Pretending Democracy: Israel, an Ethnocratic State - Book Review, Jadaliyya

By Jadaliyya

Na’eem Jeenah, editor, Pretending Democracy: Israel, An Ethnocratic State. Johannesburg: Afro-Middle East Centre, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you publish this book?

Na’eem Jeenah (NJ): The book emerged out of a conference organized by the Afro-Middle East Centre and which was held in Pretoria, South Africa. The conference brought together important scholars who have being thinking and writing about the issue of the nature of the Israeli state, those who are affected by this, and also ways in which to move beyond the ethnocratic state that Israel is towards a future that can address the injustices that have been heaped on Palestinians by Israel’s Zionist policies and practices. In conceptualizing the conference we were determined that the critical ideas emerging from it should be collected into a book. The book is really an attempt by the Afro-Middle East Centre to provide some fresh thinking on what the Israeli state is, what it pretends to be, and how that can be changed.

J: Who are the contributors to the book?

NJ: Ali Abunimah, Neville Alexander, Max du Plessis, Steven Friedman, Daryl Glaser, Ran Greenstein, Heidi Grunebaum, Adam Habib, Na'eem Jeenah, Ronnie Kasrils, Smadar Lavie, Fouad Moughrabi, Nadim N. Rouhana, Shlomo Sand, Avi Shlaim, Azzam Tamimi, Salim Vally, Oren Yiftachel, and Andre Zaaiman.

J: What particular themes and issues does it address?

NJ: The book is divided into four parts: “Israel and its Founding Myths”; “The Ethnic State and its Victims”; “Comparative Ethnic Nationalisms”; and “Beyond Ethnic Nationalism.”

The first part includes chapters by Shlomo Sand and Avi Shlaim, which lay the basis for the following chapters, about Jewish nationhood, nationalism, and Israeli statehood. Sand critically examines the notion that Jews belong to a single nation with a common ancestry. He suggests that the “Jewish nation” is, in fact, a recent invention created for political purposes. Shlaim examines some of the issues that characterized debates among early Zionists and concludes that on matters of principle, strategy, and tactics there were few significant differences between the “right” and the “left.”

Part Two covers issues related to the victims of the Israeli state, their plight, and ways of progressing beyond the situation of victimhood. Ran Greenstein explores the meaning and implications of the notion that Israel is an ethnic state; Oren Yiftachel builds on his contention in earlier writings that Israel is an ethnocracy; Max du Plessis, who was a member of a research team that investigated Israel’s actions from the perspective of international law, writes about the findings of that study and its conclusion that Israel’s actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory constitute occupation, colonialism, and apartheid. He argues that a case should be made against Israel in the International Court of Justice. Nadim Rouhana’s chapter about Palestinian citizens of Israel argues for reconciliation—including redress for past injustices—between Jewish and Palestinian citizens. The final chapter in this part, by Smadar Lavie, looks at Jewish victims of Zionism—particularly Mizrahi Jews.

Part Three compares Jewish nationalism in Israel with other forms of nationalism. Neville Alexander discusses the national question, particularly in South Africa, providing food for thought for those trying to succeed where South Africa seems to be failing. Andre Zaaiman writes about his personal experience of growing up with Afrikaner nationalism and compares that to Jewish nationalism. Daryl Glaser discusses Israel, South Africa, and Ulster as “settler democracies.” Adam Habib reflects on the role of the international community in South Africa and Israel, arguing that ethnic states are unsustainable. Heidi Grunebaum examines South African Zionism through the Jewish National Fund. In his chapter, Ronnie Kasrils applies the lens of “colonialism of a special type”—previously employed by the South African Communist Party—to analyze the Palestinian-Israeli situation.

The last part of the book looks at the theme “Beyond Ethnic Nationalism,” and points to possible future solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli question. Azzam Tamimi presents a Palestinian Islamist perspective on future possibilities, focusing particularly on Hamas. Steven Friedman argues that the notion of Jews living as a minority in a future single state with a Palestinian majority is not a shocking prospect. Jewish survival, he asserts, does not hinge on a “Jewish state.” Fouad Moughrabi suggests that there is “radical hope” in the cultural activities of young Palestinians. Ali Abunimah suggests that the South African experience of ending apartheid might be useful in pointing towards a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli question and argues for a peaceful transition to a single democratic state in Palestine-Israel. Finally, Salim Vally and I take the one-state argument of Ali and Steven a little further, arguing that a major part of making such a solution work successfully for all its people will be a careful and thorough resolution of the national question. We suggest that the project of building a new nation may be more important for Palestinians and Israelis than resolving the question of statehood.

