. 334. Index to p. 350. $69.95.

Reviewed by Yoav Peled

As a Jewish state by self-definition, Israel cannot be a liberal democracy. A liberal democracy must accord equal individual citizenship rights to all of its citizens, regardless of ascriptive affiliation; for its selfdefinition to have any meaning, a state that defines itself as Jewish must privilege Jews in one way or another. These two principles of citizenship are thus incompatible. The theoretically interesting debate in Israel has been, therefore, over the question of whether Israel can be described as an "ethnic democracy," or is in reality a non-democratic "ethnocracy."

The "ethnic democracy" thesis was introduced by sociologist Sammy Smooha in 1990, and "ethnocracy" was offered as a counter-thesis by Oren Yiftachel shortly afterwards. The book under review is the culmination of Yiftachel's work on the concept of "ethnocracy" during the past 15 years.

Yiftachel uses a thick definition of democracy in order to argue that Israel should not be characterized as such. His definition includes equal and inclusive citizenship, civil rights, protection of minorities, and periodic, universal, and free elections. He argues persuasively that "despite the complex understanding of democracy, we must acknowledge that below a certain level, and with structural and repeated deviations from basic democratic principles ... 'democracy' is no longer a credible classification" (pp. 91-92).

However, Yiftachel's unit of analysis is not the State of Israel within its internationally recognized borders, but rather the Israeli control system that encompasses both the sovereign State of Israel and the Palestinian territories it has occupied for the past 40 years. He argues that

'Israel proper'... simply does not exist, since it is impossible to define 'Israel' as a spatial unit, and it is difficult to define the boundaries of its body-politic ... Israel operates as a polity without borders. This undermines a basic requirement of democracy - the existence of a 'demos' (pp. 96-97).

Yiftachel, a political geographer, also stresses "the dynamics of Israel's political geography, which have caused the state to radically change its demography, alter patterns of ethnic territorial control, rupture state borders, incorporate Jewish and block Palestinian diasporas, and form strong links between religion, territory and ethnicity" (p. 100). He concludes that it is the Jewish ethnos, not the Israeli demos, that rules the Jewish state, which therefore should be defined as an ethnocracy, rather than a democracy.

Yiftachel's argument is forceful and suggestive, as attested by its wide acceptance among students of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by Palestinian political activists in Israel. However, his rejection of the distinction between the sovereign State of Israel and the Israeli control system renders the debate about Israel's democratic character superfluous. …

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