The Paradox Of Israel: A Jewish, Yet Democratic State

Published on July 13, 2009, 4:29 pm
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The clash of divergent nationalisms within the same territory culminated in the establishment of a sovereign state by one nation, but rendered the other a splintered population devoid of a nation-state. After centuries of a scattered existence in Diaspora, the Jewish people rejoiced as the Zionist project achieved the creation of their own state, safeguarded from the perils of anti-Semitism.

The celebration of the Jewish people, however, constituted the demise of the Palestinians. Upon declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, many Arab natives fled. Prohibited from returning, the Palestinians were relegated to an existence either as refugees in neighboring Arab lands or as a minority population within the new state of Israel. This mass exodus of Palestinians and the previous and continual arrival of hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants converted an Arab population that once comprised the majority into a minority. Hence, the Arab minority in Israel identifies with the majority population of the greater region, as the Jewish majority in Israel constitutes a minority in the Middle East.

The identities and loyalties of the Arab citizens of Israel are varied and contradictory, as they may dually identify with their Arab lineage and also as an Israeli. Israel’s national security policies adverse to its Arab neighbors have created dissension among the Arab minority, obfuscating the possibility of their full integration into Israeli society.

Democratic tenets, security, and the preservation of Jewish identity form the cornerstones of Israeli society. A democratic form of governance provides a conduit for a minority to garner representation in government. In Israel’s case, a growing minority disparate in culture, language, and religion from the Jewish majority threatens to undermine the founding principles of the Jewish state. The Arab minority in Israel that currently comprises approximately 20% of the population is steadily increasing, signaling a potential demographic dilemma. As this Arab population grows, so will their representation in government and ability to effect legislation and policy, endangering Israel’s societal foundations and existence as a Jewish state. Suppression of the growing Arab population and their legal rights undermines democratic precepts and values, but allowing them to flourish will erode the Jewish state’s founding principles and threaten its very existence.

The future political landscape of Israel is contingent upon demographic changes resulting from immigration, emigration, and birth rates. We cannot assuredly predict the proportion of Jews to Arabs at a point in the projected future given multiple variables in play. However, the Israeli government will surely opt to protect the Jewish nature of the state against a growing segment adverse to its founding principles. If Israel is to respond to an impending demographic dilemma, a range of policy options exists—some constitute a less democratic nature than others. The most prominent issues commanding the world’s attention relate to the territories and the prospect of a Palestinian state. Israel is engaged in a complex cost-benefit analysis regarding the future of the territories: Occupation provides a greater defensive buffer zone and will allow justified expansion of Jewish settlements, but incorporating the approximately 2.9 million Palestinians living in the territories into the state of Israel will outright dilute the Jewish majority. Annexing the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a part of Israel while concurrently protecting the Jewish nature of the state would require denying citizenship and voting rights to the Arabs—a clear violation of democratic principles. From Israel’s perspective, the prospect of a one state solution, therefore, is meager. Ergo, to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state necessitates the continuation of a clear Jewish majority and strict control of Arab population growth.

Various solutions to preempt the demographic dilemma emanate from Knesset members, interest groups, organizations, and also constitute political party platforms. Ultranationalist parties Moledet and Kach have advocated for the relocation of Arabs living in the territories to Arab countries. Modelet had won seats in several elections, but Kach was disqualified in 1988 for racist rhetoric against the Arabs.1 A survey conducted in 2004 capturing the sentiments of Israeli-Jews revealed that a majority supports instituting incentive programs to prompt Israeli-Arabs to emigrate, while close to a third supports transfer policies.2 Avigdor Lieberman, currently Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, announced: “There is nothing undemocratic about transfer.” Lieberman supports Palestinian statehood with the stipulation that territory within Israel near the Green Line, predominantly inhabited by Arabs, be incorporated into such a state in exchange for annexing West Bank Jewish settlement blocs. Transferring the Israeli-Arabs to the jurisdiction of a Palestinian state will effectively render their Israeli citizenship void. Originally proposed in 2002 by MK Efraim Sneh, this policy of “stationary transfer” manipulates borders “to create a better ethnic political geography.”3 Similarly, Shimon Peres announced in 2001 while serving as Foreign Minister that “territorial compromise is absolutely necessary for maintaining a firm Jewish majority and hence a democracy in Israel. The only other option is a binational state, and the loss of our proud democratic tradition.”4

Minority groups have particular leverage in a democracy. Not only are they protected from marginalization and suppression as a constitutional right, but minorities are empowered with voting privileges to influence state policy and attain representation in government. Population growth of an ethnic segment portends political shifts, most evident in a democratic form of governance. As the Arab population of Israel increases, so will their representation in government and ability to influence legislation and policy. In effect, the Arab citizens of Israel may utilize the electoral system as a conduit to effect change, endangering Israel’s societal foundations and existence as a Jewish state. Consequently, preserving and maintaining the Jewish nature of the state constitutes the most salient issue on Israel’s political agenda.

