Is Israel a Democracy?

Infant mortality among Arab citizens of Israel is two and a half times higher than it is among Jewish citizens. One out of two Israeli Arab college graduates is out of work. Arabs make up 6 percent of the civil service, though they are over 15 percent of the country's citizens. National testing shows Arab fifth- and eighth-graders trailing Jewish pupils in math, science, and English, and the gap is widening. That's not surprising, since Arabs suffer much more poverty, and the national education system spends considerably more per Jewish child than per Arab child.

This a just a selection from the last few weeks' news reports on the ethnic gap in Israel -- not that inequality is big news. The most clichéd phrase in Israeli political discourse is that the country is a "Jewish and democratic state." The phrase is overused precisely because of the tension between the two adjectives, because of the majority's insecurity over whether both can be achieved at the same time. (The minority generally presumes it can't.)

The standard line of the country's boosters is that it's the only democracy in the Middle East. The most concise criticism is that it is an "ethnocracy," as Israeli political geographer Oren Yiftachel argues in his 2006 book of that name. An ethnocracy, he explains, is a regime promoting "the expansion of the dominant group in contested territory … while maintaining a democratic façade." Looking at this debate in light of two new books by Israeli scholars and of a faded and remarkable document that I've just read in the Israel State Archives, it seems both sides could be right.

The document is from late April 1948, a few weeks before Israeli independence. It's the blueprint for the administration of the Jewish state, detailed down to the location of regional health offices and the budget for day-care centers to be opened in large Arab villages. An Emergency Committee of top Zionist political leaders produced the plan, according to the unpublished doctoral dissertation of Israeli political scientist Jonathan Fine. (Fine's dissertation on the transition from colonial rule to independence is what led me to the blueprint.) The committee had begun work the previous October, after a U.N. panel recommended dividing British-ruled Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. In the territory assigned to them, Jews were only a slight majority. Partition didn't turn out that way, of course. . Most of the Arabs residents fled or were expelled from what became Israel. Among those who say the exodus was premeditated ethnic cleansing, one argument is that Zionist leaders had to know that a Jewish state with such a large Arab minority wasn't viable.

What's striking about the Emergency Committee's blueprint is that it assumes that Israel will include that large Arab minority. The planned Education Ministry, for instance, is expected to take responsibility for schools in the "248 Arab villages" that would be in the Jewish state according to the U.N. partition. Likewise, the ministry would be responsible for Arab schools in Tiberias, Safed, and Beit She'an -- towns whose Arab populations left during the war. Various branches of the civil service would have Jewish directors with Arab deputies.

So how did Jews expect to have self-determination -- political control as an ethnic collective -- in a country where they barely formed a majority? The leadership may have expected Jewish immigration to create a more solid majority. An October 1947 cable from the Zionist movement's "foreign minister," Moshe Shertok, suggests that he hoped that many Arab residents of the Jewish state would opt for citizenship in the Arab state. Israel, that is, would provide their schools and health care -- but they wouldn't be part of the electorate. It would be a relatively soft ethnocracy.

In early May of 1948, as fighting intensified, , Shertok described the growing Arab exodus as "quite unprecedented and unforeseen." By June, as Israel's first foreign minister, he was pushing for a policy of not letting refugees return. At times he argued that stable peace could not be reached if Israel had a large, potentially hostile national minority. At times, his argument was more visceral. "Had anyone risen among us and said that one day we should expel all of them -- that would have been madness," he said in a Cabinet meeting (as quoted by Benny Morris in his book 1948. But after the fact, the exodus was "one of those revolutionary changes" that could not be reversed. "The aggressive enemy brought this about and the blood is on his head," he said, adding that abandoned land and houses were the "spoils of war." In September 1948, the Cabinet decided to bar a return until a formal peace treaty. In practical terms, that was the decision that made the exodus permanent.

After the war, the 156,000 Arabs remaining in Israel were about 15 percent of the population. They became Israeli citizens, with the right to vote and be elected. But most Arab towns and villages remained under restrictive military government. "The Israeli authorities viewed the Arab population as hostile and potentially seditious," as Hillel Cohen writes in Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967, an Israeli best seller that has just come out in English. Cohen's title is ironic. It refers to the web of collaborators and informers that security agencies built among the Arab minority. The network's purpose, Cohen writes, was not only to uncover hostile groups and agents of enemy countries. It was also to control political life down to the village level and to "reshape Arab consciousness and identity," divorcing Arab citizens from Palestinian nationalism.

Using previously classified documents, Cohen charts in fascinating and disturbing detail how collaboration shaped life among Israeli Arabs. Pro-regime Arabs tried to keep wedding singers from performing communist and Arab nationalist songs. Teachers in Arab-language schools were hired or fired based on political loyalties. "Naturally, this affected the quality of teaching," especially since educated Arabs were more likely to have Arab nationalist leanings, Cohen writes. The military government over Israeli Arabs was dissolved in 1966. The Arab parties set up as satellites of Jewish ones have vanished. Arab citizens now vote mainly for parties that outspokenly demand their rights. "State supervision of political speech has lessened" but not disappeared, Cohen writes. Yet alongside (frustratingly slow) progress within Israel, a far more blatantly ethnocratic regime has developed in the territories that Israel conquered in 1967. Israel's democratically elected governments rise and crumble based on their position on the occupation.

So is Israel a democracy or an ethnocracy? A direction for an answer comes out of philosopher Avishai Margalit's brief, provocative new work, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. Margalit, I should note, spends little space explicitly discussing Israel. He addresses a universal question: At what point does a political compromise become morally indefensible? The brief answer is that "rotten compromises" are taboo, meaning agreements that "establish or maintain an inhuman regime, a regime of cruelty and humiliation … a regime that does not treat humans as humans."

The Munich agreement is one of Margalit's test cases. Another is the compromise on slavery struck by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, which allowed slavery to continue, permitted the continued import of slaves for 20 years, and required the extradition of fugitive slaves. To create a union, Northern delegates to the constitutional convention sacrificed black people to ongoing cruelty and humiliation. It's possible, he notes, that the framers believed that slavery was economically unsustainable and would wither away. They couldn't know that the invention of the cotton gin would make the slave economy flourish. Nonetheless, "my tentative answer is that the Constitution was based on a rotten compromise," Margalit writes.

Here is the problem: The newborn United States was "a settling ethnocracy," to use Yiftachel's term. It enslaved black people and steadily pushed Native Americans from their land. Yet it was also a revolutionary experiment in democracy that inspired revolutionaries elsewhere. It seems that a polity can be born as both a democracy and an ethnocracy, its politics built forever after around the contradiction between the two.

And we base our judgment of which side of a country's character is the fundamental one on what happens later -- just as the meaning of a novel's first chapter changes with each successive chapter one reads. Judged in March 1857, after the Dred Scott decision, the United States looked like a country created as an ethnocracy with a democratic false front. Judged on Nov. 5, 2008, it looked like a fundamentally democratic nation. As much as history helps us make sense of the present, the present constantly alters the meaning of the past.

Israel has become more democratic and more ethnocratic since its birth. Its democracy is sometimes seen as a model by Palestinians seeking their own independence. Whether it ends the occupation and discrimination against Arab citizens within its borders will alter our perception of whether the nation began as an imperfect democracy or a false one. Today's political battles, strangely enough, will determine not only its future but also its past.

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