“I have coined quite a few terms,” noted Professor Oren Yiftachel, “but ethnocracy really captures the idea of a regime that creates a state for the benefit of an ethnic project”.
In 2006, Professor Yiftachel published his book “Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine”. In coining the phrase “ethnocracy” he sparked a fierce debate about the character of Israel, which since its foundation in 1948 has claimed to be the “only democracy in the Middle East”. With the passage of the Nation-State Law and a staunchly right-wing government at Israel’s helm, Yiftachel’s interpretation is more poignant than ever.
“Ethnocracy is a concept that comes out from engaging on the ground with particular centres of power,” Prof. Yiftachel told MEMO. “The ethnic project usually […] intends to ethnicise a territory in the name of the majority or most powerful group. This group is articulated in ethnic terms, that is, the boundaries are to do with blood relations, common history, very essentialised boundaries that others cannot join.”
In the case of Israel, this “ethnic project” has found expression in the concept of a “Jewish state”, prioritising the needs and interests of Israel’s Jewish community at the expense of its minorities. With Israel’s non-Jewish communities amounting to almost a quarter of the population, the majority of whom are Palestinian Arabs, this ethnocracy has marginalised and discriminated against swathes of the country’s citizens.
Embodying this discrimination is the Nation-State Law. Passed in July last year, it declared Israel to be the “historical homeland of the Jewish people” and stated that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”.
“The law is the culmination of a process that has been happening for a long time,” Yiftachel pointed out. “The right wing agenda — which is to create a more Jewish state — [has led to] many initiatives to do with immigration, family reunification and prohibiting Palestinians from the West Bank and Israel that marry from living together. There are also many land and housing laws, as well as the violence that is mainly directed against Palestinians, but all that wasn’t enough.”
In his interpretation, when this right-wing agenda is analysed in the context of Israel’s history – which saw some 750,000 Palestinians forcibly displaced in the Nakba of 1948 and the remainder of historic Palestine occupied since 1967 – the Nation-State Law becomes far more sinister. “Because of the political geography of the place and because of the evictions, refugees, colonisation and occupation, it actually translates to a constitutional order of an apartheid law.”
Once a taboo term in discussions of Israel-Palestine, Yiftachel uses the word “apartheid” openly in his analyses. “As an academic but also as an activist, I think it’s very important to use these terms and call things by their accurate description. This is what [19th century Marxist philosopher] Rosa Luxembourg taught us: if you want to start changing matters, and particularly to fight oppression, then you have to call something by its accurate name, and then you start to unpack the power that it holds.”
The Israeli professor mentioned that it was 15 or 20 years ago when he wrote about what he called “creeping apartheid” in the first article on the subject. “Unfortunately it was the right reading, because Israel intended to settle the [occupied Palestinian] territories and the regions inside Israel. It continues to confine Palestinians to enclaves and ghettos [and] when you enact Jewish-state laws, then you create apartheid-like situations.” He added that, “We have moved towards creeping apartheid or even galloping apartheid.”
This has come as a blow to Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens, who have for decades fought for equal rights and status with their Jewish-Israeli compatriots. Yet though historically this battle has been fought through the ballot box, the Nation-State Law has prompted the community to turn away from politics and increased their disillusionment with the system.
Never has this been clearer than during Israel’s General Election last month, in which voter turnout among Palestinian citizens barely reached 50 per cent; it was a historic low. “In my study of ethnocratic societies, we find quite a few common red lights or warning signs, one of which is the declining participation of minorities in the electorate and the political process,” said Yiftachel.
A number of factors were blamed for this low turnout, including the disbanding of the Joint List – an alliance of the four Arab-Israeli political parties — support for a boycott and foul play by Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party on election day. Yet for Yiftachel, turning away from politics does not come without its difficulties: “Even though I would predict [this], it’s a hard decision to take to disengage from a political system where you have some privileges, limited as they are.”
Asked what options remain to affect change if Palestinian citizens of Israel reject politics, Prof. Yiftachel stresses that we need to think differently. “Israel-Palestine is not an exception, all the processes that are there are very intense but they are processes that happen elsewhere around the world.” Drawing on his research into other ethnocratic states – from Ireland and Malaysia to South Africa and Estonia — he believes that we must “get out of the box of the Israel-Palestine negotiation”.
To this end, Yiftachel has co-founded a movement called “Land for All: Two States One Homeland”.
The movement advocates the creation of two states along 1967 lines, but where this idea differs from the currently and generally accepted two-state solution is that these states would also belong to a confederation, with Jerusalem as a “capital region”, and a joint economy, with freedom of movement for the citizens of both states.
“We take inspiration from Europe,” he says, “which was once the graveyard of the world but has created a de facto confederation [in which] people have the right to self-determination in their countries, but also freedom of movement and many rights.” For the professor of political and legal geography, urban studies and urban planning at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, “It was an amazing engineering of an era of peace.”
Of course, he accepts that the European Union is not without its problems. “But we must look at it historically; from the first half of the 20th century, when tens of millions of people were killed in the name of nationalism and territory, [we now have an] integrated Europe which has marked the longest period of peace in living memory.”
Bringing this back to the context of Israel-Palestine, he explained to MEMO: “No leader can adopt a one state agenda when international law and frameworks of power dictate that there will be two states […] While one state is a good idea on paper, when it comes to the real field of legal and political rights, it has no viability.”
The ideas behind the new movement, he said, are not particularly new. “The UN decision from 1947 outlines two states with an economic union and freedom of movement.” This was a reference to UN General Assembly Resolution 181, usually called the Partition Plan, which recommended the division of Mandate Palestine into two states with Jerusalem as a corpus separatum.
“There is something right about this idea, that the two nations can achieve self-determination within the state. The perception of the homeland among Jews and Palestinians is the same, therefore they should be allowed to have belonging and connection to all parts of the land.”
Yet following the recent election of arguably the most right-wing Israeli government to date, can any of these ideas be translated into practical change? Yiftachel believes that they must, and that everyone must take responsibility for their implementation. “What needs to be done to make these ideas happen is of course the million dollar question,” he quipped, “but a few things come to mind.”
It’s very disappointing, in fact almost scandalous, the way that Israel is exceptionalised in international law. Every country around the world that breaks international law is being called to order, condemned, sanctioned, and the only exception is Israel […] Even the great Russia is under sanctions for annexing Crimea, which is a small, very marginal kind of space. Yet Israel has no pressure on it, no sanctions, nothing.
“Even though Israelis complain all the time that there is a lot of talk against Israel there is zero action, the whole world plays lip service to the two state solution while watching it disappear, while seeing the prospects for a Palestinian state disappearing on the ground.”
Professor Yiftachel has concluded that because Israel is part of the US Empire, you cannot actually believe that the US can be an even-handed broker. “But France, the UK and Germany — two of which are directly responsible for what happened to the Palestinians — do very little. The EU is a source of hope, but it has to do much more than it has thus far […] You can start by questioning the privileges that Israel has with Europe, in trade or science, and that would create a lot of angst in the country.”
The way forward, he stressed, is nothing exceptional: “I think cooperation in the name of the principles of world governance, according to international law and what is required by all other states, can move us forward.” Like all positive ideas, it is often those which are simple which turn out to be the most reasonable.