An ethnocracy or multiethnic democracy?

One of the newest code words for condemning Israel is describing the state as an “ethnocracy.”

March 2, 2010 21:34
4 minute read.
A Jew and Arab girls cross paths in Sheikh Jarrah.

sheikh jarrah jews arabs 311. (photo credit: Sarah Levin)

One of the newest code words for condemning Israel is describing the state as an “ethnocracy” or “ethnocratic settler state.” According to a widespread definition, an ethnocracy is “a form of government where representatives of a particular ethnic group hold a number of government posts disproportionately large to the percentage of the total... and use them to advance the position of their particular ethnic group(s) to the detriment of others.”

Israel, according to those who accuse the state of fitting this description, joins apartheid South Africa, Uganda under Idi Amin, Sudan, Rwanda, Estonia, Latvia, Serbia and Malaysia. It also joins former “settler regimes” such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia and French Algeria. Unsurprisingly Israel is set alongside regimes that ceased to exist, apartheid South Africa being one example, but Australia during the period of the “white Australia policy” (when preferred immigrants were confined to Europeans) being another.

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Those who speak of Israel as an ethnocracy therefore insinuate that the current manifestation of the Jewish state will soon be abolished or destroyed, like French Algeria, or repent for its racist sins like South Africa.

THE NEW ethnocratic slander appears to have its origins, sadly, in grants given by the Israel Academy of Sciences. In 2002 Alexander (Sandy) Kedar of the University of Haifa received a grant from the Israeli Science Foundation which was founded by the Israel Academy of Sciences. His proposal was for research into “The Rise of a New Land Regime: Changes in Israeli Legal Geography 1992-2002” and he received the grant for four years with Prof. Oren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University. In the same year he received a grant from the French Embassy’s Center for Cultural Cooperation for research comparing Israel to the French regime in Algeria.

In 2003 Kedar published some of his initial research, titled “On the legal geography of ethnocratic settler states: notes towards a research agenda,” in a journal called Current Legal Issues. Kedar focused his research initially on the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He writes of the Jews forming an “ethno-class” stratification and the Arabs being an “indigenous” group akin to Native Americans.

He perverts historical fact by claiming that Israel committed “Judaization” of the land whereby Jews came to control 93 percent of the land of Israel. This relies on the unreasonable claim that only 13.5% of the land of Israel was publicly owned in 1948; in fact the actual percentage was closer to 50%. Because Kedar sees the Jews and the state as one and the same, he falsely believes that all of the land of Israel in the hands of the state is open to all the Jews, while the Arabs supposedly only retain 7%, ignoring the fact that such public lands as national parks are open to all.

Yiftachel has developed the theory of Israeli ethnocracy in his own setting. He published a book in 2006 entitled Ethnocracy: Land and Identity in Israel/Palestine. A mundane description of the book notes that “the notion of ethnocracy suggests a political regime that facilitates expansion and control by a dominant ethnicity in contested lands. It is neither democratic nor authoritarian, with rights and capabilities depending primarily on ethnic origin and geographic location.”

In Middle East Report Yiftachel wrote that the development of Israel was based on “the ‘return’ of Jews to their ancestors’ mythical land” and notes that “I argue that the Israeli polity is governed not by a democratic regime, but rather by an ‘ethnocracy.’”

The claim that Israel is an ethnocracy thus is part and parcel of the larger claim being bandied about that Israel is not a democratic state and that it is either supposedly sliding toward totalitarianism or has already reached that point.

As part of this narrative, the Palestinians inevitably receive formerly “Jewish” qualities such as Yiftachel’s descriptions of them living in a form of “ghetto citizenship... Arab citizenship in Israel has been structurally constrained by the state’s ethnocratic regime and the associated hegemonic Judaization project.”

has also been employed by Tel Aviv University’s Shlomo Sand in his infamous book The Invention of the Jewish People in which he claims the notion of a modern Jewish people is a farce, that the exile was a myth and that most Jews have no connection to the historic Jews of Roman times or before. Oddly Sand claims that the UK is an example of a multiethnic state (ignoring years of struggle by the Irish, Scottish and Welsh to free themselves of British Anglican domination) and that Israel is an ethnocracy (even though he argues that the Jews in Israel are not a single nation but rather descendants of Khazars, Arabs and all manner of flotsam and jetsam groups).

The vast majority of research into the notion of ethnocracy now views Israel as the key example of this label. Egypt, which allocates resources entirely to Muslims and ignores the Christian Copts, or the United Arab Emirates, whose population is a majority non-Arab foreign workers but whose government and citizenship is reserved only for Muslim Arabs, are never mentioned as examples.

Israel, one of the most diverse states in the world, which does not ban minarets or burkas as they attempt to do in Europe, is of course described negatively as an “ethnocracy” and the UK, which has more closed-circuit surveillance cameras per person than any country in the world, is a model multiethnic democracy. Tragically it is primarily a libel of Israel’s own making, developed by the state’s most dynamic young Jewish scholars and funded by the Jewish state.

And isn’t that, in itself, evidence to the contrary?

The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.

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