Skidmore College

Israel: Democracy or Ethnocracy? By Mandee Mapes @ Skidmore College

What Is Israel?

The state of Israel is a small country—about the size of New Jersey—in the Middle East. It borders the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The country also borders, and occupies parts of, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Israel is home to 8 million people, 75% of whom are Jewish. Its capital is Tel Aviv, but its most famed city is Jerusalem: the holiest place on Earth.

Israel is often described as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” The country has very strong diplomatic relations with the international faces of democracy, the US and the UK. It is also a member of democratic international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Democratic Roots

The state of Israel has been internationally recognized as a democracy since its independence from British Mandate, in 1948. However, when taking into account the continued oppression of Arab minority groups, such as the Palestinians, it is debatable whether Israel was ever a democracy at all.

Modern-day Israel—as opposed to Biblical Israel—was, put bluntly, “[established] by a European power…[in regards to] a non-European territory…in a flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory.” On November 2, 1917, toward the end of World War I, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and Britain’s subsequent inheritance of the territory of Palestine, Britain published the Balfour Declaration. The declaration was, in short, a letter of intent to turn the territory of Palestine into “a national home for the Jewish people.” At that time, 90% of the population was Arab (i.e., Palestinian) and, understandably, did not want to give up their homeland to foreigners.

As Jewish immigration increased—first gradually and then abruptly, following the Holocaust—Palestinian-Jewish tensions grew. By 1948, when Israel—or rather Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, and the first Prime Minister of Israel—declared independence from Britain mandate and was accepted into the United Nations as a democratic state, Palestinians made up only two-thirds of the population. Following a period of ethnic cleansing, known as the Nakba (the Catastrophe), Palestinians became a minority. Today they make up only 25% of the population of Israel.

Is Israel a Democracy?

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World, Polity’s IV Project dataset, and the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicator (WGI) Israel’s democracy is not eroding; but it is flawed. Since 1948, Israel—the government and the citizens—has formally and informally, legally and illegally, discriminated against Palestinians inside and outside of Israel.

EIU Democracy Index

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index ranks countries based on their level of democracy. Countries are ranked as full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, or authoritarian regimes based on their electoral process and pluralism, political participation, the functioning of government, political culture, and civil liberties. EIU has ranked Israel as a flawed democracy since their first report, in 2006. Over the past ten years, Israel has averaged a 5.6 (out of 10) for civil liberties, a whole two points lower than their average overall score. In 2014, civil liberties dipped by almost one whole point. The drop was likely due to Operation Protective Edge, which reinforced anti-Palestinian sentiments in Israel and led to acts of discrimination, such as job firings, against Palestinian-Israelis.

Freedom House: Freedom in the World

Freedom House rates regimes as free, partly free, or not free based on civil liberties and political rights. Freedom House has ranked Israel as free with remarkably impressive scores in civil and political rights since 1998—although it should be noted that the scores do not take into account Palestinian-controlled, Israeli-occupied territories (i.e., Gaza and the West Bank). In 2006, Freedom House lowered the civil liberties score from 3 to 2 (out of 7, where 1 is the best and 7 is the worst) due to “a marked decrease in terrorist attacks” and a “surge of civic activism” advocating for the withdrawal of IDF from Gaza in 2005.

Polity IV Project

According to Polity IV Project, from 1948 to 1966, Israel held competitive elections featuring an institutionalized electorate, meaning political parties that competed for political power with “little use of coercion.” In 1967, following the Six-Day War, Polity temporarily downgraded Israel’s electorate to a transitional electorate with “limited conflict/coercion.” In 1981, following “the most tense and violent [election] in Israel’s history,” Israel’s elections were permanently downgraded to restricted elections and its electorate to a factional/restricted electorate.

