The Paradox of Religious Democracy
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge : 2002
By Faisal Tbeileh
Azmi Bishara, the Israeli-Palestinian political philosopher, wrote recently that states create nations; nations don't create states. Nations are created in the imagination of their builders. The overwhelming majority of nation states were created by well-organized elites who conquered a territory and its population, peacefully or otherwise. Nation states are always based on the arbitrary creation of exclusionary boundaries. These boundaries can be geographical, religious, ethnic, or linguistic. Nation states are created within territories that are populated with disparate groups of people. Here is where the elites play a vital role in determining who is considered a legitimate member or citizen of this state. Inclusion can be based on one or a combination of characteristics; religious, ethnic, historical and linguistic.
The history of the state of Israel represents a continuation of the European model of colonial settler state building, with relatively minor variation. A group of settlers dominated a territory under the sponsorship of a powerful European state. Religion was used as a mobilizing ideology to recruit members to the emergent settlements. Eventually their numbers and organization reached a critical mass that enabled them to fight a war of independence against their original sponsors. Although Zionism is not unique in utilizing religion as a justification for European domination of foreign land and its population, Israel is unique in utilizing religion as the basis of ethnic identity, and consequently as the primary basis of citizenship.
How can you claim the establishment of a modern liberal democracy where citizenship is solely based on religious affiliation? How can the West, which has always fought for secularizing political citizenship (particularly in the United States) scarcely ever refrain from enthusiastic support for a state where religion is considered the sole basis of full citizenship?
Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled have produced a major work that analyzes how Israel attempted to solve its citizenship dilemma, building a secular state based on a religious claim. They show how since the beginning, Israel had to maneuver two contradictory goals, first, establishing legitimacy among a disparate group of settlers who belonged to a variety of ethnic, social, and linguistic backgrounds (in addition to their religious divisions). Secondly, how to gain legitimacy and the political, economic and military support vital to the success of their project from international sponsors, whose politics and rules of citizenship are secular.
Photo by Satoshi Yamaji
They propose that over time Israel has been applying three models of citizenship: republican, liberal, and ethno-religious. These models are generally used alternately or simultaneously depending on circumstance or which branch of the ruling elite happens to be in control of the state apparatus. In their view, because the history of Israel is dominated by the pursuit of three contradictory goals – Jewishness, democracy, and colonization, the elites have to constantly shift their emphasis from one model of citizenship to another.
The republican model of citizenship was dominant during the period of the pre-state settlement as a mobilizing and legitimizing force to unify the variety of European settlers in their attempt to settle the land and dominate its population. Decisions were made by highly motivated and centralized elites who controlled resources and used material rewards to guarantee allegiance. Thus, the lack of openness in the decision making process and the authoritarian practices of the officials of the Jewish Agency (which was authorized to manage the settlement project) were justified as serving the goal of the community's physical survival against threats of the resistance by the indigenous population. It was very useful in the colonization process after the creation of the state in 1948, which required the massive confiscation of Palestinian land, and it maintained the political and economic dominance of Western Jews (represented by the Histadrut and the Labor Coalition) which ruled the country until the late 1970s. The book provides a detailed description of how the application of the republican model of citizenship made it easy for the Israeli government to justify its denial of the political, human, and economic rights of Israeli Palestinians and Middle Eastern Jews.
Liberal citizenship, which emphasized individual rights and secularism, was necessary to maintain the legitimacy among European Jews who tended to be more educated and culturally raised in liberal democracy. Here the authors neglect to mention that it was also very useful in gaining international support, particularly in the United States , where the Jewish community was actively advocating liberal causes. The public relations benefit of the continuous praise of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East is incalculable in influencing the West, particularly in the United States , to accept Israel 's aggressive practices in the region.
Ethno-religious citizenship was critical in recruiting a vast number of Middle Eastern Jews, more accurately identified as Arab Jews, to immigrate to the newly established state. Zionists needed them because they had not attracted enough Western Jews, partly due to the decimation of European Jewry during the Holocaust. It made Arab Jews feel a step above Muslim and Christian Palestinians, due to the fact that the greatest portion of the material rewards of Israeli citizenship were and still are based on religious identification.
Since the 1967 War, which resulted in Israel 's occupation of the rest of historical Palestine , it has become increasingly difficult for the ruling elite to successfully juggle these three models of citizenship. The republican model has become increasingly inoperative due to the reluctance of secular members of society to colonizing the West Bank and Gaza. The dominance of Orthodox Jewish groups among settlers has created a great deal of political turmoil, eventually leading to the defeat of Labor for the first time since 1948, dimming its prospects of ever regaining its dominant position in Israeli politics.
Photo by Satoshi Yamaji
The authors diligently describe Israel 's ruling elites' present dilemma. How can it maintain domestic and international legitimacy in a state where religion is used as the dominant form of identity, while denying a large percentage of the population the right of full citizenship? How can it sustain domestic legitimacy without establishing an Israeli version of the post- Civil War American South, or the South African apartheid state? Israel 's previous Prime Minister Barak stated, “I do not want a state that belongs to all its citizens.” That this incredibly audacious declaration has been supported by the majority of the political establishment in this country, regardless of political persuasion, does not bode well for the future. But as the authors have clearly concluded, Israel cannot permanently avoid the inevitable. It has to decide whether or not its main priority is the establishment of a modern liberal state where all inhabitants enjoy equal political, social, and economic benefits of the state, regardless of religion. Or would they rather see the followers of one religion maintain their dominance, as long as the fiction of democracy is upheld before its Western financial and military backers (mainly the United States), regardless of the long-term consequences?
This book is very valuable in offering a well-thought solution to Israel 's citizenship problem. It is scholarly and well researched, and an interesting and useful reading for both specialists and the public. Its extensive bibliography provides a comprehensive listing of both theoretical and empirical literature, which makes it highly recommended.
This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 49 (Fall 2004).
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid