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University of Haifa
[U of Haifa] Dr. As'ad Ghanem / Israel’s “Ethnocracy” and the Demographic Threat

Dr. As’ad Ghanem is head of the Government and Political Philosophy Department at the School of Political Science, University of Haifa. 


21 Oct. 2008 

The Palestine Center interviewed Dr. As'ad Ghanem of the University of Haifa about the state of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and published the interview in full.  He is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"Israel’s “Ethnocracy” and the Demographic Threat: Dr. As’ad Ghanem on Israel’s Palestinian Citizens" 

PC: Your academic work focuses on the Palestinian citizens of Israel.  Here they are often referred to in the Israeli nomenclature as “Israeli Arabs.”  How do they relate to Palestinians as a national group?

AG: The Palestinians inside Israel became a minority in their homeland after the 1948 Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe,” referring to the termination of the Palestinian homeland when Israel was founded). They are part of the Palestinian people and therefore nation in terms of their patriotic, national and cultural affiliation. Israel didn’t recognize their Palestinian national identity for a long time (preferring to call them “Israeli Arabs”). It treated them as confessional and ethnic minorities, second-class subjects, meaning not as equal right citizens.

PC: Recent events in Akka (Acre) have highlighted tensions between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens as Jewish civilians unleashed anger and violence against their Palestinian neighbors after they accused a Palestinian man of driving dangerously through a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur. This began days of street fighting and vandalism.  What are the causes of this unrest?

AG: While the Palestinians in Israel are second class citizens who live on the margins of Israeli political, social, cultural and economic life, Palestinians in the so called "mixed cities" are on the margins of the margins, being at the edges of the Palestinian community in Israel in many ways.  In comparison to life in most developed countries, even the other parts of Palestine, and life before al-Nakba in 1948, those in “mixed cities” are in many ways worse off. They tend to receive a very low level of education and suffer from a high level of unemployment.  Drug use, divorce, discrimination and neglect from these municipal authorities in their cities makes life in “mixed cities” especially difficult for Palestinian citizens.  This compounds the discriminatory state policies that are directed towards the entire Palestinian society in Israel.

Many Jewish Israelis hold what could only be called racist views towards the Palestinian citizens. Reports from Akka in the last few days make it clear that most of the Jewish vandals and rioters are those who hold very extreme stands against Palestinians in general and those who hold Israeli citizenship in particular.  A large portion of them were settlers who moved to Akka following the Israeli withdrawal of Gaza. They came to Akka as part of the Judaization efforts to increase the Jewish population in Akka.  This parallels the goal of transferring the remaining Palestinians from Akka to other parts of the country. The background to this phenomenon is rooted on the general framework of the "Jewish State" policies towards the Palestinian minority, the growing debate in Israel regarding the danger of changing demographics and the vocal stands against the Palestinian minority within the Israeli establishment, including government ministers and members of the Knesset.

PC: What is going on generally at the national level?

AG: In terms of general Palestinian-Jewish relations in Israel, the Akka events are a direct outcome of years of neglect and deep polarization between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority in Israel. The events in Akka follow important developments contributing to deepening hostility between the two groups.
First, the political campaign against Palestinian-Israeli political leaders reached its peak by the detention of leadership, including Islamic Movement’s leadership, the chairman of Abnaa' Al-Balad Movement, the head of the national democratic alliance (NDA), Azmi Bishara, and the government’s investigation of most of the Knesset’s Palestinian members—all for their political stances and activities.

Second, the increase of the transfer discourse in Israeli political and public culture manifested in actual policies, such as the canceling of citizenship for some Palestinian citizens.  The Jewish state’s objective is to preserve a Jewish majority.  In popular discussion of the negotiations, there is talk of the ceding lands in the “Triangle” area to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians in Israel fear their citizenship is subjected to exchange by Israeli politicians. The Yisrael Beiteinu Party, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, has included this demand in its political platform.

Third, the recommendations of the Or Commission in September 2003 disappointed Palestinian citizens. The commission failed to implicate the real actors in the intifada events of October 2000 in which Israeli police left thirteen Israeli-Palestinians dead. Though committee recommendations included addressing discrimination against the Palestinian minority, they balanced responsibility for the events between the police and the victims. After the publication of the committee recommendations, the section which investigates the policemen, "Mahash," published a report in September 2005. The report did not recommend presenting any bill of indictment against any policeman for the deaths of thirteen Palestinian citizens. This showed a carelessness towards the Palestinians in Israel. Moreover, it has increased Palestinian citizens’ alienation towards state institutions.  Their distrust of the different state institutions elevates each year.

