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Israel Studies 3.2 (1998) 253-267

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Questioning "Ethnic Democracy":
A Response to Sammy Smooha

As'ad Ghanem, Nadim Rouhana and Oren Yiftachel

IN THIS ESSAY WE PRESENT a critique of the "ethnic democracy" model, formulated by political sociologist Sammy Smooha to account for Israel's political structure. During the last two decades, Smooha's voluminous work on ethnic politics in Israel has gained a central position among social scientists in Israel and beyond. His conceptual and empirical explorations of the country's ethnic relations have laid important and insightful foundations for Israeli critical research by thoroughly documenting and explicating Israel's pervasive ethnic stratification and disparities between Jews and Palestinian-Arabs, as well as between Ashkenazi and Mizrakhi Jews.

Most notably, his "ethnic democracy" model, which provides a structural account of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel, has been widely accepted in recent literature on Israel. The most lucid elaboration and explication of the model was published recently on the pages of this journal. 1 In this model, Smooha manages to combine theoretical claims about the nature of democratic states dominated by an ethnic majority, with a wealth of (mainly attitudinal) data and a new conceptualization of the Israeli case. On the theoretical level, he claims,

Ethnic democracy is located somewhere in the democratic section of the democracy-non-democracy continuum. Ethnic democracy is a system which combines the extension of civil and political rights to individuals and some collective rights to minorities, with institutionalization of majority control over the state. Driven by ethnic nationalism, the state is identified with a "core ethnic nation," not with its citizens . . . at the same time, the minorities are allowed to conduct a democratic and peaceful struggle that yields incremental improvement in their status. 2

When turning to Israel, Smooha integrates a critical examination of ethnic relations with a thorough deconstruction of past scholarship on the [End Page 253] state's political structure. After refuting common claims that Israel is a liberal or consociational democracy, and repudiating descriptions of the state as a non-democratic colonial system, he concludes that it is an "archetype" of a newly defined regime type—"ethnic democracy." In his own words, the democratic and Jewish characteristics of the state coexist, and

Israel proper qualifies as a political democracy on many counts. . . Notwithstanding concerns that Israeli democracy is an "overburdened polity" . . . it has thus far functioned quite well. . . . Simultaneously, Israel is a special case of an ethnic state. It defines itself as a state of and for Jews, that is, the homeland of the Jews only . . . the state extends preferential treatment to Jews who wish to preserve the embedded Jewishness and Zionism of the state. 3

But despite its increasing acceptance, Smooha's model is not without some serious problems. In the following critique, we wish to extend our previous questioning of the model's viability, sustainability, and content, 4 and to question its empirical and theoretical claims and coherence. We acknowledge, of course, that important democratic features are practiced in Israel, but make a distinction between these features and a democratic state structure, which is lacking in the current regime.

Our critique addresses several key problems in the "ethnic democracy" model that revolve around the impossibility of establishing an "ethnic democracy" in a bi-ethnic context. First, we take issue with the assertion that a structural, state sanctioned, and long-term inequality of ethnic rights can coexist with democratic rule. Here we note that, while Smooha makes a distinction between individual and collective rights, these are often indistinguishable, since the limitation imposed on collective rights also entails the violation of individual rights and, hence, the breaching of a fundamental democratic principle of individual civil equality.

We also contend that Israel cannot be analyzed as an "archetype" case of majority-minority relations, as implied in Smooha's work, given the continuing "Judaization" of the country. In other words, the analysis of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel cannot be neatly isolated from the historical process during which Palestinian-Arabs lost control over their land and became a...


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