BGU Oren Yiftachel’s Two Decades of Apartheid Analogy


Editorial Note

Oren Yiftachel, a professor of Geography at Ben Gurion University, is presenting two seminars on his new book Land and Power: from Ethnocracy and Creeping Apartheid in Israel/Palestine, in Hebrew. 

Yiftachel explains in a Haaretz article, that the “process I’ve referred to in my research as ‘creeping apartheid’ that gradually reinforces the principles of Jewish supremacy and ‘separate and unequal’ in all areas of life between the Jordan and the sea. In such settings, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas only control the areas of life that Israel isn’t interested in controlling, and as such they too become (reluctant) servants of the apartheid order.”

Yiftachel has been a political activist for several decades.  He was one of the pioneers of the notion that Israel is an apartheid state.  Over time, Yiftachel has fiddled with the concept to fit the South African reality.  For instance, he states that Israel, with a “consistent process of violent and putatively legal colonization on both sides of the Green Line, a hierarchy of citizenships has crystallized, reminiscent of the former South African system of “whites” (full citizens), “coloureds” (partial citizens) and “blacks” (subjects without citizenship). Their counterparts in Israel/Palestine are Jews (full citizens throughout the territory), Palestinian Arabs in Israel (partial citizenship) and Palestinian subjects with no citizenship in the occupied territories.”

YIftachel’s methodology is absurd in the extreme and hardly deserves commentary. One example suffices. According to his definition, the Ethiopian Jews, who are full Israeli citizens, are “white,” but the Palestinian Arabs (in Israel) are not white.  He never bothered to explain why a “white colonial government” would bring African blacks as immigrants to Israel and even proceed to make them “white,” that is, give them full citizenship.  The real explanation would blow his apartheid theory to pieces, so it is not mentioned.   This is not unusual for Yiftachel and his ideological peers.  Reality is often ignored, truth falsified, and logic twisted beyond comprehension.  

Still, Yiftachel seems to be quite happy with his performance.  He mentioned a report published by the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, which he refers to as the “apartheid document.”  Yiftachel, a board member of B’tselem, co-authored this report and seemed to be alluding to the fact that it played a part in the decision of the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into alleged human rights crimes in Gaza. 

Yitachel noted that “the apartheid argument has already been raised for some time in academic circles.” This is correct. Since 2002 Yiftachel has been espousing the idea that Israel is an apartheid state as part of his scholarship. 

Throughout his activist-academic career, Yiftachel has discussed his apartheid analogy on the pages of the anti-Israel media outlets, including in 2009, the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).

Yiftachel has been attacking Israel from other angles as well. Recently, Yiftachel collaborated with the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies (MADAR), an independent research center based in Ramallah, specializing in “Israeli affairs.” Yiftachel provided MADAR with an article in Arabic, very similar to his “Welcome to the era of Coronialism,” claiming that under the guise of “emergency,” states, such as Israel, are using COVID-19 to “consolidate power, prop up the neoliberal order, and clamp down on the disenfranchised,” termed “Coronialism.” Yiftachel warns that if we fail to struggle against it, “regressive forces will recolonize society, notably in Israel-Palestine.” The article was published one year ago, but the claims are breathtakingly false.  Israel has become an internationally recognized leader in fighting the pandemic, which was recognized worldwide.

Yiftachel’s apartheid analogy began in 2002. The Guardian newspaper detailed how an academic paper submitted by Yifachel and a colleague to a British journal was returned unopened with a note saying they did not accept papers from Israelis. After negotiations with David Slater, one of the editors, Yiftachel agreed to insert comparisons of Israel with apartheid South Africa. As stated by the Guardian: “In this report we referred to the treatment of a paper written by Professor Oren Yiftachel of Ben Gurion University and Dr Asad Ghanem of Haifa University, which was submitted to the journal Political Geography. We reported that Professor Yiftachel had, after a protracted dispute, agreed to revise the paper according to suggestions made by Political Geography, including the insertion of a comparison of Israel and apartheid South Africa, and that on this basis the paper had been accepted for publication.”   The Guardian detailed the pressure on Yiftachel by Slater, a geography professor at Loughborough University, and a “prominent British supporter of Palestinian causes.” Slater responded to the Guardian by saying, “But I was familiar with some of the author’s previous work… I was not sure to what extent he had been critical of Israel.” Slater said he hesitated what to do with Yiftachel’s paper, “for a while.” After some long months, “Yiftachel agreed. He still sounds slightly puzzled at how he ran into such difficulties with an apparent political kindred spirit like David Slater. Slater maintains that Political Geography is not officially hostile to contributions from Israel. But then, almost in passing, he mentions something interesting. At some point last spring or summer, while he was pondering Yiftachel’s paper, Slater signed a petition calling for an academic boycott of Israel.” Eventually, Yiftachel’s article was published in 2004.

Clearly, Yiftachel mishandled the incident. Right from the start, he could have contacted the academic leadership of Ben Gurion University to seek advice, and they should have contacted the journal for clarifications.

However, the Palestinian-Israeli dispute is century-long. In 1948 the Palestinians with their Arab allies tried to destroy the nascent Jewish state but were unsuccessful. Israel fought back and won several wars since. The fighting continues to this day. It is easy to see that Yiftachel’s apartheid analogy is not scientific. In fact, he abused his scholarship to promote his political agenda.

אוניברסיטת בן-גוריון בנגבהשקת ספרו של אורן יפתחאל: עוצמה ואדמה

השקת ספרו של אורן יפתחאל: עוצמה ואדמה

28 אפר’ 2021 18:00הדפסה

​מרכז חיים הרצוג לחקר המזרח התיכון והדיפלומטיה, המחלקה לגיאוגרפיה ופיתוח סביבתי
מזמינים אתכם להשקת ספרו של אורן יפתחאל: עוצמה ואדמה : מאתנוקרטיה לאפרטהייד זוחל בישראל/פלסטין

כריכת הספר

דוד וטשטיין, דיקן הפקולטה למדעי הרוח והחברה, אוניברסיטת בן-גוריון בנגב
חיה במבג’י-סספורטס, מרכז חיים הרצוג, אוניברסיטת בן-גוריון בנגב​

נורית אלפסי, המחלקה לגיאוגרפיה ופיתוח סביבתי, אוניברסיטת בן-גוריון בנגב
ראיף זריק, מרכז מינרבה למדעי הרוח, אוניברסיטת תל-אביב, מכון ון-ליר בירושלים
דניאל דה-מלאך, המחלקה למנהל ומדיניות ציבורית, המכללה האקדמית ספיר

אורן יפתחאל, המחלקה לגיאוגרפיה ופיתוח סביבתי, אוניברסיטת בן-גוריון בנגב

ארז צפדיה, המחלקה למנהל ומדיניות ציבורית, המכללה האקדמית ספיר

קישור למפגש ב-zoom »

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  אוניברסיטת בן-גוריון בנגב   
 המחלקה לסוציולוגיה ואנתרופולוגיה26 מאי 2021 12:15 – 13:45

אורן יפתחאל
 “לדובב את המרחב – הערות על אפרטהייד זוחל” 
דיון לאור פרסום ספרו “עוצמה ואדמה – מאתנוקרטיה לאפרטהייד זוחל בישראל/פלסטין” (רסלינג, 2021)תקציר:מה הקשר בין עצמה ואדמה? מה ההשפעות ההדדיות של יחסים חברתיים ופוליטיים על המרחב, ולהפך? כיצד ניתן להבין את המרחב היהודי פלסטיני בארץ? איך התעצבה האתנוקרטיה הישראלית? וכיצד השתנו היחסים בין הקבוצות באוכלוסייה כך שהאתנוקרטיה הפכה לאפרטהייד.בהתבסס על סדרת מחקרים ביקורתיים פורצי דרך, הספר מציע זוויות מבט מגוונות על תהליך היווצרותו של משטר האפרטהייד דרך הקולוניזציה המרחבית, הכלכלית, הפוליטיות וכו’.
פרופ’ אורן יפתחאל  חוקר ומלמד גיאוגרפיה פוליטית ומשפטית ותכנון עירוני באוניברסיטת בן-גוריון בבאר שבע; פעיל חברתי ופוליטי בארגוני שלום, צדק חברתי וזכויות אדם. מבין ספריו “תכנונו של אזור מעורב: ערבים ויהודים בגליל” (הוצאת אייברי, 1992); “שומרים על הכרם – מג’ד אלכרום כמשל” (ון-ליר, 1997); “סְפָר ופריפריה אתנית” (עם אבינועם מאיר, הוצאת ווסטוויו, 1998); “כוחו של תכנון” (עורך, הוצאת קוולר); “אתנוקרטיה – קרקע, זהות ופוליטיקה בישראל/פלסטין” (הוצאת אוניברסיטת פנסילבניה, 2006); “אי-צדק ילידי” (עם אחמד אמארה ואסמעיל אבו-סעד, הוצאת הרווארד, 2013); “אדמה מרוקנת: הגיאוגרפיה המשפטית של הבדווים בנגב” (עם סנדי קדר ואחמד אמארה, הוצאת סטנפורד, 2018).
יפתחאל הוא מהחוקרים הביקורתיים הבולטים בישראל ובעל שם עולמי.



Israel’s apartheid debate: smash the mirror or fix reality?

Oren Yiftachel writes in Haaretz on 5 March 2021:

B’Tselem’s “apartheid document,” published in January, and the International Criminal Court’s decision soon after to investigate Israel’s potential war crimes in the occupied territories have stirred much debate on the nature of the Israeli regime. The subject was also the focus of the online Haaretz Conference on Democracy on Wednesday.

However, despite this important debate, a majority of Jewish-Israeli reactions preferred to smash the mirror rather than think about fixing the reality. With the election coming up, this reality should be confronted head-on, leading to the question “What next?” to which I turn below.

Notably, the apartheid argument has already been raised for some time in academic circles. The B’Tselem report marks the first time a local civil society organization has published a systematic analysis of the regime covering the entire area under Israel’s control – between the Jordan River and the sea. Of course, the only way to characterize an entity is to include all of its parts, although most organizations and leaders have refrained from doing so for decades. After five decades of colonial rule and permanent settlement, the excuse of “temporary occupation” has become meaningless.

The facts are beyond any doubt: Israel is the direct sovereign power in 90 percent of the territory between the Jordan River and the sea (the ’67 borders plus Area C). It also indirectly but quite tightly controls the remaining 10 percent in which 5 million Palestinians are forcefully concentrated in controlled enclaves. Applicable to all this area are laws, regulations or government practices that implement the principle of Jewish supremacy.

B’Tselem’s report demonstrates how, via a consistent process of violent and putatively legal colonization on both sides of the Green Line, a hierarchy of citizenships has crystallized, reminiscent of the former South African system of “whites” (full citizens), “coloureds” (partial citizens) and “blacks” (subjects without citizenship). Their counterparts in Israel/Palestine are Jews (full citizens throughout the territory), Palestinian Arabs in Israel (partial citizenship) and Palestinian subjects with no citizenship in the occupied territories.

Importantly though, in the international political and legal discourse, apartheid has come to mean a general type of regime and not necessarily an exact copy of South Africa. Indeed, there are also key differences between the two cases: In South Africa, the whites amounted to only 20 percent of the population, while here the Jews are about half. Unlike in South Africa, in Israel/Palestine there are two internationally recognized national movements, and two future states under international law.

B’Tselem’s argument can certainly be challenged and debated. Notably, many pertinent reactions have come from different places around the globe. Most importantly, it has won the support of many Palestinian civil society organizations, something not to be taken for granted in this time of deep separation and boycott.

Yet, in Jewish circles, the responses from the center-right have largely been Pavlovian, notably Education Minister Yoav Gallant’s hysterical reaction in banning B’Tselem representatives from schools. This was echoed by Netanyahu’s equally hysterical response accusing the court in The Hague of “pure antisemitism.”

The responses by right-wing columnists like Nave Dromi in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition, and leading columnists like Ari Shavit, Ben-Dror Yemini and Irit Linor in other newspapers have been dominated by a flood of curses and derogatory comments accusing B’Tselem of hatred, hypocrisy, antisemitism and anti-Zionism, while also blaming Palestinians for the Israeli colonial policies. These politicians and commentators would rather smash the mirror than be alarmed by the reflection.

On the center-left, the main reaction has been to look away from the mirror. In that vein, pieces in Haaretz by Zvi Bar’el, Israel Shrenzel and Shaul Arieli, as well as statements by Labor’s Merav Michaeli and Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz at the Democracy Conference have stuck to the worn-out formula of “democracy here, a temporary occupation there.” But what about the fact that in nine of the past 11 elections, it was the West Bank’s settlers’ votes that crowned the colonialist right to rule Israel? Apparently, “democracy” now includes the Jews in the occupied territories but not the disenfranchised Palestinians. In other words, this democracy isn’t a democracy.

The selective right to vote is of course just one aspect of the increasingly deepening connection between Jewish Israel and the Palestinian territories in a process I’ve referred to in my research as “creeping apartheid” that gradually reinforces the principles of Jewish supremacy and “separate and unequal” in all areas of life between the Jordan and the sea. In such settings, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas only control the areas of life that Israel isn’t interested in controlling, and as such they too become (reluctant) servants of the apartheid order.

The most important question following the debate is “Where to now?” The B’Tselem report serves as a flashing warning sign. It aims to motivate all parties concerned with democracy and human rights to recognize what is reflected in the mirror so clearly, and to begin struggling harder than ever to halt the apartheid and decolonize Jewish-Palestinian relations.

Importantly, the end to apartheid does not necessarily lead to a one-state solution, as the international debate usually puts it. Such a solution would encounter profound difficulties given the recognized right of the Palestinians and Israelis to self-determination, a collective right no people is likely to ever give up.

There are several other possibilities, like the establishment of two separate independent states (which failed repeatedly for 80 years), or what I believe are more appropriate models of confederation and federation that would allow for sovereignty and self-determination for both peoples, while permitting freedom of movement, a united capital and an integrated economy in the shared homeland. The joint Israeli-Palestinian peace movement A Land for All has been promoting this path for several years, with modest but growing support.

But first, of course, the election is around the corner, so it’s vital to firmly oppose the broad spectrum of parties, from Kahol Lavan and Likud to the religious parties, that promote all shades of apartheid. Changing the momentum begins with supporting the (very few) parties that promote real democracy and equal collective and personal rights for all inhabitants of our land.

Beyond voting, much can be done in all walks of policy and daily life to break the racist separation between Jews and Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. Hence, the big challenge posed by B’Tselem’s report is to resist the urge to smash the mirror or turn away from it. Instead it urges all concerned to bravely look at the unpleasant view reflected in the mirror and begin its transformation – the earlier the better.

Prof. Oren Yiftachel is a co-author of the B’Tselem report mentioned in this piece. He is a founding member of the A Land for All peace movement.

This article is reproduced in its entirety

Welcome to the era of Coronialism

Under the guise of ’emergency,’ states are using COVID-19 to consolidate power, prop up the neoliberal order, and clamp down on the disenfranchised. If we fail to struggle for a new order, regressive forces will recolonize society, notably in Israel-Palestine.
By Oren Yiftachel April 30, 2020

The spread of COVID-19 has wrought massive changes over the last two months in the realms of politics, economy, and geography across the world. Basic norms have changed, emergency legislation has been passed, massive economies have ground to a halt, and simple daily human contact has been reduced to a minimum.

Although the crisis will undoubtedly ease, it is unlikely that things will return to “business as usual.” Substantial social and political changes are afoot, signaling the onset of a new era we may now term “coronialism,” most notably in Israel-Palestine.

The term coronialism echoes, of course, “colonialism,” but it operates under different circumstances. In coronialism, the relatively stable fabric of life is undermined by a dangerous invasion of an external force. The invasion transforms society in ways not envisaged by the local population, with structural changes spawning short and long-term transformations. The health crisis of the coronavirus may only be the tip of the coronialism iceberg, the consequences of which will be mainly social, economic, and political.

Coronialism, like its predecessor, attempts to conquer the minds of those under its rule. It would be impossible to understand how, against the spread of what currently remains a medium-scale disease, billions of people have come to accept draconian closures, political disempowerment, and economic ruin with little protest or disobedience. This is made possible by an atmosphere of fear, which provides governments and the media cover to bombard us with an avalanche of details of the impending “disaster.”

In Israel, one cannot explain the decision by Benny Gantz, who claimed to represent the anti-Netanyahu opposition, to betray his voters and join Netanyahu’s government without resorting to coronialist rhetoric. Gantz has now agreed to play second fiddle in a coronial “emergency government,” which will save Netanyahu (for the time being) from his corruption trial, while emboldening the prime minister to make constitutional changes that further bolster governmental power.

To be sure, the global coronial order is still in the making. In the short and medium term, the regime is building the foundations of a new “emergency routine” based on a number of new realities. For one, the failure of market forces has been resounding, shedding new light on the inability of neoliberal capitalism to deal with lesser crises, such as rising housing prices or the decline in quality of education.

