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Israel Studies 4.2 (1999) 1-15

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Is Israel Democratic? Substance and Semantics in the "Ethnic Democracy" Debate

Alan Dowty

Astronomers recently dealt with the weighty question of whether to continue classifying Pluto as a "planet" or to redefine it as a "transNeptunian object." This debate did not involve disagreement over the actual nature of Pluto itself; all agreed that it was smaller than the eight other planets, that it was composed mainly of ice, and that it had an unusual elliptical orbit. The question was whether to define the concept of "planet" elastically enough to include such an object, while still excluding numerous other objects that also orbit the sun. For the astronomers involved, this was largely arbitrary, since nothing inherent to the term "planet" (original meaning: "a wanderer") furnished operational guidelines for such distinctions.

Similarly, there is remarkably little disagreement over the actual substance of Israeli politics in the recent debate over "ethnic democracy" in the pages of Israel Studies. 1 Sammy Smooha classifies Israel in the historically-rare category of "ethnic democracy"; As'ad Ghanem, Nadim Rouhana, and Oren Yiftachel challenge the "democracy" component of that taxonomy and suggest instead the label of "ethnocracy," a somewhat less rare but still infrequent species; Ruth Gavison argues for moving the debate into explicit rather than submerged normative terms, and concludes that there is no necessary conceptual inconsistency between a state being Jewish and its being a democracy. All, however, describe the actual situation of non-Jews in Israel, in law and in practice, in similar terms. In Smooha's words, "minorities are treated as second-class citizens, feared as a threat, excluded from the national power structure, and placed under some control," while "at the same time [they] are allowed to conduct a democratic and peaceful struggle that yields incremental improvement in their status." 2

The question of whether this disqualifies Israel as a democracy obviously [End Page 1] depends on the definition of democracy that is used. The term "democracy," like the term "planet," does not have an inherent and precise delimitation that is fixed for all time and is intuitively obvious in its application to specific cases. Standard dictionary definitions, such as "government by the people" or "majority rule," do not take us very far. Political scientists must operationalize the concept for it to be useful empirically, and such definitions will always be arbitrary to some extent. We usually ask only that the analyst be clear about the definition being used in order to avoid superfluous debate over semantics--though it is useful to remember that definitions deviating widely from conventional usage, no matter how precise, are still likely to invite misunderstanding.

Gavison points out that the use of a label loaded with positive and negative connotations--such as "democracy"--has especially serious consequences. This is further reason to be as precise as possible in defining such concepts operationally. Gavison then deals with these consequences on a political and normative level. I agree that the normative aspects of this issue should be made explicit, and I find her discussion of them illuminating. The focus here, however, will return to what she terms the "scholarly" or "conceptual" level, dealing with grubby issues of definition and methodology.

Defining Democracy

Ghanem, Rouhana, and Yiftachel do begin with a clear definition of democracy:

We perceive [democracy] as a system of government based on several key principles: (a) equal and inclusive citizenship and civil rights, (b) popular sovereignty and universal suffrage; (c) protection of minorities; and (d) periodic, universal and free elections. 3

To this the authors later add a de facto fifth requirement: a democracy must have clear borders. This is because it must have a "demos," defined in ancient Greece as "an inclusive body of empowered citizens within a given territory." This clearly implies, they argue, clear and permanent borders: "the state should belong to all its citizens and only to those citizens." 4

Ghanem, Rouhana, and Yiftachel have, therefore, supplied us with fairly precise and measurable criteria for differentiating between a "democracy" and a "non-democracy." Fair enough...


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