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Reviewed by:
  • Ethnocracy Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine
  • Allan Arkush (bio)
Oren Yiftachel , Ethnocracy Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, 368 pp + 35 maps

The one-word title of Oren Yiftachel's book has a disturbing ring to it. Most supporters of Israel are likely to take umbrage at the very idea that it should be characterized not as some kind of a democracy but as an "ethnocracy." If they do so, Yiftachel will not have missed his mark. He intends to disabuse his readers of the notion that Israel truly belongs in the general category of democracy and stamping it as a country under the sway of a distinctly inferior regime, even if it admittedly has some democratic features.

He does not go so far as to delegitimize Israel on account of its falling into this category. Although "ethnocracy" is for him certainly a term of opprobrium, not all regimes of this type are necessarily among the very worst. Ethnocracy, as he understands it, is not by definition authoritarian or totalitarian but a regime that is marked by "the elevation of the ethnos over the demos as a principal of political organization" (295). He explains in an appendix that such countries as Canada, Belgium and New Zealand have only ceased to be ethnocracies in the last three decades. Whatever may have been their faults in the 1970s, we all know that in those years they were really not bad places at all.

If Israel does not exactly stand condemned simply for being an ethnocracy, it certainly falls far short of Yiftachel's political ideal. In this forthrightly normative work he presents a basic outline of what he regards as a desirable model of full democracy. According to Yiftachel, "[t]he term democracy means the rule of the demos," which he defines as "an inclusive body of empowered citizens within a given territory" (97). It describes a regime governing a "sovereign state within clear borders" that maintains

"(a) equal and inclusive citizenship; (b) popular sovereignty and universal suffrage; (c) protection of basic civil rights and minorities; and (d) periodic, universal and free elections" (91). [End Page 161]

The purpose of Yiftachel's book is to advance the transformation of Israel from an ethnocracy that is severely deficient in most of these respects into a better approximation of a true democracy. Ideally, this would lead to the eventual replacement of the Jewish state—which by definition fails to accord all of its citizens equal citizenship—by a genuinely democratic, bi-national state encompassing what is now Israel as well as the adjacent Palestinian territories.

According to Yiftachel, such a state would be both more just and more stable than the political arrangements existing in the area today. His argument is however, far from convincing. He never offers a political-philosophical defense of his fundamental premise, i.e. that all states at all times ought to elevate the demos over any ethnos as a principle of political organization. Nor does he show that all of the evils against which he protests are due to Israel's being an avowedly Jewish state. He makes unwarrantedly optimistic judgments about the likely impact of the transformation for which he calls.

The distance between Yiftachel and political scientists who characterize Israel as an "ethnic democracy" is not vast, at least not when it comes to their description of the way in which the country actually operates. The latter too acknowledge that the Israel demonstrates a consistent preference for the interests of the Jewish national community over those of others. Where some differ from Yiftachel most significantly is in their classification of a regime of this type not as a subspecies of democracy but as one that is essentially justifiable. Ruth Gavison differs from him in her insistence that Israel is a democracy. This does not prevent her from acknowledging that it is a nation-state "whose institutions and official public culture are linked to a particular national group" in a way that "puts those citizens who are not members of the preferred national community at a disadvantage." Rather than calling for a regime change, she reflects, "[w]hether...


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pp. 161-167
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