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Israel refers to itself as both ‘a Jewish state’ and ‘the Middle East’s only democracy’. This article will ascertain what constitutes the former, why being deemed both a Jewish state and legitimate democracy is of great importance to Israel and finally, the extent to which these apparently conflicting identities can be reconciled.
The ultimate aim of the Zionist movement – pioneered in the late 1800s, and which gained significant traction throughout the 20th and current century – was to “…return the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.”  This movement culminated in the official formation of the Jewish state of Israel on May 14th, 1948. But what is meant by the term ‘Jewish state’ and why is it so important for Israel to be considered as such?
Ruth Gavison  deconstructs the ‘Jewish state’ concept into three separate definitions or ‘clusters’. Due to page limits, this article will focus on that which Gavison deems most significant: Israel as a Jewish homeland “. . . in which the Jewish people exercise their right to political self-determination.”  This homeland-based approach is firmly entrenched within Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states, “The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed.”
The wording of this statement is key, with a clear distinction drawn between the identities said to constitute ‘Jewishness’. Thus, the definition of whom can be considered ‘Jewish’ for the purposes of populating a Jewish homeland appears to be flexible extending beyond religious adherence and encompassing cultural factors. This is in keeping with the largely secularist nature of the early Zionist movement. The notion received support from the Israeli Supreme Court in the case of Shalit v Minister of Interior et al (1969), as well as being confirmed in April 2012 by Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, who stated, “…Israel defines membership in that people [Jews] broadly, integrating many who would not be considered Jewish by rabbinic authorities.” 
The individuals who make up international Jewry in the eyes of Israeli authorities are therefore best thought of as existing upon a spectrum of ‘Jewishness’. This loose interpretation is of great strategic importance to Israel allowing for a wide range of individuals to be brought into the country as migrants and thus strengthening the state’s Jewish majority as was the case in the 1990s when Israel welcomed in excess of 1 million individuals from the recently collapsed Soviet Union. Israel’s very creation was founded upon the self-proclamation of the state as a Jewish homeland. This connection between Israel and the global Jewish population continues to underpin Israel’s projected identity today and is reflected in the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of George Raphael Tamarin v State of Israel (1972), where Head Justice Agranat famously asserted that “There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people. The Jewish people is composed not only of those residing in Israel but also of Diaspora Jewries.”  For these claims to carry legitimacy, then, a Jewish majority within the state is crucial.
In adopting such an approach, Israel has effectively established a de facto global Jewish nationality. Indeed, Israel makes the unique distinction between ‘Jewish nationals’ and ‘Israeli citizens’; the former consists of all persons, both within the borders of Israel and outside, who consider themselves to be Jewish, be it through familial ties, culture or conversion, and the latter who belong to the State of Israel, but who claim no Jewish linkage. This is a novel construct and is often explained by Zionists in terms similar to that of Professor Gil Troy, who posits, “The French have France, Germans have Germany, the Dutch have the Netherlands, Jews have Israel.” 
Troy’s assertion is misleading. Muslims residing in France are free to adopt the national French identity. However, Muslims residing in Israel cannot assume the national Jewish identity. This leads to a much more significant point, and one often overlooked in the discourse addressing Israel’s self-description as a Jewish state. The indigenous Arab population of Mandate Palestine present prior to Israel’s formation – having avoided the continuous waves of displacement since 1948 – now reside within a Jewish state as Israeli citizens. This population, numbering roughly 1.5 million individuals and representing 20% of Israel’s population,  is subject to a wide range of discriminatory laws and practices. To this end, the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights has identified in excess of 20 examples of Israeli legislation and case law, which serve to entrench the rights of Jewish nationals and further this ethnic group’s advancement at the expense of non-Jews within Israel. 
Ultimately, the contention that what is now modern day Israel can be deemed a ‘Jewish state’ is supported by a range of evidence including the Zionist ideology underpinning its inception, its resident Jewish majority, and the de facto situation on the ground whereby the state’s legal framework affords greater protection and liberty to Jewish residents than it does to their non-Jewish counterparts. This, in conjunction with Israeli practices within the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), constitutes the crime of apartheid and was the subject of a 2010 report by UN Special Rapporteur, Richard Falk.  Such damning allegations from well-respected sources serve to compromise Israel’s reputation within the international community, as well as its ability to attract foreign investment and aid. This latter point is crucial, as Israel is not economically self-sufficient  and is heavily reliant on foreign finance to service its disproportionately large military budget. 
With Western governments viewing Israel as a politically stable ally in the otherwise politically volatile landscape of the Middle East, vast amounts of foreign aid flood into Israel annually; the US alone channels $3 billion worth of military assistance per year.  Foreign finance is not unconditional and in order to maintain this economic lifeline, Israel must be seen to balance the concept of a Jewish state with that of a fully functioning democracy complete with a provision of democratic mechanisms. But what do such mechanisms look like and can Israel be said to have implemented them?
Dictionary definitions of ‘democracy’ allude to“…a form of government in which supreme power is vested in the people, and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system”  and Israel’s own Declaration of Independence provides:
“The State of Israel…will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace […] will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex…”
Furthermore, Oren  cites a number of democratic safeguards employed by Israel, including an independent judiciary, universal suffrage for Israeli citizens and a 120-seat parliament. Such mechanisms would appear to provide solid foundations upon which the concept of Israel as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ can be based. However, each of Oren’s examples is fundamentally undermined by factors arising from Israel’s status as a ‘Jewish state’.
