By Mimi Brown | March 15, 2017

The question of democracy in Israel/Palestine is perhaps one of the most contentious questions regarding the concepts of empire and state legitimacy of modern history. There are numerous collective memories of the physical land and a wide spectrum of historical and political narratives to which the state’s citizens and individuals worldwide subscribe to. This question of democracy is even more contentious when considering the state’s treatment of minorities. Government treatment of minorities has been used as propaganda on both sides of the conflict and across the political spectrum. A closer look at the governmental structure of the current state reveals a millet system bolstered by an ethnic democracy. Though the millet system in Israel/Palestine allows for the maintenance of personal status issues and minorities to maintain their identities, it is primarily a tool of the state to homogenize identity within groups and make clear distinctions between Jewish and non-Jewish minority groups, leading to systematic inequality.  

I came upon the topic of this paper this semester in a course I am taking at Ben-Gurion University called “Minorities in Israel.” We are exploring the treatment of minorities by the state, the culture and identities of minority communities, and their feelings towards the state and its policies. Through this course, I’ve had the privilege to visit some of these minority communities. On a visit to Ussifiya, one of the largest Druze villages in Israel/Palestine located in the Haifa district, my peers and I visited the Druze Heritage Center and were shown around by a local, secular Druze. One of my classmates asked our guide if he felt equal in the eyes of the state. He responded by saying he felt about 95% percent equal, and that though there had not been a Druze President or military Commander in Chief, he believed it is possible and will happen one day. I was also able to visit Kfar Kama, the larger of two Circassian villages in Israel/Palestine. Circassians are non-Arab, Sunni Muslims who were displaced from the Caucasus during the Russian conquests in the early 19th century. They have a narrative that is like the Jewish narrative of Exile, and do not view Israel/Palestine as a permanent home, but express deep gratitude towards the state for their temporary residence.

Both the Druze and the Circassians are part of the fourteen state-recognized communities in Israel/Palestine. The traditional pre-1948 groups residing in Israel/Palestine were Jews, Sunni Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians (2 sects), Catholics (Latin, Syrian, Greek, Maronite, and Chaldean), and Armenians (2 sects). Groups recognized by the state after 1948 were the Druze in 1957, the Evangelical Episcopal Church in 1970, and the Baha’i in 1971. Before the Druze were recognized in 1948 they were grouped with Sunni Muslims. Both members of the Evangelical Episcopal Church and the Baha’i are only temporary residents.

The existence of a Jewish state in Israel/Palestine begs the question: when a country is striving to be a democracy, how does it account for its ethnic minorities? An ethnic democracy favors an ethnic group over another, while a liberal democracy treats all citizens equally by law. However, in a liberal democracy, there are no specific rights or legal protections for minority groups. A millet system is a confessional system based on faith. For example, the Ottoman Empire, which controlled what is now the land of Israel/Palestine before the British Mandate period beginning in 1920, was a millet system. The Ottoman Empire was very diverse and geographically expansive, so the millet system allowed for maintenance of personal status by minority groups without Ottoman interference. Personal status refers to birth, death, marriage, divorce, and education. When the Jewish state was established in 1948, it adopted the millet system that had been utilized by the Ottoman Empire and then by the British Mandate in the same geographic region.

Following the formation of the state in 1948, the millet system was utilized in the nation-building process as an instrument of vertical segmentation and horizontal homogenization. Vertical segmentation refers to the attempt to maintain a distinct separation between different groups and their social and political hierarchy. Horizontal homogenization refers to the attempt to homogenize entire communities. For example, all Jews are subject to the Ultra-Orthodox court system despite a large portion of Jewish-Israelis identifying as secular.

