Is Israel a democracy?

Israel’s Declaration of Independence calls for a Jewish and democratic state. This is creatively ambiguous because very few people agree on precisely what each of these characteristics entails, although they have very strong opinions. This isn’t a theoretical discussion; both of these concepts have a direct bearing on Israel’s policies, in particular the question of a “Jewish State Law” and the possible annexation of all or part of Judea and Samaria. Today I’m interested in the ‘democratic’ part.

As everyone knows, the ancient Greeks gave us the word δημοκρατία, democracy. What they had in Athens, of course, wasn’t terribly appealing by modern standards, since only free males had the right to vote (and there were plenty of slaves). Here is a modern definition of democracy:

1. A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.
2. The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life.
3. Protection of the human rights of all citizens.
4. A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

Significantly, this definition, and most others, refer to ‘citizens’ as the beneficiaries of democratic governance. But who is a citizen? Some things are clear: as in the case of Athens, a definition of citizenship which excludes women is not acceptable. An extreme view is that anyone who resides within the borders of a polity is automatically a citizen of it, regardless of any other considerations (how he or she came to be there, etc.)

Although some immigration activists in the US would like to see this criterion adopted, it has not been and probably will not be anywhere in the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, says that “everyone has a right to a nationality,” but not that a state needs to offer one to anyone who lives within its boundaries.

In Saudi Arabia, a citizen must either have lived in ‘Saudi land’ before 1914 and not have taken non-Ottoman citizenship, have a Saudi father, or apply for naturalization. In the US, anyone who is born on US soil receives citizenship automatically, but otherwise must undergo naturalization. In Germany, those residents who do not have at least one German parent must apply for citizenship (but there are exceptions for children born in Germany of long-time residents).

Under some conditions states can revoke citizenship. In Canada, a dual citizen who is convicted of treason, espionage or membership in a group engaged in armed conflict with Canada can lose his Canadian citizenship. In the US, naturalized citizens can have their citizenship revoked for various reasons, including membership in a subversive organization or refusal to testify before Congress. This has happened more than a few times.

Today it is considered wrong to grant or deny citizenship on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity, although some Arab countries require all citizens to be Muslims. Prior to 1965, the US had immigration quotas based on national origin; but these were considered unacceptable and replaced by a system based on family unification, skills, etc. with per-country caps. Nevertheless, many countries (e.g., Greece) are adjusting their citizenship laws to deal with the reality of ‘irregular’ population migrations.

What happens when a country annexes territory? When Israel extended its authority to eastern Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, Israeli citizenship was offered to existing residents. Those who didn’t accept it were granted residency, along with the right to vote in local (but not national) elections. When Russia annexed Crimea, it offered Russian citizenship to the inhabitants — and let them know that after a month anyone that refused it would be barred from government jobs. In 1950, Jordan gave most Arab residents of Judea and Samaria (the Jewish ones had been expelled during the conquest) Jordanian citizenship, although lately it has been revoking the citizenship of ‘Palestinian refugees’ whom the ruling Hashemites see as a demographic threat.

What would happen if Israel annexed all or part of Judea and Samaria? One thing that’s certain is that Israel would not refuse to grant citizenship to anyone on the basis of ethnicity or religion. But as we’ve seen, it would not be exceptional to limit full citizenship on the basis of other criteria, such as criminal convictions or membership in terrorist organizations, or to require a process of naturalization.

Would it be ‘democratic’? When we talk about democracy, it’s important to understand that it is a more limited concept than fairness or even human rights in general. Strictly speaking, democracy resides in the relationship of a state to its citizens, and therefore the process for obtaining citizenship doesn’t bear on the democratic nature of the state. Of course, fairness demands that the process not be based on irrelevant factors like skin color or gender. But — just like screening airline passengers — it is not necessarily unfair to allow security considerations to affect decisions to grant citizenship or not.

Viewed in this light, much of the tension between Jewishness and democracy in Israel evaporates. The Law of Return, a prime target for those who claim that a Jewish state can’t be democratic, is a criterion for immigration which does not apply to those who are already citizens — and there are no states in the world that don’t assert the right to make rules about immigration. The expressions of national identity that are essential to a Jewish state — the flag, national anthem, holidays, etc. — may be disliked by minority citizens, but they do not affect their participation in the democratic process. And it’s quite a stretch to argue that there is a basic human right to an approved national anthem.

Israel, by any reasonable definition, is a democracy. It will remain one if a Jewish State Law is passed, and even if it annexes all or part of Judea and Samaria without granting citizenship to all their inhabitants.

This is not the dream of the post-nationalist, post-Zionist, post-everything Left which believes that the Hatikvah is ‘racist’ and that economic migrants from Africa and ‘Palestinians’ who have never lived in Palestine have as much right to be citizens of the one tiny Jewish state as the descendents of Jacob. But it may be the reality that will sustain the democratic Jewish state.

This entry was posted in Israel and Palestinian Arabs, Israeli Society. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Is Israel a democracy?

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    It seems to me that we are in an impossible bind. There is no partner for a two-state solution and certainly no partner for the kind of two-state solution we would need for security purposes.
    The proponents of a one- state solution are in a demographic dispute with the Della Pergola school about the numbers of Arabs in Judea and Samaria. But even if they are right and there are no more than a million additional Arabs which would become part of a one- state solution this solution means an Arab minority so large Israel’s character as Jewish state would be severely undermined. Preserving Democracy would mean sacrificing the Jewish character of the state.
    There seems no answer. The status quo is not wonderful but it may be the best we can do for a long time to come.

Comments are closed.