Israeli Scholar Oren Yiftachel Calls Israel a Colonial Ethnocracy

Esteemed Israeli scholar Oren Yiftachel was interviewed in a segment on The Real News on 26 May. The interview, “Netanyahu’s ‘Jewish State’ Law Stirs Debate in Israel,” addresses Netanyahu’s recent declaration that he will create a law more explicitly defining what it means for Israel to be a “Jewish state” and discusses the ways in which Israeli politicians are moving even further to the right, discriminating more and more against non-Jewish Israeli citizens.

In The Jerusalem Post, the story notes, Paul Gross writes “To anchor in Israel’s de facto constitution a definition of the Jewish state, which implies a clear emphasis on Israel’s Jewish status over and above its democratic character, plays into the hands of the most bigoted elements of the Israeli right.”

Reporting for The Real News, Lia Tarachansky explains

Following the social justice movement of 2011, which arose primarily to protest the high cost of living, the government announced this week that a new subsidy will be given to young couples buying their first apartment, but condition that subsidy on the buyer’s army service, effectively excluding the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population.

Israel, then, unsurprisingly, is explicitly discriminating against Israeli citizens in housing (among many other) affairs.

Tarachansky continues

But the subsidy, which benefits Jewish citizens only, as nearly no Palestinians serve in the Israeli army, is just a small part of the bigger picture. Access to real estate–and, more importantly, land–has been the biggest contention point and one of the central ways the state preserves its Jewish nature. In Israel, over 93 percent of the land is owned by the state and managed by the Israeli land development authority, a body created to steward the lands of the Palestinians who were expelled and fled when Israel was created.

The story explains that this “mass nationalization of the country’s most important resource is a central element in an ethnocracy,” a term coined, and a field of study later expanded, by Israeli scholar Oren Yiftachel.

Yiftachel explains that Israel-Palestine is not alone in this designation (although it is more exceptional in its apartheid status). Malaysia, Northern Ireland, Cyprus (before 1974), and the Baltic states Estonia and Latvia are also ethnocracies, he explains. “The main characteristic is that the distribution of resources and power is governed by ethnicity, not by citizenship. Citizenship is an envelope which is quite often hollow.”

Suhad Bishara, an Israeli lawyer and director of the Lands Division in Adalah, a legal organization that works with the Arab minority in Israel, describes how Israel engages in egregious discrimination “Under the name of the Jewish state.”

In practice, we don’t see any balance between the Jewish and democratic values that the state is advocating. Therefore, in practice what we see only a Jewish state in practice in the land regime, the state of Israel under the name of a Jewish state is holding a system of segregation. Under the name of the Jewish state, they are denying internally displaced people from going back to their properties, home, and villages. Under the name of the Jewish state, basically the state of Israel is trying to evict and uproot 90,000 Bedouin Arabs in the Naqab. So we don’t see any balance here at all.

Meanwhile, a Channel 2 television segment featuring Israeli minister of Home Front Defense and Communications Gilad Erdan appeared on shows the interviewer asking Erdan “Do you not think that it hurts the Arab Israelis, especially now when they’re under attack from extremist right-wingers who attack mosques and spray paint [racist slogans]?” He feigns ignorance, asking “How is it connected?”

Yiftachel goes on to explain that nationalists’ racist insistence that immigrants’ (or even indigenous peoples’) loyalty to the state “is always questioned” precisely because “the state belongs to one group.” Therefore, minority groups “can never feel incorporated … because how can they be loyal to a state that actually always impinges on their rights and on their resources?”

Yiftachel, as one of the leading scholars in the study of ethnocracies, tells us

Part of ethnocratic regime theory is that ethnocracies are inherently unstable because of this contradiction. They cannot actually receive legitimacy sufficient legitimacy from the minorities, because the state is about taking over from the minorities, from the indigenous minorities, usually. So there is an overlap with colonialism, but it’s usually the stage after. Now, in Israel-Palestine, at least in the West Bank and previously in Gaza, it was blatant colonialism, it wasn’t even post. But inside Israel, it is like a postcolonial dynamic of the Jewish group taking over the space. All in all, it’s continuing until now.