Meanwhile, globalization has been slowing down considerably while the putatively weakened nation-state is returning to center stage. Governments are quickly falling back to their old habits of inciting against migrants, imposing harsh border controls, forcing strict limits on movement, introducing intrusive surveillance measures, and putting into motion the rapid centralization of powers. Spatially, life is being reformatted, with new patterns of social distancing and digital communication changing our everyday reality.

Yet, when it comes to the long term, matters are far less clear, which is precisely why we must treat coronialism as an opportunity for struggle. After all, hegemonic forces have been quick to change the rules of the game in their favor.

Politically, this has included the bypassing of democratic institutions, the bolstering of unchecked executive powers, and new emergency regulations. When it comes to the economy, governments around the world have launched unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimuli directed primarily at supporting financial markets. It is already clear that most of these new arrangements will mostly go to helping prop up corporations and industries, while leaving behind the marginalized who are now even weaker, stripped of their jobs, and dispossessed of social services. These policies will particularly affect labor migrants, temporary workers, small business owners, and the newly unemployed.

On the other hand, now that decades of “small government” and “neoliberal” policies have been exposed for their irresponsible neglect, we have begun to witness a new hunger for alternatives that will ensure public (state, urban, communal) provision of essential services. This applies, first and foremost, to health, but also to transportation, housing, the environment, and education. The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the fundamental problem of privatizing and distributing these services according to profit, while giving us a glimpse of how unequipped capitalist societies are to deal with nightmare scenarios such as climate change or a potential world war.

In this light, the link between coronialism and colonialism goes beyond phonetics. History warns us against oppressive forces exploiting “emergencies” for the purpose of seizing power and resources. In Israel-Palestine, this has already become a reality, with business elites and the Finance Ministry already pushing for “painful cuts” (in other words: the transfer of resources from poor to rich, from the public sphere to private hands, and from minorities to the majority). At the same time, the state is “importing” severe measures used against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in order to govern Jewish citizens inside Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel’s far-right pro-apartheid bloc, which has ruled Israeli politics in its current composition for the past five years, hopes to use the new “emergency government” as a vessel for unilateral annexation of large parts of the West Bank. Such measures will turn Israel into an official apartheid state, with open contempt for Palestinian rights and international law. Here the coronial and the colonial merge, creating a dangerous change in direction for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Democratic forces must realize that the period ahead will be a long and bitter struggle to shape the nature of the coronialist order. We must be aware of both the dangers and potential for positive change in this fragile time. We should learn from the failures of previous campaigns, most notably the Second Intifada and the 2011 social protests, neither of which established a multi-group movement for progressive change in Israel-Palestine. We must work to unite the interests of many sectors and groups that can rally against apartheid and privatization, and for equality, accessibility, and democracy.

The long path to building those alliances begins with genuine and equal partnership between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, as well as with Palestinians in the occupied territories, while remembering that we all live under the same regime, whether directly or indirectly. These partnerships will expose the real goal of the current regime, which is to strip millions of their political and social rights and establish an undeclared apartheid regime under the guise of an “emergency.”

We must find new spheres — in neighborhoods, towns, and cities on both sides of the Green Line — where we can work together to build a just society. A society based on such principles would be more stable and resilient for future health, environmental, political, and economic crises that are inevitable in the post-coronial period ahead.

“Creeping Apartheid” in Israel-Palestine

Oren YiftachelIn: 253 (Winter 2009)

On July 5, 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, said something that had many rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Reviewing his government’s first 100 days, he pronounced, “We have managed to create a national agreement about the concept of ‘two states for two peoples.’” Can it be that the hardline leader of the Likud, known for opposing almost every withdrawal from occupied territory Israel has ever undertaken, now believes in a peaceful two-state solution?

On the surface, it is hard to tell. On the one hand, Netanyahu is hardly the first Zionist leader to declare support for peace through Palestinian statehood accompanied by Israeli territorial withdrawals. On the other hand, he is solidly within the Zionist consensus behind colonial and oppressive practices that work to further “Judaize” contested space and deny Palestinians — on both sides of the Green Line marking off Israel proper from occupied Palestine — their legitimate rights.

But the prime minister is not schizophrenic, and there is no contradiction between these two positions, which in fact crystallize the latest phase in the changing political geography of Zionist-Palestinian conflict: a phase of neither two states nor one. In place of movement toward two states or one, there is a process of “creeping apartheid” — undeclared, yet structural — reordering the politics and geography of the country between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The colonized West Bank, the besieged Gaza Strip and Israel proper, each with its own official set of rules, are in fact merging into one regime system, ultimately controlled by the Jewish state, which increasingly appears to bear the characteristics of apartheid, and inhabited by people with citizenship status akin to “blacks,” “coloreds” and “whites.” Repeated statements by Israeli leaders in support of Palestinian statehood have thus far functioned to lend this process legitimacy, rather than lead to the end of colonial settlement, military occupation, minority oppression and resolution of the conflict.

The Israeli regime system has long been “ethnocratic,” that is to say, an overall logic of Judaization prevails in all regions under Israeli control despite the differences in their legal and political circumstances. Over time, however, the contradictions of ethnocracy have led to a deepening of the “separate and unequal” conditions in Israel-Palestine. Jews enjoy a relatively even and privileged political and legal position, while Palestinians are divided into several proto-groups, each having a differently inferior set of rights and capabilities. Under the process of creeping apartheid, Palestinians are increasingly confined to a series of what may be called “black” and “colored” ghettoes, while Jews reside in relatively open localities, both in Israel and in the Judaized West Bank.

Crossing the Rubicon?

A new political geographic phase has prevailed since the early 1990s, leading to a sea change in the discourse of Israeli leaders toward the Palestinians. Under the new approach, Israeli leaders are gradually recognizing Palestinian collective rights, although in vague terms and with perpetual delays in implementation. The shift came after decades of intransigent denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination and statehood, combined with support of Jewish expansion into the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Palestinian regions inside Israel.

A notable early turn into the new discourse was taken by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was willing to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization and “Palestinian national political rights” as enshrined in the Oslo accords of 1993. Another premier from the Labor Party, Ehud Barak, negotiated at Camp David in 2000 and at Taba in 2001 over the shape of a Palestinian state, and ordered withdrawal of the Israeli army from Lebanon. The Labor Party’s reputation, if not its policies or actions, had been moderate for some time, so the change in discourse became much more conspicuous when right-wing nationalist leaders such as Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu began to use it. These men had built their careers on advancing Zionist colonization and advocating violence in order to achieve strategic defeat of Palestinian nationalism, what Baruch Kimmerling aptly termed the “politicide” of the Palestinians. [1]

The transformation was starkest in Sharon, justly regarded as the father of the settlement project in the West Bank and a long-time champion of the idea that Israel’s security required a Greater Israel stretching from the river to the sea. In 2002, Sharon rejected the idea of leaving even the most isolated outposts in Gaza: “Under my leadership there will be no empty concessions to the Palestinians. The fate of Netzarim and Kfar Darom is the same as Tel Aviv.” Just over one year later, the aging premier reversed himself: “It is impossible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation. Yes, it is occupation, and it is bad for Israel.” Moreover, unlike other Israeli leaders who had expressed comparable sentiments, Sharon turned his words into action, carrying out a unilateral military withdrawal and evacuation of 25 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in 2005. It was the first time that Israel had willingly vacated areas it considers to be the Jewish homeland, that is, the biblical Land of Israel.

Before he slipped into a coma in early 2006, Sharon also led a coterie of ideological confreres out of Likud and formed a new party, Kadima, whose raison d’etre was to complete similar withdrawals, or “disengagements,” from more of the West Bank. His successor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert of Kadima, actively sought to effect this withdrawal and, failing that, to negotiate a two-state agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In a rare burst of frankness, Olmert later declared: “Failure to reach a peace agreement and create a viable Palestinian state could plunge Israel into a South African-style apartheid struggle.” If that happens, he said, “the state of Israel is finished.” He was backed in the spirit of these comments by his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, now leader of Kadima, whose 2009 election campaign was heavily focused on the two-state horizon.

Does this transformation signal the crossing of the peace Rubicon? It appears not. While the Greater Israel agenda is all but dead, its replacement is unlikely to be either a viable Palestinian state alongside democratic Israel or one democratic state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Rather, its replacement will probably be peace-seeking rhetoric masking a reality of apartheid. In other words, the Israeli ethnocratic project is changing its character, from horizontal to vertical, and its main goal, from expansion to enhancement of ethno-national privilege. Jews, wherever they live, will be at the top of the ladder, and the Palestinians varying numbers of rungs below them.

This outcome is not inevitable. Concerted and determined international pressure, led by the United States, could still bring about a viable and fully sovereign Palestinian state, with international law implemented, Palestinian rights respected, legitimate Israeli rights protected and the region stabilized. Yet such a peaceful trajectory would require both Jews and Palestinians, and especially the former, to deal honestly with the core issues shaping the conflict, such as the consequences of 1948 war, the plight of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, borders and the future of Palestinians inside Israel. It appears unlikely that any political force, including Israel’s American patron, will have the wherewithal or the willpower to compel Israel to halt the process of creeping apartheid.

Aggression and Conciliation

The contours of the contemporary phase in Israel-Palestine’s political geography are complex, including measured readjustment and some shrinkage of the Zionist territorial project, mixed with new forms of domination over Palestine and Palestinians. The new phase follows decades of unabated Zionist demographic and spatial expansion, characterized by Jewish-only immigration, tight military control, construction of some 800 Jewish settlements in Israel proper and over 200 in the Occupied Territories, massive land confiscation and uncompromising attempts to Judaize all of the country.

Transition to the current phase occurred gradually, as a response to a range of events demonstrating that the previous colonial momentum could not be sustained. Chief among these events were the two intifadas beginning in 1987 and 2000, the Palestinian resort to suicide terror against Israeli civilians, the rise of Hamas and its rocket campaign from Gaza, and growing pressure against Israel’s illegal settlements from an increasingly antagonistic world community. Israeli elites began to realize that further expansion and direct oppression bear high security, economic and social costs, which run counter to the increasingly popular agendas of globalization and liberalization.

In the absence of a genuine wish for reconciliation with the Palestinians according to binding international decisions, however, Israel sought to rearrange control over Israel-Palestine so as to minimize these costs. The overall strategy was unilateral separation, which saw the creation of parallel geographies for Palestinians and Jews in the West Bank, with concrete walls and high fences penning in Palestinian towns and villages, and asphalt highways easing settler travel, as well as the evacuation of Gaza and the maintenance of uneven segregation inside Israel.

Beyond the thrust for separation, Israel’s moves were often confused. On the one hand, it allowed settlers to build new “outpost” settlements wedged between Palestinian population centers; accelerated the expansion of existing settlements; mounted a series of “anti-terror” offensives using state terror against civilians; constructed the massive illegal separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; tightened the years-long siege of Gaza; and launched highly destructive invasions of the coastal strip as well as southern Lebanon. These moves found echoes in new discriminatory policies toward Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose political and civil status within the Jewish state was further compromised. [2]

On the other hand, Israel also made gestures toward Palestinian rights: It recognized the PLO, allowed the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and declared its support for Palestinian statehood, which only a decade previously was anathema to over 90 percent of Israeli Jews. Israel also retreated from the main Palestinian towns and cities, southern Lebanon and the entire Gaza Strip; evacuated settlements; enshrined previously denied Palestinian rights to purchase Israeli state land; and recognized ten (out of 45) previously “illegal” Bedouin villages in the Naqab desert. In surveys, a steady majority of Jews agrees, in theory, at least, that Palestinian citizens should have equal individual rights in Israel proper, and that Israel should conclude a peace with a newly established Palestinian state encompassing the majority of the Occupied Territories.

And yet — barring intense international pressure — these gestures do not provide a sufficient foundation for peace, because they are tactical and utilitarian, rather than strategic. They are evidence of conflict management, rather than a drive for reconciliation. Zionism remains a deeply ethnocratic movement, premised on a self-constructing narrative of an historical “right” to the entire Promised Land and the associated dispossession of Palestinians who object to the exclusivity of that right. Most Israeli Jews are accordingly unable to think productively about the core issues of the conflict, chiefly Israel’s role in the 1948 nakba. Denial of the nakba, as the Palestinians term their defeat in the 1948 war, the loss of their would-be state and the flight of refugees, has become a core Zionist value. Most Jews — officials, scholars and ordinary citizens — simply refuse to enter a discussion on the nakba, or alternatively justify it as “necessary,” thereby legitimizing the 1948 ethnic cleansing and the subsequent destruction of over 400 Palestinian villages and towns, and endorsing the continued “right” of Jews to colonize Palestine.

Thus blinded to the past, Israeli Jews cannot or will not look objectively at the present and future, whether regarding the Palestinian refugees, East Jerusalem, borders or the status of the Palestinians inside Israel. This avoidance is wrapped into Zionist discourse by continuous public invocation of (often genuine) communal fears in the face of anti-Jewish violence and the more radical, at times anti-Semitic, communiqués of Hamas and its allied organizations. These fears feed on ambient memories of the Holocaust, as well as distortion of Arab intentions toward Israel. In the end, avoidance and denial are what bestirred Israel to make both its sets of unilateral moves, the aggressive and the conciliatory, toward Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.

Ethnocracy and Democracy

Apartheid conditions always develop on the basis of existing political and cultural foundations. In Israel, these foundations are the state’s long-standing ethnocratic regime and the associated racist treatment of Palestinians who stand in the way of the state’s program of Judaization.

Ethnocratic regimes are commonly found in contested territories in which a dominant ethnic nation appropriates the state apparatus to further its expansionist aspirations. Significantly, such regimes tend to keep in place democratic procedures that can be selectively applied to groups under their control. Being able to portray the regime as democratic is important for the legitimacy of the ethnocratic project in the eyes of the majority group as well as international circles. The democratic frame also allows minorities to mobilize politically and to enjoy substantial (if not equal) civil and political rights.

But despite their democratic features, ethnocratic states such as Israel are typified by ongoing subjection and exploitation of weakened groups, who invariably resist the order, often violently. This asymmetry tends to produce closely held identities and polarize the polity. Examples of ethnocratic regimes include Serbia, Estonia, Latvia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, apartheid South Africa and nineteenth-century Australia. [3]

Despite its history of eviction, conquest and occupation, Israel is still considered democratic by politicians and the public, even in countries where Israel is routinely criticized. Even scholars critical of Israel use the term “Israeli democracy,” though often with qualifiers such as “imagined,” “ethnic” or “deeply flawed.” This tendency draws on the continuing illusion that Israel is an entity neatly contained within the Green Line, even though this very entity settles hundreds of thousands of Jews in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and separates them legally and spatially from local Arabs.

The political system in Israel proper does maintain key democratic practices, such as periodic (though not universal or free) elections and protection of important civil rights such as freedom of speech, movement and association, relative (though far from complete) gender equality and homosexual rights. Israel boasts a strong, quite independent judiciary and relatively open media. Further, since the early 1990s, Israeli society has undergone significant liberalization, privatization and globalization, with greater exposure to international standards and influx of foreign investment. These processes have allowed Israelis greater economic and cultural freedoms, and enabled them to portray the nation as Western, free and progressive. [4] It is mainly Jews, however, who have benefited from these processes, while Palestinians remain either on the margins or locked out. In addition, the democratizing changes have not modified the most oppressive facets of the Israeli regime, such as the ongoing Judaization of land, the disenfranchisement of nearly 4 million Palestinians, the central role of the military and security forces, the Jewish-only immigration policies and the marginality of the 1.2 million Palestinian citizens.

Phases of Colonization

The historical momentum of Israel’s ethnocratic-colonial system is particularly important for the making of apartheid-type relations and requires some elaboration. The Zionist colonization of geographic Palestine has taken place in five main stages. The first, lasting from the late nineteenth century until 1947, can be termed the “colonialism of survival.” Most Jews who came to Palestine in these years were fleeing as refugees, from Eastern European pogroms, the mortal threat of Nazism and, then, the Holocaust. In Palestine, organized by Zionist groups and ideas, they expanded their area of settlement by purchasing land, often from absentee Arab owners, while forming proto-national institutions and armed forces, as foundations for a future state.

The second stage, during the 1947-1949 war, was characterized by ethnic cleansing. It saw the establishment of the state of Israel following the Arabs’ rejection of the UN partition plan and attack on the nascent Israeli polity. The war ended with Palestine conquered by Israel, Jordan and Egypt and the majority of Palestinians rendered homeless and stateless. 1948 was the watershed year shaping the Israeli regime, which is built to protect the military and demographic achievements of the 1948 war for Zionism, such as the seizure of Palestinian territory beyond the allocation of the UN partition plan, the expulsion of most of the land’s Arabs and the Judaization of vast tracts of land. Israel was accepted as a member state of the UN. The Palestinians became a fragmented and defeated nation, dispersed among six countries, unable to contest the Judaization of their homeland.

