Can Israel reconcile the paradox of being both a Jewish state and a democratic country?

In the 2009 elections for Israel’s 18th parliamentary elections, the unapologetically nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) won an additional four seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), bringing its total number to 15 and making it the third largest party in the Knesset.

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu sits next to Foreign Minister Lieberman after delivering a statement in Jerusalem
Avigdor Lieberman (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu (right) Photo credit:

The issue of Israeli Arab loyalty to the state featured predominantly in Yisreal Beiteinu’s platform, with campaign slogans such as

“No citizenship without loyalty”

“[Ahmad] Tibi [1] and [Mohammad] Barakeh [2] [both Arab-Israeli Members of the Knesset (MK) ] are more dangerous than Khaled Mashal [3] and Hassan Nasrallah [4]

“Only Avigdor Lieberman [Jewish Israeli MK] [5] understands Arabs” (as cited in Koren, 2010).

In May 2016, the ruling centre-right Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu formed a parliamentary coalition, paving the way for the latter’s entrance into the fore of Israel’s government. To sweeten the deal of this new alliance, Avigdor Liberman would replace Moshe Yaalon as the country’s defense minister, a move seen by some as controversial. Choosing Yisrael Beiteinu as coalition partner was at odds with the rumours that Isaac Herzog, head of the centre-left Zionist Union (Likud’s main opposition in the Knesset) would agree to go into coalition. Despite intense negotiations, the deal between Mr. Herzog and Mr. Netanyahu fell through. With that, one core platform of Zionist Union – advocating for more fair accommodation with the Palestinians – would no longer a government priority

By contrast, incumbent foreign minister Mr. Lieberman is viewed as a polarising political figure: demanding the death penalty for Arabs suspected of acts of terrorism; describing Arab Israeli elected members of the Knesset who meet with Hamas as “terror collaborators” and for them to also receive the death penalty; and in reference to the potential for a peace solution between Israel and Palestinians, stated: “I will not support any peace deal that will allow the return of even one Palestinian refugee to Israel”.

The growth in popularity of right wing, populist and nationalist parties in Israeli society (following the trends in many countries around the world today) and demonstrated most visibly by Yisrael Beiteinu‘s ascendance to power today, has entrenched mounting tensions between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.

period of optimism characterised the Oslo Accords of 1999 and gave many in Israel hope that there would be a new era of reconciliation and cooperation between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. However, this was subsequently quenched following the stagnation of talks between the parties. Now, it is apparent that this moribund peace process will not herald new relations between the two groups. Rather, in its place, Arab indignation over Israel’s actions during 2006 Lebanon war (Kober, 2008), the 2000 Al Alsqa riots (in which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed by Israeli police) (Bishara, 2001) and general sense of disillusionment with the self-preserving motives of Jewish majority government have led to the Arab voters increasing frustration towards Zionist parties. In recent years, the feeling of collective separatism of the Arab minority from the Jewish majority has only grown more stark (Waxman, 2012; Koren, 2010)


A Paradox in Israel’s quasi-Constitution?

Israel’s Declaration of Independence – a document that, in the absence of a Constitution, has emerged to symbolise the state’s fundamental values – promises that Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its citizens, irrespective of religion, race or sex (as cited in Herzog, Sharon & Levkin, 2008).

However today, many argue that guaranteeing full equality, while at the same time, upholding the unique Jewish nature of the state, is ultimately paradoxical and untenable. This dissonance comes into harsher focus when reviewing Israel’s past performance regarding non-Jewish minorities who claim Israeli citizenship (al Haj, 2004; Yiftachel, 1991; Rosenfield, 1978).  According to sociologist Sammy Smooha, Israel cannot be classified as an open, liberal democracy. Only if it were to relinquish all connections to its Jewish character and transform into an Israeli state for all its citizens – a state in which ethnicity is confined to the private realm, Arabs and Jews are at liberty to assimilate and a new non-religious based Israeli identity is forged – would full democracy be realised (Smooha, 1997).

