Israel and its (lack of) Ethnic Representation by Safia Southey


Israel has an extensive history regarding identity politics and the power of minorities within the country determining national sentiments and movements. The largest ethnic minority are Arab Israelis, representing 20.7% of the Israel’s population in 2013, many of which identifying as Palestinian.[1] The most common religious identity of these Arab Israelis is Muslim, particularly Sunni Muslims, although there is also a large Arab Christian minority from various denominations as well as the Druze. Most of the Arabs living in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 and later occupied, were offered Israeli citizenship, but most declined in protest of Israel's claim to sovereignty, becoming permanent residents instead. However, they still retain the right to apply for citizenship, are entitled to municipal services, and have limited voting rights. As a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious, and multi-lingual society, Israel has a high level of informal segregation patterns. While groups are not separated by official policy, a number of different sectors within the society are somewhat segregated and maintain their strong cultural, religious, ideological, and/or ethnic identity. However, despite a fairly high degree of social cleavage, some economic disparities and an often-overheated political life, the society is relatively balanced and stable. The low level of social conflict between the different groups, notwithstanding an inherent potential for social unrest, can be attributed to the country's judicial and political systems, which represent strict legal and civic equality. Ethnic minorities thrive best with vivid representation, although representation is not easily defined. Elected leaders often make dynamic representative claims, shifting between inclusive and exclusive rhetoric, between substantive and descriptive. Claims of representation also often stem from institutional and structural factors such as electoral design itself. While Palestinian citizens made up separate, particular constituencies until 2015 with a fixed set of distinct interests, the modification of electoral design in 2015 created a unified constituency with varied yet shared goals. While Israel’s legislation on minority rights and status as a model ethnic democracy creates an institutional system of political repression of its minorities, recent changes to the electoral design created opportunities for increased political representation. However, despite a unified front, Palestinian groups are not able to push through productive legislation due to systemic institutional repression of minorities and the idea of hollow citizenship.

The relationship between Israel and its Palestinian minorities has a long history of discontent and undemocratic nature, inundated by distrust from both parties. In the early 1980s, independent Palestinian parties began to develop and it took until the 1990s for the political lists to reflect the highly diverse ideological and religious makeup of Israel. In 2000, during the Second Intifada, there was a decline in Palestinian backing of the Jewish Zionist parties, as well as an overall decline in Palestinian voting rates. By this time, the government had stabilized with around four to five Palestinian political parties in each parliament.[2] Israel’s relationships with low voter threshold, proportional representation, and semi-autonomous cultural and language institutions previously failed to produce legitimate and proper representation for the minorities of Israel, more specifically the Palestinian-Israelis. Official and non-official discrimination and exclusion from ruling coalition was prevalent against these minority groups, leading to a general decrease of belief in the democratic elements of political system. The Israeli national identity was one that started out initially as a symbolic one based on Zionism but developed its moral and normative limbs through legitimation via the intellectualization and institutionalization of its exclusive Jewish character. With the establishment of a Jewish majority in the Knesset came the legislative inclusion of criminalizing any denial of the Jewish identity of the state, and due to the Israeli system of Basic Laws, the constitutional character of this inclusion supersedes the legislative character of the inclusion.[3] Hence, any appeal to democratic principles for the Arabs in Israel does not work for they are reliant on the normative constitutional character of the law which privileges the Jewish identity. Further, there was an identification of ‘taboo territories’ for Arabs. The sum of the legislation translates into the eviction of the Palestinian minority from effective democratic participation and the fixing of its inferior status in the conceptual normative order of the state. Although these amendments in the law were formulated in general terms and in some even intend to protect Arab citizens, the legislation was introduced with the purpose of obstructing efforts, even by democratic means, of stimulating a civil identity rather than one based on ethno-national aspects as promoted in Zionism.[4]