The World Bank: WGI

Israel has never scored well on the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators’ (WGI) stability and (lack of) terrorism category. On a scale of -2.5 to 2.5, Israel continuously received between -0.5 and -1.5. However, in 2003, the World Bank upgraded Israel to a 1.52, a 2.98-point jump on a 5-point scale. The improvement coincided with the Road Map to Peace proposal to stop the expansion of Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, end IDF occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, and ultimately create a Palestinian state. However, within a year, Israeli settlement expanded, IDF occupation continued, and any hope for a timely two-state solution quickly faded along with safety and security. In 2009, Israel saw another dip in (lack of) violence in 2009, coinciding with Operation Cast Lead.

Israeli Ethnocracy

Israel’s struggle with democracy can be attributed to three factors: ethnic tensions between Jews and Palestinians, partisan polarization between Zionists and liberals, and pro-Zionist support from international leaders of the democratic world (i.e., the UK and the US).

As mentioned earlier, Israel was created by foreigners, for foreigners. It makes sense, then, that Israel sees such strained relations between immigrants (i.e., Jews) and natives (i.e. Palestinians). In 2016, the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) published a report on the “Attitudes of Arab Citizens of Israel” conducted by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research. The report found that “more than two-thirds of the Arab respondents (compared with half of the Jewish respondents) stated that the level of tension between Jews and Arabs was the strongest of all tensions between groups in Israeli society” and that “the broadest consensus within Arab society in Israel, one that transcends all internal divisions and agreements” is discrimination against Arabs. These tensions can also be seen in attitudes toward institutions (i.e., political parties, the Knesset, and the government), where “the level of trust of the Arab public…is even lower than that of the Jewish public,” which the Guttman Center team points out “is itself is disturbingly low.” Finally, the report revealed a wide disparity between Jews’ and Arabs’ sense of belonging to Israel: only half of Arab-Israeli citizens reported feeling “proud to be Israeli” and “among younger and more educated respondents, a relatively small share reported feeling proud to be Israeli,” suggesting a generational decrease in sense of belonging.

Israel has also seen strained relations between Zionists, whose prioritize ethnocracy over democracy, and liberals, who prioritize democracy over ethnocracy. This is particularly concerning because of the historical and contemporary pervasiveness of Zionism in Israel and Zionism’s incompatibility with liberal democracy. The tensions between Zionists and liberals is quantified by low public support for democratic values, revealed in the IDI’s 2010 report on “Democratic Values in Practice.” The Guttman Center team reported that only 20% of respondents think that being a democratic state is more important than being a Jewish one— 43% think they are equally important and 31% think being Jewish is more important. Additionally, 46% think “there should be legal penalties for persons who speak out against Zionism” and 50% think non-Zionist parties should be allowed to participate in elections. Furthermore, “86% believe that critical decisions for the state should be taken by a Jewish majority” and 62% believe that “as long as Israel is in a state of conflict with the Palestinians, the views of Arab citizens of Israel on foreign affairs and security issues should not be taken into account.” Finally, 49% do not “support full equality of rights between Jews and Arabs.”

Not only has the UK and US, and other international leaders of the democratic world, been complicit in Israel’s violation of Palestinians’ rights, but they have been vital to it. Israel’s Western allies’ unabating political and economic support for the state and active marginalization of Palestinian persecution by the state has allowed Israel to continue blatantly disregarding democratic norms and practices while still holding onto the title of a democracy and enjoying the benefits that come with it.

Ethnocratic Erosion

However, Israel is not doomed to be an ethnocracy forever. After the second Gaza war, popular newspapers began publishing pieces with titles like “Israel’s Charade of Democracy,” “The ‘Only Democracy in the Middle East’? Hardly,” and “Israel Cannot Be Both Jewish and Democratic.” Independent journalists publishing articles with headlines like: “a democracy doesn’t deny millions their civil rights, plunder their land and resources, and deprive them of independence and of a say in their future,” and “Israel is not the only democracy in the Middle East. In fact, it’s not a democracy at all.” If awareness is the first step to recovery, the dissemination of pro-Palestinian voices is a beacon of hope for Israeli democracy.

