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Contesting ethnic democracy in deeply divided societies: Inter-War Poland and Pre-1967 Israel

Yoav Peled
Tel Aviv University
Yoav Peled
Tel Aviv University
Open Panel

Abstract

A critical examination of the conditions for the consolidation and stability of ''ethnic democracy'', a form of democratic state in deeply divided societies that combines majoritarian electoral procedures and respect for individual rights with the institutionalized dominance of a majority ethnic group. Ethnic democracy is constituted by the combination of two incompatible constitutional principles: liberal democracy, that mandates equal protection of all citizens, and ethno-nationalism, that mandates preferred treatment for members of the core ethnic group. Ethnic democracy differs from liberal democracy in that it violates the norm of equality – the state is defined as the national patrimony of the dominant ethnic group, rather than of its citizenry. At the same time, ethnic democracy is still a democracy to the extent that it provides some political space for the minority to work to improve its status within the framework of the law. My main thesis is that ethnic democracies are sustainable only to the extent that the two conflicting constitutional principles defining them as such – ethno-nationalism and liberal democracy – are successfully mediated by a third principle, of whatever kind. I will substantiate my argument by comparing two cases of contested ethnic democracy: the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939) and its relations with its Jewish minority, and the State of Israel (within its pre-1967 borders) and its relations with its Palestinian-Arab minority. In Poland, ethnic democracy, while formally written into the constitution, never really took hold, whereas in Israel this regime was stable for thirty-five years (1966-2000), but may now be eroding.