The culture of Israel and the national identity of its citizens are to a large extent forged by the pervasive security concern that has existed since the dawn of the state. The state of Israel was founded as a place for Jews to call their own, and furthermore, as a safe haven from the perils of anti-Semitism. The creation of Israel in the Middle East has not been well received by Arab nations, and hence Israel faces foes threatening its existence on every frontier. As a result, an enormous portion of Israel’s governmental budget is allocated to national defense. Such taxing defense challenges not only characterize the political culture, but also constitute the foundation of the Israeli political system. The likelihood of Israel to, first, allow the Jewish nature of the state to vanish, and second, allow the Arabs to serve in government to partake in national security decision-making is dubious, perhaps even more accurate to say, inconceivable. The fruits of the Zionists’ efforts and the triumph of the amazing feat of creating a state—the object of so many nationalist movements never to arrive at fruition—will no doubt be defended vigorously. Israel will fight for its existence—for the continuation of its state only sixty years old. Ergo, Israel will not—cannot—become an egalitarian state for fear its existence will be endangered by a segment of its population adverse to its founding principles. By adhering to the dictates of democracy, and thereby incorporating an Arab population that shares a similar identity with the enemy into a multi-ethnic society, Israel risks compromising its security—and its existence if this segment proves adverse to the security interests of the state of Israel. To illustrate, the December 2008 incursion into Gaza by the IDF was fervently protested by Israel’s Arab population, signaling a dichotomy of policy and national security concerns between Israeli-Arabs and Israeli-Jews. For this reason alone, even if the policy objectives of the Israeli-Arabs are congruent with the Israeli-Jews, Israel is not willing to take the chance that they may indeed turn out to be contrary.

Operating as a Jewish and “democratic” state has overall yielded a politically stable society, given a fairly quiescent Arab segment comprising approximately twenty percent. But can Israel sustain that stability with a growing Arab population demanding full realization of equal rights? Will the Arab community remain on the periphery of Israeli politics or achieve a united front for collective political action? Institution-building at the local level may mold a more organized force and engender a heightened political consciousness. Levels of solidarity, awareness, political participation, and leadership will indicate if the Arab citizens of Israel will make headway in their struggle for development and equality. The defect of Israel’s democracy—favoring the majority ethnic group—will trigger a fissure at some point in the future, precipitated by the political mobilization and/or growth of the Arab population. The likelihood of recognizing the Jewish nature of a democratic state as legitimate certainly becomes less probable with a growing Arab population. How will Israel reconcile the conflicting objectives of preserving both its Jewish and democratic nature? In accordance with democratic precepts, a state cannot deny citizenship to an ethnic group within its borders or refuse voting privileges. But if Israel is to persist as a Jewish state, it will be compelled to amend its system of governance, imposing rules or laws suppressing the electoral clout of the Arab population—and therefore compromising its democratic nature.

How this paradox arrives at a resolution may not be found by solely abstracting the conditions within Israel itself; a more precise evaluation must be extended to include the greater region. Various policy options only consider outcomes arising from the interaction between the Israeli government and its Arab citizens, in effect isolating and detaching the internal relations of Israel from everything with which it is inexorably connected. Any change, adjustment, or transformation in the greater Middle East (and beyond for that matter) will inevitably affect Israel to varying degrees. Regional actors, regime change, war, conflict, peace deals, revolutions, U.S. foreign policy, and economic conditions all have the capability to engender a shift in the regional landscape. Resolution to these contradictions, then, may emanate from changes in the region, not within Israel per se. Wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors may engender a heightened or renewed sense of national consciousness among the Israeli-Arabs, causing further discontent between Israel and its Arab citizens. Alternatively, progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, for example, can propel the issue of the Israeli-Arabs to a more urgent position on the national agenda.

1 Arian, Asher. Politics in Israel: The Second Republic. Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2005. Pg 146.

2 Ibid., pg 439.

3 Yiftachel, Oren. “The Shrinking Space of Citizenship: Ethnocratic Politics in Israel.” Middle East Report. 223 (2002): 38-45 Page 42.

4 Ibid., pg 40.

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