*Photo by Paul Joseph, “Palestine,” Creative Commons Zero license.


  1. Chase Dunn

    April 19, 2018 at 2:03 pm

    Great post. The history was informative and your analysis of ethnocracy was great. I’ve always struggled with whether state can be both a democracy and a X-State (Jewish-State; Muslims State; Christian State, etc.). I suppose it is conceptually possible, but your argument regarding ethnocracy (second point) suggests not. By elevating one group (belief, social group, religion) to the status of “State endorsed,” seems to preclude notions of equality or fairness. For that reason, I’ve always been skeptical of the notion that Israel was a democracy.

    Another interesting point that was not brought up is the history of “Zionism.” Early on, my understanding is this term referred to socialistic bi-national state, rather than a Jewish State. Too bad this notion was overtaken by the Zionism we see today.

  2. Dominique Kren

    April 24, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    An interesting post, I think that the part of this discussion I find to be most concerning are the polling data from the Guttman Center, referenced towards the end of this post. The situation with Israel is precarious because on one hand it was created for the sole purpose of being a refuge and home for the Jewish people, but on the other hand it encroached on a territory already inhabited by a religious population and instead of compromising, only conflict has ensued. The polling data reflected in this post causes concern because this reflects how the people of Israel currently feel, and many of these feelings are aggressively anti-Arab and pro-Jew. This is more of a problem than if the feelings had been anti-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. Basing political beliefs around an ethnic identity is more problematic than basing political beliefs around a national identity because politics are directly related to a nation, not a religion. There is inherent conflict between religious groups, and the fact that these religions are also in political conflict only amplifies negative views of the other group. If Israel wants to identify as a democratic nation, the pursuit of democratic ideals needs to be at the forefront of their political actions. However, time and again they show that their true intention is to further their religious and ethnic goals. I also find it concerning that most of the referenced organizations which rank democracies are only giving Israel good marks when they ignore certain time periods or locations. A country can’t just be democratic part-time or in certain places, and I think it’s clear that when the animosity towards Palestinians is included in analyses, Israel fails to make the cut of being a proper democracy. This then begs the question as to why countries such as the US and the UK persist in supporting such an anti-democratic government. If we truly are simply trying to encourage the ideals and practices of democracies across the globe, perhaps we should reconsider our unwavering support. The only way Israel will shift from an ethnocratic nation to a democratic nation is if it is given the proper push, and it is up to the Western nations who preach about the importance of democratic values to give that push.

  3. Anne Pfeifenberger

    April 24, 2018 at 4:50 pm

    It has been really interesting to learn more about Israel and the state of their democracy. With the country in the news so often, I honestly regret that I do not know more about the governmental structure.
    Hearing you speak in class, I am surprised you did not write about the country’s unwritten constitution and how that may affect potential/is affecting backsliding. If there is no formal constitution, is the state not at risk for the abuse of power and erosion of checks and balances. Considering you have brought that up in class a few times, I would have liked to have read more about it.
    The tension between ethnocracy and democracy is one that definitely seems to be the primary one feeding into religious and ethnic tensions. Considering, the scale of the issue, I would be interested in knowing what the percentage breakdown of Zionists, versus democracy supporters are in Israeli society.
    However, you seem very optimistic about the future of Israel’s democracy based upon the current media coverage and criticism of ant-democratic factions. Seeing how media can be systematically delegitimized or taken control of, the level of optimism seems perhaps a little too much. Plus, if Israel is not technically a democracy, as some of the articles that you link state, how can it recover if it was never one at all? In that case, it would not be a case of reversing democratic erosion, but rather the country would have to undergo a process of democratization.

