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October 2, 2012

Israel: Jewish and democratic?

The Canadian Charger

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Israel claims to be both Jewish and democratic. We have all heard that claim incessantly. Well, a new report by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) has a different take on the matter.

The report by sociology doctoral candidate at the University of Montreal Michaël Séguin and CJMPE President Thomas Woodley calls Israel an ethnocracy, not a democracy.  To justify this contention, they cite a work by Oren Yiftachel, Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine.  Six characteristics of an ethnocracy are spelled out, and they fit like a glove:

1)              A nation’s ethnicization and the predominance of ethnicity in all aspects of social life;

2)              Expansionism and the will to appropriate disputed territories;

3)              The control of a state’s apparatus in order to promote the legal, economic, military, territorial, cultural and political development of an ethno-national group;

4)              The mobilization of all national institutions, bodies, organizations or corporations to further the process of ethnic expansion;

5)              The practice of defining intranational social status on the basis of ethnic identity (which entails social stratification and the marginalization of those who are not part of the dominant ethnic group or who oppose its project); and

6)              The omnipresence of conflicts and ethnic tensions, resulting in chronic instability for the system.

Last year, Israel experienced a massive demonstration similar in some ways to the Occupy movement, but this was a Jewish middle class manifestation, against losses in standard of living and decline of the welfare state. 

The middle class level of income has remained fairly stable, but the cost of living has gone up substantially.  Yet, the top 1% has experienced a 19% growth of income over the past 10 years, and the income of the 25 largest companies on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange has risen by 142% over that period. 

The authors point out that Israel has the highest poverty rate in the OEDC, 20%.  Those particularly hit are Palestinians, Haredim (the  ultra-Orthodox), and “immigrants in the periphery”.  In the latter category they cite Ethiopians, but it is unclear if this category also includes international migrant workers. 

Poverty for the Haredim and the Palestinians in Israel is substantial and has been increasing.  “In 2009, 56% of the Haredim and 53% of Palestinian citizens of Israel lived under the poverty line,” compared to 42% and 38% in 1998.  Part of the reason is that 46% of their households have only one wage earner.  In the case of the Palestinians, that wage earner is the male in 87% of the cases, and for the Haredim it is the wife in 76%, as the husbands are full-time Talmud scholars. 

An additional factor is out-and-out discrimination in employment.  In one survey, a large majority of employers preferred not to hire Haredim, Palestinians, and Ethiopians, and if hired the employers would choose not to promote them.  Average pay rates for these groups is also significantly lower.  Discrimination exists also in housing.  As an example, a group of rabbis called on Jews not to rent to Palestinians.

The authors pay particular attention to the plight of the Bedouins in the Negev. 

In 1966, those living in an area between Beersheba, Arad, and Dimona were under military control.  They were forbidden to “erect buildings, or to move around, not even to graze their herds.  During that time, more than 90% of the land where Bedouins lived was nationalized, without them receiving any compensation.” 

Then Israel determined to force them into designated towns, with about half living in seven towns which are characterized as the towns with the lowest socioeconomic conditions in the country.  The others live in villages, 35 unrecognized and ten that the government is preparing to recognize.  The government tears down the unrecognized villages.  One, Al-Arakib, has been demolished 32 times since July, 2010.  The Bedouins keep rebuilding it.

While the Bedouins face a precarious existence, even while they are Israeli citizens, the plight of gentile migrant workers is yet more uncertain.  They face the threat of deportation.  They were brought in beginning at the time of the first intifada, when the use of Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories was curtailed.  They and their Israeli-born children are equally at risk, as they are seen as a threat to the Jewish character of the state. 

Jews in North America have always been in the forefront in the battle against discrimination—in education, employment, housing, and services to the public.  Zionists are nowhere to be found in demanding anti-discrimination legislation in Israel.

Remember all this the next time someone tells you that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.

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