What Is Israel?
The state of Israel is a small country—about the size of New Jersey—in the Middle East. It borders the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The country also borders, and occupies parts of, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Israel is home to 8 million people, 75% of whom are Jewish. Its capital is Tel Aviv, but its most famed city is Jerusalem: the holiest place on Earth.
Israel is often described as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” The country has very strong diplomatic relations with the international faces of democracy, the US and the UK. It is also a member of democratic international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The state of Israel has been internationally recognized as a democracy since its independence from British Mandate, in 1948. However, when taking into account the continued oppression of Arab minority groups, such as the Palestinians, it is debatable whether Israel was ever a democracy at all.
Modern-day Israel—as opposed to Biblical Israel—was, put bluntly, “[established] by a European power…[in regards to] a non-European territory…in a flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory.” On November 2, 1917, toward the end of World War I, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and Britain’s subsequent inheritance of the territory of Palestine, Britain published the Balfour Declaration. The declaration was, in short, a letter of intent to turn the territory of Palestine into “a national home for the Jewish people.” At that time, 90% of the population was Arab (i.e., Palestinian) and, understandably, did not want to give up their homeland to foreigners.
As Jewish immigration increased—first gradually and then abruptly, following the Holocaust—Palestinian-Jewish tensions grew. By 1948, when Israel—or rather Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, and the first Prime Minister of Israel—declared independence from Britain mandate and was accepted into the United Nations as a democratic state, Palestinians made up only two-thirds of the population. Following a period of ethnic cleansing, known as the Nakba (the Catastrophe), Palestinians became a minority. Today they make up only 25% of the population of Israel.
Is Israel a Democracy?
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World, Polity’s IV Project dataset, and the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicator (WGI) Israel’s democracy is not eroding; but it is flawed. Since 1948, Israel—the government and the citizens—has formally and informally, legally and illegally, discriminated against Palestinians inside and outside of Israel.
EIU Democracy Index
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index ranks countries based on their level of democracy. Countries are ranked as full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, or authoritarian regimes based on their electoral process and pluralism, political participation, the functioning of government, political culture, and civil liberties. EIU has ranked Israel as a flawed democracy since their first report, in 2006. Over the past ten years, Israel has averaged a 5.6 (out of 10) for civil liberties, a whole two points lower than their average overall score. In 2014, civil liberties dipped by almost one whole point. The drop was likely due to Operation Protective Edge, which reinforced anti-Palestinian sentiments in Israel and led to acts of discrimination, such as job firings, against Palestinian-Israelis.
Freedom House: Freedom in the World
Freedom House rates regimes as free, partly free, or not free based on civil liberties and political rights. Freedom House has ranked Israel as free with remarkably impressive scores in civil and political rights since 1998—although it should be noted that the scores do not take into account Palestinian-controlled, Israeli-occupied territories (i.e., Gaza and the West Bank). In 2006, Freedom House lowered the civil liberties score from 3 to 2 (out of 7, where 1 is the best and 7 is the worst) due to “a marked decrease in terrorist attacks” and a “surge of civic activism” advocating for the withdrawal of IDF from Gaza in 2005.
Polity IV Project
According to Polity IV Project, from 1948 to 1966, Israel held competitive elections featuring an institutionalized electorate, meaning political parties that competed for political power with “little use of coercion.” In 1967, following the Six-Day War, Polity temporarily downgraded Israel’s electorate to a transitional electorate with “limited conflict/coercion.” In 1981, following “the most tense and violent [election] in Israel’s history,” Israel’s elections were permanently downgraded to restricted elections and its electorate to a factional/restricted electorate.
The World Bank: WGI
Israel has never scored well on the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators’ (WGI) stability and (lack of) terrorism category. On a scale of -2.5 to 2.5, Israel continuously received between -0.5 and -1.5. However, in 2003, the World Bank upgraded Israel to a 1.52, a 2.98-point jump on a 5-point scale. The improvement coincided with the Road Map to Peace proposal to stop the expansion of Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, end IDF occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, and ultimately create a Palestinian state. However, within a year, Israeli settlement expanded, IDF occupation continued, and any hope for a timely two-state solution quickly faded along with safety and security. In 2009, Israel saw another dip in (lack of) violence in 2009, coinciding with Operation Cast Lead.
Israel’s struggle with democracy can be attributed to three factors: ethnic tensions between Jews and Palestinians, partisan polarization between Zionists and liberals, and pro-Zionist support from international leaders of the democratic world (i.e., the UK and the US).
As mentioned earlier, Israel was created by foreigners, for foreigners. It makes sense, then, that Israel sees such strained relations between immigrants (i.e., Jews) and natives (i.e. Palestinians). In 2016, the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) published a report on the “Attitudes of Arab Citizens of Israel” conducted by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research. The report found that “more than two-thirds of the Arab respondents (compared with half of the Jewish respondents) stated that the level of tension between Jews and Arabs was the strongest of all tensions between groups in Israeli society” and that “the broadest consensus within Arab society in Israel, one that transcends all internal divisions and agreements” is discrimination against Arabs. These tensions can also be seen in attitudes toward institutions (i.e., political parties, the Knesset, and the government), where “the level of trust of the Arab public…is even lower than that of the Jewish public,” which the Guttman Center team points out “is itself is disturbingly low.” Finally, the report revealed a wide disparity between Jews’ and Arabs’ sense of belonging to Israel: only half of Arab-Israeli citizens reported feeling “proud to be Israeli” and “among younger and more educated respondents, a relatively small share reported feeling proud to be Israeli,” suggesting a generational decrease in sense of belonging.
Israel has also seen strained relations between Zionists, whose prioritize ethnocracy over democracy, and liberals, who prioritize democracy over ethnocracy. This is particularly concerning because of the historical and contemporary pervasiveness of Zionism in Israel and Zionism’s incompatibility with liberal democracy. The tensions between Zionists and liberals is quantified by low public support for democratic values, revealed in the IDI’s 2010 report on “Democratic Values in Practice.” The Guttman Center team reported that only 20% of respondents think that being a democratic state is more important than being a Jewish one— 43% think they are equally important and 31% think being Jewish is more important. Additionally, 46% think “there should be legal penalties for persons who speak out against Zionism” and 50% think non-Zionist parties should be allowed to participate in elections. Furthermore, “86% believe that critical decisions for the state should be taken by a Jewish majority” and 62% believe that “as long as Israel is in a state of conflict with the Palestinians, the views of Arab citizens of Israel on foreign affairs and security issues should not be taken into account.” Finally, 49% do not “support full equality of rights between Jews and Arabs.”
Not only has the UK and US, and other international leaders of the democratic world, been complicit in Israel’s violation of Palestinians’ rights, but they have been vital to it. Israel’s Western allies’ unabating political and economic support for the state and active marginalization of Palestinian persecution by the state has allowed Israel to continue blatantly disregarding democratic norms and practices while still holding onto the title of a democracy and enjoying the benefits that come with it.
However, Israel is not doomed to be an ethnocracy forever. After the second Gaza war, popular newspapers began publishing pieces with titles like “Israel’s Charade of Democracy,” “The ‘Only Democracy in the Middle East’? Hardly,” and “Israel Cannot Be Both Jewish and Democratic.” Independent journalists publishing articles with headlines like: “a democracy doesn’t deny millions their civil rights, plunder their land and resources, and deprive them of independence and of a say in their future,” and “Israel is not the only democracy in the Middle East. In fact, it’s not a democracy at all.” If awareness is the first step to recovery, the dissemination of pro-Palestinian voices is a beacon of hope for Israeli democracy.
*Photo by Paul Joseph, “Palestine,” Creative Commons Zero license.