  4. Alexander Lloyd

    December 6, 2018 at 3:40 pm

    This is a comprehensive look at democracy and ethnocracy in Israel. As someone who is currently writing their research paper on democratic erosion in Israel, it was nice to stumble upon this piece. From my research, I have come to very similar conclusions as this article regarding the domestic issues facing Israeli-Arabs, though with slight differences in research. I had not come across the surveys mentioned above, but find them to be intriguing and a good point of reference when gauging the general public opinion on issues. Having done a large amount of research regarding this issue as well, I feel there could be more information included regarding pre-Netanyahu and post-Netanyahu. The coalition he put together and the people he appointed to positions of power have said many things and attempted to pass legislation that tells us more about erosion from within the government. The next few years are going to be very interesting, especially with the recent resignations by members of the government in the face of regional policy failures.

  5. Anna Meomutli

    February 24, 2019 at 3:44 pm

    Just like mentioned above, this is a great summary of how Israel and their current regime is established. A rather brilliant compilation of the most important context when it comes to ethnic demographics and political turmoil that has recently started. I do think that due to the UN chartering the borders for Israel based on historical evidence was something that was bound to stir up the conflict. With Palestinians being nomads but settling down in the are of present Israel, UN has not ensured that Israeli government will be fair and equal to the minorities.
    Ethnocracy was bound to happen due to stripped national identity of the Jewish people and rebuilding the country from the start since 1949. I am not justifying the atrocities being committed from Israeli side to Palestinians, yet I can understand how hard the new Israeli population is feeling when they try to create a new mentality. With the recent development of ethnic Jewish people from Eastern Europe moving to Israel, the community embraces the shades of so many cultures which is an obvious recipe for a potential conflict. Due to the issue of minorities arising, populism is also bound to happen from such environment. Just like Benjamin Netanyahu predicted back in December, populism in Israel is on teh rise and now is getting stronger than ever.
    It would be amazing to see more data-driven research on the ethnocratic erosion, your last section, once you mentioned that awareness that ethnocracy is the issue and now people are more involved in understanding what’s going on in their community, it would be incredibly useful to see more results of that in order to determine whether it is, in fact, the first step to solving the issue.

  6. Kimberly Stewart

    February 28, 2019 at 9:58 pm

    I visited Israel fairly recently, and was excited to learn more about the country. Your post was very informative and clearly outlined the differences between an ethnocracy and a democracy. Israel is a tough nut to crack, because there is more to the narrative behind the conflict between Arabs/Palestinians and the Jews, who claim rights to the country. The state of Israel has only really been a state since the British mandate that you described, and even then it is hard to define it as such because of continuous border disputes and questions about Israeli claims to sovereignty (especially in Jerusalem); however, the geographic area on which Israel currently rests has been disputed by a variety of ethnic groups for centuries. While Israel was largely inhabited by Palestinians at the close of WWII, I do think it is important to remember that the Arab-Israeli conflict did not start at that point in time, and consider how that plays into the current conflict. I don’t think the Palestinians are currently being treated ethically and that a compromise must be reached to ensure true democracy, and I’m interested to see whether it will ever be resolved.

  7. Salvatore Ragonese

    March 17, 2019 at 7:22 pm

    The issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations is certainly an important topic that needs to be discussed. What I appreciate about how you discussed this issue is that you presented a substantial amount of information, from a large number of sources, in order to provide some context for readers. For example, the section in which you provide different perspectives from databases such as Freedom House does manages to provide information to readers who otherwise would likely not have known so.
    Despite this effort to inform readers, I would argue that there is a clear bias in favor of Palestinians that ruins the potential for a truly great article. Throughout this article there is a clear sense that Palestine should be seen as an innocent victim when in fact the situation is far more complex. For example, although some radical Zionists may be in favor of a state that holds Jews superior to others, the fact is that true Zionists wish only for a homeland where Jews, who have always been victims of discrimination throughout the globe, may seek refuge from those who seek their destruction. Likewise, there is no mention of the transgressions committed by Palestinians, such as the terror promulgated by Hamas. To be clear, both sides are guilty of injustice, but this article gives no account of injustice from Palestine. In order for your research to provide a more well-rounded account of the conflict, I would suggest referring to Vice’s documentaries on the situation in Israel.

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