News & Media Articles

7 June 2012

07 June 2012 By Ruby Ong

7 June 2012

Ethnocrats and Democrats

Daniel Sokatch

In his brilliant 2011 book “The Unmaking of Israel” (which you should buy and read right now), author and journalist Gershom Gorenberg examines, explores and explains the challenges to Israeli democracy. For anyone who wants to understand not only Israel but also NIF and our work today, Gorenberg’s book is invaluable.

Last week, on a speaking tour of Australia, I thought a lot about Gorenberg’s discussion of the tension between what Israeli political geographer Oren Yiftachel calls “ethnocracy” and democracy. Gorenberg explains that an ethnocracy is a regime that promotes “the expansion of the dominant group in contested territory while maintaining a democratic façade.” He goes on to suggest that many countries are born with both ethnocratic and democratic tendencies and impulses, and sites both the US and Israel as examples of this.

In Sydney, it occurred to me that Australia, the site of newest branch of NIF, is also a member of this club. In each case, the real question is, which impulse will win out? And the answer to that question has a lot to do with when you ask it.

In Israel today, the fight is between people pursuing an increasingly exclusive – or ethnocratic - vision of what the country should be, and those seeking to secure a democratic vision of a country that retains its national identity and still protects equally the rights of all its inhabitants.

The ethnocrats believe that to survive Israel must become a more closed, more defensive society, one that privileges Jews in every way over others and represses dissent. The democrats believe that their country’s challenge is to honor both tenets inscribed in its Declaration of Independence – to be a homeland for the Jewish people and also an open and equal democracy for all of its citizens.

In short, like other liberal democracies, Israel continues to wrestle with its identity. It is a work in progress. And in the long march of history, it is still at an early stage.

Israel is not alone. As Gorenberg writes, the United States was also born in strangely contradictory circumstances. The US Constitution declared all people equal but enshrined the institution of slavery. Classic ethnocratic move. But America today, after the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of President Obama, is, for all its flaws, much more of a democracy than it is an ethnocracy. As our nation approaches minority-majority status, that will be even more true.

Australia, too, has tilted towards democracy. But until the 1970s, Australia had a racially restrictive immigration doctrine known as the “White Australia Policy,” and I was born in 1968, just after the referendum in Australia that allowed Aborigines to become fully recognized as citizens.

Our democratic countries continue to evolve, finding ways of managing the tensions between ethnocratic impulses and the requirements of a mature democracy. This is what is happening in Israel today. My visit to Australia reminded me, once again, how proud I am to stand in support of the millions of Israelis nurturing, defending and promoting democracy in Israel. What a privilege to be their partners.

Daniel Sokatch