Fourth, although the Palestinian minority gets larger each year, they have become more marginal in national life. Many reports and studies indicate that Palestinians in Israel sense they have little influence on the national level, even less so than a decade ago.

There is a clear crisis in the relations between Palestinians in Israel and the state, including the Jewish majority it represents. The crisis is rooted in the state’s basic character and policies towards the Palestinian minority.

PC: Many pro-Israeli advocacy groups hold up the Palestinian citizens as an example of the integrity of Israeli democracy...

AG: The citizenship of Palestinians in Israel has no real significance. The notion of “citizenship” as applied to Palestinians in Israel stems from Israel’s paradigm of control.  These views have been picked up by Israeli politicians, academia and media. The goal has been to enhance control over Palestinians in Israel and intensify the separation between them and the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. This concept gained currency after the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967. Aside from participating in elections, an extremely limited form of participation for a minority, Palestinians in Israel do not enjoy basic protections or basic rights that ought to be assured by the fact of citizenship.

Above all, an “ethnocratic” regime rule in Israel is not a democratic one.  It is a regime that serves as an instrument of the ethnic majority, even to commit systematic harm to the minority and their basic rights. Such a regime ranks on a continuum with the apartheid regime in South Africa before 1990.  Though it is far from a normal democratic state, Israel’s systematic preferences to the Jewish majority are widely supported by the Jewish population and Israeli academia, which works hard to promote it in the West as a democracy.

PC: What is meant by “ethnocracy”? And has this term become more or less applicable in the past several years?

AG: Increasingly, academic literature produced by Palestinian and Jewish researchers criticized the Israeli system and its treatment of the Palestinian minority. They have demonstrated the internal contradictions of Jewish democracy in Israel. Among these theories is the concept of “ethnocracy” that I formulated along with Prof. Oren Yiftachel from Beer Sheva University in Al-Naqab.  It refers to the domination of the Jewish ethnic group in the state of Israel and how the Palestinian minority is structurally relegated to a position of inferiority.

Some argue the relation between the settler-colonial nature of Israel and its proto-democracy is a foundational contradiction.  The relation between the nation, nationality, religion and citizenship is the second structural contradiction of the Jewish democracy. The state of Israel is not only Jewish due to its Jewish majority but also because it claims to be the state of all Jews everywhere. This means that Israel, according to its self identification and vision, is not a state for all its citizens but is a state of potential citizens who, as a result, are prioritized over actual citizens based only on religious identity. Thus, there are deep problems with the way Jewish democracy is formulated in Israel. The first problem is the state incapability to achieve equality. The second problem is the ideological citizenship, the Zionist citizenship.

Israeli policy objectives and selective legal enforcement in the last few years support these criticisms: the state’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens; the mainstreaming of proposals to expel many citizens to the Palestinian Authority in the context of a peace deal; the lack of enforcement against the police’s killing of Palestinian protestors; and the clear governmental preference to maintain an absolute Jewish majority at the expense of the Palestinian citizens’ rights. It became clear that Israel does not see them as citizens equal with the Jewish citizen, but worse, as enemies of the state.

In order to understand the most important changes in the last decade or so it is important to consider some central points regarding the formation of the political culture of the Jewish society in Israel and its effects on Israeli institutions, decision makers, politicians and other Jewish citizens. The most obvious feature was the formation of a dominant ideology, a new Zionist consensus towards basic issues in the political, economic and social arenas. Amongst those is the status of the Palestinian minority in Israel, or what is called “the Demographic Danger” of having too many non-Jews. There is wide agreement among Israel’s establishment about the necessity to maintain an absolute Jewish majority in the state of Israel as a basic and necessary condition for its security.