This is precisely what many Isaeli Arab citizens are striving to achieve. For some, Israel is regarded as an undemocratic society, which maintains the Palestinian citizens within its borders as marginalised. By falling back on Zionist philosophy and Jewish strictures for justifying, this separation puts the state in contravention of its declared democratic nature. Many argue, such as Prof. Asher Susser, that if Zionism, as the ideology of the Jewish nation, justifies the subjugation of the Arabs, this undermines its own moral claims:

“Only if Zionism remained true to the lessons of powerlessness learned by a long-suffering people, only if it understood its own drive to liberation as entailing the commitment to the liberation of others, [can] Zionism’s moral professions be worthy of respect” (Susser, 1997; p. 14).

In extreme and sometimes inflammatory instances, the state of Israel and its core ideology, have been equated with racism (Massad, 2003), apartheid (Glaser, 2010) and perpetuating colonialism (Bareli, 2001). If Israel claims to be democratic (follows the argument) it must rid itself of undemocratic systems and engage in de-ethnicisation, de-Judaisation, and de-Zionisation in all aspects of the state in order to ensure coexistence and a full realisation of all citizens’ social and economic equality (Smoocha, 1990; Don Yehiya, 1998).


“Refugees in their own homeland”

Many Arab-Israeli citizens today were individuals who remained in Israeli territory during the 1948 war. Some argue that they were “refugees in their own homeland” (Bilsky, 2009, p. 4), as they were unable to return to their original homes (Rekhass, 2002).

Following the foundation of Israeli state, the internally displaced Arab population comprised a sizeable number; estimates today put the figure at 150,000 (Cohen, 2000). Before Israel’s creation, there was no policy explicitly articulated or debated by the Jewish community in the early 1900s over the fact that a Jewish state would be established with an Arab minority. There was no policy in place to acknowledge that the foundation of the state also resulted in the dispossession of natives, or acknowledge the Arab population’s historical narrative of the Naqba (Frisch, 2003). The state granted the Arab communities that remained within the newly established Israeli borders citizenship upon Israel’s creation.

Since its foundations, the new Israeli state pursued opposed government policies: one based on democracy and individual parity, the other on security and Arab containment (Azran, 2011). Many Arab Israelis are incensed by the double-standards apparent in many of Israeli government’s policies.


Law of Return vs Right to Retutn

One of the most contested is the Law of Return (Khalidi, 1992). This act of legislature grants every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel and automatically receive citizenship upon arrival (provision is also extended to their spouses, children, grandchildren, and all their spouses). This Law of Return qualifies as one of the most visible manifestations of the Jewish nature of the state; its raison d’etre as a homeland for the globally dispersed Jewish nation.

Conversely, Arab Israelis can only get citizenship by birth or naturalisation after meeting certain criteria (Shachar, 1999). Their sustained appeal for Palestinian “Right to Return” to their pre-1948 homes has never been actualised for many reasons. The government cite security reasons (Smooha & Don Peretz, 1982), and others infer the refusal to be due to the perceived demographic threat posed by Arab populations to the Jewish character of the state (see Yonah, 2004).


Land Day, 1976

This fear in the psyche of the Israeli Jews regarding a potential Arab population takeover was high in the 1970s. It led to widespread state supported expropriating of Arab land and allocating it as Jewish settlements in the (largely Arab) areas along the state’s borders in Galilee and northern Negev throughout the the 1970s (Falah, 2003).

These unilateral actions sparked riots and a harsh government clamp down led to the death of six Israeli Arabs on March 30, 1976. This even became known as Land Day and has been annually commemorated by Arabs every year. This clash, in conjunction with Hadash [6] election victories in 1975 (Jalal, 2006), this precipitated an upsurge of Palestinian nationalist sentiment, which had been fermenting under the surface since the 1940s (Zayyad, 1976).

This decade demarcated an important crossroads in Jewish-Palestinian relations in Israel (Koren, 1994; Yiftachel, 1999b). As both a Jewish and democratic country, regardless of its prevailing synagogue-state relations, Israel was conscious of the need for a Jewish majority population to maintain its Jewish power in the Knesset through democratic elections (Smooha, 2002).

