Apr 15 2014

The element of citizenship and the current political climate in Israel

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By Dr Lauren Banko, Senior Teaching Fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.


Israeli PassportThe peace talks between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators that started in the summer of 2013 under the auspices of US Secretary of State John Kerry are likely to fizzle out with little fanfare in the beginning of this April. Palestinians express little faith in the process pointing to the continued policies of settlement building, plans for new settlements, recent bombings of the Gaza strip and the latest killing of three Palestinian ‘militants’ in Jenin in the West Bank.   Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characteristically blamed the Palestinian negotiators for the failure claiming the Palestinian leaders breached trust by making steps to sign international treaties; meanwhile, Kerry blamed continued Israeli settlement-building.  It appears that the prospects of granting concessions to the Arabs in the occupied territories were surely no more than pipe dreams for Kerry and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

The debates surrounding the question of citizenship in Israel is complicated further still by recent developments. The first being protests in support of Israel’s 50,000 refugees mostly from Sudan and Eritrea who are granted few civil rights and lack the Israeli citizenship.  At the same time, the current government in Israel has passed a law to end the privileges of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish citizens, namely that of their exemption from military service.  This law should be implemented in 2017, provided that the legislation is not overturned.  Additionally, factions in the government are also close to ratifying a bill to include ‘Israel as a Jewish state’ in the country’s Basic Laws.

These issues come together in an interesting way when one considers the meaning of Israeli nationality versus Israeli citizenship, if these two things can be said to exist as separate statuses.  As David Sheen has recently shown, Israel, a state built upon refugees (often secular refugees) who arrived in the late 1930s and early 1940s, has now began to systematically target for detention and deportation the African asylum seekers in recent years.  In places like Tel Aviv, African asylum seekers are discriminated against on nearly all social and civil fronts in welfare, jobs, housing and even hospital care.  The discrimination and deportation of the non-Jewish refugees is not so different from the decades of work by successive Israeli governments to keep Palestinian Arab refugees from inside Israel’s borders, the latter shown here by Mark LeVine.

The Law of Nationality gives something more akin to ethnic identity to the Jewish population of Israel.  This is not exactly citizenship and thus Arab Israelis are classified differently to Jewish Israelis.  In the absence of a written constitution, civil and political rights of citizenship are codified elsewhere, such as in the above-mentioned Basic Laws.  The differences between nationality and citizenship have been debated in Israel in recent years and indeed since the founding of the state.  In the twentieth century as the nation-state emerged as the dominant political formation, nationality took on a meaning more akin to an ethnic identity whilst citizenship has been developed as a legal identity between an individual and his or her state.  Nationals might not necessarily be citizens, and thus can be deprived of the same rights of citizenship that citizens of the same territory receive.  Clearly then, as others have pointed out, it is difficult to reconcile the principles of equality of citizenship with an ethno-cultural determinate for membership in a democratic nation-state.  Hence the legislation to officially term Israel as a Jewish state fits into this debate on how to reconcile two different types of membership in a territorial and political entity.

The debate is not a new one in the history of former colonies.  ‘The citizen’ as an analytical category in the Middle East is currently a highly politicized topic of discussion, from Egypt to Palestine and from the United Arab Emirates to the Kurdish or Alevi populations of Turkey.  It was also a sort of analytical category at the time that citizenship was developed in the interwar Middle East, as it involved analysis as to which inhabitants of the Arab mandated territories were more ‘white’ or ‘European’ and thus qualified to receive the rights citizenship conferred.