Historically, the millet system has been used by states and empires to segregate and categorize their populations, thus maintaining existing power structures. Yuksel Sezgin, a political scientist specializing in Middle Eastern studies, argues that the millet system came as a logical extension of the exclusionary and theocratically-inclined ruling ideology at the time of the establishment of the state. This ruling ideology was shaped by the 1947 Status Quo Agreement. The agreement was conceived when David Ben-Gurion (the future first Prime Minister of the Jewish state), in a letter on behalf of the Jewish Agency, conceded to the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to maintain the communal arrangements regarding key religious regulations such as Shabbat, Kashrut, family law, and education.

Sezgin argues that this agreement was reached because the ruling elite was primarily concerned with marriage and maintaining the “purity” of certain groups. The secular elite was willing to sacrifice certain secular values to create a uniform and homogenous Jewish-Israeli identity. In sum, Sezgin argues, the whole system was created to prevent inter-religious marriages.

The current system is detrimental to rights and freedoms of all citizens. While the millet system allows minority groups to manage their own personal status affairs, it views identity as stagnant, forcing entire communities to homogenize. The current system also creates potential for inequality in schools and public funding. Further, the system contributes to the growing distance between secular and religious Jewish communities. Many secular, Jewish-Israelis disavow the court system and refuse to utilize or engage with the courts. Alternative modes of marriage and divorce have been sought out abroad or via cohabitations and de facto marriages. Civil marriages from other countries are recognized, but civil divorces may not be. Through this example, we can see that though the original intent of personal status courts was to homogenize communities, it has resulted in fragmentation, between different religious and ethnic communities, and between the secular and the religious.

Jewish Democracy? Ethnic Democracy?

An ethnic democracy is an alternative, non-civic form of a democratic state that is identified with and subservient to a single ethnic nation. In a liberal democracy, ethnicity is privatized and the nation-state attempts to homogenize the nation in its entirety. While in an ethnic democracy minorities are entitled to maintain their individuality and cultural and ethnic uniqueness, yet the state attempts to homogenize within those distinct communities. In general, ethnic democracies are criticized for being unstable and ineffective at conflict management, and for freezing internal conflicts, whereas a true liberal democracy—where all citizens are truly and totally equal—does not exist.

Consociational democracy recognizes the main ethnic groups and uses a series of mechanisms to reduce ethnic conflicts. Some states are manifestly ethnic, and strong biases force them to deviate from the western forms and principles of liberal democracies. In the case of Israel/Palestine, this becomes contentious because there is disagreement on whether the state is truly, “manifestly” ethnic. The Law of Return, Nationality Law 5712-1952 sections 3-8, and the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law make immigration and obtaining of citizenship for Jews from other parts of the world very easy. For non-Jews, obtaining citizenship is difficult and uncommon.

Ethnic democracies adhere to an ideology or movement of ethnic nationalism that declare a certain population, in this case, Jewish-Israelis, as an ethnic nation sharing common descent, language, and culture. They claim ownership of a certain territory—Israel/Palestine—and appropriate a state in which the population exercises its full right to self-determination. In an ethnic democracy, persons living in the homeland and the Jewish diaspora are referred to as “others,” and restrictions and controls are imposed to contain the “high threat potential” of minorities.

In the case of Israel/Palestine, the primary mechanism of restriction and control is immigration policy and, arguably, the millet system. These mechanisms maintain the asymmetry in demography and power between the majority and minority. The political system is democratic but is diminished by the lack of equality of rights. Minorities cannot fully identify with the state and cannot be completely equal to the majority, and thus cannot confer full legitimacy to the state.

The state of Israel’s attachment to democracy is both ideological and pragmatic, while the state’s commitment to democracy is contingent on its affordability. The state is, in many ways, striving for democracy, yet fails to achieve this because not all citizens enjoy the same rights. The state has failed to set up a court system that is inclusive of all citizens (both minorities and secular Jewish-Israelis) and maintains policies that grant unequal preference to groups of Jewish descent.

Israel/Palestine can be described as a semi-democracy or a diminished democracy. For the Arab minority, the state functions as a diminished democracy. The rights of Arabs are incomplete and improperly protected, though their right to representation, struggle, and protest is recognized by the state. Nonetheless, the Arab population is regarded as potentially disloyal and a threat to the state, which places them under security and political control.