The third phase, from 1949 to 1967, was typified by “internal colonialism”: Most Palestinian villages now within Israel were destroyed, and the return of Palestinian refugees prohibited. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Jews, mainly refugees or forced migrants from Europe and the Middle East, settled in hundreds of new Jewish settlements, some erected on the previously Arab lands. The Jewish settlement project was centrally planned with modern methods, not only to de-Arabize Palestine, but also to build the Zionist nation. Israel established a formal democracy, although its Palestinian citizens were concentrated in enclaves and placed under military administration until 1966.

The fourth phase from 1967 to 1993 was marked by external, expansionist colonialism. It followed Israeli conquest of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and saw a huge project of state-sponsored colonization. Over 100 Jewish settlements that today host nearly half a million Jews were built in breach of international law. The illicit settlements include those built in occupied Arab Jerusalem, which was partly and illegally annexed to Israel. Religious themes became central to the narratives of both nations, helping to justify the escalating violence. Much of the Jewish settlement was driven by the desire to “return to sacred sites” and Palestinians increasingly used Islamic rhetoric to fire their resistance. Within Israel proper, Judaization continued through the construction of dozens of semi-suburban Jewish housing tracts in predominantly Arab regions, with concomitant restrictions on building by Arabs.

The fifth and present stage, beginning with the 1993 Oslo accords, can be characterized as “oppressive consolidation” and marks the effective end of significant Zionist expansionism. Settlements are still being built in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but the vast majority of Jewish population increase in the West Bank occurs in settlements of long standing. At the same time, bypass roads connect the existing settlements ever more closely to Israel proper, further “Israelizing” Jewish colonies. The wall-and-fence complex that has replaced the Green Line as the de facto border between Israel proper and the West Bank and the enormous terminals that have replaced checkpoints outside most Palestinian cities cast a mighty shadow over both Palestinian daily life, but in strategic terms, they are management techniques of the overall stalemate. Maximal separation (in Hebrew, hafrada) is the new logic. Both nations, not surprisingly, have become more polarized, and radical factions have risen. Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and violently took over Gaza in 2007. In Israel, two hardline Likud governments were elected, first in 2001 and then in 2009, and Orthodox Jews have become more influential in the country’s leadership and in the army.

And so it is not accidental that the term “apartheid” has entered the discourse about Israel-Palestine. The momentum of straightforward colonization — the conquest of Arab lands and expansion of Jewish settlements — has slowed, but the resulting stalemate is hardly acceptable to Palestinians, who resist in various ways. From the Israeli side, the attempt is to reduce the costs of its control while maintaining political and military superiority. It has chosen an undeclared system that resembles apartheid, a system of rule that aims to cement separate and unequal ethnic relations.

Master Types

But the definition of the Israeli regime is complicated by several factors, not least the mismatch between the territory under the state’s control and that within its internationally recognized borders. Creeping apartheid in Israel-Palestine is thus best described as a process, rather than a well-delineated system of government. The occupation of the West Bank and discrimination against the Palestinians there are considered by Israel, and to some extent by international law, as temporary conditions subject to the self-defined security needs of the occupier. At this point, with the occupation over 40 years old and the settlements being consolidated, these conditions are in total breach of international law. While Israeli elites and their apologists still resort to such manipulations, their legal and political power is waning.

For example, Jewish settlements in the West Bank — outside the state’s recognized sovereign territory — are both civilian and permanent. They cannot be understood as part of a temporary military occupation, as Israel still claims in legal forums. Why would Sharon and Netanyahu press for the “natural growth” of towns they view as ephemeral? The progress of the settlement project in the Palestinians’ midst shows that the indigenous residents have been unwillingly and unwittingly incorporated as third-class subjects of the regime. Israel’s ongoing interest in representing this situation as “temporary” derives from its “need” to avoid endowing West Bank Palestinians with full civil rights.

Further, in the fifth stage of ethnocratic colonization, apartheid practices are creeping back into Israel proper, albeit with lesser severity than in the first and second phases. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, as documented by Mossawa, Adalah and other human rights organizations in Israel, the state has promulgated a series of new restrictions upon the movements, personal freedoms, employment, land ownership and political rights of Palestinian citizens. There is openly racist talk of “punishing the Arab enemy,” redrawing borders for the purpose of “population exchange” (a code name for annexing settlements and, “in return,” excluding Arab towns near the West Bank border from Israel), and stripping Palestinians in Israel of their citizenship.

The creep of apartheid is most apparent to Bedouin Palestinians in the Naqab region, who struggle against constant threats to their localities on their ancestors’ land. As part of withholding recognition of land and residency rights, the state denies the Bedouin basic services such as water, electricity, roads and schooling. The state also refuses to recognize the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, elected by the Bedouin as a regional leadership. State violence is commonly used against the Bedouin, with 604 demolitions of unauthorized homes from 2001 to 2008. In some important respects, the plight of Bedouin in the unrecognized villages is worse than that of most of their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.

The vagueness of the adjective “creeping” captures another definitional difficulty: the existence of legal and political differences between the various Arab areas under Israeli control. The West Bank is officially designated as under “belligerent occupation” and the Gaza Strip as “hostile territory,” while Israel proper is commonly called a formal democracy, where Palestinians hold equal individual rights under the law. But Israel itself ruptured the boundaries between these regions and hence undermined the fine distinctions of legal-political status. It has imposed Israeli law in the Jewish settlements whose jurisdiction now covers around 40 percent of the West Bank — an act of de facto annexation. Israel continues to control nearly all key components of sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, such as immigration, population registration, imports and exports, water management, transportation infrastructure, land and planning policies, foreign relations and investment. Simultaneously, Arabs inside Israel have become second-class citizens, de facto and de jure.

It is no longer possible to distinguish between different “regimes” in Israel-Palestine, as the entire space is ultimately controlled by the Jewish state. There are, however, gradations in rights and capabilities between Jews and Palestinians, and among various groups of Palestinians, which bring the process of creeping apartheid into focus. Israel officially ranks Palestinian groups and awards each a separate status according to a combination of ethnicity and location, while Jews, differences of class, color and religiosity notwithstanding, remain everywhere equal in civil status. Palestinians are classified as follows, in descending order of legal status: the Druze, many of whom serve in the army; Palestinians in the Galilee and “triangle” regions; Bedouin in the Naqab, the most under-privileged citizens; East Jerusalem Palestinians, non-citizen permanent residents who have yellow Israeli plates on their cars because they live in a city that Israel has partially annexed; Palestinians in the West Bank; Gazans; and refugees located outside Israeli-controlled territory who are denied their claims of residency and property rights by the regime.

The logic of Judaization underpins Israeli policies toward all these groups in unique ways, though the groups fall into two broad categories of citizens and non-citizens. The variations in legal standing and exposure to oppression and violence make a significant difference in Palestinians’ life opportunities, economic standing and ability to exercise rights.

To borrow the language of apartheid South Africa, Israel appears to have created three master types of civil status in the areas under its control: “white” (Jewish), “colored” (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) and “black” (Palestinians in the Occupied Territories). Two brief examples will illustrate the point. Take, first, socio-economic status: The per capita gross domestic product of Israeli Jews in 2006 was about 15 times higher than that of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, but also twice as high as that of the Palestinians in Israel. Unemployment in the Occupied Territories reached 50-60 percent, while hovering around 12-15 percent among Palestinians in Israel, and around half that figure among Jews. About three quarters of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories live in poverty, as compared to some 53 percent of the Palestinians in Israel and 17 percent of the Jews.

Second, take the issue of planning and construction. In Area C of the West Bank, the territory that remains under direct Israeli administration by the terms of the Oslo agreement, only one of the 149 Palestinian villages has an approved outline plan, enabling the residents to build legally. Consequently, 1,626 houses were demolished from 2000 to 2008 and an additional 4,820 were served demolition orders. At the same time, half the Palestinian localities in Israel lack an approved plan and they, too, are constantly subject to house demolition. In 2000, according to an inter-ministerial committee headed by Shlomo Gazit, there were 22,000 unauthorized buildings in Palestinian localities in Israel’s central and northern regions and 16,000 in their Jewish counterparts. Arabs had suffered over 800 demolitions in the preceding decade, as opposed to only 24 for Jews. This disparity was also vivid in the Naqab, where Jews built 62 family farms with no planning approval. Despite the appeals of several human rights and environmental groups, all were retroactively legalized in 2009. At the same time, Bedouins in the Naqab who reside on their ancestors’ land suffered 604 home demolitions between 2000 and 2008.


Geography is vital because the creeping apartheid process relies heavily on a range of skewed settlement, land, development and boundary demarcation policies and regulations. Palestinians amount to 48 percent of the population between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, but control only 15 percent of the land, while Jewish groups and authorities, including the army, control the rest, including most parks, expanses of wilderness and natural resources. Inside the Green Line the inequality is even starker: Palestinians amount to 18 percent of the population but control less than 3 percent of the land. In 1947, Jewish individuals and institutions controlled only 5 percent of historical Palestine or 7 percent of what became Israel.

As a result, the Palestinians have been enclosed in “rough space” — an archipelago of ghettoes with their settlement system remaining nearly frozen since 1948. At the same time, Jews greatly expanded their living space and enjoy freedom of habitation, settlement and travel in the vast majority of the land. In its management of space, too, Israel-Palestine has been divided into three master types — “black,” “colored” and “white.” “Black” ghettoes, mainly in Gaza and the West Bank, are harshly policed, the residents confined by walls, checkpoints and periodic curfews. Physical and legal barriers also cut off the “black” ghettoes from each other, according to the desiderata of Jewish settlements and the military.

“Colored” ghettoes, where Palestinian citizens of Israel and most Palestinians of East Jerusalem reside, have more porous boundaries but also have major restrictions on land rights and development for the inhabitants. For example, Palestinians in Israel struggle to move out of their ghettoes due to limitations on their ability to purchase land and lack of educational, cultural and religious facilities elsewhere. The Arab areas are not only inferior in status to Jewish areas, but Israel also strives to prevent mixing of “black” and “colored,” as with the 2008 restriction on marriage between Palestinians from the Occupied Territories and those from Israel. Most boundaries, not least the Green Line, apply to Palestinians only.

In contrast, the “white spaces” where most Jews reside come in a variety of shapes and forms. Importantly, though, they are all situated within contiguous, “smooth” Jewish territory precisely because the state effectively Judaizes all spaces where Jews settle. They enjoy freedom of movement and similar rights. It is the uniform legal and geographical status of Jewish space between the river and the sea that effectively connects the variegated Arab spaces under the one regime. Jewish localities generate their boundaries from within, mainly for preventing the entry of Palestinians and, in some cases, “undesirable” Jews, such as working-class Mizrahim or the ultra-Orthodox. By law and practice, and with the backing of the army, Jews can reside and purchase land nearly anywhere in Israel-Palestine. This geography is the backdrop against which statements in support of Palestinian statehood appear particularly empty.

…and Beyond

In theory, the change of the political discourse to support Palestinian statehood has potential to move the political geography of Israel-Palestine toward peace and reconciliation. Close examination, however, reveals that Israel has so far acted to lend legitimacy to its strategy of consolidating control over the Palestinians. Jewish expansion appears to be ending, but in its place the confinement of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line in ghettoes proceeds. The ensemble of new discourses and regulations has combined to create an order best described as creeping apartheid. This highly oppressive and internationally illegal order is, needless to say, replete with suffering and prone to outbursts of violence.

This predicament necessitates new thinking. How long, for example, can Israel stick to its legal argument that the occupation is “temporary,” without being declared an apartheid regime by the international community? This question is paramount.

There is a need as well to investigate the various types of apartheid regimes that deviate in detail, but not in principle, from what obtained in South Africa. It appears that the creeping apartheid in Israel-Palestine is based on ethnic, national and religious, but not “racial,” or skin color, categories. What political and moral difference does this entail? Does Israel resemble a Serbian model of apartheid more than the multi-racial South African one? And what difference does the existence of the state of Israel with its legitimate UN standing make for resolution of the conflict?

In addition, the intersection of identity and class is critical: What is the connection between apartheid-like forced separation and accelerating privatization and globalization of the economy in Israel-Palestine? What roles do the US and European economies and military industries play in this process? What are the consequences of Israel’s systematic import of foreign labor to replace Palestinians? How does the apartheid process feed on rapid accumulation of capital among small national elites? And, finally, is the ghettoization of the Palestinians effecting a parallel economic and political ghettoization of Israel itself in the Middle East?

One can imagine several visions that might resolve the predicament. The best appears to be an old one that was abandoned far too easily — socially progressive binationalism. There could be an Israeli-Palestinian confederation (based on two sovereign spaces, possibly leading to a federation) with an integrated economy, a joint capital city, open borders and fair accommodation of the Palestinian refugees. Discussions about these options have already begun in several arenas and are likely to pick up steam. They may sow the intellectual and political seeds of a genuinely just and peaceful future for this strife-torn land.


[1] Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Israel’s Policy Toward the Palestinians (London: Zed, 2005).
[2] See Oren Yiftachel, “The Shrinking Space of Ethnocratic Citizenship” in Joel Beinin and Rebecca L. Stein, eds., The Struggle for Sovereignty (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006); and Oren Yiftachel, “Voting for Apartheid: The 2009 Israeli Elections,” Journal of Palestine Studies 38/3 (Spring 2009).
[3] See Oren Yiftachel and Asad Ghanem, “Understanding Ethnocratic Regimes: The Politics of Seizing Contested Territories,” Political Geography 23/6 (August 2004).
[4] See Uri Ram, The Globalization of Israel (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2008).


Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
Understanding ‘ethnocratic’regimes:
the politics of seizing contested territories
Oren Yiftachel a, , As’ad Ghanem b
a Department of Geography, Ben-Gurion University, 84105 Beer-Sheva, Israel
b Department of Political Science, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
The paper proposes a preliminary political-geographical theory of ‘ethnocratic’regimes. It
identifies such regimes as a distinct type, neither democratic, nor authoritarian. The paper
defines and illustrates the evolution and characteristics of ethnocratic states, and examines
their impact on ethnic relations and political stability. While these regimes represent themselves
as democratic, their main project promotes the ethnicization of contested territory
and power apparatus. Their logic, structure, features and trajectories are articulated and generalized,
especially as regards key dimensions such as: democracy, minorities, ‘ethno-classes’,
ethno-nationalism and religion.
Three examples of ethnocratic regimes—in Sri Lanka, Israel and Estonia—are briefly
described, analyzed and compared. On this basis, the paper constructs a tentative model,
identifying six ‘regime bases’as constituting a hegemonic regime core, including: immigration
and citizenship, land and settlement, the role of the armed forces, the legal system,
the flow of capital and public culture. These ‘bases’largely determine the character of
‘regime features’, such as party politics, elections, gender relations and the media. But the
hegemonic status of these bases is frequently challenged by groups marginalized by the
expansion and control of the dominant ethnos. These groups attempt to exploit the ‘cracks’
emanating from the state’s self-representation as democratic. The ceaseless ethnocraticdemocratic
tension typically results in chronic instability and prolonged ethnic conflict.
# 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Democracy; Ethnicity; Regime; Sri Lanka; Estonia; Israel; Palestine
Corresponding author. Tel.: +9728-6472011; fax: +9728-6472821.
E-mail address: (O. Yiftachel).
0962-6298/$ – see front matter # 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
The rapid transformation in the world political order during the last decade and
half has generated active debate on regime types in general, and democratization in
particular (see: Bermeo, 1997; Diamond, 2002; Harris, 2001; Huntington, 1997;
Linz & Stephan, 1996; Keating & McGarry, 2001). Yet, the academic discourse has
been unduly constrained by a binary democracy–non-democracy framework of
analysis. The emphasis by most western scholars on a formal–procedural definition
of democracy, on free markets and on various forms of constitutionalism, caused
many to overlook the persistence of an ethno-national ‘engine’of political change.
This has obscured the on-going existence, and recent proliferation; of a regime type
we term here—‘ethnocracy’.1
In this paper, we aim to address the deficiency by focusing on this type of
regime. We will define and illustrate a model of what we term ‘open ethnocratic’
regimes, and examine its impact on ethnic relations and political stability. Our
theoretical argument centers on the mechanisms of the regime, which explain both
the persistent patterns of ethnic dominance and its chronic instability. A related
theoretical contribution is the existence of ethnocratic regimes as a distinct identifiable
type, which promotes a central (political-geographical) project of ethnicizing
contested territories and power structures.
We contend that the logic, structure, features and trajectories of open ethnocratic
regime can be articulated and generalized, and that the model we proposed
below can frame a new understanding of politics and geography in many states
embroiled in protracted ethnic conflicts. Such understanding forms a necessary step
in managing the typically volatile inter-group relations of ethnocratic societies. In
this vein, the paper attempts to make a theoretical, conceptual and practical contribution
to the understanding of deeply divided societies, and to illustrate the
dynamics of ethnocratic regimes, by briefly comparing the relevant cases of Sri
Lanka, Israel and Estonia.
Scholarly settings
Our discussion focuses on regimes, which we define as frameworks determining
the distribution of power, values and resources. A regime reflects the identity,
goals, and practical priorities of a political community. The state is the main
vehicle for the regime, providing institutions, mechanisms, laws and legitimized
forms of violence to implement the projects articulated by the regime.
Ethnocratic regimes may emerge in a variety of forms, including cases of ethnic
dictatorships or regimes implementing violent strategies of ethnic cleansing, as
occurred in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo by means of control and exclusion as
1 The term ‘ethnocracy’has appeared in previous literature (see Linz & Stephan, 1996; Little, 1994);
However, as far as we are aware, it was generally used as a derogatory term, with very little discussion,
or development into a theoretical model or concept, as formulated here.
648 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
happened in Sudan, pre-2003 Iraq or pre-1994 South Africa (Mann, 2000). In this
paper, however, we are interested in ethnocratic regimes, which represent themselves
as democratic, and uphold several formal democratic mechanisms, although
they still facilitate a disproportional and undemocratic expansion of the dominant
ethno-nation. They can thus be described as ‘open ethnocracies’. Examples of such
regimes at present include states such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Estonia, Latvia,
Serbia, and Israel, as well as past cases such as 19th Century Australia or Canada
until the 1960s.
Our analysis of ethnocratic regimes ‘converses’with a range of scholarly debates
and a number of disciplinary fields. We present below a combined political geography
and political science perspective, which seeks to contribute to debates on key
concepts such as nationalism (for key texts, see Brubaker, 1996; Hechter, 2000);
ethnicity (see Connor, 1994; Conversi, 2002), political regimes (Collier & Levitski,
1997; Linz & Stephan, 1996); political stability (Lustick, 1993; McGarry &
O’Leary, 1993, 1995), multi-cultural citizenship and the postcolonial condition
(Benhabib, 2002; Kymlicka, 2001). The knowledge accumulated in these fields
forms an important basis for our new formulations.
Ethnocracies: key components
We define ethnocracy as a regime facilitating the expansion, ethnicization and
control of contested territory and state by a dominant ethnic nation. ‘Open ethnocracies’,
on which we focus here, exercises selective openness: they possess a range
of partial democratic features, most notably political competition, free media and
significant civil rights; although these fail to be universal or comprehensive, and are
typically applied to the extent they do not interfere with the ethnicization project.
Given this selective and partial openness, open ethnocratic regimes cannot be
classified as democratic (as elaborated below). Neither they can be classified as
authoritarian, given their extent of political freedoms and openings, which far
exceeds the typical range characterizing such regimes (see Linz & Stephan, 1996).
The most striking differences between open ethnocracies and autocracies are:
(a) the real possibility of government change in most ethnocratic regimes, as
opposed to long-term dominance of one ruler or party typifying autocracies; (b)
the strong emphasis on ethnic loyalties as a foundation of politics, not found in
most autocracies.
The combination of democratic and ethnocratic features makes open ethnocracies
a particularly interesting, and not uncommon, case during the current age of
‘superficial democratization’( Zakaria, 1997). Instability is typically generated by
marginalized and oppressed minorities, who often use the partial openings granted
by the state to resist, mobilize and challenge the regime. But at the same time,
regime legitimacy is augmented by the introduction of democratic features, which
possess an appeasing effect on restive minorities. The ethnocratic–democratic tensions
in open ethnocracies thereby creates a high level of regime dynamism and
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676 649
instability, found neither in more oppressive ‘closed’ethnocra cies, such as pre-2003
Iraq or Sudan; or in liberal democracies, such as Denmark or Sweden.
As elaborated elsewhere (see Yiftachel, 1999) ethnocratic states emerge from the
time–space fusion of three main historical-political forces: (a) settler-colonialism,
which may be external (into another state or continent) or internal (within a state)
(Lustick, 1993; McGarry, 1998); (b) ethno-nationalism, which draws on the international
legitimacy to national self-determination to buttress the political and territorial
expansionist goals of the dominant ethno-nation (Connor, 1994; Mann,
1999); and (c) a conspicuous ‘ethnic logic’of capital, which tends to stratify ethnic
groups through uneven processes of capital mobility, immigration and economic
globalization (Sassen, 1998; Soysal, 1994). These settings mean that ethnocratic
regime reflect, and at the same time reproduce, patterns of ethnic stratification and
discrimination. The parallel workings of these structural forces have shaped several
key regime characteristics—all enhancing the process of ethnicizing contested territory.
These are2:
. Ethnicity, and not citizenship, forms the main basis for resource and power
allocation; only partial rights and capabilities are extended to minorities; there is
a constant ethnocratic-civil tension.
. The dominant ethnic nation appropriates the state apparatus and shapes the
political system, public institutions, geography, economy and culture, so as to
expand and deepen its control over state and territory.
. Political boundaries are vague, often privileging co-ethnic of the dominant group
in the Diaspora, over minority citizens; there is no clearly identified ‘demos’.
. Politics are ethnicized, as the ethnic logic of power distribution polarizes the
body politic and party system.
. Rigid forms of ethnic segregation and socioeconomic stratification are maintained,
despite countervailing legal and market forces.
A central point is that in ethnocratic regimes, the notion of the ‘demos’ is
crucially ruptured. That is, the community of equal resident-citizens (the demos)
does not feature high in the country’s policies, agenda, imagination, symbols or
resource distribution, and is therefore not nurtured or facilitated. But the ‘demos’
forms the necessary basis for the establishment of democracy (‘demos-cracy’), and
as a foundation for the most stable and legitimate form of governance known
to human society. Needless to say, the concept of the demos is open to many
interpretations, as evidenced by the variety of federal, multi-cultural or unitary
state structures. Yet, the structural diminution of the demos by ethnocratic regimes
2 The characteristics are worded as assertions which may be subject to further theoretical and
empirical validation.
650 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
highlights their qualitative difference from the norms and practices of democratic
Notably, the ethnocratic model presented here is dynamic, depicting and interpreting
processes, rather than fixed reality, most notably ethnic expansion, and the
challenges and resistance it faces. One of our main arguments is the inherent instability
of open ethnocratic regimes, born out of the dynamism of societies embroiled
in ethnic territorial conflicts. Let us now explore further the structure of ethnocratic
regimes by elaborating on additional key dimensions, regarding territory,
religion and class.
Ethnocracies are driven, first and foremost, by a concerted collective project of
exerting ethno-national control over a territory perceived as the nation’s (exclusive)
homeland. The regime is thus propelled by a sense of collective entitlement
among the majority group to control ‘its’state, and ‘its’homela nd, as part and
parcel of what is conceived as a ‘natural’right for self-determination. But given the
perennial existence of multi-ethnic and multi-national territories, the imposition of
ethnic control over a mixed territory (and at times beyond) is likely to cause bitter
and protracted conflicts generated by rival claims for the same territory made by
other groups, typically those controlling the areas in different historical periods (see
Hakli, 2001; Murphy, 2002; Yiftachel; 2002).
While geographers and political scientists have compiled many studies of ethnic
politics and geographies (see Boal, 1987; Eyles, 1990; Peach, 1996), there has been
a relative paucity of studies linking questions of power, identity and ethnic conflict
to the dynamics of spatial expansion. Yet, the last years have seen several important
beginnings, with recent geographical studies beginning the task of systematically
describing, theorizing and offering critical evaluation of ethnocratic spatial
Penrose (2000a,b), for example, shows how the very structure of modern nationstates
(termed ‘nationalist democracies’) spawns societal projects, which ghettoize
and marginalize minority groups, and at the same time attempts to forcefully
assimilate them into the mainstream. Penrose theoretically and empirically exposes
the embedded contradiction between the claims of such states to be democracies,
and their systematic oppression of part of their citizenry
. . .systemic inequalities arise when the application of democratic principles is
constrained by the more fundamental need to demonstrate that the state represents
a single, coterminous nation. Accordingly. . . efforts to improve democracies
must begin with the assumption that the spaces and places in which this
ideology operates are not neutral. Instead, I suggest that [under the nationalist
order—OY] the context in which democratic principles are applied, and their
interpretation challenged, both produces and reflects ongoing, structural
unequal, power relations. (Penrose, 2000a,b: p. 35).
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676 651
Likewise, geographers Paasi (1999, 2000), Herb and Kaplan (1999) and Murphy
(2002) provide detailed accounts on the historical evolution of the close nexus
between identity and territory as a fundamental basis for the existing dominant
political order. This nexus provides the normative ‘ideal’, and the political basis for
mobilization, which stand behind the making of the global nation-state order. Notwithstanding
recent processes of globalization and localization, which erode their
power, national states remain the main repository of political, violent and economic
power, especially as regards minorities.
Paasi (2000) elaborates on the principles and methods of state building, which
invariably include a quiet, hegemonic, process of ‘spatial socialization’, whereby
cultural norms, official cartography, military activity and education infuse the
taken-for-granted link of people to their exclusive ethno-national homeland. Sibley
(1996) and Sack (1993) address the phenomenon of territoriality, with Sibley adding
a critical psychological-spatial dimension by introducing the concept of ‘pure
space’, as a social desire apparent on all scales. This often contradicts with the dictates
of global capitalism, creating a spatial politics of difference, manifested perversely
and often brutally, in the planning and making of the built environment:
The built environment assumes symbolic importance, reinforcing a desire for
order and conformity. . . space is implicated in the construction of otherness and
deviancy. ‘Pure space’exp oses difference and facilitates the policing of
boundaries. . . This xenophobia is based. . . on a purified national identity; (it)
sits uneasily with the flows and cultural fusions, which are generated by global
capitalism. But the contradiction between a racist nationalism and the imperatives
of capitalist economies is denied. . . The myth of cultural homogeneity
is needed to sustain the nation-state. . . It is convenient to have an alien other
hovering on the margins (Sibley, 1996: pp. 106–108).
Based on these theoretical foundations, we can proceed to observe the process of
ethnicizing contested territory as involving several key steps: (a) structural segregation,
without which the expansion of the majority group would not be possible;
(b) the construction of minorities as a ‘threat’or ‘enemies’to the project of ‘purifying’ethnic
spatial control, embedded in the model of the national state, from
which ethnocratic regimes receive their ultimate internal, and at times international,
legitimacy; (c) the formulation of public policies and practices, in the field
of land, development and planning, which enhance ethnocratic spatial control; (d)
the structural, and hence enduring, discrimination of minorities in the fields of land
control, planning rights, development and access to decision-making powers.
The manipulation of ethnic political geographies is hence one of the most central
pillars of all ethnocratic regimes; that is, the ethnicization of political space. The
legal, political, cultural and demographic ‘bases’of the regime, as elaborated
below, all facilitate this collective goal. But the geographical process in which
ethnocratic regimes are enmeshed, also expose their long-term weakness: as shown
by the recent work of social and political scientists such as Brubaker (1996),
Gurr (2000), Mann (2000), McGarry (1998) and Hechter (2000), the process of
652 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
state-led ethnic territorial expansion may and marginalize minorities to such an
extent, that their resistance often generates serious threats to the regime, most commonly
on a regional or transnational scale. The remaking of ethnic geography is
also closely related to another key component of most ethnocratic regime—the
reigning of religion to advance the ethnic project.
While the main mobilizers of politics in ethnocratic states is definitely ethnonationalism,
in most cases, the ‘national’que stion is intimately involved with an
institutionalized and politicized religion, because the religion held by the dominant
majority is often an ‘ethnic religion’. This creates reciprocal relations, where religion
is influenced by contemporary ethnic and national struggles, while the nature of
the ethno-national struggle is, in turn, shaped by religious motives. The expansive
type of ethno-nationalism typical to ethnocracies is thus able to develop resilient
forms of internal legitimations, based on the mutual reinforcement of nationalism
and religion.
Examples of the intimate connection between religion and ethno-national segregation
are rife in ethnocratic states, and are evident in the cases of Sri Lanka (with
a major Buddhist–Hindu division), Israel/Palestine (Jewish–Muslim), Serbia (Eastern
Orthodox–Catholic), Northern Ireland (Protestant–Catholic), Estonia
(Lutheran–Russian Orthodox) and Malaysia (Muslim–Confutes). Yet, our analysis
of the ethnocratic model still points to the general subordination of religion vis-avis
ethno-nationalism. This is the reason our terminology and explanation stress
the ethnic and national ‘engines’of mobilization, through which religion assumes
its contemporary political and cultural potency.
Significantly, religious narratives, norms and practices enhance in most ethnocratic
societies the project of ethnic spatial expansion. This is mainly due to the
sanctification of space, common in areas of ethnic and religious conflict. This process
sees religious texts and norms reinterpreted so as to make the exclusive claim
to territory a matter of divine truth. This gives rise to a range of religio-spatial
practices on all major scales. On the urban level, as well illustrated by Shilhav
(1991), and Kong (2001) religious discourses constantly inform the making of
‘sacred urban spaces’. These may include neighborhoods and quarters where
enough religious people congregate, so as to elevated their religious customs to the
level of public norm. This relates to customs such as dress, eating, gender mixing,
content of signs and billboards, the aesthetic, vocal and physical prominence of
places of worship.
On regional and national scales too, religious practices, such as the demarcation
and celebration of sacred sites, the association of certain areas with religious miracles
or major mythical events, movements or wars, are coupled with ethnic claims
for that region or state as a homeland. These tend to effectively fuel the struggle
for exclusive territorial control. As shown by Stump (2000) and Akenson (1992),
religious narratives and goals in conflict situations are inherently spatial, with constant
mobilization to widen influence and control.
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Winichakul (1994) and Smith (2002a,b) elaborate further on the impact of religion
on the national scale, by noting that the ‘layered’and ‘selective’hist orical interpretations
of many modern nations is commonly based on popular religious myths,
which emphasize ‘our’control over the land. Such selective collective memories are
then extrapolated into present day political territorial claims. Hence, the present
(often tacit) coalescence of religious leaders and discourses with the national framework
creates a process of sanctification of the entire state territory, which becomes
a complete and holy ‘geobody’, embodying, symbolizing and mobilizing the nation.
Hence, despite the putatively secular foundation of nationalism (Anderson,
1991), the histories, identities and boundaries of the dominant groups in ethnocratic
societies are never very far from their religious affiliation. The religious logic
is instrumental for most ethnocratic regimes by generating an essentializing discourse
of rigid political and social boundaries. The existence of such boundaries is
commonly justified in public opinion, in politics and the media as stemming from
divine or ancient roots, and is thus portrayed as ascriptive and insurmountable
(Smith, 1995).
The reinforcement of boundaries by nationalism and religion thus assists the
dominant and expanding ethnic nation to segregate and marginalize peripheral
minorities. Moreover, since ethno-nationalism is enmeshed in the definition of the
state, and since it often has clear religious undertones, the entry of marginalized
minorities to a ‘common good’de fined by the state is extremely difficult. The
regime can also use religion to create formal and informal differentiation between
citizens, where ‘objective’or ‘god-given’ religious criteria function as a basis
for discriminatory policies; in the allocation of resources, power and prestige
(Akenson, 1992).
But—significantly—the close association between ethnocratic regimes and
religious institutions is never totally congruent, because at a structural level, religion
and nationalism advance competing hegemonic projects. The first is structurally
bound to the state, and regards its development and power as a goal in itself. The
latter (religious institutions), however, promotes a competing regime of truth and
power, which holds a global or international ‘redemptive’vision, often ‘in waiting’
for the right historical circumstances. For religious movements, particularly of the
fundamentalist kind, control of state territory is never an end-state goal, but rather
a stepping stone towards a grander vision of broader salvation and control, which
may make the nation-state redundant (see Lustick, 2002; Stump, 2000).
Hence, religions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity—
found in most ethnocratic societies—also commonly hold uneasy relations
with their state governments. As shown below, in cases such as Sri Lanka and
Israel, the bands holding together the Statist and religious projects has been under
increasing strain, with religious forces, buoyed by the past support of the ethnic
state, now threaten to undermine their territorial, social and political stability.
654 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
The power of religion and ethnic struggle tend to overshadow class politics in
ethnocratic societies, although socioeconomic considerations are still central in the
shaping of political struggle over resources. Typically, such considerations are
expressed indirectly by the politics of religion and ethnicity, with a general association
between poverty, religion and nationalism. But as noted above, ‘the ethnic
logic of capital’operate s constantly in ethnocratic societies, and puts in train
mechanisms, which generally result in persisting ethnic stratification. These
mechanisms include the ‘cultural division of labor’(Hechter, 2000), the flow of
international and domestic capital, which tends to favor the more educated groups,
the uneven pattern of urban and industrial development, the typically skewed distribution
of governmental assistance and incentives, and the tendency of capital to
avoid risks. All these combine to create a socioeconomic map, which tends to separate
ethnic groups, thereby fueling inter-ethnic tensions.
Consequently, we observe that politics in ethnocratic states operates on two
main and distinguishable levels: ethno-nations and ethno-classes (for a fuller discussion,
see Yiftachel, 1998). This begins with an ethnic logic of politics, which is
generated by the national struggle, where ‘our’e thnic nation is routinely elevated,
while rival groups are demoted (Connor, 1994). This logic is often diffused into
both majority and minority communities, bestowing legitimacy for the use of hierarchical
ethnicity as a political and distributive category, and causing various
forms of ethno-class divisions. Hence, ethnocratic regimes do not only promote the
dominance of a specific ethnicity, but also the general dominance of ethnicity as a
political and socioeconomic category.
The two levels of ethnicity operate with different social effects. Typically, the
ethno-national discourse attempts to unite the various groups in the nation (as
defined by the dominant group, barring ‘external’of ‘foreign’minor ities); while the
ethno-class logic tends to fragment groups within the nations according to their
socioeconomic status and/or regional locations (see Hechter, 2000). Needless to
say, there is never a clear-cut division between ethno-national and ethno-class stratifications,
but the analytical distinction helps us trace the central role of ethnicity
in both national and economic lines of demarcation, and account for its various
manifestations in the ‘thick’political struggles prevalent in ethnocratic societies.
Consequently, the contours of political mobilization and organization within
each ethnic nation often combines ethnic, religious and class affiliation. The patterns
of ethno-class stratification typical to ethnocracies has been explained and
elaborated elsewhere (see Stasiulis & Yuval-Davis, 1995). Its importance for the
present discussion is the inherent tension it exposes between the parallel projects of
nation- and state building, and the attention it draws to the material aspects of ethnic
struggle, frequently overlooked in recent scholarship on politics memory and
The tension between the use of ethnic and civil categories is highly evident during
the process of nation-building, which usually entails an active exclusion of groups
who are constructed as ‘external’by the prevailing discourse of the dominant
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nation, a status reified by a combination of legal measures, public policies and cultural
norms. The excluded are usually indigenous peoples or peripheral minorities,
but also collectivities marked as ‘enemies’or ‘foreigners’. Yet, at the same time,
these groups are incorporated (often coercively) into the project of state building.