The book includes a foreword by South African deputy minister of international relations, Ebrahim Ebrahim.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NJ: While the book is aimed at academics and those involved in the question of Palestine and Israel, we were determined to produce a book that will be accessible to anyone that wants to unpack what the Israel state is all about.

We hope that it will help enhance scholarly debate around the nature of the Israeli state and the question of the place of ethnocracies in our world today. We also believe that the book raises debates that can contribute towards the process of finding solutions for the future of Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NJ: Two projects will come together early in 2013. The first is the re-publication of a book by Azzam Tamimi on the life of the leader of the Tunisian Ennahda movement / party, Rachid al-Ghannouchi. The book is called A Democrat Within Islamism. It’s a very timely re-publication and will include a new afterword by the author and a foreword by me.

The second project is a book on the PLO, with contributions from a range of Palestinian activists and scholars. In a sense, this book is an “internal” conversation between Palestinians, which we are allowing readers to be voyeurs to. The book was originally published in Arabic and we have translated it for an English-speaking audience.

J: What kinds of insights does your book present for Israel regarding alternative state models to an ethnocracy?

NJ: Well, to be honest, the book has not been too creative in providing a range of alternative models. There is a strong argument that the best way forward is a single democratic state whose citizens will include all Palestinians and Jewish citizens of Israel. There are also some suggestions for a binational state. In either case, the overriding idea is a democratic state where all citizens have equal rights and where there will be determined attempts at redressing the injustices of the past.

Excerpts from Pretending Democracy: Israel, An Ethnocratic State:

[There is] a duality in the Israeli state between a democratic facade and a deeper undemocratic regime logic, which facilitates the dispossession, control, and peripheralization of groups that do not belong to the dominant ethno-class. Thus the very nature of the settling ethnocracy, which combines expansion, settlement, segregation, and ethno-class stratification, militates against the effectiveness of challenges emanating from peripheral groups. The selective openness of the regime, which allows for public protest, free speech, and periodic elections, is largely an illusion: the ethnocratic regime has arranged itself politically, culturally, and geographically so as to absorb, contain, or ignore the challenge emerging from its peripheries, thereby trapping them in their respective predicaments. – Oren Yiftachel

Most Jewish Israelis and the Zionist movement across the world like to insist that Israel is what they call a “Jewish and democratic state.” Without realizing the irony or contradiction in this, they insist that both epithets—Jewish and democratic—equally apply to the Israeli state. Further, while other states define themselves for themselves and their citizens, Israelis go beyond that and insist that others recognize their state’s “Jewish and democratic” character too. The refusal of the Palestinian Authority (PA), for example, to agree to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” has been a sticking point in negotiations between the PA and the Israelis.

Israel is, in fact, as much a Jewish state and a democratic state as apartheid South Africa was a white state and a democratic state. Israel is not exclusively Jewish, and Israel is certainly not democratic. Both are pretenses upheld for political purposes—for the sake of obtaining legitimacy for the Israeli state and as an attempt to mask a form of ethnic cleansing. The truth is that Israel is an ethnocratic state; perhaps a more accurate description would be “a Jewish and ethnocratic state.”

The notion of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” requires some interrogation. The defenders of this notion go to great lengths to attempt to show that the terms “Jewish” and “democratic” are not contradictory and that a state can be ethnically based and still be democratic. It is a difficult argument to sustain.

Even though the notion of Israel being “Jewish and democratic” has been used by certain Israelis since the late 1960s (mostly by the Israeli “left”), the official use of this phrase is just two decades old. Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence mentions its Jewish character but makes no mention of democracy. It does, however, claim that the state will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex” and that it would “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture”—stipulations which, in themselves, convey a sense of democratic values—except that they have not been implemented in reality


In 1992, Israel discussed and then adopted two new Basic Laws after which the term “Jewish and democratic” entered official discourse. Known as Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation, these basic laws—especially the first—ostensibly provide for the human rights of Israeli citizens. Thus, for example, retired president of the Israeli supreme court and professor of law, Aharon Barak, argues that the two laws “serve as the Israeli equivalent of the Bill of Rights.” The first clause of the Human Dignity and Liberty Law states: “The purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” (emphasis added). The oxymoronic phrase was introduced in order to satisfy both the Jewish religious parties (which insisted on “Jewish” being explicit) and the Jewish secular parties (which insisted that “democratic” be explicit)...