The Israeli political system is not willing to make any distinction between the right to self-determination of the Jewish people and exclusive Jewish hegemony over all public spaces with a complete prohibition on democratic appeal against this hegemony. The socio-economic and cultural-symbolic implications are clear. These laws delegitimize Arab representation thus limiting their ability to institutionally influence policies to affect resource distribution. They are based on the cultural-symbolic dimension of the ethnonationalism of the state, therefore affecting the judicial and legislative character of the state and limiting institutional representation that could influence material policies. Consequently, the Arabs are disenfranchised from the very bureaucracy of the state infrastructure.[5] Citizenship laws additionally act as a cultural-symbolic factor; whereas Israel’s Citizenship Law enables a gradual process of naturalization for aliens (non-Jews) who marry Israeli citizens, this right is denied to Palestinians who currently reside in the Palestinian occupied territories. Since Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin are those most likely to marry a Palestinian from the occupied territories, the amendment of the law is a clear indication that Israeli legislators targeted a particular group of people based on their national affiliation. Without becoming a citizen, it is impossible to run for public office in Israel or vote in elections, therefore limiting minority political rights and representation.[6]

Further, the term “ethnic democracy” was created explicitly to describe Israel by the sociologist Sammy Smooha. In his paper, “Ethnic Democracy: Israel as an Archetype,” he identifies eight essential characteristics of an ethnic democracy and explains how each relates to Israel on a general level, not necessarily focusing on specific legislation or evolutions over time.[7] The first of the characteristics is that a form of ethnic nationalism establishes one primary ethnic nation in the state, which is in agreement with the Israeli system as Israel is defined as “a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel [the Land of Israel]” by the Israeli Declaration of Independence. With the installation of a core ethnic nation, certain privileges arise for the dominant group, while the minorities are suppressed in return. The next characteristic of an ethnic democracy is that the government divides membership in the single ethnic nation from citizenship. This applies in Israel, as over 20% of Israelis are Arabs, not Jews, and still full citizens with equal rights mandated by the law despite not being a part of the “core ethnic nation.”[8] Thirdly, the core ethnic nation must own and rule the state, although the verification for this characteristic is difficult to establish. Because the ethnic majority in Israel is Jewish, the majority of authority figures and people in political and commercial power are Jewish. Despite this, there are a substantial number of Arabs in the Knesset, especially after the change in electoral design in 2015 after when the Palestinian parties combined to become the third largest group in Israel’s parliament. Therefore, this criterion of the majority ethnic group ruling the entire country does not apply to Israel, however it is near impossible to find any democracy where this characteristic is fully present due as discriminatory laws would need to exist to facilitate it. While this may not be completely correct, Smooha expands on this criterion to explain that in an ethnic democracy, “the state is the embodiment of the core ethnic nation’s right to national self-determination, the state territory is the exclusive homeland of the core ethnic nation,” a concept that would apply to Israeli arguably quite well.[9]

The next criterion that Smooha posits is that the state activates the majority ethnic nation by fostering the “national identity of the members of the core ethnic nation.” In this context, the state aims to nurture a single exclusionary national identity while attaining the “full consent, legitimacy, identification, support, participation and sacrifice [of the core ethnic nation] for national projects.” Under this definition, Israel succeeds in promoting a “Jewish identity,” but also upholds that Israeli Arabs are full Israeli citizens and members of its society. The Israeli Declaration of Independence articulates that the country “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.” Further, the Israeli government is unable to secure full support for all its actions, despites its desire to do so.[10] Therefore, this characteristic of the state mobilizing the core ethnic nation does not appropriately apply to Israel. While Arabs are granted “full and equal citizenship” under the law, Israel is still in compliance with the criterion of ethnic democracies that non-majority groups are given incomplete rights. Despite what is articulated within the law, there are still systemic ways to repress the power and voice of the Arab minority through more subtle means.