However, right wing and nationalist parties have been arguing that current levels of population growth in (politically franchised) Arab citizenry are alarming and will challenge Israel’s future as a Jewish state (Mustafa & Ghanem, 2010). This ethno-nationalist platform rallies support around continued settlements in the Occupied Territories initiated by Likud – but now their support is becoming muted – and surge in support for policies such as the “Lieberman Plan”. This proposed policy plan involves swapping Arab territories for Jewish settlements (Waxman, 2012). In November 2104, Lieberman advocated giving economic incentives for Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population, to give up their Israeli citizenship and leave the country.


Israeli Arabs in the political process

In contrast to the Arab populations in the Occupied Territories, Israeli Arab citizens have politicised, rather than radicalised, moving from protest to strategic voting in Knesset elections (Lustick, 2000). The increase in Arab representatives in the Knesset (with most recent general election showing the number of Arab MKs jumping from 12 to 17) illustrates the increase in political literacy and adoption of democratic norms by the Arab populace.

Finding their own political voice had been a gradual development, but the mid 1970s was a turning point in terms of Arab political expression. The Israeli government ended military rule over Arab population in 1966, under which they had endured restrictions on the freedom of movement, freedom of press and “legal” state expropriation of Arab land and property. The 1970s witnessed a new Arab leadership. Politically-minded institutions, such as the National Committee for Arab Local Authorities, were established (Reiter, 2009).

A decade after the abolition of emergency rule, the Arab minority in Israel developed its political institutions, began advocating for rights, struggled for economic advancement (Rosenfeld, 1978) and a change in government policies toward them as a minority group (Frisch, 1995; Frisch, 1997).


Accepting the sovereign state of the Jewish people

In 1985, the Knesset Basic Law was established. One article of the Law prohibits a list of candidates from contending in Knesset elections any one candidate refuses to recognise the state of Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people.

For Arabs, this provision prevents any potential to politically contest the Jewish nature of the state. The Basic Law ensures that the Jewish-Zionist nature of the state into “an incontrovertible fact” that cannot be renegotiated democratically (Kretzmer, 1987).

The binding incontestability of Israel as the homeland of Jews, including Diaspora Jews from all over the world, but not necessarily of its citizens, (including native Arab populations) causes dissonance in the identity formation of many Israeli-Arabs (Oren, 2010). By relegating their status to one of invisible outsiders, this propagates the sense for them that Israel is not their state (Smooha, 1990).

Member of Knesset (MK) Avigdor Lieberman submitted an appeal to prohibit Arab lists, preventing them from running for the 18th Knesset in the 2009 elections. Based on the Basic Law, Lieberman claimed that these parties ran on the platform of denying the existence of Israel as a Jewish state (Koren, 2010). This motion was approved by the Central Elections Committee, but thrown out by the Supreme Court, arguing that this action would disenfranchise Arab parties who are willing to comply with the Basic Law.

Israel’s government justifies its constraints on Arab political and national self-expression as an unavoidable necessity to ensure Jewish national survival (Gavison, 2011). As the purpose of the establishment of a Jewish State was to end the historical vulnerability of the Jewish people, whom they contend were persecuted unlike any other people in history, the Israeli government defends the uniqueness of a Jewish state as necessary.

National security has routinely been the justification for undemocratic practices and disproportionate sanctions targeting Arab Israelis. These inculcate perceptions among many Israeli Jews that Arab Israelis as disloyal to the state (Ben Yehuda, 1997), harbouring latent secessionist ideation (Smooha, 1994) and ultimately constitute an “enemy affiliated” minority (Smooha, 2002), or even potential fifth column (Cohen, 2010) living within Israel’s borders.

There are, however, ample indications to negate Israeli Jew’s pervasive suspicion of their fellow Arab citizens. Terrorism against Israeli Jews tends to be roundly condemned by Israel Arabs, far more than by Palestinians in Occupied Territories (Susser, 1997). Furthermore, the acceptance of Israel’s right to exist obtains higher support from Israeli Arabs, compared to Arabs under Palestinian Authority (Smooha, 1990; Rouhana, 1998).