The crises emanating from the process of ‘incorporation without legitimation’
(Mann, 1999; Soysal, 2000) is at the heart of the chronic instability experienced by
ethnocratic regimes, to be discussed further below.
The making of ethnocratic regimes: three illustrations
The following section will briefly illustrate the process of ethnicization in three
representative states—Sri Lanka, Estonia and Israel. The common politicalgeographical
elements emerging from these three examples will then assist to create
a more robust and refined model of the ethnocratic regimes, to which the following
sections are devoted.
As in all comparative analyses, there are obvious differences between the three
states, in history, economy, culture and geography. However, the main commonality,
which makes these cases comparable, is the institutionalization of an ethnocratic
project ‘within’a self-declared democratic setting. Hence, several important
democratic characteristics, such as separation of powers and elections, exist alongside
a state project of deepening ethnic control. This combination sets ‘open’ethnocratic
states, including the three following cases, apart from most other nationstates.
This point requires some elaboration. It is often claimed that most nation-states
advance a project of ethnic domination (see Brubaker, 1996), thereby diminishing
the distinctiveness of the ethnocratic type (see Smooha, 2002a,b). However, we
claim that there exists a qualitative difference between what Brubaker terms ‘nationalizing
states’, and between ethnocratic regimes. This difference lies in the deliberate
undermining of the political demos. As elaborated below, ethnocratic regimes
work ceaselessly to prevent the making of an inclusive demos—a community of
equal citizens within a definable territory. Instead—they use a rhetoric of the
nation-state, but do not allow minorities any feasible path of inclusion. Indeed, the
ethnocratic project is often constructed specifically against these minorities. There
is no attempt to assimilate ‘external’co mmunities of citizens, quite the contrary—
their identity is well demarcated and structurally marginalized.
Put differently, contrary to most nation-states, ethnocratic regimes actually work
against the project of universal citizenship. The universal project is of course
incomplete in most nation-state, and often involves oppressive policies and practices,
such as forced assimilation, discrimination or state-led economic stratification,
the state framework, de-jure, still leaves members of minority communities
an option of integration.
Ethnocracies, on the other hand, annul this inclusionary option. The state is constructed
so as to prevent the integration of minorities, typically through the rejection
of citizenship, limiting personal laws, restriction on immigration and land rights or
656 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
denial of accessibility to decision-making powers. This is a significant structural difference,
which sets ethnocratic regimes apart from most ‘normal’nation-st ates.
Hence, one may point to the zone on a continuum between actively exclusionary
and inclusionary regimes, as the ‘tipping zone’between democracy with an ethnic
bias, to ethnocracy. It is analytically difficult to sharply define this zone which may
concurrently contain contradictory movements towards democracy and ethnocracy,
as evident by the Israeli case below. However, when the political demos has been
fundamentally undermined by the state’s ethnocratic laws, policies and institutions,
the regime can be said to have crossed the ethnocratic threshold, as evident in Sri
Lanka. Estonia, on the other hand, appears to be moving across the tipping zone in
the other direction, from ethnocracy to democracy. The three brief cases outlined in
the following pages were selected to demonstrate the above processes.
The three cases were also chosen because of the different potential trajectories of
the ethnocratic project they display—from deterioration into an open ethnic war,
to the possibility of peaceful democratization. In Sri Lanka, deepening oppression
and intensifying minority resistance have led to a virtual collapse of state into a
protracted civil war. In Estonia, the opposite process of non-violent democratization
and gradual inclusion of the Russian minority has been gathering pace; while
Israel is caught between the conflicting logics of ethnicization and democratization.
Its relative openness and high standard of living, as well as the weakness of the
Palestinian-Arab minority, have so far halted the eruption of open ethnic conflict,
but it is positioned at a historical juncture of delicate fragility.
The different trajectories of political development are highlighted by the political
and cultural freedom index data, compiled by the Freedom House project
( Estonia scores low on political and cultural freedoms
during the early 1990s (3 on both assessment, on a scale of 1–7, with 1 being most
free). But it significantly improves in the last few years, scoring 1 and 2, respectively
in 2003. On the other hand, Sri Lanka scored relatively well during the 1970s
with 2 on political freedom and 3 on cultural. The situation deteriorates during the
1990s, when Sri Lanka scores a very low pair of 4 and 5, only to improve slightly
during 2003, scores of 2 and 3. Israel remains relatively stable since the 1970s, scoring
around 2 on each count for the entire three decades. These three cases then
illustrate a wide spectrum of development possibilities apparent under ethnocratic
Finally, it should be emphasized that we see the development of ethnic relations
and regime structure as dialectical. That is, state actions and majority politics in
ethnocratic states are informed and fueled by minority activity and mobilization.
While the dialectics are commonly asymmetrical (with the state having far more
power than marginalized minorities), the evolution of these regime cannot be
understood without acknowledging the role of minority mobilization, especially as
regards the use of violence and terror, and the articulation of dissenting, often
threatening, collective narratives.
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Sri Lanka: from biethnic democracy to Sinhalese ethnocracy
The island state of Sri Lanka (previously Ceylon) is composed of two main
ethno-national groups. Sinhalese, who are mainly Buddhist, make up 75% of
the state’s 19 million inhabitants. Tamils, who are mainly Hindu, make up 18%.
Sri Lanka gained its independence from Britain in 1948, after an anti-colonial
struggle dominated by the Sinhalese groups, but shared by Tamils, as well as other
small ethnic groups on the island. However, in the decade following independence,
the state gradually turned towards a Sinhalization strategy. This orientation intensified
due to Tamil resistance and an ensuing process of ethnic polarization.
Sri Lanka was formed as a democratic state, with formal institutions and
governing procedures following, initially, the Westminster model (Little, 1994). But
in later years, the Sri Lankan state was gradually appropriated by the Sinhalese
community, mainly due to its demographic advantage and strong sense of ethnonationalism
(de Silva, 1996; Uyangoda, 1994). The Sinhalese used their dominance
in the legislative, judiciary and executive arms of government to advance an
explicit Sinhalization process. As declared in 1983 by the Sri Lankan development
minister (Nissan, 1996: p. 176):
Sri Lanka is inherently and rightfully a Sinhalese state. . . this must be accepted
as a fact and not a matter of opinion to be debated. By attempting to challenge
this premise, Tamils have brought the wrath of the Sinhalese on their own
heads; they have themselves to blame.
This approach found expression in several key policies and programs, beginning
in the 1950s with the adoption of religious Buddhist state symbols, which denote,
in the Sri Lankan context, a purely Sinhalese affiliation. Another major step was
taken in 1956 when Sinhalese was declared the only official state language. The
state’s official culture was also developed around a series of Buddhist ‘‘invented’’
histories, symbols and values, glorifying the link between Buddha and the Sinhalese
‘guardians’of ‘his’ island (Little, 1994), and glorifying the images of the Sinhala
nation as the indigenous ‘sons of the earth’, and hence the only rightful
owners and controllers of the state (Uyangoda, 1994).
A further aspect of the Sinhalization strategy was evident in Sri Lanka’s
citizenship policies. Over a million long-term Tamil residents who migrated to the
island during the period of British rule, mainly as plantation workers, have been
denied citizenship as part of the Sinhalization approach, by being officially classified
as ‘Indian Tamils’. This forced large sections of this community to leave the
island and settle in India during the 1950s and 1960s. Many from this group who
remained on the island have remained to date. The Sinhalese majority has thus
managed to contain the size of the Tamil community, and reinforce geographical
and political intra-Tamil cleavage between ‘Indian’an d ‘Sri Lankan’Tam ils. Geographically,
Indian Tamils mainly reside in the central heights, while Sri Lankan
Tamils inhabit the island’s northern and eastern regions. Politically,
the disenfranchised Indian Tamils became totally dependent on the Sinhalese
regime for basic rights and services, and hence remained politically immobilized.
658 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
Consequently, Indian Tamils have rarely participated or assisted in the militant
resistance staged by Sri Lankan Tamils against the Sinhalizing state.
The island’s ethnic geography has also been the main cause of another notable
ethnocratic policy—the Sinhalization of contested space. The British rulers had
already encouraged the Tamils to immigrate into Sinhalese areas, breaking a centuries-
long tradition of (mainly voluntary) spatial separation. Likewise, the
Sri Lankan government encouraged Sinhalese to settle in the island’s central and
eastern regions, which previously were dominated and claimed by Tamils as part of
their ‘own’regions .
This has been most evident in the large-scale Mahaweli irrigation and settlement
project carried out predominantly during the 1970s and 1980s (Roded, 1999). The
project opened up large tracts of agricultural land in the island’s central and northeastern
regions, which were offered mostly to landless or impoverished farmers. By
1993, 1.1 million people (the vast majority Sinhalese) were resettled in these
regions, creating a new Sinhalese regional lower-class collectivity and exacerbating
the conflict with the Tamils, who considered the region as part of their historical
‘Elam’homela nd (Peiris, 1996).
Subsequently, the regions in question became a destination for large-scale (and
mainly unauthorized) Tamil counter-settlement. As the two populations increasingly
intermingled in competitive settings (largely as a result of settlement initiatives
like the Mahaweli project), antagonism and discrimination against the
minority deepened, intensifying the breakdown of social and political order since
the early 1980s.
The civil (ethnic) war, which has dominated the Sri Lankan state since the early
1980s, has brought to the fore the military as a major agent in the Sinhalization of
contested space, and the reinforcement of Sinhalese dominance in Sri Lankan politics.
The army gradually extended state (that is, Sinhalese) control north and eastwards,
confining the resisting Tamil groups to the Jaffna Peninsula, at the state’s
northeastern end. It has also caused a major internal refugee problem, with some
550,000 residents losing their homes during the fighting, 78% of them Tamils (de
Silva, 1996). During the same time, a series of emergency and ‘security’legi slation
reduced the protection of Tamil citizens against arbitrary state oppression
(Uyangoda, 1994). A parallel constitutional move increased the powers of a popularly
elected president at the expense of the previously powerful legislature. Finally,
in 1978, several Tamil parliamentarians were disqualified on the basis of ‘acting
against the Sinhalese state’, reducing the already limited Tamil political power
(Little, 1994).
The accumulating alienation of Tamils from the Sri Lankan state drove many of
them to boycott the political process altogether. From 1978 until 2001, the
majority of Tamils boycotted the Sri Lankan elections and only rarely participated
in other state affairs. The state, on its part, did little to induce the Tamils back into
the political arena until 1987, when further constitutional reforms attempted to
ease ethnic tensions by decentralizing state authority and granting autonomy to
regional authorities. However, the Tamils did not accept the plan that was prepared
without their participation, claiming that: (a) it compromised their drive for
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self-determination, and (b) it legitimized the ‘unlawful’Sinhale se domination of the
eastern regions (Nissan, 1996). Further, the state maintained ultimate control by
classifying ‘national projects’that could bypass the proposed decentralized forms
of decision-making (Gunasekara, 1996).
The Sinhalization strategy generated widespread Tamil resistance. The Tamils
initially struggled for territorial-political autonomy within the Sri Lankan state,
but following the state’s ethnocratic policies, began a campaign to reinstate their
vision of Tamil Elam—an independent Tamil state. Tamil disengagement from the
state further polarized the two groups, culminating in increasing inter-communal
mistrust, Tamil withdrawal from state politics and eventually the breakout of a
civil war. The fighting, which had been fluctuating since 1982, reached a peak of
widespread inter-ethnic violence during the mid-1990s, and exacted a toll of 70–
80,000 casualties, most of them civilians.
Only in 2002 was a ceasefire declared, when the Tamil leadership agreed to
return to negotiations after the Sinhalese promised serious constitutional amendments
and made a more genuine attempt to include the Tamils in devising a new,
highly devolved state structure. However, during late 2003 and early 2004, following
serious negotiations between the government and the LTTE for substantial
Tamil autonomy, Sri Lanka was thrown into a deep political crisis. The ensuing
elections of April 2004 returned to power the United People’s Freedom Alliance,
traditionally opposed to a federated Sri Lankan state. At the same time, a major
split occurred in the LTTE. These developments appear to usher another period of
political instability and ethnic conflict.
The case of Sri Lanka illustrates well the emergence of ethnocracy and
the inherent tensions between formal democratic procedures and a parallel state
project of ethnicizing contested spaces and political institutions. It also demonstrates
the inability of an ethnocracy to be sustained for the long term, and its need
to structurally reform in order to survive as a state.
Estonia: from communism to (democratizing?) ethnocracy
The independent Estonian state re-emerged during the collapse of the Soviet
Union in the 1989–1992 period. It is situated on the Baltic Coast, and has a population
of 1.5 million, of whom 65% are ethnic Estonians, 14% Russians with citizenship
and 25% non-citizen residents (mainly Russian speaking) (EHDR, 2000).
The new polity was formed as a result of an anti-Soviet (and by implication anti-
Russian) struggle, which followed five decades of often-brutal Soviet rule. It has
since adopted an explicit program of Estonization (de-Russification), designed to
reinstate the ethnic and national situation existing during a previous period of
independence 1918–1939). During that period, ethnic Estonians dominated the
state—politically, demographically, economically and culturally. The Soviet Union
subsequently promoted a process of Russification and encouraged Russian immigration
to Estonia, thereby threatening Estonian demographic and cultural dominance
in their homeland.
660 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
Since official independence was declared in 1992, state building has assumed ethnocratic
characteristics. For example, in 1992, the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu)
decided not to grant citizenship to ‘non-ethnic’Estonia ns. It classified them as
‘aliens’, thus excluding them from the 1992 referendum on a new constitution.
Estonian state policies in the 1989–2000 period clearly aimed to ensure the political,
territorial and cultural dominance of ethnic Estonians by focusing on
citizenship, culture, language and land.
In 1992, Estonia adopted the new Constitution, according to which the bearers
of the supreme power are ‘the people’(that is, the citizens; art. 1). The constitutional
preamble contains a clause obliging the state to ensure the preservation
of the (ethnic) Estonian nation and culture. Courts have actively referred to this
preamble in a variety of rulings on citizenship and property matters.
Hence, the new Constitution includes special clauses concerning the priority of
ethnic Estonians, Estonian culture and language (Ruutsoo, 1998: p. 176). Every
Estonian is entitled to preserve his/her national identity, but no special minority
rights are recognized by the Constitution. Some state symbols are of purely ethnic
character (e.g. flag, anthem, stamps and official letterheads). The state holidays
include Protestant sacred days, not Russian Orthodox. There is no State Church in
Estonia, but the majority of ethnic Estonians are (Protestant) Lutheran, and Estonian
nationalism is widely associated with a Lutheran way of life, as an antithesis
to the Orthodox Russian influence. During the Communist years, the population
became largely secular, but since the return of Estonian nationalism as a legitimate
ideology, the church has increased markedly its public profile (
The issue or citizenship (and by association culture and language) has been most
central to the Estonization project. The Citizenship Law of 1992 (amended 1995)
granted citizenship to all pre-1940 citizens and their descendants and prohibited
dual citizenship. Because in 1940, the state was 92% ethnic Estonians, this law
actually granted superior citizenship rights to ethnic Estonians (in and outside the
state) over the state’s own Russian residents.
The law sets a difficult path for acquisition of citizenship by non-Estonians,
including long-term state residents who previously had full (Soviet) citizenship
rights and are now considered ‘aliens’. Such ‘aliens’ are required to reside in Estonia
for at least five years, pass demanding language tests, prove command of the
Estonian constitution, have a steady income, establish permanent residency and
pledge allegiance to the state and its (ethnic) character (The Aliens Law, 1989;
2000; Human Rights Watch, 2000).
The ethnicization strategy is also evident in Estonia’s language policies, which
have reinforced the imposed dominance of the Estonian language in most spheres
of life, including education, street signs and government services. This dominance
was deepened by a new language law, introduced in 1989 (and amended in 1995,
1999 and 2000), which demoted Russian to the status of a ‘foreign’languag e,
similar to dozens of other languages used by immigrants and minorities. The
requirements of the new law severely restricts the public usage of any language
except Estonian. For example, ‘foreign’language s are prohibited in all street and
commercial signs, and all TV broadcasts must have Estonian subtitles. Estonian is
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the compulsory language in the parliament and local councils, for state employees
and for government dealings in both public and private sectors. The only exception
is minority language usage in territories where they form a majority, but this is
implemented in a very restrictive manner.
In 1993, the Riigikogu enacted a new law for Cultural Autonomy of National
Minorities (Estonian Government, RT 1993, 71,1000). But the law defined a minority
as consisting of citizens only. Thus, the state did not recognize special rights
of the vast majority of the non-Estonian population. Previously, the Soviet Law on
National Rights allowed minorities full enjoyment of certain rights obtainable
through special autonomous organs and under the supervision of the State.
Ethnicization has also been prominent on the political level. After 1992, rightwing
nationalist parties have dominated the Riigikogu. A process of ethnic political
polarization has seen electoral competition revolving around the intensity of the
Estonization (and de-Russification) process. Changes of government during the
1990s did not result in any significant change in Estonia’s policies toward its Russian
minority. Russians have suffered persistent political under-representation: in the
1992 Parliament, there were no ethnic Russians, while in 1995 and in 1999, their
numbers rose to only six members (out of 100). In the Riigikogu, Russians have
always belonged to the opposition and have had no significant influence on the
decision-making process.
Ethnic Estonian dominance is also expressed in denial of state recognition of the
local Orthodox Church under its pre-war name (Estonian Apostolic Orthodox
Church; see Theile, 1999). That means the deprivation of the church pre-war property
in the process of property restitution, as noted below. In 1993, the Government
registered the EAOC an ‘exile’entit y whose legitimacy is highly disputable.
As expected, and as planned by Estonian policymakers, the laws created considerable
difficulties for non-ethnic Estonians to acquire citizenship, and have caused substantial
emigration, mainly into Russia, with some 133,000 Russians leaving Estonia
during the 1990s (Statistical Office of Estonia, 2000). By 1999, only about 38% of
this group received Estonian citizenship, while 19% have retained foreign (mainly
Russian) citizenship, and 43% have remained stateless. Non-citizens are excluded
from many political and economic arenas in Estonian life, and are prohibited from
voting or being elected at a national level. The Russians have voting rights for local
elections, but cannot stand for mayorship (EHDR, 1999; Hallik, 1998).
The discrepancy between citizenry and the residential composition of Estonian is
highlighted by the following figures: in 1999, ethnic Estonians constituted 81% of
the citizenry, but only 65% of the population. Likewise, Russians were 28% of the
residents, but only 14% of the citizenry. However, due to pressure from the
European Union, into which Estonia seeks to integrate, and from international
human rights organizations, Estonia introduced in the beginning of the 2000s several
measures which open a path of naturalization for the Russians, evolving
mainly around language acquisition, military service or contribution to the Estonian
public (Berg, 2002; Pettai & Hallik, 2002).
The Estonian government also attempted to reinforce ethnic land control, by resurrecting
the traditional ‘indigenous’Estonia n system of family farms to replace
662 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
the Kolchoz and Sobchov Soviet system of collective cultivation. This was aided by
the Law for Land Reform (1992), the Law of Agrarian Reform (1994) and a complex
system of financial incentives designed to assist the restitution and privatization
of land, while at the same time restrict the benefits of this process chiefly to
ethnic Estonians (Anderson, 1999).
In sum, like Sri Lanka, but within different historical and geographical settings,
Estonia demonstrates the deep logic of ethnicization behind ethnocratic structure
and policies. Estonia adopted a structure of an ‘open’formal democracy, but at
another level has set into motion an ethnic transformation of the state from a Russified
communist republic into an ethnic Estonian state. The new state structurally
discriminates against most of its long-term Russian residents, and actively facilitates
the Estonization of institutions, politics, culture and territory. However,
unlike Sri Lanka, the ethnicization process has not been violent, and appears to be
waning, mainly due to the influence of the European Union and the globalization
of ethnic politics (Berg, 2002). Hence, Estonia appears to be an ethnocracy undergoing
a gradual process of democratization.
Israel: an ethnocratic settler-state
Following half a century of Jewish colonization of (mainly Arab) Palestine,
tacitly supported by the British rulers, Israel gained its independence in 1948. This
followed a failed UN partition attempt, rejected by the Arabs, and a Palestinian–
Jewish war, in which some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out of their
homeland. Israel seized control over 78% of Mandatory Palestine, about 40% larger
than the territory allocated to it by the UN plan. This area—known as ‘Israel
Proper’(the sovereign state within its pre-1967 borders)—is the focus of our analysis
here, not including the occupied Palestinian territories. We do acknowledge, of
course, that the occupation and on-going Jewish settlement in Palestinian territories
have had an immense impact on ethnic relations, but for comparative and
methodological reasons, ‘Israel Proper’—where Israeli sovereignty is internationally
recognized—is a more appropriate scale of analysis. This, without
diminishing the significance of the increasingly oppressive regime imposed by Israel
in the Palestinian occupied territories for nearly four decades, and the waves of
mutual violence it generated.
In 1949, only 160,000 Palestinian-Arabs remained in Israel, and received state
citizenship. In the next five decades, Israel absorbed some 2.7 million Jewish refugees
and immigrants, and prevented the return of the Palestinian refugees, who
remained chiefly in surrounding Middle-Eastern states. In the year 2002, Palestinian-
Arabs have become 18% of Israel’s population of 6.3 million.
Both ethno-national groups claim to have historical rights over the country. The
Palestinian-Arabs claim continuous residence as indigenous people, and a natural
right for self-determination in a national homeland. The Jewish-Zionist justification
rests on the existence of ancient Israelite kingdoms on the land before
the Jews were forcefully exiled, and on sacred Jewish texts, which promise the land
to the Israelite ‘chosen people’. The Zionist movement claims that Jews maintained
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in their diasporas a continuous bond with the ‘promised land’, and that following
the eruption of genocidal European anti-Semitism, the Land of Israel (Palestine)
became the rightful and natural site in which to build a safe, independent, Jewish
state (Kimmerling, 2001).
On a formal level, Israel formed a democratic regime in 1948, but in parallel
initiated a concerted project of Judaizing the land and the polity. Israel’s Declaration
of Independence, for example, stresses the Jewish connection to an ancient
homeland, and its expression as political control over this contested land:
In the Land of Yisrael the Jewish people was created. Here its spiritual, religious
and political identity was shaped. . . the people kept faith with it throughout
their dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return. . . According
to our natural and historical right. . . we are hereby declaring the establishment
of a Jewish state in this Land of Israel. . .
The Judaization project, which turned Israel into a ‘frontier state’( Shafir &
Peled, 2002) was significantly aided by Jewish diaspora, which not only funded
many Israeli projects, but also circumvented the state apparatus by forming and
maintaining Jewish organizations, which operate in Israel officially as ethnic arms
of the states. These organizations—notably the Jewish National Fund and/or the
