Finding fault with Israel has become the vogue among so-called radicals or liberals in Western society, especially since the downfall of South Africa’s Apartheid regime over a decade ago. Of course, Israel-bashing has been part and parcel of Arab rhetoric and actions since the establishment of the state in 1948 as the Zionist effort to create a Jewish homeland had been for most of the seven decades that preceded it. Others, especially left-wing socialists and Communists have also considered Zionism and Israel a bane except when-as with the Soviet Union’s recognition of Israel in 1948-it benefited them to behave otherwise.
Intellectuals harboring anti-Semitic tendencies, too, have not been less than keen on the Jewish state although their criticism was somewhat muted during the half century or so following World War II; in addition, many Jewish intellectuals regarded Israel as an irritation, or worse, as it drew unwanted attention to their Jewishness. In recent years, they have been joined by Israeli intellectuals and academics who, for different reasons, are unhappy with what the state stands for, the policies that it chooses to pursue and the way in which it is governed. All these have become facts of life and Israel is increasingly regarded as the cause of much of the region’s ills and a major danger to world stability.
Oren Yiftachel is Professor of Geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva, Israel. Trained as a planner and geographer in Australia after leaving the kibbutz on which he grew up in the 1970s, he returned to Israel in the early 1990s. He is one of those social
scientists (of which BGU seems to have more than its fair share) who label themselves radical, critical, post-Zionist, revisionist or whatever. In other words, his principal aim is to challenge accepted readings of history, geography and politics and to force his readers to question standard versions and common knowledge. In addition to this, he takes an activist approach to academic research; his academic agenda is set by a need to fix what he sees as broken in Israeli society. That means, a priori, that one does not conduct research for the sake of knowledge or to satisfy curiosity but in order to be a channel and a catalyst for change. That, of necessity, invokes stepping out of the ivory tower and getting one’s feet muddied by the swill of activist politics-petitions, press, publicity. In this quest for minor celebrity status, he is not alone.
Yiftachel may not have invented the word “ethnocracy”; prior use is attributed to Juan Linz, Ali Mazrui and David Little all of whom, he suggests, used the term in a derogatory manner and did not develop it into a model as he claims to have done in this book. Be this as it may, there is little argument that over the past decade, Yiftachel has got more mileage out of it than anyone else.
An ethnocracy is a state governed by members of a specific ethnic group who are disproportionately influential, and use this to advance the their own ethnie to the detriment of all others, to secure and maintain ethnic dominance above all else. As the blurb presents it-it is a political regime that facilitates the expansion and control of a dominant ethnicity in contested lands. The state methodically discriminates against minority groups who often face suppression at the hands of authoritarian state agencies but these minorities can never participate in power-sharing.
The book is divided into four parts. In Part I, “Settings”, we are introduced to the nature of ethnocratic regimes and the politics of seizing contested territory. Part II, entitled “Ethnocracy and Territory in Israel/Palestine” contains four chapters dealing with the making of Zionist and Palestinian nationalism and territorial identities, debating Israeli democracy, the making of ethnocracy and the Israeli land system. Part III, “Ethnocracy and its Peripheries: Palestinian Arabs and Mizrahim” has two chapters on ‘fractured’ regionalism among Palestinian-Arabs in Israel and Bedouin Arabs in the Beersheva region and two chapters on development towns and Mizrahi identities. Finally, Part IV, entitled “Looking Ahead” examines the planning of a binational capital in Jerusalem and an Epilogue subtitled “Toward Gradual Binationalism”.
The most unfortunate ethnie of all in the Israeli polity, at the bottom of the heap, of course, are the Arabs. In the Naqba of 1948, they lost all of their ostensible leaders, the majority of their population, most of their lands, and their dignity and they have been on the losing side ever since. After 1967, the “Zionist entity” extended its field of action to take in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza and has since been hacking and chipping away at what remains of Arab land on both sides of the Green Line. In addition, it is difficult if not
impossible for Palestinian Arabs with Israeli citizenship from ever becoming full members of Israeli society.
The Arabs may be at the bottom of the heap of those robbed, browbeaten and brainwashed by the Ashkenazi ethnocracy but, according to the author, they are not alone. (That secular Ashkenazi males are the guilty party is only made intrinsically clear towards the end of the third chapter, more than a quarter of the way through the book.) There are others there who have perhaps suffered less at its hands but nevertheless have had to endure almost six decades on the periphery of Israel’s Jewish society; these are the Mizrahim, Jews whose forebears came from North Africa and Southwest Asia, coldheartedly banished to the ma’abarot and then the development towns on the country’s geographical periphery and to the shikunim on the margins of the cities and metropolitan areas to become the social fringe, too. But the Mizrahim are not alone on the perimeter of Israel’s Jewish society, because out in the sticks (elsewhere on the periphery because, as Yiftachel likes to point out, it is well known that Israeli society is segregated, a creeping apartheid state, in fact), one can find Ashkenazim who don’t quite fit the mold, euphemistically referred to as Haredim or strictly Orthodox. They don’t fit into the ethnocratic mold, though whether this is out of choice or because they prohibited entry is not made clear. And then, obviously, there are women and the Russians (mostly Ashkenazi but arriving too late to share the loot).