The next criterion for an ethnic democracy is that the state permit non-majority groups to take par struggle for change. Arabs within Israel are provided the right of “due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions” under the Israeli Declaration of Independence, while all ethnic groups in Israel eligible to vote and demand legal action through legal means. In an ethnic democracy, the state views the non-core groups as a threat. However, the Israeli state does not view all non-majority (non-Jewish) groups as a threat, as the majority of Israelis do not consider Israeli Arabs as danger to the country or to their power. While some consider the Palestinians to pose a demographic threat if Israeli eventually annexes the West Bank; however, they are not residents of Israel so this does substantive this criterion. The final characteristic that Smooha proposes is that the state enforces some control on non-core groups. While the meaning of this criterion depends greatly on how one defines “some control,” Smooha explains it as, “non-core groups in ethnic democracy are targets of the security forces” as a result for their loyalty “being considered problematic.”[11] Israeli Arabs suffer a great amount of discrimination within Israel, with institutional oppression of their voting and social lives, and their loyalty as a group has often been questioned. Therefore, Smooha’s criterion does apply. Overall, after exploring Smooha’s criteria for am ethnic democracy, it is clear that Israel fits under this definition and is a perfect example of a country in which the political rights and representation of minority groups are heavily restricted.

Despite all these characteristics demonstrating the limited political representation and general representation of minorities, there has been an increase in representation for minorities (or at least Palestinian minorities) from 2003 to the present day. While there was an overall increase in parliament seats won by Palestinian representatives from 2003 to 2013, these seats were still disproportionally represented in the Israeli parliament. In 2013, despite the fact that Palestinian citizens made up 14% of the electorate, only 56% of eligible Palestinian voters particulate in the Knesset elections - compared to the 68% of Jewish electorate who voted.[12] The low voting rates therefore lead to lower representation, demonstrating the need for the unification of the Palestinian parties to increase inclusion. All these factors led to an overall increased demand for new leadership and representation, which is why the modification in Israel’s electoral threshold brought a welcomed change.[13] In 2015, the electoral threshold shifted from 2% to 3.25%, causing the formation of one large party out of the unification of several smaller minority lists. This eventually forces a change in the claims of the representation, as they needed to be more inclusive. The merging of four separate lists further incentivized the leadership of the new party to at least claim to be representative of a boarded and more inclusive constituency. The higher thresholds therefore hold the power to improve the electoral influence of minority parties. The support for the unification of Palestinian lists is made obvious by surveys as well as the voting results, and two years after the elections, it is suggested that the Palestinian minority is not more unified and inclusive as a result.

In 2012, only 54.2% of survey respondents said that Israel is democratic towards its Arab citizens, while only 65.6% believe that Arab citizens could improve their situation through voting and political means, and 53.1% believed that Arab political parties are representative of the Palestinian society; all of these percentages are significantly lower than when survey takers were asked the same questions in 2003. Further, 81% believe that Israel is a democracy only for the Jewish population. However, in 2015, after the higher threshold, Palestinian voting rates increased from 56.5% to 63.5%, with a decreased proportion of which voting for Jewish lists. The merged Palestinian party became the third largest party in the parliament, giving it significant more power and political potential.[14] This increase in representation would not have emerged sans the change in electoral design. Further, the change in threshold grapples with the problem of representing the entire Palestinian society. The unified Palestinian party, previously representing various sub-identities and individual groups, now had to attempt to represent everyone under one party; this led to difficulties, as there was clear rhetorical difference between two factions within the party, Hadash and Balad. While the threshold did improve overall representation of Palestinians, the representation of individual communities were somewhat abandoned in favor of the greater group. However, Hadash did claim to have a more inclusive approach, representing other disadvantaged groups such as African refugees and other lower class Israelis. There was additionally great debate as to whether the Palestinian party should attempt to represent the domestic interests of the Arab-Israeli, or rather the more political interests rooted in the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even the interests of the “democratic elements” of Israeli society as a whole.[15]