After the First World War, the League of Nations conceived of nationality as flexible and thus transferable: Ottoman nationals (and Jewish immigrants to Palestine) could simply ‘become’ citizens of their new mandated states.  Still, colonial officials did not unanimously agree upon provisions for the transfer and grant of nationality in the Middle East.  Mandate officials became increasingly concerned with ensuring that legislation cultivated a sense of loyalty to the governments of Britain and France, as well as the mandate administrations.  This loyalty became a significant part of the naturalisation process in British-ruled Palestine before 1948.  According to British thinking at the time, colonial subjects could not become ‘British’ unless they were white.  Colonial officials based the national home policy of the Palestine mandate on a racial hierarchy between Jews immigrants and native Arabs, and looked toward the Jewish immigrants as the civilising influence in Palestine.  The markers of character and the nativist ideologies often behind this view “permeated debates over immigration restrictions,” as historian Ann Laura Stoler has shown in numerous colonial situations.  Character did not derive from abstract or universal values, argues Stoler, but rather “at its heart was a conception of being European that emphasised a bearing, a standard of living, a set of cultural competencies and practices to which members of the European community were to subscribe.”[1]  Hence, in early colonial discourse, citizenship was connected to having particular cultural and racial characteristics.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Dutch and French in the Indies, Indochina and North Africa began to recognize, within colonial laws, that jus soli (right of the soil) and jus sanguinis (right of blood) could not determine national identity in the new colonial nation.  The British in Palestine adopted the same ideology and rendered birthplace and descent to no longer be the only determinants for the acquisition of nationality by inhabitants of colonies.  By the late nineteenth century, new criteria to mark citizens and nationals included middle-class values and morals as well as privileged ‘white’ backgrounds.

It seems that the Israeli nationality legislation is geared much toward the same objective of granting nationality to certain types of individuals—the religious component is not the only requirement taken into consideration yet it is a good excuse to deny asylum seekers and refugees the right to acquire citizenship.  With the colonial and postcolonial precedents in mind then, Israel’s denial of nationality to refugees, be they African or Arab, after significant time spent residing within Israel’s borders, is not a without firm settler-colonial basis.  Law-makers see the cultivation of loyalty and certain ‘civilised’ values through demanding that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state and that its potential nationals be required to possess Jewish ancestry.

To come back to the nearly-extinguished peace talks, the combined elements of discrimination against ‘black’ refugees in Israel, the law to force all Israelis to serve in the military and the proposal to term Israel a Jewish state in the Basic Laws, all pose new stumbling blocks for negotiators which are not part of the long-standing ‘Arab-Israeli’ conflict.  However, these elements are crucial in determining the nature of belonging in Israel, which will affect the Palestinian Arabs within the country’s borders, in the occupied territories and elsewhere in the refugee diaspora.  Indeed, this nature of belonging currently in effect will not be sufficient if it comes to the fore in peace negotiations especially as citizenship and nationality are core issues behind all attempts at progress towards either a one or two-state solution.

[1] Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 27.

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Mar 31 2014

Nationalism in Russia and Europe: Workshop Summary

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By Ben Ryan, researcher for the religion and society think tank Theos.


What happened to Fascism StillA few weeks ago it is probably fair to say that the point of a workshop on Russian and East European nationalisms and identities would probably have been lost on most people. Events in Ukraine have shaken the complacency of those who saw nationalisms as an increasingly irrelevant and niche concern of political scientists or the preserve of right-wing parties with limited genuine political impact.

The workshop at LSE IDEAS in some ways then could not have come at a better time. The relevance of nationalism in Europe is absolutely self-evident with each new media bulletin from Kiev and Crimea.  Yet at the same time as the relevance has been re-established there is another problem which debates over the Ukrainian disputes have highlighted which many of the contributors were keen to address. Simply put, coverage of events has generally been of a pretty low quality. Too often the old language of empire or the Cold War has been allowed to dominate alongside lazy stereotypes and overly simplistic categories.

Accordingly there was a great deal of discussion devoted to challenging the idea that Russian or Ukrainian nationalism are single categories which can be brought to bear on the debate. More attention was given to the plurality of nationalisms within the Russian and Ukrainian contexts. In Ukraine the focus has been on “ethnic Russians” versus “ethnic Ukrainians” yet neither category is a simple bloc. Lost amid the rhetoric has been any appreciation of the significant Tatar community or of the divides within the ethnic groups. Cossack nationalism, which has always been a trans-regional and fluid identity increasingly rarely founded on much of a genuine ethnic basis (Despite recent efforts to reclaim it as a pure Slavonic ethnic group) has similarly been broadly ignored.

This is not a problem limited to the Western media however. Ukraine itself has to some extent sown the seeds of its own problems with its instrumental attempts to create a Ukrainian nationalism founded simply on ethnic Ukrainians. This approach excluded other ethnicities from the narrative of Ukrainian identity – making the issue of keeping Ukraine together now far more difficult.

