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. 

Why I Will Never Go On Birthright by Safia Southey

Propaganda is not necessarily a monologue that intends to incite reflection. but rather works to produce echoes. Now, W.H Auden may not have been talking about Israel and their underhanded tactics, but his understanding of propaganda can definitely be applied to describe and explain birthright.

‘Taglit-Birthright Israel’ or simply 'Birthright' is a well-known Jewish heritage experience that many young Jewish people take part in. In its description, it sounds like a fantastic cultural experience that is packed with authentic cultural and historical experiences - and it's free! Unsurprisingly, this has led to me being asked the same question an umpteen number of times: "Why haven't you gone on Birthright yet Safia?” I continuously toss this question aside, having no intention of getting into an intense political conversation with family members and acquaintances who mean no harm - but then despite my efforts, I am bombarded with the same old slew of comments, "You really must go!” or  “It’s an unforgettable experience, you’ll just fall in love with Israel!”

But now, down the rabbit hole we go after all - once and for all I’d like to explain why I have never, and will never will, go on Birthright - even if it's free.

Taking into account the dozens of accounts of the trip, I can begin to piece together a slightly precise idea of the overall experience one receives from the trip; Sarah Rosenblatt, a popular illustrator, affirms that “The Zionist indoctrination I experienced on the trip was far more insidious and violent than I had expected.”

Escorted by IDF soldiers at most times, Birthright trips are meticulously designed to present a comprehensive flawless (and highly fictitious version) of Israel, ostracizing and obscuring any possible traces of Palestinian life. These trips, quite clearly,  are devised to establish cultural and political support for Israelis (which sheds light on why American Jews and the US, in general, are such avid champions of Israel); it doesn't end there though, the trip tries to obstruct the consequences of the country’s highly problematic policies that include but are not limited to:

  1. Israeli occupation of Palestine,
  2. an abundance of apartheid laws that actively discriminate against Palestinians in daily life,
  3. and the denial of rights to Palestinian refugees to return home.

I had a hearty laugh when I heard about various instances of tour groups visiting Palestinians schools - these school visits are intended to show young and impressionable Jews that YES! Arabs are in fact people too, and Israeli Jews and Arabs live in harmony and eat hummus and couscous together!

Ok, maybe I am being cynical, but what about the other elements of the trips? Another itinerary event involves quickly driving through Gaza with the sole purpose of saying, “look, no genocides here!” - the propaganda and manipulation are almost poetic at this point.

However, quite recently, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s education department made an announcement stating that all trips must cease any interactions with Israeli Arabs or Palestinians in their program. Brilliant! that was the authenticity that was missing from this propaganda trip - an established rule that now prevented contact with any non-Jewish state citizens. This is truly indicative of the problems with Birthright as Arab Israelis make up 21.6% of the population of Israel; they are a crucial part of Israeli culture and history. How can one truly learn about Israel, when they can't even interact with almost a quarter of its citizens? The idea that a proper dialogue was present before was quite ridiculous, but the lack of any remotely different perspective is frightening, especially for a 'heritage' trip. Tunnel vision is damaging,  multiple perspectives add multiple dimensions to any dialogue, thus neglecting and censoring them would be detrimental to actual growth or discovery - ironically defeating the purpose of Birthright trips.

To explain the depth of the consequences of birthright, bear with me as I share a bit of history and Palestinian perspective; during the 1948 Nakba, Palestinians were driven from their homes in the dozens, never to return. Many of them kept the key to their houses with them when they left and passed them down over several generations with the hopes that one day they would be able to return - not only can they never sleep in their own beds, they can never visit their own homeland of Jerusalem, the holiest place for most Palestinians. Now, in the status quo, take a moment and consider the 18-year-old American with a vaguely Jewish background, possibly not even Bat Mitzvahed, who is able to embark on an all-inclusive ten-day trip to Israel with every experience meticulously planned and censored.

Yes, I do agree, it’s a great opportunity for a free trip, but the pretense and political implications behind it are glaring. How can we ever expect to see anything but support from the young impressionable adults that only ever see such a one-dimensional view of their supposed 'homeland'? Furthermore, not only are these non-Israeli Jews given a chance to visit Israel, but they are also given the right to settle in Israel (with automatic citizenship) according to the 1950 Law Of Return. All these privileges while the while the people who built their homes and started families on those same grounds are locked behind guarded walls. It is well known that one of the primary goals of Birthright is to persuade young Jews to one day take advantage of the Law of Return and move to Israel. The intention is distinctly obvious, they are working towards ensuring that  the majority in Israel always remains Jewish, despite the presence of 1.8 million Arab Israeli citizens. The Israeli government is safeguarding the political power of Jewish people by maintaining this majority and thus will continue to build settlements and further assert their dominance over Israel and its surrounding territories, and subsequently the people who lived there before.

As Jewish Voice for Peace aptly explains, “It is fundamentally unjust that Israel’s Law of Return extends a ‘right to return’ to any Jew around the world, regardless of their personal familial ties to Israel, while denying the right to return to Palestinians, whose families have lived there for centuries.” If you cannot see the fundamental flaw with this ideology and legislation, than no amount of information or statistics will change your mind about why Birthright is a fundamentally bad idea, and why Israel is an oppressor.

Many a time, during these discussions, I am told that I am not allow to have an opinion on something or somewhere without seeing or experiencing it myself - this argument is absolutely incredulous and flawed. Will you discount a man’s activism and active involvement fighting patriarchy because he hasn’t experienced it? Is it inherently logical to shun perspectives and opinions of non U.S Citizens on Donald Trump? If you support this rhetoric of ‘No experience, no opinion’, all you’re doing is suggesting that it’s wrong for anyone who is not North Korean to comment on the country’s dire state and Kim Jong-Un’s tyrannical rule and policies.   

As someone who is majoring in Middle Eastern geopolitics, worked extensively in the region regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and interviewed people on both sides of the issue, I feel that I have as much of a right to an opinion as that of an American Jew who attended a 10-day  government-funded trip to Israel after graduating high- school.

Some of you have told me that taking part in Birthright is completely fine as long as you go in with a critical mind and ask the right questions - here’s the problem,  by doing that, all you accomplish is perpetuating an inherently corrupt system. In my opinion, refusing to go on Birthright is confronting privilege head-on, a privilege constructed on dispossession and injustice. If not from here, hear it from the educated activists at Jewish Voice For Peace who say, “Whether or not a Birthright participant has intentions to be critical on the trip, or to protest a settlement or join an anti-occupation collective after their trip, their participation in the program reinforces the interests of the state and right-wing organizations that shape Birthright programming.”

Here is some extra reading for those who are interested!