Oren points to the Supreme Court’s 2011 conviction of former Israeli President Moshe Katsav on sex offence charges as evidence of “…the commitment to the rule of law displayed by the Jewish state.” However, such a case poses few questions relating to the Jewish nature of the state and is therefore of little value when seeking to determine the extent to which the concepts of a Jewish state and a functioning democracy are reconcilable. When a case arises whereby such questions are raised, the ruling typically favors Jewish national identity above all other factors and influences. This is best demonstrated through the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Citizenship Law in 2012, preventing Palestinians from living with their Israel-based spouses, and whereby Justice Grunis remarked that “Human rights are not a prescription for national suicide.” 
In addition, though suffrage is indeed open to all Israeli citizens of voting age, as is election to the Knesset, there exist a number of legislative restrictions that limit the democratic value of these provisions. For example, amendment 9 of section 7A of The Basic Law: The Knesset, 1958, prevents candidates from seeking election if they contest “…the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”
Of what democratic worth is universal suffrage if all electoral candidates are required to abide by a single ideological position and one which 20% of the overall Israeli population is unlikely to support? It soon becomes apparent then, that democracy within Israel is encouraged only up to the point where it begins to infringe upon the Jewish nature or character of the state, and proposed legislation, submitted to the Knesset in August 2011, seeks to codify this principle , stipulating that:
- The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it realizes its aspiration for self-determination based on its cultural and historical heritage.
- The right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is uniquely that of the Jewish people.
- The text of this Basic Law or any other legislation is to be interpreted in light of this clause.
Lip service is paid to the concept of democracy in Clause 2, which provides “[t]he State of Israel has a democratic regime,” but this clause offers no further elaboration as to how such a balance between these two competing ideals will be realised. As a result, this proposed entrenchment in Israeli law of the primacy of Jewish interests serves only to lend further weight to the argument that the state harbors a clear disregard for true democratic principles.
To counter such allegations, Gavison asserts that “…we should not talk about ‘democracy’ as an ‘all or nothing’ matter…,” but rather view it as “… a hierarchal spectrum of meanings….”  Oren furthers this argument, citing Israel’s external threats as justification for the apparent curtailment of certain rights. He posits that “[w]hether by suspending habeas corpus or imprisoning a suspected ethnic community, as the United States did in its Civil War and World War II, embattled democracies frequently take measures that depart from peacetime norms.”  This is of course true, though the criticism leveled at contemporary examples, such as controversial US and UK anti-terrorism legislation, falls far short of that leveled at Israel’s treatment of its own citizens and residents of the oPt.
The concept of a spectrum-based approach to democracy is not in itself problematic, and it is common for democracies to deploy non-democratic measures at times of existential threats. However, when such measures are applied only to a societal minority, it is at this point that democracy can be said to have failed. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappé notes, “a country that pursues a discriminatory policy against a fifth of its Palestinian citizens […] cannot be a democracy”. 
In conclusion, the two components of Israel’s self-applied split personality – though both are essential to the state’s diplomatic legitimacy and economic survival – are impossible to reconcile with one another. Recognised democratic mechanisms such as universal suffrage and freedom to run in elections are indeed evident, yet are forced to bend and give way in the event of conflict with the overarching interests associated with maintaining the state’s Jewish character. This is consistently reflected across key judicial decisions, a legal framework that implies an inherent Jewish primacy, and proposed legislation which would codify the right of Israeli self-determination as one belonging solely to the Jewish people, despite the significant Arab presence within the state.
The label of ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ is therefore cynically deployed by a pragmatic Israeli state to acquire the legitimacy it desperately needs in order to attract foreign aid and political support, which it, in turn, utilizes to further Jewish interests while maintaining the status quo of oppression. Despite proud Israeli assertions to the contrary, the reality on the ground is very much one of ‘Jews first, democracy second’.
A version of this article originally appeared in “Palestinian Citizens of Israel: Defying the Ongoing Nakba“, the the Winter 2012 issue of al-Majdal published by the Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights.
1. Mitchell Geoffrey Bard and Moshe Schwartz, One Thousand and One Facts Everyone Should Know about Israel (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 1.
2. Adaptation of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State: Tensions and Prospects, Ruth Gavison. Available at link to www.gavison.com (hereafter Gavison).
4. Oren, M. Israel’s Resilient Democracy, Foreign Policy, April 2012. Available at: link to www.foreignpolicy.com (hereafter, Oren).
5. George Raphael Tamarin v State of Israel 1972 (Supreme Court).
6. Troy, Gil, Why Do We Need a Jewish State Anyway…, Jerusalem Post, 8 March 2011. Available at; link to blogs.jpost.com.
7. The Arab Population in Israel: Facts and Figures 2012. Myers – JDC – Brookdale Institute. Available at: link to brookdale.jdc.org.il.
8. Israel’s Discriminatory Laws (scheduled for publication Autumn 2012). Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights .
9. Richard Falk: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, August 30, 2010.
10. Israel: U.S. Foreign Assistance. CRS Issue Brief for Congress, April 2005. Available at: link to www.fas.org.
11. In 2011, Israel’s military budget accounted for 6% of GDP. Source: link to www.reuters.com
12. U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel. Jeremy M. Sharp on behalf of the Congressional Research Service. March 2012.
15. Court upholds law banning Palestinian spouses from living in Israel. Guardian, 12th January 2012.
16. The Basic Law: Israel the Nation State of the Jewish People 2011. At the time of writing, this legislation is still at debate stage.
19. Why Israel is not a democracy, interview by Frank Barat on 2 April 2011. Transcript available at: link to www.counterpunch.org.