While there is an argument that Israel is more of a mosaic composed of various coexisting population groups rather than a melting pot society, there is still need to explore how to best represent the minorities of Israel, and not only the Palestinian Israelis. While Palestinian Israelis improved their situation politically with the merging of their political parties, gaining more seats in Israeli parliament and further working to increase the inclusivity of this merged party, institutional political oppression is still rampant in a country which is founded upon ethnonationalist identities, giving the priority to the dominant identity (the Jews) and lacking support for the rest. The emergence of Israel as a country, founded explicitly as a home for the Jewish people, creates a system where representation is impossible for those who are not included in this mandate.[16] Legislation regarding citizenship, agriculture, employment, the military, and so on may not explicitly limit political power, but the marginalization of minorities within Israel leads to a lack of representation in society, and in turn a lack of representation in the politic realm. While the Israelis giving sporadic pluralistic Palestinian parties a reason to band together by raising electoral thresholds, the institutional manifestations of oppression clearly still exists and does not further minority rights.

[1] Amal Jamal (2007) Nationalizing States and the Constitution of ‘Hollow Citizenship’: Israel and its Palestinian Citizens, Ethnopolitics, 6:4, 471-493, DOI: 10.1080/17449050701448647.

[2] As'ad Ghanem (2010) State and minority in Israel: the case of ethnic state and the predicament of its minority, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21:3, 428-448, DOI: 10.1080/014198798329892.

[3] Oren Yiftachel (2010) Debate: The concept of ‘ethnic democracy’ and its applicability to the case of Israel, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 15:1, 125-136, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.1992.9993736.

[4] Dan Rabinowitz (2010) The Palestinian citizens of Israel, the concept of trapped minority and the discourse of transnationalism in anthropology, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 24:1, 64-85, DOI: 10.1080/014198701750052505.

[5] Sherry Lowrance . (2004) Deconstructing democracy: the Arab–Jewish divide in the Jewish stateCritique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 13:2, pages 175-193. 

[6] Riad Nasser, Irene Nasser. (2008) Textbooks as a vehicle for segregation and domination: state efforts to shape Palestinian Israelis’ identities as citizensJournal of Curriculum Studies 40:5, pages 627-650. 

[7] Sammy Smooha (2010) Minority status in an ethnic democracy: The status of the Arab minority in Israel, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 13:3, 389-413, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.1990.9993679.

[8] Yoav Peled. (2008) The evolution of Israeli citizenship: an overviewCitizenship Studies 12:3, pages 335-345. 

[9] Gal Levy, Mohammad Massalha. (2012) Within and beyond citizenship: alternative educational initiatives in the Arab society in Israel. Citizenship Studies 16:7, pages 905-917.

[10] Gal Levy, Mohammad Massalha. (2012) Within and beyond citizenship: alternative educational initiatives in the Arab society in IsraelCitizenship Studies 16:7, pages 905-917. 

[11] Bashir Bashir. (2015) On citizenship and citizenship education: a Levantine approach and reimagining Israel/PalestineCitizenship Studies 19:6-7, pages 802-819. 

[12] Zvi Bekerman. (2018) The graduate(s): the harvests of Israel’s integrated multicultural bilingual educationRace Ethnicity and Education 21:3, pages 335-352. 

[13] Nadim Rouhana (2010) Israel and its Arab citizens: Predicaments in the relationship between ethnic states and ethnonational minorities, Third World Quarterly, 19:2, 277-296, DOI: 10.1080/01436599814460.

[14] Amal Jamal (2007) Nationalizing States and the Constitution of ‘Hollow Citizenship’: Israel and its Palestinian Citizens, Ethnopolitics, 6:4, 471-493, DOI: 10.1080/17449050701448647.

[15] Oren Yiftachel (2010) Debate: The concept of ‘ethnic democracy’ and its applicability to the case of Israel, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 15:1, 125-136, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.1992.9993736.

[16] Dahlia Moore. (2003) Perceptions of Sense of Control, Relative Deprivation, and Expectations of Young Jews and Palestinians in IsraelThe Journal of Social Psychology 143:4, pages 521-540.