But separation is not an Israeli invention although Jews enjoy a long history of social and cultural segregation from the populations amongst which they have lived. The Jewish nation-state in Israel-Palestine was juxtaposed upon the millet system of the Ottoman Empire, in which legally protected ethnic and religious confessional communities (millets)
autonomously set their own laws and collected and distributed their own taxes in return for which they pledged loyalty to the Empire. Jews and Arab communities in Israel still live under the legacy of this system, which came to its most exotic fruition in Lebanon. Legally recognized religio-cultural differences and autonomy are tricky to overturn even with the best of will, which is lacking on both sides in this case.
Yet, although separateness and separation are part and parcel of living in the Middle East, it is not entirely a matter of oil and water. Integrating Jews and Arabs is indeed difficult though more might have been achieved had all sides worked harder to cajole Israel into being a state for all its citizens-an immensely difficult task given the historico-cultural matrix. Nevertheless, mixing Jew with Jew is less problematic. Yiftachel, with an ethnocratic narrative to recount, presents the Jewish groups in Israel as if they were castes with secular Ashkenazi males as Brahmins, lording it over all others. But Jewish groups in Israel are not hereditary classes distinguished by relative degrees of ritual purity and innate social status; they are not entirely endogamous nor are they
Jewish society in Israel is neither as highly stratified nor as socially immobile as Yiftachel’s simplistic explanation would have us believe. The demographer Barbara Okun has demonstrated declines in ethnic endogamy among Israeli Jews, especially during the 1960s although it remains a significant feature of marriage behaviour, equal in importance in recent years to education. That ethnic endogamy remains salient is significant, as interethnic conflict and related socioeconomic inequality are among the prime domestic concerns in Israel today. Okun also found evidence for increasing ‘block’ endogamy involving women of Asian and African origin, while marriage within their own narrower ethnic groups is becoming less common, associated with the creation and enhancement of a new Mizrahi ethnic group. The germane point is that there has always been mixing among Jews in Israel and that there is an increasing number of Jewish Israelis whose ethnicity is mixed.
Likewise, the claim that the Mizrahim were used by the elite to further their aims by settling them in frontier areas relatively distant from centers of opportunity is little more than an unsubstantiated claim, a reading that conforms with and endorses the author’s narrative. However, it is worth noting that the phenomenon of differential immigrant
settlement is not unique to Israel. The explanation for such events is often related simply to the period of arrival of the immigrants and the needs of the absorbing country at the time. Throughout the 19th century in America some people benefited from land grants under the Homestead Act and became rural dwellers; immigrants around the turn of the 19th century were attracted to the cities, mainly because that is where opportunities were. Blacks were slaves predominantly in the South, migrating to northern cities towards the beginning of the last century. The descendants of each of these groups found themselves either in advantageous or detrimental locations later. Analogous situations are ubiquitous, whether in “veteran” western societies, “settler” versions, in Africa or Asia, or in urban or rural localities. It is commonplace for earlier migrants to bewail their fate in the face of what they perceive to be their own misfortune compared with “preferential treatment” accorded to more recent arrivals-rioting in Black areas of American cities some years ago directed against Korean immigrants is but one example.
There is also a series of non-politically correct questions to be asked about adaptation to new situations, openness to change and the degree to which a state wishes to mold immigrants, or indeed, its citizens. Like many other immigrant societies, Israel had a particular model in mind concerning what it wished to produce-a society that, as I have noted elsewhere, would be vaguely European, bound by Jewish (but not too Jewish) roots in a Jewish soil. This meant, of necessity, reshaping most people to conform. I do not think that there is anything wrong with this; it is what many countries that support immigration aspire to. The current fetish of multiculturalism is fine provided that the multicultural society has a strong foundation upon which to lie and provided it does not weaken the social fabric of the state. Without this, it can lead to chaos.
It is also worth making the point that Israel is located in one of the world’s most violence-prone regions, a geopolitical shatterbelt, to use Saul Cohen’s terminology. Moreover, its neighbors are not democratic states-far from it. Yiftachel would have us believe that Israel, too, is not a democracy and that the Palestinians, including their resistance fighters, are the perpetual victims of one of the biggest land grabs in history, perpetrated by the Ashkenazi ethnocracy using a hoodwinked Mizrahi population as its unwilling accomplices. The missing link in this exegesis is that what happens in Israel cannot be explained in isolation from the region in which it exists; events in Lebanon, Iraq or even Afghanistan impact upon what happens in Israel-for better or for worse. If Islamic extremism causes Israeli Jews to be apprehensive about their future wellbeing and this has a negative impact upon their relationships with the Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the Occupied Territories, one cannot ignore this or pretend that it doesn’t exist. We live in a real world not an idealized one.
One of the main conclusions of this book is that there is no place for a Jewish nation-state, that the founders were fundamentally flawed in their ideology and decision-making a century ago and had they realized the folly of their actions, they would have chosen a wiser way of coexistence with their Arab neighbors, avoiding the creation of an ethnocracy. Placed in the contexts of human decision-making and the time and place, no such “enlightened” policy could ever have been forthcoming.