That issue is mirrored in Russia. Again the state has attempted to use nationalism in an instrumental way to support the state and again this has proven extremely difficult. There is an appreciable change in the way the media portrays Russia and efforts to re-institutionalize the Orthodox Church and bring in single textbooks. None have been especially successful, and in an internet age their chance to do so is limited. Putin and the Russian government have been forced to limit themselves to discussions of those who speak the Russian language as criteria – rather than any more substantive basis.

It is important to note though, as many did throughout the conference that these issues are not exceptional to Russia and Ukraine. Too many crude binaries and simplifications assume that the situation is one of Russia versus Europe, East versus West. In fact the problem of nationalisms so prominent in Ukraine is no less of an issue across Europe. Big countries need narratives to keep themselves together and are often struggling to come to terms with a failure to do this. The UK and Spain and on a bigger scale the EU itself are prime examples of a struggle to keep disparate nationalisms together in a single collective narrative. The UK at least as much as Russia struggles with coming to terms with an Imperial past and regional nationalisms. The EU no more than Russia has concerns over its spheres of influence and keeping people together.

This is not to say that all the issues are perfectly mirrored across Europe. To deny exceptionalism is not to deny differences. The Russia Empire was different from other empires, and Crimea is not Scotland or Catalonia. But it is to provide a note of caution before too hastily looking at the problem as being wholly alien from that being encountered elsewhere.

One of the great paradoxes of the current world order is that problems have become so internationalised while the only unit seen as a valid agent to counter them remains so essentially based on a nation state model that is rarely the best actor in that context. Many places are struggling with similar problems of forging a narrative and finding an identity in today’s world.  The IDEAS workshop has demonstrated where perhaps the debate needs to go next if there is to be a chance of analysing the Ukraine crisis and the future of nationalisms to any productive end.

Watch the two video debates from this workshop exclusively on our LSE IDEAS Channel.

  1. Nationalist wars in Europe?
  2. What happened to fascism in Ukraine and Russia?


Ben Ryan recently completed an MSc in European Studies: Ideas and Identities at the LSE and is currently working as a researcher for the religion and society think tank Theos.

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Mar 20 2014

Venezuela: The Failure of the Fifth Republic


Professor Maxwell A. Cameron, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia.


2014_Venezuelan_protests_tear_gas_responseThe turmoil that has rocked Venezuela since early February has resulted in almost 30 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and 1,500 detentions (see timeline here). Although such protests were never likely to threaten the survival of the regime, their intensity, breadth, and duration have exposed the deep cleavages and polarization in Venezuelan society. The intent of many of the protesters is clear: to bring down a government elected less than a year ago.

After 15 years in power, why is the Venezuelan political regime still vulnerable to anti-system opposition? One might ask, to steal a line from Mario Vargas Llosa, ‘en que momento se jodió?’ most from the beginning, I would say. What we are witnessing in Venezuela today is a crisis brought about by the failure of chavismo to adhere to principles of its own ‘Bolivarian’ constitution—indeed, principles inherent in any constitution.

Neither ex-President Hugo Chávez (1998-2013), nor incumbent President Nicolás Maduro, ever fully appreciated the critical role of opposition in constitutional and democratic regimes: to offer a viable electoral alternative to the existing government and to question the actions of government officials, criticise them when appropriate, and thereby ensure that those in power are accountable between elections. The opposition has never truly united around a consensus on whether to play by the constitutional rules of the game. Neither side recognises the legitimacy of the other.

For over a decade, there has been a negative dialectic between the government and the opposition: Chávez minimised the role of the opposition in the constituent assembly that wrote the 1999 Constitution (surely a mistake); the opposition tried to topple Chávez in a botched coup attempt (huge mistake); Chávez hardened his regime, cracking down on critical media and reinforcing popular organisations; a chastened opposition organised a petition to recall Chávez by referendum (a good move, albeit unsuccessful); Chávez fought and prevailed using every trick in the book; a demoralised opposition boycotted the 2005 legislative election and then was trounced in presidential elections the next year (score two for Chávez); Chávez radicalised his revolution; the opposition unified and organised its best effort to challenge Chávez at the polls in 2012, followed by an even stronger result against Maduro in 2013.

This brings us to the present, where the dismal pattern has continued: Maduro should have read his narrow victory as a sign that he needs to reach out to the opposition, but (perhaps more worried about sustaining the internal cohesion of his coalition) he instead confronted and attacked the opposition (mistake); a fraction of the latter threw its support behind student protests of February 2014, using #LaSalida to give them a stronger anti-regime flavour (mistake). The protests have not spread much beyond Venezuela’s middle and upper middle-classes, but they have spread across the country and have lasted for over a month.