So, is Israel/Palestine an ethnic democracy or an ethnic democracy? Zionism, in its formation, recognized “Jewish” as an ethnicity. There is debate over whether Israel is a democracy at all, though many minorities perceive the state as democratic, and Israel certainly perceives itself as democratic. At the very least, Israel/Palestine strives to be as democratic as possible under conditions of stability regarding the maintenance of a Jewish majority. These conditions of stability are: maintenance of Jews as a majority, the continued sense of threat, the inability of the Arab world to intercede on behalf of the Arab minority in Israel/Palestine (since 1973), and the lack of intervention by the international community on behalf of the Arab minority.

Identity and the Conflict

The specific inequality faced by the Arab minority in Israel/Palestine is fundamental in understanding the state’s treatment of minorities, but the narrative of the Arab minority alone does not effectively capture the scope of treatment of all minority communities. Further, it is impossible to capture the scope of experiences across a single community in such a small space, yet alone the experiences across different communities. Within Israel/Palestine, there are Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, non-Arab Muslims (Circassians) and Arab non-Muslims (Druze) as well as African asylum seekers, Asian migrant workers, Former-Soviet Union immigrants. Identity in general, and especially when dealing with issues in Israel/Palestine, is contentious, individual, and dynamic. Arab Israeli identity is something separate from Palestinian identity. For this discussion, a distinction must be made between Arab-Israelis living in Israel/Palestine (not in Gaza and the West Bank) and Arab Palestinians. That is not to say that some Arab Israelis do not also identify as Palestinian, or vice versa, but they are viewed differently by the nation-state entity. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fundamental in any conversation about minority treatment in the nation-state, but our view of minorities must be inclusive of all groups recognized by the state.


The millet system in Israel/Palestine helps minority communities preserve their identity and manage their personal status issues. However, it leads to a homogenization of Jewish identity that has fractured into a divide between the secular and the religious. Further, differentiations are made between non-Jewish identities, creating a vertically segmented society. When deciphering identity, the instrumentality of the millet system comes into question—is identity inherent or constructed? Is identity created instrumentally? By no means is distinct identity a cause for concern, but when this distinction is used as a tool of the state for control, segmentation, and homogenization, it must be questioned. The millet system is used to maintain a Jewish majority and to make Jewish loyalty advantageous. For example, Arab Muslims who are religious and socially conservative often support the Shahs party, a Jewish, Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox political party.

The inequality of many minorities is palpable and visible, in line at security at a train station and at the temple mount in Jerusalem, in the words of students and the actions of politicians. The hope expressed by my Druze guide in Usifiyya is exactly that—hope. Hope for a state that is more equal, more inclusive, and more peaceful, and his words are both poignant and inspiring. However, hope is not policy change.

Overall, Israel/Palestine, as a democracy, has failed where civil law is concerned by not providing a secular, civil option that also empowers religious laws, courts, and personal status matters. For now, the means of resolution only goes as far as incremental planning. The state has made efforts to redistribute budgets, create joint government-private investment funds for minority businesses, create multi-year government aid programs for Arab towns and villages, and the like. Yet, for true equality to be achieved, there must be a restructuring of the system that grants protections and rights to minorities without treating them as lesser, and the creation of a political and legal entity that is representative of all citizens and permanent residents.


Sezgin, Yuksel. “The Israeli Millet System: Examining Legal Pluralism Through Lenses of Nation-Building and Human Rights.” Israel Law Review 43.03 (2010) 631-54.

Klein, Steven. “The Changing Status of Eretz Israel’s Minorities.” Minorities in Israel. Ben-Gurion University, Beer Sheva. September 20, 2016.

Smooha, Sammy. “The Model of Ethnic Democracy: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State,” Nations and Nationalism 8.S4 (2002): 475-501.

Lavie, Ephraim. “Arabs in Israel: Between Integration and Alienation.” (n.d.): 37-58.

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