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Israel Studies 2.2 (1997) 198-241

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Ethnic Democracy:
Israel as an Archetype

Sammy Smooha


HUNTINGTON ESTIMATES THAT IN 1990there were 130 independent states having a population of at least one million people, of which 59 (45.4 percent) were democratic. In comparison, in 1973 there were only 30 democratic states out of 122 (24.6 percent). 1 Hence, the situation in 1990 had improved greatly. Huntington holds that the entire world has been swept by a wave of democratization since 1974. 2 This is all the more true after the breakdown of Communism, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the liberation of Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.

Most of these democratic states are ethnically or nationally divided societies, and some of them are even deeply divided. Ethnic divisions constitute special hindrances for democracy because of structural incompatibilities and sharp disagreements between the constituent segments of society. The main question that comes to mind is what types of democracy prevalent in these societies are and how they cope with the ethnic splits and conflicts.

The current literature on comparative politics distinguishes three types of democracy: liberal, consociational, and Herrenvolk. They differ markedly in the way they handle ethnic and national cleavages. An attempt to classify democracies into one or another of these types is not easy. At least several of them defy classification. A striking case is Israel, which is universally accepted as a democracy, yet does not neatly fit any of the known types.

This article posits that one type of democracy is missing from the current typology of democracies. This type, nicknamed "ethnic democracy," will be presented and distinguished from the others. The detailed application of this model to Israel will expose the issues, tensions, and contradictions in ethnic democracies and the strategies employed for dealing with them. The main discussion will focus on the division between the Jewish majority and Arab minority, because this cleavage makes the ethnic nature of Israeli democracy salient, problematic, and conflictual. [End Page 198]

Four Types of Democracy

Democracies are commonly classified into one of two distinct types: liberal (majoritarian), and consociational. 3 In a liberal democracy, such as the United States, ethnicity is privatized. The state does not legislate or intervene in ethnic cleavages, but forges a homogeneous nation-state by setting up uniform language, identity, nationalism, and national institutions for its citizens. It provides conditions for acculturation and assimilation, but also allows ethnic groups to remain socially separate and culturally distinct, insofar as they are prepared to pay the cost of separate existence. The cornerstone of society is the individual, personal skills, achievements, political and civil rights, and self-fulfillment.

In a consociational democracy, such as Belgium, ethnicity is accepted as a major principle in the organization of the state. Individuals are judged on merit and accorded civil and political rights, but ethnic groups are also officially recognized and granted certain rights, such as control over education and allocation of public posts on a proportional basis. The state is not identified with any of the constituent groups and tries to reconcile the differences between them. Ethnicity is thus institutionalized and ethnic identities and institutions are usually kept separate. Yet it is not illegal to assimilate and even to intermarry. Each group has its own elite, and the state is managed by an elite-cartel that allocates resources according to the principle of proportionality and pursues compromises between the ethnic groups.

Liberal and consociational democracies share a set of democratic institutions, an extension of equality and citizenship for all, and an ethnically neutral state. Is it nevertheless possible to maintain a democracy in a divided society in which the state is controlled by one of the ethnic groups? It can be argued that this is a contradiction in terms. This objection holds true in some extreme cases, like South Africa until the founding elections of 1994, where a Herrenvolk democracy prevailed. 4 In Herrenvolk democracy, democracy is confined to the master race or group and is forcibly denied to other groups.

While it is general agreed that Herrenvolk democracy is not democratic...