Is Israel a Democracy?
From Sharing the Land of Canaan by Mazin Qumsiyeh, copyright Pluto Press 2004
"The Jewish State cannot exist without a special ideological content. We cannot exist for long like any other state whose main interests is to insure the welfare of its citizens." Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, New York Times, 14 July 1992
"Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil upon their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance." Micah 2:1-2
Examining the nature of individual and state relation is crucial to peace. Regardless of the solution advocated, any state or states in the region have to relate to their internal minorities. Since we should all agree that human rights are a cornerstone, it is important to think through the nature of state government. There are now great pressures on the Palestinians to ensure that any future governing body is democratic and transparent. As we will show later, the prospect of a separate and truly sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza are rather remote. That leaves, the other governing body now with great power and sovereignty over the areas: Israel. Many Israelis describe Israel the only democracy in the area. Many Palestinians describe Israel as an ethnocentric racist state built on their destruction as a society. To arrive at a mutually agreed to solution, it seems logical that such varied interpretations need to be reconciled by a serious examination of Israeli basic laws and what they are intended to accomplish. If some laws are discriminatory and/or racist, then perhaps addressing those would be key to a durable peace.
Basic Analysis of the "Basic Laws"
Amnesty International in a report on "Racism and the Administration of Justice" reported:
In Israel for example, several laws are explicitly discriminatory. These can be traced back to Israel's foundation in 1948 which, driven primarily by the racist genocide suffered by Jews in Europe during the Second World War, was based on the notion of a Jewish state for Jewish people. Some of Israel's laws reflect this principle and as a result discriminate against non-Jews, particularly Palestinians who had lived on the lands for generations. Various areas of Israeli law discriminate against Palestinians. The Law of Return for instance provides automatic Israeli citizenship for Jewish immigrants, whereas Palestinian refugees who were born and raised in what is now Israel are denied even the right to return home. Other statutes explicitly grant preferential treatment to Jewish citizens in areas such as education, public housing, health, and employment (ref 1)
My analysis in this chapter is not intended to be comprehensive because in addition to such human rights resources, there are many books and other resources available on this issue (ref 2). Israeli law is a vast subject well beyond the scope of this work but we need to at least address some key concepts and basic laws in order to articulate what would need to happen for a durable solution based on equality. Let us start at the beginning of Israel's ambition and genesis of Israel's laws with an excerpt from Israel's declaration of Independence (May 15, 1948):
We declare that, with effect from the moment of the termination of the Mandate being tonight, the eve of Sabbath, the 6th Iyar , 5708 (15th May, 1948), until the establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the State in accordance with the Constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948, the People's Council shall act as a Provisional Council of State, and its executive organ, the People's Administration, shall be the Provisional Government of the Jewish State, to be called Israel.
Needless to say, the constitution was never written. Reasons given for not promulgating a constitution have ranged from instability and war to the issue of religion and Halachic law. The Knesset's own web site states the following:
Since the Constituent Assembly and the first Knesset were unable to put a constitution together, the Knesset started to legislate basic laws on various subjects. After all the basic laws will be enacted, they will constitute together, with an appropriate introduction and several general rulings, the constitution of the State of Israel (ref 3)
Basic Laws of the state of Israel can be found at the website of the Israel Ministry of Foreign affairs in both Hebrew and English 4. Although they are mistranslated in English to obfuscate the separation in the Hebrew text between "Ezrahut" (Citizenship) and being a member of 'Am Yisrael' (the people of Israel, referring to all Jews anywhere). Gentiles cannot be part of the nation of Israel or Am Yisrael even if citizens of the state. This is an important point to emphasize. By Israeli law, every Jew regardless of cultural, genetics, or citizenship is considered a national of Israel, a member of "Am Yisrael" (the people of Israel) and is entitled to automatic benefits of residency and life in the self-declared Jewish state. According to the so called "law of return":
Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh … An Oleh's visa shall be granted to every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel, unless the Minister of Immigration is satisfied that the applicant (1) is engaged in an activity directed against the Jewish people; or (2) is likely to endanger public health or the security of the State.
Under this law, no Jew can immigrate to Israel; Jews (including converts) "return" (hence the name of the law). You actually have to reject this "Oleh" (this alludes to going to higher level when "returning" to Israel) if you are Jewish and happen to have any form of residency in Israel but do not wish to become a citizen. The law is thus not an immigration law per se, because all non-Jews who wish to live in Israel on a permanent basis go through an entirely different set of laws which are analogous to immigration laws in other countries. Also, only Jews are given financial and logistical support once they "return"/make "aliyah".