Jewish Agency—enabled the implementation of ethnocratic ‘Jews only’
policies in the allocation of key resources, powers and land, thereby structurally
undermining the notion of equal citizenship (Rouhana, 1997; Kretzmer, 2002).
Until 1966, Israel’s Arabs citizens were placed under military rule. In the following
decades, and against the on-going conflict with their Palestinian brethren,
Israel’s enacted a series of laws, which enshrine the legal, institutional and political
dominance of Jewish goals and interests. Despite small advances in the last decade,
discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens has remained rampant, leading a
recent comprehensive study as to label the minority as ‘citizens without citizenship’
(MADA, 2003).
Judaization took many substantive forms, including the mass expropriation of
Arab land in Israel (Kedar, 1998), the building of over 700 Jewish settlements,
often on the sites of the hundreds of Arab villages destroyed after the 1948 war (see
Falah, 1996, 2003), the Hebraization of the landscape and erasure of its Palestinian
Arab past (Benvenisti, 2001), and the establishment of a highly centralized economy
and political systems in which the Arab minority was marginalized and weakened.
Expansion of Jewish control continued after the 1967 war, with the conquest
and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, but also in Israel’s own outlying
regions, mainly the northern Galilee and southern Negev, where hundreds of thousands
of Jews were settled in close proximity to Arab towns and villages. This was
facilitated by the Israeli land and planning systems which have worked consistently
for the transfer of spatial control from Arab to Jewish hands, and have legitimized,
planned and funded large-scale projects of Jewish settlement (see Benvenisti, 2001;
Yiftachel & Kedar, 2000; Yacobi and Yiftachel, 2003).
664 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
Notably, then, despite the formal appearance of the Israeli regime as democratic,
the state has advanced an ethnocratic strategy in key bases of the regime. For
example, immigration policies, governed by the Jewish Law of Return, allow any Jew
and his/her immediate family to enter Israel and receive citizenship. At the same
time, the immigration and naturalization of non-Jews, those born on the land or
married to an Arab Israeli has been made extremely difficult (Kretzmer, 1990).
Other building blocks of Israel’s Judaization strategy are manifest in the state’s
development policies, which have consistently privileged Jewish capital and localities
over their Arab counterparts. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), too, is in
essence a Jewish army, and military service is a prerequisite for substantial benefits
in employment, education, land allocation, and access to the state’s centers of
power. Jewish-Israeli Hebrew culture is the dominant force in shaping Israel’s public
spaces. While Arabic is an official state language, it is virtually impossible to
deal with the Israeli bureaucracy, legal system, arms of government or national
media in Arabic (Ghanem, 1998; Rouhana, 1997).
The state culture also reflects a deep connection with the Jewish religion: Jewish
holidays and the Sabbath are Israel’s main rest days, no public transport or free
commerce is available on these holidays, and all public (and most private) food
outlets observe Jewish dietary laws. Personal matters are run according to religious
laws, giving the Arab citizen a measure of religious autonomy. Arabic is also an
official language, used in the separate Arab education stream. But despite these
measures, Jews control decision-making in most educational and religious arenas,
meaning that communal autonomy is severely restricted. The above measures are
hence often interpreted as preserving institutional communal segregation between
Jews and Arabs (Shafir & Peled, 2002).
In addition, while Israel lacks a formal constitution, the state’s legal system has
reinforced its Jewish character, with legislation privileging Jewish interests and goals.
According to a recent study, 18 laws explicitly discriminate against Israel’s Palestinian-
Arab citizens, rupturing the notion of the ‘demos’as a political community of
equals. This despite concerted legal activity, especially through appeals to the Israeli
High Court, which have managed to outlaw or contain several legal obstacles to
Arab civil equality (Adala, 1998, 2003). It is worth noting that even the 1992 new
and putatively liberal basic Laws—hailed as signaling a ‘civil revolution’( Barak,
1998)—still ambiguously declare the state’s character as Jewish and democratic.
Israeli-Jewish culture fostered an exclusive Jewish bond to the land, and for
many years denied, delegitimized and ignored the existence of Palestinian nationalism,
and hence the minority’s collective territorial or political rights. Following the
1993 Oslo agreement and the mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian
‘national rights’, the rhetoric has somewhat changed, although Jewish settlement
and expansion of land control has continued in parallel to contraction in several
heavily populated Palestinian areas.
Like in Sri Lanka, oppression has met with increasing minority resistance. This
has been expressed by continuing waves of large-scale protest against state policies,
which reached a notable height in October 2000, when 12 Arab citizens were killed
by state forces during mass demonstrations in support of the Palestinian al-Aqsa
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Intifada. Political polarization has also deepened between the two ethnic groups,
with increasing votes going to non-Zionist Arab parties, reaching 70% in 1999, and
an all time high of 81% in the 2003 elections. In the special Prime Ministerial elections
of 2001, and following the killing of 12 Arab demonstrators, 82% of
Arab citizens boycotted the vote, signaling again the intensifying process of polarization.
As we can see, although Israel managed to project a democratic image, mainly
because of a competitive electoral system and relatively independent judiciary and
media, in effect it became a state dedicated to the expansion and control of one
ethnic group, at the expense of a homeland minority community, and with significant
undermining of basic democratic principles (see Ghanem, et al., 1998).4 To
date, the Judaization strategy had remained a main foundation of the Israeli ethnocratic
Ethnocracy and regime components
The foregoing accounts of Sri Lanka, Israel and Estonia highlighted the changing
ethnic relations in states undergoing a planned process of ‘ethnicization’. The
three illustrative cases facilitate the next step of our exploration: a discussion of the
relationships between ethnocracy and key regime components—namely, democracy,
minority status and political stability.
Ethnocracy and democracy5
The ‘open’e thnocratic regimes studied here combine partial elements of both
authoritarian and democratic systems. But regardless of the formal political
system, they enhance a rule by, and for, a specific ethnos. As such, they cannot be
classified as democracies in a substantive sense, as they structurally privilege one
group of citizens over all others, and strive to maintain that privilege.
Ethnocracies are, therefore, neither democratic, nor authoritarian (or ‘Herrenvolk’)
systems of government. The lack of democracy, as noted above, rests on the
rupture of the concept of the ‘demos’, on their unequal citizenship, and on their laws
and policies that enable the seizure of the state by one ethno-national group. They
are not authoritarian, as they extend significant (though partial) political rights to
ethnic minorities.
3 While most Arabs (62%) returned to vote in the 2003 elections, the Arab turnout was the lowest
among all ethnic groups in the country and the second lowest in history after 2001.
4 It should be noted, however, that Israel’s electoral system has not been universal since the 1970s,
given the voting rights granted to Jewish settlers (who reside outside the state’s sovereign area), and the
denial of such rights from all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The settlers have determined the
outcome of several key elections and are over-represented in Israel’s government apparatus. This clearly
breaks the concept of universal suffrage, which calls for an overlap of territory, citizenship and voting
power, and has further marginalized the Arab citizens politically. In addition, Israel’s electoral laws prohibit
any party opposed to Zionism from contesting the elections, placing another serious breach of the
concept of universal and free elections.
5 The following two sections are summarized from Yiftachel (2000).
666 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
Importantly, we do not treat the term ‘democracy’uncritical ly, recognizing that
it is a contested concept, widely abused, particularly in multi-ethnic states (see
Mann, 1999). This is not the place to delve deeply into democratic theory. Suffice is
to note that several key principles have emerged as foundations for achieving the
main tenets of democracy—equality and liberty. These principles include equal citizenship,
protection of individuals and minorities against the tyranny of states,
majorities or churches, and a range of civil, political and economic rights (Held,
1990). A stable constitution, periodic and universal elections and free media generally
ensure the attainment of these rights (Dahl, 1995). In multi-ethnic or multinational
polities, as illustrated by the seminal works of Lijphart (1977), Kymlicka
(1995) and Rawls (1999), a certain parity, recognition and proportionality between
the ethnic collectivities is a pre-requisite for democratic legitimacy and stability.
While no state ever implements these principles fully, ethnocratic regimes are conspicuous
in breaching the spirit, purpose and major tenets of the democracy ideal.
Generally, ethnocratic regimes emphasize the procedural aspects of their selfdefined
democracy, but attempt to draw attention away from substantive matters,
such as privileges for the dominant group in the allocation of resources, political
representation, territorial control or preference by the law. The emphasis on procedural
aspects also diverts attention from the substantive limitations placed on
minority rights and capabilities, and from the lack of equal treatment by state policies,
laws and institutions.
To further fathom the workings of ‘open’ethnocra cies, and drawing on Gramscian-
informed analysis, we differentiate analytically between regime features and
structure. As noted in Fig. 1, ethnocracies demonstrate ‘visible’democ ratic features,
such as periodic elections, free media and autonomous judiciary that protects,
and (some) human rights legislation. But these tend to work on a ‘surface
level’, while the deeper structure of such regimes it undermines key democratic
principles, such as civil and legal equality within agreed state boundaries, protection
of minorities, maintenance of equality and a measure of proportionality
between the state’s main ethnic groups.
The analytical differentiation between ‘features’and ‘structure’highli ghts the
selective and often hollow use of the term ‘democracy’by the dominant ethnic
group. The democratic discourse, partial as it is, often has the effect of legitimizing
the regime, especially in the eyes of the majority, as evident so vividly in Sri Lanka,
Israel and Estonia.6
A hallmark of the ethnocratic hegemony is the common waging of political
struggles around the ‘shallower’state features, while relatively few battles are
fought over the ‘deeper’ethn ic (and class) hegemony, which is painted as ‘natural’
6 The distinction between ‘features’and ‘structure’is, needless to say, never overt or stable, with a
constant flow of reciprocal influences. However, during the intense process of state building, the ethnocratic
logic of the regime structure generally dictates the terms of much of what transpires in the more
visible arenas of political features.
O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676 667
and universal. As powerfully argued by Antonio Gramsci (1971); as synthesized by
Sasoon (1987: p. 232), a ‘moment’of hegemony is marked by:
. . .the unquestioned dominance of a certain way of life. . . when a single concept
of reality informs society’s tastes, morality, customs, religious and political
principles. . .’ (Sasoon, 1987: p. 232).
Drawing on the cases of Sri Lanka, Israel and Estonia discussed above, we have
identified several structural ‘bases’, which constitute the foundation of ethnocratic
regimes. These are key components of the dominant hegemony, which are generally
protected by the boundaries of public discourse and political discussion. Let us
emphasize again that we see the structural bases of the regime as dynamic, evolving
over time in an effort to maintain their ‘natural’and popularly accepted status. But
as part of the conflict-riddled ethnocratic regime, they are never sustainable in the
long term. The main regime bases thus include:
Fig. 1. Ethnocratic regime: structure and features a conceptual framework.
668 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
. Demography: rights of entry and membership into the political community define
the all important boundaries of political (and by implication social) power. In
ethnocracies immigration and citizenship are chiefly determined by affiliation
with the dominant ethnic-nation.
. Land and settlement: territorial control is central for ethno-national politics. As
such, the ownership, use and development of land, as well as planning and settlement
policies are shaped by the state’s project of extending ethno-national control
over its (multi-ethnic) territory.
. Armed forces: violent force is critical in assisting the state to maintain (oppressive)
ethno-national control over contested regions and resisting groups. To that
end, the armed forces (the military, the police), which bear the name of the
entire state, are predominantly affiliated with the leading ethnic nation.
. Capital flow: while the flow of capital and development is deeply influenced by
an ‘ethnic logic’, privileging the dominant ethno-classes; notably, these market
mechanisms are often represented as ‘free’or ‘neutral’an d hence beyond challenge.
. The Constitutional System: legalism often depoliticizes and legitimizes patterns of
ethnic control. Such controls are often premised on redundant, absurd, non-existent
or only partially functional constitutional settings. This is often presented
as ‘the law of the land’, and subsequently placed outside the realm of legitimately
contested issues.
. Publicc ulture: the ethnocratic public culture is formulated around a set of symbols,
representations, traditions and practices, which tend to reinforce the narratives
of the dominant ethno-national group; while silencing, degrading or
ridiculing contesting cultures or perspectives.
Genuine open debates on these ‘taken-for-granted’issue s are generally absent
from the public discourse, especially among the dominant majority. When these
issues are questioned by resisting groups (say, in the parliament, or through the
media) they are usually silenced, ridiculed or represented as ‘state enemies’. But the
dominance of regime ‘truths’is of course never absolute, and may be exposed and
resisted by political entrepreneurs exploiting the tensions between the declared
‘democracy’and its substantive discriminatory manifestation. In such settings,
destabilizing cracks are likely to appear in the ethnocratic structure.
Ethnocracy and minorities
Central to the ethnocratic regime is its ability to maintain the dominance of the
leading ethno-national group while marginalizing and/or excluding indigenous or
national minorities. But not all minorities are treated equally, with some incorporated
as ‘internal’whi le others are constructed as ‘external’. A critical difference
exists between those considered part of the ‘historical’of even ‘genetic’ nation, and
others whose presence is portrayed as mere historical coincidence, or as a ‘danger’
to the security and integrity of the dominant ethnos. These discourses strip
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‘external’minor ities from means of inclusion into the meaningful sites of ‘the
nation’( Penrose, 2000a,b).
Ethnocracies are generally driven by a sense of collective entitlement among the
majority group to control ‘its’homela nd—that is, the state—as part and parcel of
what is conceived as a universal right for self-determination. Thus, belonging to
the dominant ethno-nation (and to its leading ethno-classes) is the key to mobility
among peripheral groups. This is the strategy adopted by most immigrant minorities,
who thereby distance themselves from indigenous or other ‘external’minorities.
As such, ethnocratic societies continuously maintain an ‘ethnic project’,
which similarly to the ‘racial project’iden tified by Omi and Winant (1994),
attempts to build an informal public image of ‘separate and unequal’.
The leading ethno-classes (also often termed ‘the ‘charter’or ‘titular’ groups) can
thus play a dual game, vis-a-vis peripheral minorities. On the one hand, they
articulate a discourse of belonging, which incorporates immigrant and peripheral
groups not associated with any ‘external’or ‘rival’ nation. These groups are ‘invited’to
assimilate into the moral community of the dominant ethno-nation. But on
the other hand, the dominant groups use this very discourse of inclusion and
belonging to conceal the uneven effects of its strategies, which often marginalize the
immigrants economically, culturally and geographically. It would be a mistake,
however, to treat this as a conspiracy; it is rather an expression of broad social
interest, generally unarticulated, privileging social circles that are closest to the
ethno-national core. This ‘natural’process tends to broadly reproduce—though
never replicate—patterns of social stratification.
In contrast, the strategy towards indigenous and/or national (homeland) minorities
is generally more openly oppressive. They are represented and treated, at
best, as ‘external’to the ethno-national project, or, at worst, as a subversive threat.
The examples of Sri Lanka, Estonia and Israel show that the tenets of self-determination
are used only selectively, pertaining to ethnicity and not to an inclusive
geographical unit, as required by the basic principles of democratic statehood.
Oppressive policies are often ‘wrapped’in a discourse of modernity, progress and
democracy, but the political and material reality is unmistakable, entailing
minority dispossession and exclusion.
However, the self-representation of most ethnocracies as democratic creates
structural tensions, because it requires the state to go beyond lip service and
empower external minorities with some (though less than equal) formal political
powers. The tensions between the claims of democracy and the denial of minority
equality create spaces of struggle and ‘‘cracks’’ in the hegemonic order. These often
fuel minority resistance and inter-ethnic conflict typical to ethnocratic states (see
Mann, 1999).
Ethnocracy and political instability
One of our main theoretical arguments relates to the instability of ethnocratic
regimes. We do not have the space to enter here the diverse and rich discussion
670 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
over the definition and measurement of political stability beyond noting that we
accept the main parameters offered by the likes of Lane and Ersson (1991) or
McGarry and O’Leary (1995). They see political instability as strongly related to
regime illegitimacy among minorities, which results in a combination of social disorder
and breakdown of regime functions. This is often followed by the bypassing
of the regime by disgruntled minorities, by increasing forms of political polarization,
and by intensifying waves of anti-governmental protest and violence.
In this sense, the ethnocratic model builds on, and critiques, the ‘control’mod el
of political stability, first offered by Lustick (1979, 1993) and later used by geographers
such as Taylor (1995) and Rumley (1999). Lustick’s argument pointed
usefully to the ability of regimes to maintain stability through a range of control
mechanisms, including the construction of hegemonic discourses and institutions,
and the cooptation and fragmentation of oppositional elements. But our observation
is that in ethnocratic regimes, such controls are only viable for the short
term, leading in the long term to a destabilizing momentum.
The chronic instability of the ‘open’ethnocra tic regimes stems from a combination
of two of their main attributes: (a) the long-term impact of the spatial,
political and economic expansion of the dominant majority, and the associated
control mechanisms exerted over ethnic and national minorities, and (b) the democratic
self-representation of the regime.
The first factor is quite clear: ethnocratic regimes often reflect and exacerbate
ethnic tensions and conflicts, because they structurally privilege one ethnic nation,
both within the state and among its diasporas over the state’s resident minorities.
As clearly shown in the cases of Sri Lanka, Estonia and Israel, the dominant group
then uses the state apparatus, and the international legitimacy accorded to state
sovereignty, to expand its power, resources and prestige, often at the expense of
minorities. In this sense, ethnocratic regimes tend to generate constant tensions
between minorities and majorities.
However, minority resistance to control and discrimination is necessary, but not
sufficient, to destabilize the regime. It is the semi-open nature of ethnocratic
regimes, their partial democratization, and the limited rights extended to minorities,
which combine to develop, in a complex process, the situation of structural
instability. In the short-term, we have often seen that partial democratization, and
especially the extension of mere procedural measures (such as ‘representation without
influence’, commonly allowed for minorities in ethnic regimes) may actually
prolong the control of the dominant group.
At the same time, the self-representation of the state as democratic, despite its
violation of democratic principles on most substantive arenas of state operation,
does enable the development of minority consciousness and political mobilization.
Such mobilization will typically rally around the contradictions and tensions
embedded in the coterminous existence of limited democratic institutions and
procedures, and entrenched patterns of ethnic dominance.
It also draws on the growing importance of human and minority rights in the
international political discourse, and on the growing institutionalization of democratic
norms among the international community. Due to the strengthening links
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between international politics and economy, these new arenas can, and do, influence
majority–minority relations traditionally perceived as ‘internal’( Soysal, 2000).
The effectiveness of minority mobilization, however, is generally limited, as it
encounters insurmountable cultural, political, economic and geographical obstacles
to full integration and/or equality within their states. Within such settings, minorities
have several options, which include assimilation (unlikely in ethnocracies), the
intensification of their protest to escalating levels of violence, or the establishment
of competing frameworks of governance and resource allocation accompanied by
disengagement from the state.
The last two courses of action tend to reinforce one another and undermine the
political stability of divided states and regions. They have been evident in the cases
of Sri Lanka and Israel Palestine, but not in Estonia as yet. The difference may lie
in the short time period since the establishment of the ethnocratic Estonian state,
and the hope among the Russian minority to improve their situation by political
means (Hallik, 1998). This hope has totally been abandoned by Tamils in Sri
Lanka (de Silva, 1996), and is quickly fading for Palestinian-Arabs in Israel (see
Ghanem, 2000).
The susceptibility of such regimes to the surfacing of open ethnic conflict, and
their chronic instability, are powerful engines of political change. Yet, this change
may take varying, and at times contrasting, directions. We find a number of ethnocratic
states which have responded to the pressures and contradictions of ethnic
dominance with a series of democratization steps, such as Canada, Belgium, Spain,
Greece, and most recently South Africa and Northern Ireland.
At the same time, other ethnocracies have reacted to the grievances of marginalized
minorities by tightening the control over minorities and by deepening the
state’s undemocratic ethnic structure. Several other states—such as Israel, Estonia
and Slovakia—have oscillated between the two options, attempting to keep afloat
both their links with the western democratic world, with the democratization this
entails, and concurrently preserve the control of the dominant ethnic group.
The dynamics of ethnocratic regimes should thus be understood as moving along
a continuum, between the poles of democratization and ethnicization. Quite often,
no clear direction prevails for long periods, and the state policy agenda may be driven
by crises rather than design. A thorough discussion of the possible transition
of regimes from ethnocracy to democracy remains outside the scope of this paper,
but clearly, it is one of the most urgent challenges facing such regimes. As already
mentioned, such an analysis is currently being developed by the authors.
A concluding note
The paper presented a framework for understanding ethnocratic regimes. It
showed that in certain geographical and historical circumstances, various forces
combine to create such regimes, and associated processes of ethnicization and
stratification. The paper focused on ‘open’ethnocra cies, where the state represents
itself as democratic, while simultaneously facilitating the seizure of a contested territory
and power by a dominant ethnic nation. It outlined the characteristics of
672 O. Yiftachel, A. Ghanem / Political Geography 23 (2004) 647–676
such regimes, showed their distinctiveness from the ‘normal’nation-st ate model,
and analyzed their ability to maintain ethnic dominance. The paper also discussed
the relation of ethnocratic regimes with minorities, democracy and political instability,
and explored the tensions and contradictions which generate their decline
and transformation.
Our framework here is both broad and preliminary. It needs to be tested, challenged
and expanded, in order to gain depth, validity and robustness. This undertaking
can advance in various directions, the most obvious are: (a) comparative
research which would test, calibrate and modify the assertions made above; (b) indepth
case studies, which would study the more detailed and subtle form of ethnocratic
expansion and hegemony, as well as the forms of resistance and challenge to
the system; (c) theoretical explorations and modifications, especially vis-a-vis new
structural forces influencing the nation-state, such as the increasingly globalizing
world economy, and/or the growing force and influence of the discourse of human
rights and multi-culturalism. Efforts in these directions have begun by the authors,
but much further research is needed to enrich our understanding of ethnocratic
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‘It’s water on stone – in the end the stone wears out’This summer, a little-known Manchester academic caused an international storm when she sacked two Israeli scholars from the editorial board of her journal. But was it an isolated freelance protest – or the first skirmish in a wider academic boycott?Andy BeckettThu 12 Dec 2002 11.57 GMT