Even more indicative: although the Intifada were deeply discomfiting to Israeli Arabs and the Arab Israelis demonstrated solidarity with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the violence in the West Bank and Gaza did not extend across the Green Line into Israel itself. Although nationally incensed, Israeli Arabs remained civically restrained, choosing to demonstrate their solidarity through strikes (Rouhana, 1990). Additionally, a common trend in opinion surveys of Israeli-Arabs is their desire to remain citizens of Israel in the event of a Palestinian state being established, citing better political freedoms, standard of living and economic opportunities as reasons (Yiftachel, 1999a).


Institutionalised inequality?

As a manifestation of the instutionalised inequality that disadvantages Arab citizens, Israeli Jews have endorsed practices of institutional and financial favouritism by the state. Following mandatory military service, many Israelis receive generous financial assistance (Smooha, 1990) and this usually extends to their families. The state requires most Jews serve in the army However, most Arabs are exempt for various reasons, spanning from fear of anti-Israeli infiltration in the ranks, to that fact that demanding Arab Israelis to serve could result in them fighting against family in Arab countries (Kanaaneh, 2003). This exemption from military service blocks  Arab-Israeli access to financial benefits  and this translated into diminished opportunity for the level of social mobility that Jewish Israeli enjoy (Lewin & Stier, 2002)

Unfair allocation of funds and provision of unequal services by governmental offices are quite common. In fact, it become a platform from which many Arab members of the Knesset begin their parliamentary negotiations. They argue that proportionate allocation of the state’s funds is a vital part of treating all citizens equally. The Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund are influential Jewish institutes that were carried over from pre-state years. They perform quasi-governmental functions in Israeli society, including funding community projects, supporting cultural enterprises and the development of lands (Smooha, 1990). Their mission statements and internal governing practices constrict them to offering services to Jews (Humphreys, 2009). At the same time, analogous Arab associations are hindered from raising funds or establishing a sphere of influence in their communities because of ingrained suspicion by Jewish Israelis they would receive money from ‘enemy organisations’ (Smooha, 1997). As a result of this, Israeli Arabs tend to be marginalised economically, offered little by way of state funded investment in essential services or community infrastructure. Furthermore, there is evidence that they face prejudice in labour markets (Mesch & Stier, 1997; Lewin & Stier, 2000).

In conclusion, he Arab citizens in Israel today comprise approximately 205 of the state’s population. There are  almost 1.4 million Arab citizens, as well as 300,000 inhabitants of East Jerusalem who are Israeli permanent residents, not citizens.Tensions between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs are prevalent in both Israeli political spheres and also in the institutionalised practices of the Jewish-dominated government. Issues such as unfair distribution of government funds in favour of Jewish citizens, the application of the Law of Returns to Jews from all over the world (while refusal to allow Palestinians the Right of Return following 1948 displacement/expulsion from their homes), these ultimately highlight the incompatibility of a democratic state model (which views all citizens as equal) with the inherent Jewish character of the state, (with its deep connection with worldwide Jewry seen as part of the Jewish nation).

This results in the relegation of Arab Israelis to outside the scope of Israeli national identity, confining the expression of their connection to the state merely as minimalist-level citizens. The increasingly right wing and nationalist Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition government is engendering constant struggle for Arab citizens of Israel to gain equal rights and legitimate recognition as a national minority.



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[1] Ahmad Tibi is an Arab-Israeli MK and leader of the Arab Movement for Change party, an Arab party in the Knesset

[2] Mohammad Barakeh is an Arab-Israeli MK and General Secretary of the Hadash party, an Arab party in the Knesset

[3] Khaled Mashal is a Palestinian politician and the leader of Hamas political bureau

[4] Hassan Nasrallah is a Lebanese politician and  Secretary General of Hezbollah

[5] Avigdor Lieberman is a Jewish-Israeli politician and Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Knesset

[6] Nationalist Palestinian party, which calls for a two-state solution, settling the Palestinian refugee question and advocating social equality for Israeli Arabs.

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