All this illustrates that the Bolivarian constitution, although not merely printed matter, has not been fully institutionalised. The government and opposition in Venezuela cannot rise above their differences and recognise each other as citizens. Maduro calls his opponents ‘fascists’; the opposition calls the government a ‘dictatorship’. This can be fatal for democracy. As Guillermo O’Donnell put it, democracy depends on an ‘institutionalised wager’: I may believe you are wrong, but I must respect your right to vote and be elected (2010: 26). We have the same rights of citizenship. These rights are not negotiable. They are inalienable and imprescriptible, and they are backed up by an organisational guarantee: the rule of law under the separation of powers. This is why constitutions matter. They are the constitutive rules of democratic politics and provide the generative grammar that enables democracy to flourish (Cameron 2013).

How should we characterise the Venezuelan political system? Specifically, is Venezuela democratic or authoritarian? The answer is that it is both; it is a hybrid regime. There non-fraudulent elections; but elections are a means to a set of ends or ‘goods’—and they alone do not make a regime democratic. The ends (or ‘goods’) are: (1) the possibility of alternation in power; and (2) the guarantee that a government will govern democratically and that the opposition will accept the results, because it has a legitimate voice and stake in the system. Elections must be free and fair to ensure that they produce these democratic goods, which means that further conditions must be present: access to alternative sources of information, the right to assembly, association and protections for fundamental rights and freedoms. The Venezuelan government has grossly violated these conditions.

Venezuela’s democracy is thus defective; it is plebiscitary and delegative. But is it authoritarian? Classifying a regime as authoritarian requires more than highlighting defects in its democratic features—it requires evidence of authoritarianism. The idea of competitive authoritarianism, although useful, needs further specification to avoid creating confusion over where to draw the line between democracy and authoritarian rule.

The voluminous literature on authoritarian rule reveals a common thread. In authoritarian regimes, a coalition of non-elected officials rules by coercion. Such governments cannot be removed by means of elections. They may be military and/or civilian; they may have technocratic and corporativist elements. Before labelling Venezuela as authoritarian, we would need to see such a coalition come into sharper relief. Perhaps it is there in waiting. We see armed colectivos, the regime’s Rottweilers; we see a politicised military throughout the bureaucracy; we see a Boli-bourgeoisie that does not want to lose its privileges. Could these elements come together to prevent alternation in power? Possibly, but it has not to date. What is clear is that these groups are not interested in allowing the opposition to play its critical role.

In short, the Venezuelan political system today has both democratic and authoritarian features that are at odds with each other. This should guide our thinking about how to avoid deepening the conflict. Venezuela urgently needs dialogue between the government and the opposition. We know from the transitology literature that hard-liners in the regime and radicals in the opposition often reinforce each other, and that successful transitions involve coalitions between soft-liners and moderates (Przeworski 1992). Building such a coalition demands great leadership skills on both sides—but it is possible. It is the challenge faced by current generation of leaders in Venezuela, and the international community can help.

The situation in Venezuela calls for the flexible and proactive diplomacy. In the absence of effective action by the OAS, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has offered to convene a much needed dialogue. To be meaningful, any dialogue will have to include human rights, freedom of the press, rights of the opposition, restoration of the constitutional separation of powers, citizen security and the rule of law. As Jennifer McCoy notes, it will have to create space for moderates, build confidence, and restore communication between government and opposition.

The lesson this crisis offers the rest of the world is the importance of opposition in a democracy: ‘In democracies the opposition is an organ of popular sovereignty just as vital as the government. To suppress the opposition is to suppress the sovereignty of the people’ (Guglielmo Ferrero cited in Sartori 1987: 32).



Cameron, Maxwell A. 2013. Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers. New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Donnell, Guillermo. 2010. Democracy, Agency, and the State: Theory with Comparative Intent. New York: Oxford University Press.

Przeworski, Adam. 1992. “The Games of Transition.” In Issues in Democratic Consolidation: The New South American Democracies in Comparative Perspective, Ed. Scott Mainwaring, et al. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, pp. 105-152.

Sartori, Giovanni. 1987. The Theory of Democracy Revisited: Part I. Clatham: Clatham House Publishers.

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