Until a few months ago, Dr Oren Yiftachel was the kind of Israeli dissident that foreign critics of his country found admirable. He was born on a socialist kibbutz half a century ago. During his 20s and 30s, as that strain of cosmopolitan idealism began to lose its influence on Israel, he went abroad to live and travel. In 1994, he returned to Israel to work in the geography department at Ben Gurion University in the arid south of the country, where the particular proximity of Palestinian settlements and the challenges of desert life in general had made collaboration with Palestinian academics a local tradition.

Over the next eight years, with his open-necked shirt and his open, inquisitive face, Yiftachel became a familiar irritant to Israeli rightwingers. He made a point of working with Palestinians whenever possible. He published books and articles about his government’s illicit appetite for Palestinian land. He told Israeli newspapers that, “Israel is almost the most segregated society in the world.” He set up an Arab-Israeli journal that so enraged some Israeli conservatives that they campaigned to have it banned.

Given these radical credentials, Yiftachel did not anticipate any problems when, last spring, he submitted a paper to a left-leaning periodical called Political Geography. He had written for the respected British journal before. It specialised in the same probings of territory and power as he did. This time Yiftachel’s paper, co-written with a Palestinian academic, Dr Asad Ghanem of Haifa University, described Israel as “a state dedicated to the expansion and control of one ethnic group”; the paper concluded that such societies “cannot be classified as democracies in a substantive sense”.

Yet when Yiftachel heard back from Political Geography, he got a shock. The precise details of what happened are disputed but, according to Yiftachel, the paper was returned unopened. An explanatory note had been attached, he says, stating that Political Geography could not accept a submission from Israel.

“I hadn’t read the paper,” says David Slater, one of the periodical’s editors, who is also a geography professor at Loughborough University and a prominent British supporter of Palestinian causes. “But I was familiar with some of the author’s previous work… I was not sure to what extent he had been critical of Israel.” Slater says he hesitated about what to do with the paper, “for a while”.

“I protested,” Yiftachel says. Through the summer and autumn, it is agreed by both sides, there was a tense exchange of email. Among the editors of the periodical, Slater admits, there was “a slight disagreement” over how to proceed: his colleagues were keener on the paper than he was. Eventually, Yiftachel says, Political Geography was “forced” to consider his work; but between May and November, whenever he asked if it was actually going to be published, the journal simply responded that the paper was “under consideration”.

Finally, in mid-November, between six and eight months after Yiftachel first submitted his paper, depending on whose account you believe, Political Geography informed him that it would publish his article as long as he made “substantial revisions”. Yiftachel was asked to include a comparison between his homeland and apartheid South Africa.

Yiftachel agreed. Yet he still sounds slightly puzzled at how he ran into such difficulties with an apparent political kindred spirit like David Slater. Slater maintains that Political Geography is not officially hostile to contributions from Israel. But then, almost in passing, he mentions something interesting. At some point last spring or summer, while he was pondering Yiftachel’s paper, Slater signed a petition calling for an academic boycott of Israel.

The idea first surfaced as a polite, almost diffident letter to this newspaper on April 6. “Despite widespread international condemnation for its policy of violent repression against the Palestinian people, the Israeli government appears impervious,” the letter began, somewhat predictably. Yet then it proposed a novel solution: “Many national and European cultural and research institutions regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts. Would it not therefore be timely if a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians… “

The letter had been written by two British academics: Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, and his wife, Hilary, professor of social policy at Bradford University. Besides their signatures, the letter listed 123 other academics as supporters, mostly European but a few from the US and Israel.