This Zionist consensus has come to define Israeli political culture and has been translated into both tangible policies and de facto actions:

• Palestinian citizens are more commonly considered under the rubric of “security.” The Israeli National Security Council and various security agencies began actively analyzing and considering minority issues. An unofficial return to “military law” in Palestinian minority areas resembling the first 18 years of the state establishment (military law was upheld between 1948-1966).
• The legal codification of Jewish superiority and Palestinians’ inferiority. A set of new laws further the Jewish character of the state. One example is the law which bans family reunification when Israeli citizens marry Palestinians without citizenship; it denies non-citizen spouses the right of citizenship (though this order was temporary, it has been renewed multiple times).
• The political push to create a formal constitution that concretizes the Jewish nature of the state. 
• Symbolic laws such as the law to commemorate Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, the former Israeli minister who called for the transfer of Palestinians (he was assassinated by Palestinians in the beginning of Al-Aqsa intifada).
• An increasing use of the term “demographic threat” to describe Palestinian citizens. This term is not just restricted to the politicians and decision makers, but it is common in the Israeli academy. There was a conference at Haifa University titled “The Demographic Problem and the Demographic Policy of Israel” to discuss the forms of population growth of the Palestinian minority in Israel and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.  The attendees discussed proposals to deal with such dangers.

Israel has continued to control the land and prevent Palestinian citizens from natural geographic expansion.  They ban building Palestinian houses on what is called “state lands,” though they were originally confiscated from the Palestinians.

Parallel to these racist laws against Palestinian citizens, the last years were marred by the silencing of the Palestinian political parties. More restrictions against representation in the Knesset and increased Zionist votes calling for lifting forms of political immunity for Palestinian Knesset members diminished Palestinian political enfranchisement.

PC: What about Israel’s policies towards the Bedouins?

AG: Some of the most egregious examples of discrimination target the Palestinian Bedouin citizens in the Negev. Bedouin citizens were transferred and forcibly settled to new, concentrated areas by force, suffering from large amounts of land confiscation in both their old and new areas (the southern area of Israel is considered important for future use since the population density is very low now). The state, principally and formally, denies this relation between the Bedouins and their land. Bedouins also struggle to receive proper social services that the state provides to the rest of its residents. Moreover, the Israeli government excludes the Bedouins from positive development plans and forces them to the margins of the Israeli economy and society.

The Israeli National Security Council was authorized to study the Bedouin issue in the Negev and to establish the governmental policies to deal with them. The National Security Council Annual Report for the year 2004 described the Bedouins as a “time bomb ready to explode” and said they bear the potential for future violent confrontation. Furthermore, the Council warned against “the danger of Bedouin control over wide areas of state land” and the effect of “extremist” Islamic figures on the population. The report folded them into the “demographic problem,” expressly naming “the high percentage of natural growth” among them.

PC: In the early days of Israel’s existence, it programmatically encouraged Jewish settlers to move to the Galilee to diminish the Palestinian presence there, which is the process by which cities like Upper Nazareth arose.  Are there current versions of this?

AG: In 2005, the government approved a plan to Judaize the Negev and Galilee.  The plan includes investing about 17 billion shekels in the Negev and the Galilee over ten years under the supervision of current President Shimon Peres (he served as the minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee). Moreover, the state is offering decreased taxes and grants as incentives for Jews to move there and the Galilee.  After the decision of withdrawal from Gaza, the government encouraged Jewish settlers to move to these areas in order to diminish the concentration of Palestinians.

The Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, announced “withdrawal from Gaza is supposed to promote Negev and Galilee… the other face of the withdrawal is to enhance settlement in Negev and Galilee.”

PC: How do the Palestinian citizens fit into this question of peace/solution?  How do their interests compare to those of the rest of the Palestinians?

AG: The struggle of Palestinians in Israel began immediately after al-Nakba in 1948. The significant and immediate difference between them and other Palestinians lay in the fact that they had remained on their land and became citizens of the Jewish state of Israel. In practice, however, this fact, which is important in itself, did not help them very much. In the eyes of the Israeli authorities and various security agencies, they were generally considered to be part of the Palestinian “enemy,” and Israel adopted a policy of harsh control as part of the steps to control and deter them.

The Palestinians who remained in Israel were shocked by the scope of the Palestinian defeat at the hand of the Zionist army and by the establishment of a new state alien to them. They were weak, divided and lacked a national political leadership to guide them. Most of them were poor, illiterate and unorganized. Their main concern at the time was to earn some living for their families and stick to their land in order not to become refugees like their Palestinian brothers and sisters. The Israeli authorities employed diverse techniques that deterred many Palestinians from political participation or even political discussions that were not to the taste of the authorities; this impeded the consolidation of a national leadership and encouraged “accommodating” leaders on the Palestinian side. Direct military rule controlled the Palestinians and limited their mobility.