If conventional wisdom is to be believed, the idea that Jews might survive culturally and physically as a minority in a Palestinian state is a dangerous fantasy. But if Jewish tradition and experience is to be believed, there is nothing odd—let alone fantastic—about the possibility.

A core Zionist assumption is that Jewish survival hinges on Jews maintaining a specifically Jewish state; without this, it is claimed, Jews face the constant threat of the genocidal violence unleashed by Nazism—or, at least, of constant persecution.


While this claim that a state is the only plausible antidote to the threat of extinction is by far the dominant Zionist concern, an ethno-nationalist state is also often held to be essential for the maintenance and expression of an authentic Jewish identity: political Zionism has, therefore, been described by some of its academic adherents as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” These assumptions are a core obstacle to a just and democratic resolution of the Palestinian conflict. Not only do they reject the notion of a single, democratic polity shared by Jews and Palestinians, they also make more limited attempts at accommodation impossible by constantly reinforcing a sense of threat within the Jewish Israeli mainstream and, as a consequence, a demand for “security” at virtually any cost to ward off the danger. This has enabled successive Israeli governments to pass off virtually any measure inimical to Palestinian interests as a “security” precaution, which may at least partly explain the continuing rightward shift in Jewish Israeli politics. Continued Palestinian resistance is portrayed as an existential threat (and its failure to disappear is seen to demand ever more extreme measures to eliminate it). While critics of a single democratic state often cite this Israeli assumption as an argument for a “two-state solution” on the grounds that Jewish Israelis will never relinquish the protection of an ethnic state, it increasingly presents itself as an abiding obstacle to any sort of solution.

As long as Jewish survival is equated with the maintenance of an ethnic state, no resolution that might win sustained Palestinian loyalty is possible. The rigidity of the Jewish Israeli equation of ethnic statehood with safety, often cited as an eternal obstacle to a single state, is in reality also a powerful argument against the viability of a “two-state solution.” As long as this equation persists, it seems highly implausible that a separate Palestinian state will appear to mainstream Israeli opinion as a viable guarantor of the security of the Israeli state. And if the view that ethnic statehood is integral to Jewish survival begins to erode, then so does much of the rationale for two separate states. The insistence that without a state of their own Jews are in constant peril is thus an obstacle to any settlement, even one which concedes the principle of Jewish ethnic statehood. This means that accepting the principle of Jewish ethnic statehood on pragmatic grounds, arguing that only this scenario offers any prospect of a settlement, is a strategy doomed to fail. Prospects for justice and peace rest, then, on positing a future in which Jewish statehood will no longer be seen as essential to Jewish survival and in which minority status in a democratic state will be seen as an appropriate means of achieving Jewish security.

An obvious objection to this approach is that it seems to deny Palestinian agency by making Jewish opinion a precondition for a just and peaceful end to the suppression of Palestinian rights. It is therefore important to stress that the analysis presented here assumes that changes in Jewish opinion are likely only if there is a fundamental challenge to the prevailing balance of power and that this requires an effective Palestinian campaign to deprive Zionism of its legitimacy. This is not the place to discuss the strategies which might achieve that, save to say that the emergence of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement holds out the prospect of a new Palestinian politics that can offer more effective resistance to ethnic domination and might well generate the secular democratic political organization required for that domination to end. But change in Palestine, as was the case in South Africa, is not purely a matter of the victims of ethnic domination mustering enough strength to defeat the system—it depends also on the emergence of divisions within the dominating group. In Palestine, as in South Africa, pressure is required to force the dominant group to reassess its options. But the military strength of the Israeli state means that this pressure is unlikely to overthrow the system of domination: its purpose is thus to force those who preside over it to reconsider their options and to negotiate a settlement with Palestinian leadership. It follows clearly from this that change will require a reassessment of Zionist options. The question of whether mainstream Jewish understandings of identity and security are capable of adjusting to the possibility of a shared state with a Palestinian majority is crucial to prospects for a settlement.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 February 2015 10:23


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