All this did not come completely out of the blue. Nine months earlier, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had called for a British boycott of Israeli agricultural produce, with some success. Other boycotts of Israeli tourist resorts, Israeli-manufactured goods and Israeli investment opportunities had been long been mooted on the internet. In liberal British academic and literary circles, which for years had contained critics of Israel, there had been renewed stirrings of protest against the Israeli government during 2001 and early 2002: circular letters of support for Palestinian writers, collective statements of outrage at Israeli military tactics, and occasional flashes of public anger, such as the poet Tom Paulin’s repeated comparisons of Israeli nationalists to Nazis. Finally, in the fortnight before the Roses published their letter, there were the daily television and newspaper images from Israel and the Palestinian territories. As invading Israeli tanks ground parts of Jenin to dust and Palestinians bombed chattering cafes in Tel Aviv and civilians on both sides were killed in greater numbers than for decades, it was hard for the politically conscious in Britain and elsewhere not to take sides. “There was this cumulative frustration,” says Steven, “that European governments were not doing more to stop things.”

However, what seemed straightforward in April now seems less so. The original, quite limited, boycott proposed then has grown into something larger and less well-defined. As the Roses’ petition has acquired hundreds more signatures, other, more radical calls for academic boycotts of Israel have been launched from Britain and abroad. Rival counter-petitions condemning the boycotts have been set in motion. And around all this has swirled a vast and ferocious debate about Israel and the Palestinians, about anti-semitism, about academic freedom, about boycotts in general. International political figures have been drawn in: from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who issued a statement supporting the Roses and comparing their protest to the struggle against apartheid, to Tony Blair, who last month reportedly told Britain’s chief rabbi that he was “appalled” at the academic boycott and would “do anything necessary” to stop it.

One obvious but significant feature of a political dispute involving academics is that they tend to relish arguments. They have access to the internet. They have international contacts and horizons. And since April, as the violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories has continued almost unabated, universities in both places have been directly affected. Israeli campus buildings have been bombed; Palestinian universities have been blockaded by Israeli troops. Whatever your view of the academic boycott, it has become increasingly difficult to dismiss it as pure ivory tower politics.

Yet the extent to which an actual academic boycott of Israel exists, beneath all the rhetoric for and against, has remained mysterious. In April, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education voted for “all UK institutions of higher and gurther education… to review – with a view to severing any academic links they may have with Israel”. In May, the Association of University Teachers voted for a funding boycott of Israeli universities. But when I rang both unions almost six months later to ask what concrete effect these resolutions had had, a Natfhe press officer said, “I’m unaware of any action being taken so far. Given the size and complexity of higher education institutions, implementing a boycott will take a long time… We’ve asked our branches to engage in a discussion as to what an academic boycott should be.” At the AUT, no one even seemed able to remember what boycott they had agreed.

There have been instances of individual British academics boycotting Israel. In June, two Israeli professors were removed from advisory positions on a pair of small academic journals put out by a Manchester publishing firm called St Jerome. The editor of the journals and the co-owner of St Jerome, Mona Baker, was and is – for the time being at least – a professor of translation studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist). She briefly became the most infamous academic in Britain and is currently subject to an investigation by Umist, the limits of which have remained ominously unstated. The inquiry is expected to conclude within weeks.

In April, an English lecturer at Birmingham University called Sue Blackwell removed the links to Israeli institutions from her personal website. A dispute about her underlying attitude to Israel has flickered intermittently since, between her and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Blackwell’s website has been scrutinised by Birmingham University; last month it was cleared of alleged breaches of university regulations. As with Baker, the very length of the controversy generated by what originally seemed a small political gesture suggests that openly boycotting Israel may be a hard and lonely road to take.

More discreet withdrawals of cooperation, however, may be another matter. As Yiftachel discovered, the workings of academic journals and academia in general, with its intricate, stop-start machinery of international collaborations, research grants and references, paper submissions and promotions and assessments – much of this screened from outsiders by traditions of confidentiality, and by anxiety about damaging careers – provides plenty of opportunities for boycotts and semi-boycotts and temporary boycotts that never declare themselves as such. At some Israeli and British universities, and in some Jewish pressure groups, there are persistent and growing murmurs about boycott-related discrimination. Some cases are minor but revealing. “I am concerned about my return to England at the end of the academic year,” a British lecturer at an Israeli university writes to a friend in London. “English friends have made me feel like a settler for being here.” Other cases are more substantial – a thesis supervisor at a British university, it is alleged, is currently refusing to support an Israeli student’s work due to the student’s nationality – but impossible to prove without the breaking of professional confidences. Other cases are verifiable but add little to the overall picture: St Jerome Publishing recently refused to fulfil an order for a single book placed by Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

On British campuses, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) claims that anti-Israeli posters and pamphlets and stickers are appearing and anti-Israeli meetings are being held with increasing frequency. Alleged hostility to Jewish student societies and Jewish individuals is also on the rise. “Students are incredibly worried,”says Michael Phillips, the campaigns director of the UJS. “The boycott may have started with reasonably legitimate aims, but it’s a very different thing now.”

In Israel, it is starting to have an effect on everyday academic life. “Every year we send most of our research papers abroad for refereeing,” says Professor Paul Zinger, the outgoing head of the Israel Science Foundation. “We send out about 7,000 papers a year. This year, for the first time, we had people writing back – about 25 of them – saying, ‘We refuse to look at these.'” At the Academic Study Group on Israel and the Middle East, a fund for joint projects between Israeli and British universities, the number of people applying for grants has fallen by a third. “There is a palpable slowing down of academic activity,” says John Levy, who helps run the fund. “We’re not even attempting to set up [joint] workshops. What we’re encountering is very many people who are saying, ‘Can we simply delay matters?'”

Not all of this change, Levy says, is directly because of the boycott. Anxiety about visiting Israel amid the current violence is putting off foreign academics, too. But security concerns can be a useful cover for people who want to withdraw cooperation without causing a fuss. “Since the intifada began we’ve had conferences that people have said they would come to but haven’t,” says Frank Schuldenfrei of the British Council in Tel Aviv. “If someone looks you in the face and says, ‘I’m not coming over because my wife doesn’t want me to come,’ who can say if that’s the reason? There is no doubt that in certain circles Israel has become less popular in the last six months.”

In one of the curious symmetries of politics, strong supporters of the boycott offer the same sort of vague-but-potent anecdotes about its impact as the boycott’s opponents. “We’ve had specific instances of people reporting in, as it were, saying they’ve cancelled such and such a project with Israeli colleagues,” says Steven Rose.

Colin Blakemore, an Oxford University professor of physiology who was one of the original signatories of the Rose letter, says with certainty, “I do not know of any British academic who has been to a conference in Israel in the last six months.”

This matters more to Israel than you might imagine. Academic activity, and particularly science, are areas in which the country excels. “In physiology and neuroscience, physics and computer science, the Israelis certainly punch above their weight,” says Blakemore. Schuldenfrei calls Israel “a very important player in the academic marketplace”. For a small nation without abundant natural resources, this has had obvious benefits. From agriculture to arms manufacturing, Israel has become more technology-driven and successful than comparable nations.

At the same time, though, the nature of Israel’s academic pre-eminence makes it vulnerable to a boycott. “We are top of the world league with Switzerland and, I think, Sweden for the proportion of research projects that are international collaborations,” says Zinger. “Close to 40% of papers published in Israel involve cooperation abroad.” For complicated and expensive scientific research, there is often no alternative; yet for the weightiest historical and political reasons, campus links between Israel and its Arab neighbours have always been limited. Instead, Israel has developed academic connections with the west, and Europe in particular – which has its own equally weighty historical reasons, notably the holocaust, to treat it generously. Israel receives subsidies from EU funds for scientific research, the only non-member state to do so. “In the most recent four-year framework programme, we paid in €150m,” says Zinger, “and we got research grants of €165m.”

Back in April, when Steven and Hilary Rose composed their letter, targeting this cashflow seemed clever politics. “We both had an academic-political interest in EU science policy,” says Hilary, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. “We tried out the letter on a few friends, and they said it was a goer.” There is a pause. Then her husband says: “It’s not the first time we’ve done something like this.”

The Roses are sitting side by side, sharp-eyed and slouching confidently in their casual, donnish clothes, on a low sofa in their living room in north London. Together and separately, they have been involved in left-wing political causes for decades. They speak in long, fluently argued paragraphs.Since April, the Roses have written newspaper letters and articles defending the boycott and the right of people such as Mona Baker to interpret it in their own way. In August, Steven Rose, who is Jewish, publicly renounced his entitlement to Israeli residence and citizenship. At times, he and Hilary can make the boycott sound almost beyond criticism. It has generated important debates, they say. It has put pressure on an unjust government. It has Palestinian support: “It is rather touching,” says Hilary, “to have the chancellor of Bir Zeit [the main Palestinian university] write to you.” Finally, the boycott has reasserted the important right of people to challenge Israel without being anti-semitic. Steven Rose gets up from the sofa and disappears upstairs to fetch a piece of paper. It is a copy of a letter from Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt and dozens of other prominent Jews to the New York Times in 1948, condemning the then brand-new state of Israel for containing extreme Jewish nationalists of a “fascist” nature, who had recently carried out a “massacre” of Palestinian villagers. The boycott, the Roses say, is in this tradition of constructive criticism.

Yet occasionally an unease slows their rhetoric. “Our initiative has produced a certain number of would-be supporters,” says Steven, choosing his words carefully, “who are pathologically anti-Jewish.” He produces another letter, this time with a recent date and a plastic folder around it as if it were poisonous.

“Dear Professor Rose,” it begins, “I write to congratulate you on the campaign to boycott Israel which I believe you and your husband are sponsoring. The problem is that it does not go far enough. We need to set up a boycott of all Jewish businesses, organizations and individuals. Hit the Zionist Yids where it hurts them – in their pockets… ” The typed letter ends with a shaky blue signature and an address in south London. “We called the commission for racial equality,” says Hilary crisply.”We are keeping the letter in plastic so we can give it to the police.”

Since April, the boycott has awakened other ugly impulses. The Roses’ email addresses, like those of many people drawn into the debate have been flooded daily with abusive messages. “Become a suicide bomber and blow yourself up… if you died the world would be a better place… what you are doing is worse than what the Nazis did… you sonderkommando [concentration camp collaborator] scum… ” From the day the first boycott petition appeared, what you could call a counter-boycott has been organised against the Roses and their allies. Like the boycott itself, this campaign has its moderates and extremists, its public gestures and undeclared initiatives, its concrete steps and carefully directed threats.

In June, Patrick Bateson, a professor of animal behaviour and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, who had signed the Rose letter, became involved in a correspondence with Henry Gee, a senior editor at the science magazine Nature. Gee made clear his objections “as a Jew” to the academic boycott. Then he continued: “I would not, of course, do anything as crass as ‘boycott’ papers from you and your colleagues that might happen to pass across my desk at Nature, though I would get much less pleasure in reading them… knowing what I do of your attitudes… [These] confirm my view… that Cambridge, and particularly the university, would be an uncomfortable place for me to visit.”

“The implicit threat was plain,” Bateson says. When contacted recently, Gee declined to discuss their correspondence further. Bateson says he will continue sending articles to Nature: “It may be an interesting test case.”

Colin Blakemore’s experience since he signed the Roses’ petition has been more bruising. “I was contacted by Steven just two days before it was submitted,” he says. “I was a bit hesitant about signing, because I saw a lack of balance. I asked for a sentence condemning Palestinian terrorism. But there was not enough time – the letter was about to be sent out.”

So he signed it anyway. Shortly afterwards, a French translation of the petition began circulating, which was significantly more aggressive than the original, with Blakemore and the other initial signatories’ names attached.

“I found myself being sucked in,” he says. Over the summer, although he still had links with Israeli academia Blakemore found himself facing a public campaign. He was, and is, president of the Physiological Society. Without naming him, a motion was proposed by a Jewish member for the society’s annual general meeting stating that, by supporting the boycott, Blakemore was breaking an important international convention on academic freedom, statute five of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). Since the 30s, the Physiological Society and other ICSU members had agreed to behave “without any discrimination on the basis of… citizenship, religion, creed, political stance, ethnic origin, race, colour, language, age or sex”. For many opponents of the academic boycott, this is a clinching argument.

In the end, Blakemore never faced a hostile annual general meeting. “My train was late.” The motion was withdrawn, he says, “after a lot of talk”. But he remains anxious about the consequences of his involvement in the boycott and how his stance became distorted: “I am deeply concerned for relations with my Jewish colleagues. The misrepresentation sticks. You can’t explain your personal position to everyone.”

In truth, boycotts are blunt weapons. Even the most apparently straightforward and justified ones, on closer inspection, have their controversies and injustices. Since the academic boycott of Israel began, both its supporters and its opponents have frequently cited the cutting of campus links with apartheid South Africa as an example of a less contentious action. But the South African boycott did not necessarily seem like that at the time.

The first calls for a general boycott of South Africa came in the 50s. Yet it was not until 1980 that the UN passed a resolution urging “all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa”. Opposition to this boycott persisted throughout the 80s: conservatives around the world disliked such anti-apartheid initiatives; campus libertarians perceived a loss of academic freedom; and some liberal South Africans argued that their universities, as centres of resistance to apartheid, made precisely the wrong targets.

Then, as now over Israel, some boycott participants seemed to become infamous almost by accident. In 1985, it was Professor Peter Ucko of Southampton University, who reluctantly banned South Africans, including personal friends, from an archaeological convention. This time, the boycott’s anti-heroes have been Mona Baker and her husband Ken.

Unlike the Roses, and many of their petition’s signatories, the Bakers are not prominent or politically connected academics. They now move in a lurid new world of death threats, feverish messages of support, conspiracy theories about Zionist networks, and computer viruses sent almost monthly to sabotage their business. For critics of the Bakers, they have received support from some awkward quarters. The leftwing, anti-Zionist Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, is in regular, approving contact; Ken describes him as “fabulous”. In Israel, Pappe’s career has been regularly threatened by right-wingers who disapprove of his pro-Palestinian views. Like the harassment of Palestinian students by the Israeli army, this is a tricky fact to take on board for those who oppose the academic boycott on the grounds that it threatens campus freedoms in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

So far, the boycott feels less substantial than the issues around it. “It is annoying but there is no damage,” says Paul Zinger of the Israel Science Foundation. “It doesn’t seem that it has gathered any momentum.” The Roses insist it is too early to judge the boycott’s effectiveness. “Boycotts are slow,” says Hilary. “We didn’t eat South African oranges for about 1,000 years.” Steven adds: “It’s water on stone – eventually water on stone wears away.”

There are signs that the turbulent experiences of some of the boycott signatories have made them more, not less militant. At the Physiological Society, Colin Blakemore has set up a study group to examine when conventions about academic freedom should give way to boycotts. Its conclusions, he hints, are not likely to be favourable to Israel. More broadly, he has come to question whether academia should be insulated from politics at all: “Is it really true that scientific research is such a special activity that it should be last on the list when it comes to boycotts?” Steven Rose goes further: “Academic freedom I find a completely spurious argument in a world in which science is so bound up with military and corporate funding.”

Even Oren Yiftachel, for all his difficulties with Political Geography, agrees that academia cannot and should not function in a vaccuum. Yet that does not mean he has become a convert to the academic boycott of Israel. His objections are not just personal or philosophical, but tactical. Recently, he went to America with a Palestinian colleague to speak about Israel. “In all our lectures, we would talk about roadblocks, terrorists, a colonial situation. Everyone in the crowd would ask about whether the boycott was anti-semitic.”

In this report we referred to the treatment of a paper written by Professor Oren Yiftachel of Ben Gurion University and Dr Asad Ghanem of Haifa University, which was submitted to the journal Political Geography. We reported that Professor Yiftachel had, after a protracted dispute, agreed to revise the paper according to suggestions made by Political Geography, including the insertion of a comparison of Israel and apartheid South Africa, and that on this basis the paper had been accepted for publication. We now understand that the paper’s acceptance for publication has not been guaranteed, and that agreement has not been reached between Professor Yiftachel and Dr Ghanem and Political Geography over all the changes the journal suggested – in particular the comparison of Israel and South Africa. Professor Yiftachel and Dr Ghanem have received a list of comments and suggestions from three academic referees appointed by Political Geography, and they are considering what revisions are most appropriate for the paper, purely on scholarly grounds. Whatever revisions are finally made, the paper will then be refereed again. Professor Yiftachel, as we reported, has consistently opposed the academic boycott, and he remains committed to his position, as well as to the ending of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and Clarifications column, Wednesday January 15 2003

In this article, we quoted from correspondence between Patrick Bateson of King’s College Cambridge and Henry Gee, a senior editor of the science magazine, Nature. Dr Gee, has asked us to make it clear that the correspondence was quoted without his agreement or permission.

5 thoughts on “BGU Oren Yiftachel’s Two Decades of Apartheid Analogy

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