In the Hebrew version of what English version of the law call "Nationality Law", the actual word used is "Ezrahut" meaning Citizenship. In the English version of the law, this is intentionally mistranslated on the Israeli government sites as "nationality". There is no "nationality" status apart from "Jewish nationality" in Israeli law (all Jews are considered Jewish nationals and part of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel). In Hebrew that word is "Le'om" not Ezrahut. The Ezrahut law states:
The Ezrahut Law relates to persons born in Israel or resident therein, as well as to those wishing to settle in the country, regardless of race, religion, creed, sex or political belief. Citizenship (again Ezrahut not Le'ot status) may be acquired by:
The Law of Return
Acquisition of Ezrahut by birth is granted to:
1. Persons who were born in Israel to a mother or a father who are Israeli citizens.
2. Persons born outside Israel, if their father or mother holds Israeli citizenship, acquired either by birth in Israel, according to the Law of Return, by residence, or by naturalization.
3. Persons born after the death of one of their parents, if the late parent was an Israeli citizen by virtue of the conditions enumerated in 1. and 2. above at the time of death.
4. Persons born in Israel, who have never had any nationality and subject to limitations specified in the law, if they: Apply for it in the period between their 18th and 25th birthday and have been residents of Israel for five consecutive years, immediately preceding the day of the filing of their application.
According to this basic law, you acquire Israeli citizenship by: Birth, the (Jewish) "Law of Return," Residence, or Naturalization. For each of these categories, a Palestinian born in a village in the Galilee and expelled in 1948 does not qualify because of the language used in the law. Thus, while specifically not stating so, this law is directed against native Palestinians. Its language sophistry cannot hide its intentions. Further being a citizen means you are either a citizen national or a citizen non-national. Those who are citizens but not nationals (such as the Palestinians who remained after the expulsions of 1947-1949) cannot benefit from any of the institutions or privileges reserved to nationals. These include services of the supra-state groups that basically wield significant portion of power on Israel lands and resources such as the Jewish National Fund, World Zionist Organization, Jewish Agency. JNF controls 1/3rd of the water resources for example. The Israel Lands Administration controls 90 percent of the land in Israel.
The Palestinians who could not become citizens had their property allocated to Jews based on the "Absentee laws" enacted in 1950. This law stated, "all absentees' property is under the care of a custodian." Under this law, absentees were defined as anyone who had been away from his home, either within the borders of Israel or in a neighboring state, on or after November 29, 1947. This new legislation gave rise to a new and paradoxical category: "Present Absentees," i.e., those Palestinians who had remained inside the borders of the state after November 29, 1947, but who were outside of their village. These citizens, also known as "internal refugees," account for at least one fourth of all Palestinian citizens in Israel. In 1958, the Knesset passed the Israel Lands law, a basic law that prohibits transfer of land ownership: "The ownership of Israel lands, being the lands in Israel of the State, the Development Authority or the Keren Kayemet Le-Israel, shall not be transferred either by sale or in any other manner." In 1960, a new state body, the Israel Lands Authority, was established as a governmental office responsible for the administration of all Israeli Lands including the lands of the "absentees" and the law became applicable to this body. Thus, the land is administered for Jewish development but can never be transferred or owned by others.
In 1958, the Law of Return was amended so as not to apply to those born as Jews who converted to other religious faiths. The law was upheld despite a 1962 challenge by Oswald Rufeisen. Rufeisen belonged to a Zionist youth movement in Poland. He was a holocaust survivor who saved other Jews but later converted to Chrsitianity and became a priest. In the 1950s, he moved to Israel. The state denied his petition for citizenship under the Law of Return. The High Court of Justice rejected his claim even though the Chief Rabbinate ruled in his favor because he was "Jewish" based on Halacha rules. In 1970, the guidelines of immigration eligibility were more clearly defined and it now states that anyone who is the child or grandchild of a Jew can immigrate and also bring their families with them. But the1958 law barring converted Jews is still in force.
Until recently, the Israel interior ministry issued ID cards to citizens that list their "nationality" (Jewish, Arab, Druze, Assyrian). The full list was kept confidential but the ministry refused requests by a group calling itself "I am Israeli" to list their nationality as "Israeli." The ministry instead chose to drop the designation on the cards all together. Legally, the category of "Israeli nationality" simply does not exist. Israel's supreme court decision of 1970 in George Tamarin v The State of Israel simply ruled that there is no Israeli Nationality apart from Jewish Nationality (Le'om, Am Yisrael). President of the High Court Justice Shimon explained that recognizing an Israeli nationality “would negate the very foundation upon which the State of Israel was formed" (ref 5).