Until 1967, most Palestinians did not have the leisure time or material comfort for political activity due to the harsh conditions of their lives in Israel. Many worked just to survive. This economic dependence allowed the authorities to threaten those who might be inclined to political activity with the loss of employment. After 1967, the military government receded, giving the Palestinian citizens more freedom for political activity and critical thought.

For Israeli-Palestinians, their major political efforts were devoted to searching for a solution to the Palestinian problem in the form of the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Parallel to that, they strived for improving their own standard of living and modifying the policies of the Israeli authorities towards them. Their leaders focused on putting forward demands for civic equality and invested efforts to work for changes in social and political aspects of Palestinian society in Israel.

PC: What was the impact of Oslo on the Palestinian minority?

AG: The Oslo Accords of September 1993 mark a new stage in the political life of the Palestinians in Israel and in their aspirations. The direct contacts between Israel and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] and the declared intention to find a comprehensive solution to the conflict has removed one of the two key issues from the agenda for the Palestinians in Israel; in practice, it left the question of civil equality in the state as the leading item of their struggle. This acquired significant momentum in light of the idea, which emerged over the years, that a solution to the problem of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza would promote Palestinian equality in Israel and help them realize their demands.

Immediately after the signing of the Declaration of Principles by the Government of Israel and the PLO, the status desired by the Palestinian citizens of Israel received much more attention. The preferred or possible status of the Palestinians in Israel, as it contravenes the Jewish-Zionist nature of the state, has been discussed with greater frequency than in the past. Old and new ideas of broad or limited personal autonomy have been raised, along with ideas of annexation of part of the “Triangle” to the future Palestinian entity in the West Bank.  There is talk of a more substantial integration than at present, both on the level of individuals and as a group.

PC: What role do Palestinian citizens of Israel and their representatives play in the current Israeli political scene? Are they being consulted in the efforts to form a new coalition?

AG: Historically, Palestinian or Palestinian-dominated parties in the Knesset—the DFPE [Democratic Front for Peace and Equality] and its predecessor the Israel Communist Party, the PLP [Progressive List for Peace], the DAP [Democratic Arab Party], and the NDA [National Democratic Assembly]—were excluded from governing coalitions. They were never part of negotiations over the establishment of new governments in Israel.

Over the years, it became clear that Palestinian parties constituted a “permanent opposition” with no practical or even theoretical chance of joining a government coalition. This status derived from several factors of which the foremost were that they were “non Jewish” (hence representatives of an untrustworthy and “hostile” minority), non or anti-Zionist and opposed in various degrees to many government policies in both domestic and foreign affairs. In other words, it was precisely the nature of the relationship between the state and its Jewish majority, on the one side, and the Palestinian minority, on the other, that relegated these parties to the status of permanent opposition.

Over the years, the Palestinian-dominated parties have adopted a consistently anti-Zionist position that opposes the definition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, deeming it unfair to the state’s Palestinian citizens. They have stressed that Israel should be a “state of its citizens.” The majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel reject the Jewish-Zionist nature of the state. In addition to the dispute over the country’s character and purpose, the Palestinian parties and their Knesset representatives are firmly opposed to government policy on vital issues such as the distribution of resources within the state, the solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict in general and to its unwillingness to settle the refugee issue in particular. This opposition exacerbates fears about the Palestinians among the Jewish public and decision-makers and reinforces the notion that they constitute a “hostile minority” and potential fifth column. This anxiety in the Jewish community plays an important factor in deterring Jewish politicians from accepting Palestinians as full coalition partners, lest their own parties’ support within the Jewish sector decline.

By excluding the Palestinian parties and Palestinian citizens from full participation in the executive arm, the state has effectively kept them from having active and equal influence on decisions relating to momentous issues for the state and even for themselves. This array of factors, all emanating from the predicament of the relationship between Israel and its Palestinian community, has rendered the Palestinian Knesset factions a permanent opposition within the Israeli system of government. Palestinian parliamentary officials have failed to register any significant achievement for Palestinian society and have been unable to compel the government to redress any of the Palestinians’ many complaints, even in cases that the Jewish majority considers to be legitimate and justified. This failure is inherent in the structural inequality of citizenship in the ethnocratic state system.
PC: It has been more than a year since the release of the "Future Vision of the Palestinians in Israel" and other related documents, which you worked on with nearly 40 other intellectuals and politicians. What did it propose?