The settler leaders of the early waves of Zionist settlement were indeed predominantly male and hailed from Eastern Europe but Zionism was just one of just many channels-emigration, socialism, communism, capitalism, bundism-into which many East European Jews ploughed their energies to escape the shackles of religion and tradition under which they grew up in the shtetls and cities. It is little wonder that the Zionists, who in addition to their desire to escape the social and cultural constraints of traditional Jewish life should choose the nation-state as their desired model for liberation and redemption. It had seemed to work for many since France adopted it in the 18th century. And even though the period between the world wars proved that the nation-state, as narrowly defined, was beset with problems, it nevertheless became the model for almost all the post-colonial independence movements throughout the world from the late 1940s on. The tragedy of Israel/Palestine, it must be remarked once again, is that two nations need the same territory upon which to create their nation-state and achieve national fulfillment.
This is a book with a clear narrative. In order to relate this narrative as unambiguously as possible the author has decided on a policy of overkill and of ensuring that no facts creep in which might undermine or even detract from the account. Overkill at least makes sure that the beast has been slain. This is what detracts from the book-and the credibility of the author-more than anything else.
Yiftachel and I agree on some things: that non-Jews get a raw deal in Israel; that the gap between wealthy and poor in Israel is far too wide; that Israel, the Middle East and possibly even the world might be a more tranquil place if Israel’s land fetish, especially in the West Bank, subsided or vanished and the establishment of a Palestinian state
alongside a more representative State of Israel were encouraged. At the same time, there are many things over which we differ widely: that Israel is only a sham democracy, the Zionist idea of a Jewish state is
fundamentally flawed, Israel is fundamentally evil and to blame for all the region’s ills. Things can be changed and improved; there is no need to dismantle the whole edifice to replace a door or a window. Our most fundamental difference is that Yiftachel sees all the faults of Israeli society as being the work of the descendants of the founding fathers of the Jewish settlement in Palestine. In a black version of Israeli
politics, this sinister cabal controls the Israeli economy, the country’s resources-especially land-and politics. It operates in devious ways, its members divvying out jobs among themselves and their associates, its every move callously thought out and designed to benefit its own members at the expense of everyone else.
The book contains some factual errors. I would like to think that these just escaped the eyes of the author and his editors and were not
deliberately implanted to add spice to the recipe. The “Green Line” was never “the state’s internationally recognized border” (p.65); rather it is but one contentious aspect of the overall problem. Ariel Sharon, then Israel's infrastructure minister, provocatively bought a place in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1980s to create a symbolic Jewish presence there; the Prime Minister’s official residence is in West Jerusalem. The references to the role and influence of “world Jewry” on Israel society and politics (p.97) is misleading at best, wrong at worst. Moreover, it’s a subtlety that is hard for those unfamiliar with the complex relationship between Israel and the Diaspora to grasp; for those believers in Jewish conspiracies, it is manna from heaven.
One cannot but conclude that this book panders to those with a
predisposition to Israel-bashing and distinct anticolonial biases. Israel doesn’t appear to have a government but a regime; it claims to be a democracy; there is pervasive militarism; there is male dominance and female discrimination in all walks of life (as there also appears to be throughout the world except in some truly enlightened Nordic states). Yiftachel wishes to make clear that he sees a comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa and that through policies of control and exclusion. Places have Arabic names as alternatives to accepted English forms-there’s al Quds but never Yerushalayim, Nassrah but not Natzeret. Israel is suffering from creeping apartheid. There is also a failure even to mention even once that Arab rejectionists do not talk about equal rights but about the need to obliterate the Jewish state.
Yiftachel plays to the gallery and in doing so, he vastly weakens his case. The attempt to hold the Ashkenazi elite as a whole responsible for discrimination against all those who claim to have been deprived or suffered discrimination wreaks of heavy-handedness. The book is most convincing when it examines the relationship between the state and the Arab population; it is weak when Yiftachel tries to convince his readers that the Mizrahim, entrapped in place and social status, are little more than the unwilling tools of the Ashkenazim in their quest for absolute dominance; it is weakest in the last four chapters and especially in its attempt to create future scenarios.
These excesses are a pity for unlike recent publications by some Israeli colleagues with similar outlooks, Yiftachel writes well; the text is fluent and there are almost no typographical errors. Not only does he write fluently but he writes with an enthusiasm that only a convert can muster. Overall, his editors have done him justice with the result that we have an eminently readable book. It is though-provoking with something in almost every chapter that causes the reader to sit up and take notice. At the same time, there is also something in almost every chapter that forces the unconvinced - natural skeptics and others - to ask whether Israel could really be such an odious and vile place. It is Yiftachel’s zeal as a convert that is the book’s undoing. His attempt to please the members of the church he has joined means that his book remains in the realm of challenging but not convincing.
Oren Yiftachel, Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in
Israel/Palestine. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. xi+350 pp., $69.95. Spring 2006