The minority of Palestinians who managed to remain in the newly formed state of Israel (1/4th of the original Palestinian population) are the most directly impacted by Israeli law. Absentee laws allowed the Israeli government to declare that non-Jews who left (refugees) or had remained and become "equal" Israeli citizens to be declared absent in order that their property could be confiscated as "abandoned" property. The property is turned over to the Jewish Agency for the exclusive use of Jews. In the law it does not use the word "Jews" but the words "those who benefit from the law of return", which is equivalent to Jews. In fact, there have been Palestinians, who are nominally Israeli citizens, who tried to lease their own land and were not allowed to because they were not Jews (see below).
Here is some of what Tom Segev wrote on "Absentee law" in his book:
The definition in the law was changed to embrace all who had abandoned their 'usual place of residence', even if they were still living in (and "equal" residents of) Israel ... the law defined them as absentees, even if they had only left their homes for a few days and stayed with relatives in a nearby village or town, waiting for the fighting to end. Later they came to be referred to as 'present absentees' (in Hebrew, nochihim nifkadim). The majority of them were not allowed to return to their homes. Those refugees who were permitted to return to Israel after the war were also formally absentees and their property was not restored to them and quoting M. Porath in a secret report to the Minister of Finance:
".. the fact that we are holding the property of legal residents of the country, who otherwise enjoy all the normal rights of citizenship, is a source of great bitterness and constant agitation among the Arabs who are affected by it. Most of the complaints made by Arabs against our department are made by 'absentees' who see their property in the hands of others and can't bear it. These absentees try by every means to get their lands back, and offer to lease them even at exorbitant rents. In accordance with the general rule originally established, our office does not lease the lands expropriated by the government to the present absentees (i.e. non-Jews), so as not to weaken our control over the properties ... The number of 'present absentees' runs into the thousands, most of them owners of real estate. There are already new people (Jews) living on some of these properties ... Any attempt to return the properties to these absentees would, therefore, adversely affect thousands, or tens of thousands, of settlers ..." (ref 6)
Thus, inside the green line (Israel's borders before 1967), legislation forms the basis for justifying government land acquisition and transfer from native people (gentiles) to Jewish settlers. After adapting British Mandate property laws to absorb the lands and properties already claimed as public, Israel's Knesset enacted its own laws. The first in a tactical series of Basic Laws, the Absentee Property Law, authorized the state to confiscate any property if between the end of November 1947 and May 19, 1948 the legal owner or owners were absent from the property for even one day. The law, passed in 1950, was retroactive and had a sweeping effect on the Arab population. This new law created a basic premise for future land confiscation.
A basic law passed in 1985 by the Knesset, represents an official exclusion from political participation of any party that does not assent to the primacy of Israel's Jewish identity and raison d'ętre. The law's enactment came as a response to two tendencies: racism towards non-Jewish citizens, as expressed in Rabbi Kahane's "Kach" party; and a challenge, posed by the Progressive List for Peace, a joint Arab-Jewish party, to the state's identification as "Jewish." the law states that:
A list of candidates shall not participate in the elections for the Knesset if its aims or actions, expressly or by implication, point to one of the following:
1.) Denial of the existence of Israel as a state of the Jewish people.
2.) Denial of the democratic nature of the state.
3.) Incitement to racism.
Clearly it becomes illegal under this law to call for changes in the law challenging the concept of a state for a religious community around the world, a state "of the Jewish people", or to make Israel a state of its citizens.
Israel's treatment of the Palestinians who remained within its borders following the ethnic cleansing of 1947-1949 (detailed in Chapter 4) is particularly telling. Palestinians were placed under Martial law from 1948-1966 while Jewish immigrants consolidated their control, built settlements on confiscated Palestinian lands, built an infrastructure and a working country from the infrastructure of Palestine. In 1966, the Martial law was lifted and Palestinians were supposed to be "equal citizens." The reality was far from equal, as the discussion of Israeli laws above illustrate. While Palestinians were now a minority with voting rights, they were also excluded from all aspects of the society that defined itself as a Jewish culture and state. Details of these issues can be found on web pages of Israeli Palestinians and the human rights organizations in Israel that are trying to preserve some semblance of human rights.
