Israel as an Ethnic Democracy: Palestinian Citizens and the Fight for Equal Rights

By: Raphael Cohen-Almagor

August 6, 2021

Palestinian Citizens and Religious Nationalism in Israel

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” — Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

There are no angles in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a story of two people who have legitimate claims over a small piece of land. Each side believes that its claims are more compelling than the other’s. Both sides made many mistakes along the way. Those mistakes compounded an already difficult and complex reality. Thus, the history of the conflict is bloody and sad. The more blood is shed, the longer the conflict lingers, the more difficult it is becoming to bring the conflict to conclusion. 

Unlike the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Israeli Palestinians are entitled by law to enjoy the same citizenship rights as the Jewish citizens of Israel. The Israeli Palestinians constitute a significant minority in Israel: 21% of the population. I will differentiate between full citizenship and formal citizenship, arguing that the Israeli Palestinians enjoy formal but not full citizenship. I detail the areas in which Israel needs to invest to make the Palestinians full citizens. It is argued that while Israeli Palestinians are discriminated against, there is no apartheid in Israel. Apartheid exists in the occupied territories.

Unlike the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Israeli Palestinians are entitled by law to enjoy the same citizenship rights as the Jewish citizens of Israel.

While there is the need for a home for the Jewish people, where Jews can decide their destiny and independently defend and promote their tradition and culture, Israel should retain its democratic character. Democracy is not merely a majority rule. Democracy is about majority rule while respecting the rights of minorities. Both parts of this definition are necessary, and any part in itself is not sufficient. The second part of the definition is no less important than the first. Democracy should devise mechanisms to protect itself from any form of exploiting power; it should fight against and preempt the formation of any form of tyranny, majority and minority alike. The right of the majority should not be considered as the rightness of the majority, as quantity alone does not make things right. Any form of unjustified discrimination should be opposed, whether the discrimination is based on sheer numbers, on certain beliefs, custom or religion. Individuals should be able to fulfill their capacities and to establish their autonomy. Israel should provide open forums for debate and for practicing alternative conceptions of the good. This can be done by adhering to the basic liberal principles of respect for others and not harming others. Government should respect the civil, religious, and political rights of all citizens.

A note on terminology is appropriate. Because some citizens of Israel identify themselves as Palestinians, or as Arabs, or as Israeli Arabs, or as Palestinian Arabs, or as Palestinian Arabs in Israel, I am using the terms Israeli Arabs and Israeli Palestinians interchangeably. 

Security

In Israel, security considerations trump all other considerations. The prominence of security considerations in the Israeli psyche and politics hampers civic rights. The Arab-Israeli conflict continues to overshadow all civil and social issues, rendering them secondary in importance and allowing the perpetuation of discriminatory and coercive treatment of Arabs in Israel. By adhering to ethno-religious credo, Israel has failed to establish a just, reasonable multicultural liberal democracy, where the rights of all are respected and egalitarianism is accepted and promoted as an enshrined value.

In Israel, security considerations trump all other considerations. The prominence of security considerations in the Israeli psyche and politics hampers civic rights.

It is reasonable to assume that ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and achieving just peace with all Israeli neighbors will have a positive effect on the social and political status of Israeli Palestinians. Israel signed peace accords with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. Israel started a positive peace process with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, but this process did not result in a sustained, comprehensive, and much-desired peace. A two-state solution that would resolve the tensions between Israel, on the one hand, and the PLO and Hamas, on the other, is the least bloody and most just solution to the wide Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a conflict that concerns brethren of the Israeli Palestinian citizens.

The Litmus Test 

Israel is a Jewish democracy. The framework of governance is democratic, but its underpinning concepts give precedence to Judaism over fundamental democratic rights. Consequently, Israel adopts illiberal policies and practices that are discriminatory in nature, preferring Jews over others. After the Holocaust, the goal was to found a safe haven for Jews all over the world so as to avoid the possibility of another horrific experience of that nature. Indeed, the United Nations acknowledged the need of establishing a Jewish state. This creation, however, based on a specific conception of the good—Judaism—discriminates against the Israeli Palestinians. 

Egalitarianism is still in the making, something that Israel should aspire to achieve.

In Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism, I noted that the litmus test for measuring the extent of democratization of any given society is the status of minorities. The more egalitarian the society, the more democratic it is. In this respect, Israel is struggling. Egalitarianism is still in the making, something that Israel should aspire to achieve. Israel has struggled between liberalism and promoting its religion as a Jewish state. Israeli leaders have given precedence to Judaism over liberalism. 

Formal vs. Full Citizenship

An important distinction has to be made between formal citizenship and full citizenship. Israeli Jews can be said to enjoy full citizenship: They enjoy equal respect as individuals, and they are entitled to equal treatment by law and in its administration. The situation is different with regard to the Israeli Palestinians, the Bedouin, and the Druze. Unlike Western liberal democracies, Israel is an ethnic democracy in which the Jews appropriate the state and make it a tool for advancing their own national security, demography, public space, culture, and interests. Although religious minorities are formally considered to enjoy liberties equally with the Jewish community, in practice they do not share and enjoy the same rights and liberties. Instead, the reverse should be the case: Israel should develop and promote mechanisms for the self-realization of all individuals, notwithstanding their religion, race, ethnicity, color, gender, class, or sexual orientation. These mechanisms—which include compromise, open debate, mutual respect, and democratic deliberation—should be aptly employed on all state levels: symbolic, declarative, governmental, and practical. 

Israel should develop and promote mechanisms for the self-realization of all individuals, notwithstanding their religion, race, ethnicity, color, gender, class, or sexual orientation.

Presently, discrimination against Israeli Palestinians is prevalent in many spheres of life, including land allocation, housing, municipality budgets, employment, education, urban development, and basic civil rights. Israeli Arabs are in the periphery of the job market. They are among the first to be dismissed in hard times for the economy, and the last to re-enter the job market when it revives. Arab citizens are discriminated in land access, land planning, rural and urban development, and housing provisions. Arabs own only 2.5% of Israel’s lands, and they lack the ability to acquire the majority of Israeli land. While over 1,000 Jewish settlements have been established since 1948, the Arab community has remained in almost a standstill. The lack of town plans and planning permissions for Palestinian towns is one of the main causes of inequality and of the failure of the Palestinian citizens to fulfill their economic potential.

Discrimination—Not Apartheid

Israel has been accused of resembling the notorious South African apartheid regime. Apartheid is defined as a system of discrimination and segregation based on race. The resettlement of some Arab citizens from Jerusalem to the West Bank is deemed reminiscent of the Group Areas Act of the apartheid regime. The separate roads in the West Bank for Jews and others for Palestinians, as well the arbitrary checkpoints that agonize Palestinian life, resemble aspects of the apartheid transport arrangements. 

Critics of Israel should clearly distinguish between the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, where Palestinians are separated from Israelis who reside there and where Palestinians are routinely subjected to oppressive regulations of the occupation, and the condition of Israeli Palestinians inside the Green Line. As far as Israel’s Palestinian citizens are concerned, the apartheid argument does not stand. While Israeli Palestinians do not always receive equal treatment and they de facto at times are discriminated against, Israeli Palestinians do not live under anything that resembles South African apartheid. The Arab minority in Israel enjoys all the democratic rights—including the right to vote, the right to establish political parties, freedom of expression, freedom of association, free press, religious autonomy, separate educational systems, legal rights, and basic human rights. Discrimination is one thing and apartheid is another. The situation is problematic as-is, and there is no need to exaggerate its severity. Those who claim that Israel is an apartheid state know very little about Israel and South Africa. 

While Israeli Palestinians do not always receive equal treatment and they de facto at times are discriminated against, Israeli Palestinians do not live under anything that resembles South African apartheid.

Israel is a multicultural democracy. Israeli democracy is majoritarian and procedural. It is an ethnic rather than a liberal democracy. The situation of its Palestinian minority is tricky and sensitive. Palestinians do not have national rights. These rights are reserved only to Jews. Israel needs to strive for equality in allocation of resources; fight against racism, bigotry, and discrimination; and introduce important changes to accommodate the interests of Israeli Arabs/Palestinians so that people would “feel at home” in their own country. 

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