24 July 2007 - Dowty's democratic defense
The Harvard law class I’m preparing materials for has included some genuinely pro-Israel material alongside some simply atrocious anti-Israel stuff. Some of the material I’ve suggested; some comes from the professor. One article in the latter group is Alan Dowty’s “Is Israel Democratic? Substance and Semantics in the ‘Ethnic Democracy’ Debate,” from the journal Israel Studies in 1999 (Vol. 4, No. 2, p. 1).
Dowty, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, presents a summary of, and response to, the debate in Israel Studies over whether Israel should be considered a democracy, or whether it deserves some other (perhaps pejorative) label such as “ethnocracy.” Common to all the disputants, Dowty observes, is the question of how Israel treats the non-Jewish minority. But first, he argues, it is necessary to define “democracy” in technical terms.
Oren Yiftachel, et al.—who refer to Israel as an “ethnocracy”—propose four factors in a definition of democracy: “(a) equal and inclusive citizenship and civil rights, (b) popular sovereignty and universal suffrage; (c) protection of minorities; and (d) periodic, universal and free elections.” They later add a fifth requirement: clear borders. According to these criteria, Dowty notes, Israel clearly fails the test of democracy.
However, he observes, this definition of democracy is both atypical and overly “unforgiving.” (Indeed, it seems designed for the failure it later produces.) He notes several other scholarly definitions of democracy—making use of various freedoms, institutions, and processes—all of which include Israel among the democratic nations. Dowty adds: “None of these operational definitions, it will be noted, required equality of rights, non-exclusion of minorities, or clear and unambiguous borders. . . .Of course, Ghanem, Rouhana, and Yiftachel are free to argue that a defnition of democracy ought to include minority rights, and to so define it themselves. Nominalists such as myself have no problem with that so long as it is made clear and explicit, and so long as it is applied consistently to all states.” (original emphasis)
It might also make sense to ask the group in question what they think of Israel. A 1999 survey of Palestinians by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, Dowty notes, showed that “75 percent rated the status of democracy and human rights in Israel as either ‘Good’ or ‘Very Good,’ against 67 percent for the United States, 55 percent for France, and 32 percent for the Palestinian Authority.”
Dowty moves on to the question of how Israel compares to other countries. The “ethnocracy” authors compare Israel against a selected group, and implicitly against an ideal that no democracy actually meets. They also look at the formal structures of democracy rather than its actual practices, and when the practices of democratic states are concerned—particularly in times of conflict—Israel meets the standard.
Dowty agrees with the “acid test” of the debate—the measure of Arab minority rights—but not the “either-or” approach assumed by Israel’s critics. What those who accuse Israel of being an “ethnocracy” ignore is the relationship of ethnicity to the nation-state. All nation-states run into questions regarding minority rights; the real issue is how closely and definitively ethnic identity is tied to the state’s identity.
To address this question, he distinguishes between the “New World” model, in which the state forms the nation, and the “Old World” model, in which the nation forms the state. Israel is an “Old World” type, he says, but so is Germany, and so are many others. Israel also has a problem in that its minority is an “enemy minority”—but this is not unique, either, and he provides other examples.
Dowty’s research reveals that among nation-states with large ethnic minorities, only about a third are considered “free” according to the annual Freedom House survey, and Israel is among them. Israel does not, however, practice a form of ethnic power-sharing, as only a sixth of ethnic nation-states do. (South Africa, once considered at the cutting edge of democratic innovation, does not, either.)
Of those states that have an ethnic minority making up less than 20 percent of the population, only one—Finland—practices ethnic power-sharing, Dowty notes. The others all have larger minorities. Dowty suggests that Israel—with a non-Jewish minority of 19 percent—is at the “upper limit” of what simple majoritarianism will tolerate, and near the lower boundary that allows for stable “consociationalism.”
He notes that Israel also has power-sharing relationships—among Jewish parties, not with Arab ones—and proposes that this working model be expanded. In addition, Dowty suggests that Israel needs “an overarching identity, a common framework that transcends the division into Jew and Arab, to counter the feeling of Israeli Arabs that they do not belong.” This might include new Arab institutions.
He adds that a solution to Israel’s internal democratic contradictions may depend on a resolution to the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. For now, he affirms Israel’s legitimacy as both a Jewish and democratic state. An interesting read.