According to the Arab Association for Human Rights there are about 100 Palestinian Arab villages in Israel that the government does not recognize officially:
Over 70,000 Palestinian Arab citizens live in villages that are threatened with destruction, prevented from development and are not shown on any map. Despite the fact that most of the 'unrecognized villages' existed before the establishment of Israel, state policy considers their inhabitants as lawbreakers. It prevents them from repairing existing homes or building new ones; withholds basic rights, such as drinking water and health clinics; and in certain cases even fences off whole villages. These measures coincide with a wider policy of concentrating Palestinian Arabs and “redeeming” their lands for new Jewish mitzpim (The mitzpim “lookout” settlements were established as part of the Judaisation of the Galilee program to change the demographic balance of Arab areas.) settlements. Many of these settlements are built next to their unrecognized neighbors, often illegally, yet with a complete provision of services.
The villages were delegalized by the enactment of the (1965) Planning and Construction Law. This law set down a framework of regulations and a national outline plan for the country’s future development. It zoned land for residential, agricultural and industrial use, and forbade any form of unlicensed construction or construction on agricultural lands. The unrecognized villages were not incorporated into the planning schemes, and their lands were reclassified as agricultural. Villagers were not consulted on either the law or its plans (ref 7)
The living conditions in these areas became horrific. The areas had no schools, no sewage, no water, no electricity, and no medical services. The poor in these villages are not even counted in the statistics that determine poverty levels in the country. Many live in conditions analogous to refugee camps in Gaza or Lebanon when they are supposedly Israeli citizens. While occasional civil rights groups tried to affect a change in the law, these have been largely ineffective or have resulted in superficial, cosmetic changes only.
Over 130,000 Bedouins (Palestinian tribes with usually fixed territory but movable dwellings) are descendents from the few thousand who remained after the ethnic cleansing of 1947-1949. They are considered Israeli citizens and many even served in the Israeli army. The Bedouins and the Druz are the only non-Jewish communities who regularly serve in the Israeli army. Moshe Shohat, the Israeli government official in charge of Bedouin affairs Shohat spoke about “blood-thirsty Bedouins who commit polygamy, have 30 children and continue to expand their illegal settlements, taking over state land.” As for providing schools with indoor plumbing, he added “in their culture they take care of their needs outdoors … They don’t even know how to flush a toilet” (ref 8).
On August 17, 2001, the Jewish Week wrote that the government's inquiry into these remarks via a committee headed by Doron Mor is questioned. Mor did not even want to look at Shohat's book that contained racist slurs against Bedouins. The Jewish Week candidly put this at the end of their article titled "Bedouin Probe Seen As ‘Farce’":
While being questioned by Mor as part of his probe, a reporter was told no less than three times that 'if you are truly an Orthodox Jewish Zionist you will write another article talking about how much the government and Mr. Shohat have done for the Bedouin' (ref 8).
As of that writing Shohat was still in Charge of Bedouin affairs. Bedouins and Palestinians in general who are Israeli citizens ask rightly why their interests in the government are represented not by their own members but by Jews and worse yet by Jews who are racist and bigoted Zionists. Shohat is not the first and perhaps won't be the last of Israeli officials who adhere to the classic Zionist philosophy that concerned itself only with the fate of the Zionist Jews at the expense of the native Palestinians.
The contradiction between democracy and the Jewish character of the state is best illustrated by these comments from Haaretz:
Our right to Eretz Israel and our right to establish a sovereign national entity on it does not depend on our numbers, and on whether we are a majority or a minority. This land was our country when we were a small, isolated minority.
Five hundred or a thousand years ago, a few thousand Jews lived in the country. In 1919, the League of Nations recognized the Jewish people's right to the land, without any connection to their number in it (tens of thousands). In 1948, 600,000 Jews lived in the country. The numerical issue was never brought up as an element determining the Jewish people's connection to or belonging in the country.
Hence, for us it doesn't matter whether there are more Jews or Arabs here. Of course, we would prefer it if there are a majority of Jews here. But no matter, the Jewish people will retain their right to the country.
By definition the state of Israel was founded as a Jewish state. The regime constituted in it is democratic in character, but its essence is Jewish. And if there is a contradiction between this essence and the character of the government, it is clear that the essence takes precedence, and that steps are to be taken to prevent damage or changes to this Jewish essence. Democracy cannot to be exploited to destroy the Jewish state.
Legislators should settle this point in clear, categorical terms, without any qualms of conscience or moral compunction. Absolute justice holds that the state of Israel is, and has always been, the only Jewish state, and this country has been solely that of the Jewish people. That's how things have been defined, and that's how they will remain. Whoever wants a different state should look for it somewhere else (ref 9).
