Western Media and Israel’s Democratic Facade

Despite Israel’s identity and international reputation as a Western liberal democracy, Israeli academics such as Sammy Smooha have identified Israel as an ‘ethnic democracy.’


This implies serious consequences which not only have the potential to deviate from the traditional definition of a liberal democratic nation-state, but has implications on how international law is interpreted and applied.  In fact, the very premise of defining the nation-state as an ‘ethnic democracy’ imply a differentiation of rights which are ethnically based in favour of the majority. 


The definition or the term may reflect reality, but in its very premise as an ‘ethnic democracy’ may violate the basis by which traditional views of democracy, international law and human rights are based. 


In the case of Israel which is widely viewed as being in the Western democratic tradition by western media, it is defined in academic terms as an ethnic democracy by some and an ethnocracy by others.  Laws and policies designed to meet these demands invariably collide with the development and systemitization of human rights in the international context.  Within this definition of ethnically based political systems, most of the Middle East has a well documented history of compromising human rights domestically based on international laws and conventions.   


Smooha identifies liberal democracy and consociational democracy as the main variants of the democratic form.  Liberal democracy is the prevalent form of democracy and is firmly established in places such as the United States and France.  Consociational democracy is prevalent in places such as Switzerland and Belgium where large ethnic groups are brought in to the democratic system through power sharing and various systems of proportionality. Nation-states such as Canada utilize a form of multicultural democracy which combine features of these two types of democracy.


Smooha makes the argument that states which have a record of ethnic nationalism are practicing a diminished form of democracy based on favoring the ethnic majority of the nation-state.  He cites countries in Central and Eastern Europe such as Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Northern Ireland and Israel as examples where “these and other states are internationally accepted as democracies despite their digression from the Western tenets of centrality of citizenship, equal rights and civic nation.”


Smooha characterizes some of its features in the following way:


“The ethnic nation, not the citizenry, shapes the symbols, laws and policies of the state for the benefit of the majority.  This ideology makes a crucial distinction between members and non-members of the ethnic nation.  Members of the ethnic nation may be divided into persons living in the homeland and persons living in the diaspora.  Both are preferred to non-members who are ‘others’, outsiders, less desirable persons, who cannot be full members of the society and the state.  Citizenship is separate from the nationality, neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for membership in the ethnic nation, unlike the situation in the West where the idea of a civic nation is prevalent.”


Ethnic democracy may meet the minimal and procedural definitions of democracy but by taking the ethnic nation, rather than the citizenry, as the cornerstone of the state,  “the state privileges the majority and strives to advance its interests rather than to serve all its citizens equally.  The minority cannot fully identify itself with the state, cannot be completely equal to the majority and cannot confer full legitimacy on the state.”


Smooha identifies four factors conducive to the emergence of ethnic democracy:


1. The primary condition is the pre-existence of ethnic nationalism and the ethnic nation which influences the form of governance. 2. The existence of a threat to the ethnic nation which requires the mobilization of the nation-state to cope with internal and external threats. 3. The majority’s commitment to democracy, without which a non-democracy would emerge. 4. When the minority is either small or disorganized, the majority can opt for a workable ethnic democracy without renouncing its domination.  Facing a very large or too strong a minority, the majority may choose ethnic non-democracy because it is too difficult to maintain democracy.


Conditions of stability for ethnic democracies include a clear numerical and political majority for the main ethnic grouping in the country.  In Israel

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