Putting Israeli Democracy Under Scrutiny -- from India

Putting Israeli Democracy Under Scrutiny -- from India

Nazarian Center Research Fellow studies the survival of democracy in multi-ethnic societies

By Ariel Litke, Nazarian Center Intern (2012)

Who would have thought that India and Israel were so similar? Despite the geographic, demographic, cultural and political differences that appear to divide them, India and Israel actually have more in common than meets the eye.  Though seemingly “an elephant and a mouse,” Israel and India are both multi-ethnic, democratic states that declared independence at nearly the same time (India in August 1947 and Israel in May 1948) after British colonial rule. Both include a dominant ethnic community equaling roughly 80% of the population (Hindus in India and Jews in Israel) and a large homeland minority (Muslims in India, Arab-Palestinians in Israel), and both have experienced prolonged confrontation with neighboring countries.  Yet both states have upheld the democratic process for nearly 60 years. 

The analysis of how Israel and India have survived despite internal political threats to their stability is at the core of research by Ayelet Halel-Shalev, a visiting fellow at the UCLA Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and the Department of Political Science.  Harel-Shalev is an expert on comparative political studies and ethnic conflicts, and author of the award-winning book, The Challenge of Sustaining Democracy in Deeply Divided Societies - Citizenship, Rights, and Ethnic Conflicts in India and Israel.  In the book, she describes how, despite a clear domination of one group over another, democracy in India and Israel has outlasted the tensions that promised to break the countries apart – at least for now.    

As a basis of comparison, Harel-Shalev also delved into the cases of Cyprus and Sri Lanka, two countries with equally similar divisions that saw their efforts at democratization collapse after the fracture between its ethnic groups proved to be too great.  In Israel and India, Harel-Shalev sums up the situation thus: “We face two divided states whose main tenets are the principle of majority rule.  They each have a functioning democracy, including formal statements that all citizens are equal before the law.  Nonetheless, the minority has a lower social and economic status than that of the majority group, and de facto discrimination is still common.” In India as well as Israel, “an individual’s religious or ethnic affiliation affects their rights and duties.”

But Harel-Shalev, a mother of three who is spending a second year at UCLA before returning to Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, Israel, where she is an assistant professor, dispels the idea that the Indian and Israeli cases are interchangeable.  “There are obvious differences between India and Israel,” she says, “not least of which is the way each state defines itself: whereas Israel is defined (both legally and practically) as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’, India regards itself as a secular democracy. This distinction between ‘ethnic-nation states’ and so-called ‘neutral states’ is crucial for my research.”  

Harel-Shalev is now working on several parallel research projects, all relating to the challenge of democracy in deeply divided societies.  “My current focus is on states in which (at least) one of the communities considers itself as the “true owner of the state”. These situations conflict with the notions of equality and democracy, and yet many states which chose to follow the democratic path have to cope with this contradiction.”

Through her study of Israel, India and other deeply-divided societies, Harel-Shalev aims to draws attention to key factors in majority-minority relations that will help to ensure the long-term stability and success of these young democracies.