Ethnicity and Democracy: A Dangerous Mix?

In July 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed a law defining Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people”. This so-called “nation-state law” establishes Hebrew as the state’s official language, lauds Jewish settlement as a “national value”, and delineates the right to self-determination in Israel as “unique to the Jewish people”. It also demotes Arabic from an official language to a “special status” and states that Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their own, is the capital of Israel. A law that many say has turned a political reality into a legal one, the nation-state bill has generated widespread criticism and inflamed the very crux behind Israel’s identity: the tension between its Jewish and democratic nature. This dual yet contradicting truth has sparked questions about the viability of Israel’s future as a democracy – even leading scholars to term Israel as the only “ethnic democracy” in the world. The implications of the nation-state law are profound. Besides severely weakening the Palestinian narrative, the law strips away the rights of 20 percent of Israel’s population as well as introduces a concerning model for populist-leaning democracies across the West.

Supporters of the law argue that it does not effectively change the status quo but reaffirms what has always been true. Some even express frustration that the law does not do more to protect Jewish interests, especially regarding the building of settlements in the West Bank. However, the bill’s codification into Israeli Basic Law is significant because it delineates this highly contentious reality into law. The state of Israel does not have a constitution; as a result, its Basic Law is the highest law in the land. Moreover, the context and timing of the law’s passing give it a salience that has sparked controversy both in Israel and abroad. Whereas Israel’s particular brand of ethno-nationalism used to be unique in the world of Western democracies, in today’s age of rising global populism it may serve as an example to right-wing governments appealing to the racial identities of their supporters. This, combined with its effects on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gives the nation-state law a unique potential to affect the politics of the region as well as the character of ethnic expression in democracies around the world.

Within Israel, the law has directly affected Arab citizens, many of whom feel as though the government has turned its back on their desire for civil rights. A law stating that the right to self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people explicitly discriminates against Arabs, who make up over 20 percent of the country’s population and already face institutional discrimination in many ways. Additionally, some of the most outspoken opponents of the law have been members of the Israeli Druze community, a religious group that “participate[s] in nearly every aspect of Israeli society” but as a result of the law will not receive the same legal recognition as Jewish citizens. For decades the Druze have been active in the Israeli government and served in the Israeli Defense Forces, often in positions of influence and authority. Many have criticized the law for unjustly stripping them of rights when they have contributed substantially to the survival and success of their country.

In spite of the effects the law will undoubtedly have on non-Jewish citizens of Israel, some of its larger implications stretch beyond Israel’s borders. The legal establishment of Jewish self-determination over the land of Israel effectively delegitimizes the Palestinian right to self-determination, as well as to ownership over the land they claim. Yet this law is just the latest in a series of blows to the Palestinian cause from the combined leadership and close collaboration of President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, the withdrawal of American funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), and increased violence in Gaza has led to growing Palestinian disillusionment with Israel as well as with American ability to mediate the conflict. The Palestinian Authority recently expressed dismay at the fact that the United States had never been an unbiased mediator, but noted that at least it had been a respectable one. Now however, that reality has come into question. With the U.S unabashedly taking Israel’s side in its conflict with its Palestinian neighbors, Washington may be throwing away its ability to control events in the region and dictate terms in any future agreement.

Furthermore, some of the more lasting effects of the law may have little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all. In a global political climate of rising populism and appeals to race in democracies across the West, the legal establishment of ethnic superiority in Israel sets a powerful precedent. While the circumstances of Israel’s founding as a Jewish state have always differed from other Western countries, the tide of ethno-nationalism sweeping traditionally liberal democracies may lead to Israel becoming an example rather than an outlier. Conservative politicians in democracies around the world may well use Israel’s nation-state law to legitimize their own racialized legislation, endangering the very nature of liberal democracy as it exists today.

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