The Jewish Agency, a supra-national entity, states about the "law of Return":
In 1950, Israel’s Knesset passed a remarkable law, beginning with a few simple words that defined Israel’s central purpose: 'Every Jew has the right to immigrate to this country...' Two thousand years of wandering were officially over. Since then, Jews have been entitled to simply show up and declare themselves to be Israeli citizens, assuming they posed no imminent danger to public health, state security, or the Jewish people as a whole. Essentially, all Jews everywhere are Israeli citizens by right
Zionist philosophy is thus built upon the concept that Eretz Yisrael, is a "birthright" that was conferred upon all Jews (defined to include anyone who has not acquired another religion even though he/she might not be a practicing Jew). It is no accident that the latest Zionist venture in America providing free trips to Israel for Jewish American kids is called "Birthright Israel". The land belongs to the Jewish people and not the citizens of the state or the native people displaced. The justification for this Jewish "right", is that God (Yahweh) made "the promise" of giving the land to Abraham's descendents as an "everlasting covenant." Many religious Jews argue that only if they keep God's commands they were to keep the land and the fact of their dispersion is testament to God's will. Christianity is based on the concept that the arrival of the Messiah extended God's promise to all humanity and fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament. A tiny minority of Christians justify Zionism on religious grounds (these are called "Christian Zionists"). But in either case, this religious "justification" no matter how flawed theologically would have to be reconciled with the evidence that most of the Zionist Jews trace ancestry to European Khazars and not Semitic people (see Chapter 3). Further, the basic laws do not give a right to a Christian family to "return" even if their ancestors were original Hebrews. They do give a right to converts to Judaism to "return."
The "law of return" clearly applies to members of a particular religion and gives them an automatic right of citizenship in a country where they have never physically been. Non-Jews are not eligible for this a "right" regardless of birth, ancestry or other factors. Jews who do not identify with Zionist ideologies can also be excluded at the discretion of the interior ministry under the section that talks about a threat to the Jewish nation. Thus, Palestinian refugees maybe excluded even if they convert to Judaism. Israel is the only country that nationalizes any person regardless of where they live only by virtue of a religious identification (being Jewish).
All citizens of Israel can vote for the Knesset, the Prime Minister, parties, union, and municipal elections. In this sense they have citizenship rights. However, Israel is the only country in which there are also a set of rights reserved for "nationals" which are denied to non-Jewish citizens. The nationals are defined as 'Am Yisrael' (the people of Israel or the Jewish People). Other privileges enshrined in law for those who serve in the Israeli army but they are granted to "nationals" who do not serve in the army (orthodox Jews). Again, Palestinians are denied these benefits or basic rights. Nationals have benefits beyond automatic citizenship, which include land rights, and economic, cultural and political benefits. These rights are all denied to non-Jews.
Without clearly addressing Israeli laws, prospects for lasting peace remain dim. Israel defines itself and shapes its laws based on the premise that it is not a country of its citizens but a state for and by Jews throughout the world. The land of Israel (Erez Yisrael) is held "in trust" for Am Yisrael ("the Jewish people", the people of Israel). Land leasing and other laws are intended to ensure transfer of land ownership from Palestinians Christians and Muslims to Jews. This has resulted in the wholesale ethnic cleansing, discrimination, and racism against non-Jewish natives of the land. This Zionist discourse could not be achieved without mass violence, a topic that will be addressed in the next chapter.
Notes to Chapter 7:
1. A report on "Racism and the Administration of Justice" , Amnesty International (2001), also found at
2. For example, see Arye Rattner and Gideon Fishman, Justice for all? Jews and Arabs in the Israeli Criminal Justice System (Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., 1998). See also http://www.jr.co.il/hotsites/i-law.htm http://www.kesher.org.il/legal/main.html and http://www.adalah.org
3. The Knesset's website http://www.knesset.gov.il/knesset
5. New York Times, 21 January 1972, p. 14; cited in Oscar Kraines, The Impossible Dilemma: Who is a Jew in the State of Israel (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1976).
6. Segev, 1949: The First Israelis, Translated by Arlen N. Weinstein (New York, Henry Holt, 1998), p. 80 and 82.
7. Arab Association for Human Rights background report posted at http://www.arabhra.org
8. Bedouin Probe Seen As ‘Farce’ The Jewish Week, New York, July 20, 2001
9. Noam Arnon, Haaretz, August 28, 2002.
10. View the website of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Their description of the Law of Return is at
Marwan Bishara, Palestine/ Israel Peace or Apartheid: Peace or Apartheid: Occupation, Terrorism, and the Future (London: Zed Books, 2003)