AG: In December 2006, a group of politicians and intellectuals headed by Shawki Khatib, the head of the Supreme Follow-up Committee of the Palestinians in Israel—their highest and the most authoritative representative body—published the “Future Vision of the Palestinians in Israel.” This document attracted national and international interest and elicited a wide variety of responses across the political spectrum of Jews, Palestinians and others.

The document is a historic event in the annals of the Palestinians in Israel and their relationship with the Jewish majority and establishment. This is the first time a representative national body of Palestinians in Israel has prepared and published a basic paper that describes both the existing situation and the changes that are needed across a broad spectrum of Palestinian life: relations with the Jewish majority, the legal situation, land, social and economic issues, the status of civil and political institutions, etc. The document was written by activists from all political tendencies among the Palestinians in Israel and delineates the achievements necessary for defining the future relationship between the majority and the minority in the state of Israel.

The document is based on three theoretical principles that constitute the foundations of human social, political and cultural development for at least the past two centuries. First is the principle of human rights: the document addresses the fundamental rights of the Palestinians in Israel as human beings to economic and social development, women's and children's rights, to live without violence, etc. and demands their realization.

The second principle invokes civil equality: the basic democratic right to equality before the law and a reconfiguration of structures and symbols that alienate the Palestinian citizens of Israel and ensure Jewish superiority. And the third principle is that of the right of communities to self-determination, including the autonomous right to manage specific areas of life such as their own education, cultural and religious affairs.

In order to realize these foundations, the document's writers demand the implementation in Israel of a consociational system/bi-national state. This would replace the existing “liberal system” that is exploited automatically by the Jewish majority and that, indeed, constitutes a “tyranny of the majority” in which, in the name of liberal democracy, that majority takes draconian steps against the Palestinian minority and its fundamental rights.

PC: How were these principles received by Israelis and especially among other Palestinians?

The documents succeed in provoking responses from all political sides, including different streams among Palestinians in Israel, Israeli Jews, Jews abroad and Palestinians outside Israel. Most of the responses from the Jewish majority have accused the Palestinians in Israel of undermining Israel's foundations as a “Jewish and democratic” state.

Jewish reaction representing the Zionist consensus was expressed to a significant extent by Journalist and previous Minister of Justice Tommy Lapid, Professor Amnon Rubinstein and Historian and Professor Alex Jacobson. For example, Law Professor Amnon Rubinstein, a former Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party, writing in the daily Ma'ariv, called the document "shameless" and claimed, somewhat hysterically, that it "demands rights for the Palestinian minority that have no foundation in international law – and demands to put an end to Israel as a Jewish state."

Similarly, in an open letter to the authors of the document for the Palestinian weekly Al-Sinara, Professor Shimon Shamir, a member of the Or Commission that examined the causes of the October 2000 intifada (and which made a wide range of recommendations to the Israeli government for improving the status of its Palestinian citizens), noted, “not only does your document fail to create a foundation for dialogue, it evokes a sense of threat for Jewish readers, even those who are sympathetic to your cause.”

Through these reactions, Jewish intellectuals display a nationalist readiness to recognize the right to self-determination of only a single group in a pluralist reality. This model ignores the compromises reached in Spain after Franco, in Belgium, in Canada since the Quiet Revolution and in several other instances in which a pluralist reality facilitated solutions based on mutual recognition, the right of self-determination and self-rule for more than one national or ethnic group within a single political framework.

At the other end of the spectrum, among the Palestinians of Israel themselves, there is a group that proposes a different platform for agreement among the Palestinians without accepting the need for a compromise that can be accepted by a majority of Palestinian citizens, as the Vision document does. The Islamic movement led by Sheikh Raad Salah, part of the Sons of the Village movement, criticized the document and demanded its cancellation and deemed it “unrepresentative.”

A recent representative survey that I conducted last July-August (2008) among Palestinians in Israel found the vast majority, exceeding 94 percent, supported the main principal guides of the “future vision.”

PC: What is next for the “Future Vision” movement?

AG: Following the release of the document, the group of activists who initiated it are busy establishing a political program derived from the “Future Vision” principles. In December, we will hold a conference to present the program and to urge Palestinian leadership to consider it officially as the collective political agenda.

Dr. As'ad Ghanem is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Maryland, College Park.


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