Minorities and democracy

A distinction is conventionally made between two perceptions or dimensions of democracy – formal democracy and substantive democracy. Formal democracy relates to the decision-making process by the state. According to the formal perception, a democracy is a regime in which all citizens above a certain age can freely elect their representatives to the government once every few years. During the periods between elections, the elected representatives manage the affairs of state in accordance with the choice of the majority. Majority rule is a central value in formal, minimalist democracy, while human rights – and particularly the human rights of minorities – depend largely on the good will of the majority.

A distinction is conventionally made between two perceptions or dimensions of democracy – formal democracy and substantive democracy. Formal democracy relates to the decision-making process by the state. According to the formal perception, a democracy is a regime in which all citizens above a certain age can freely elect their representatives to the government once every few years. During the periods between elections, the elected representatives manage the affairs of state in accordance with the choice of the majority. Majority rule is a central value in formal, minimalist democracy, while human rights – and particularly the human rights of minorities – depend largely on the good will of the majority.

However, maintaining these formal principles does not, in itself, guarantee the presence of substantive democracy. The approach of substantive democracy developed on the basis of the perception that the state exists to serve those who live in it, and not vice versa. From this perspective, the essence of the democratic regime depends on the realization of values of human and civil rights, on the basis of a recognition of human worth, dignity, and liberty; the equality of all humans; and the fact that all humans enjoy fundamental rights. According to this approach, conflicts between protecting human rights and the determination of the majority are a natural and substantive expression of two vital democratic elements.

A fundamental principle of substantive democracy is the protection of minority rights in the face of the tyranny of the majority. Moreover, in a substantive democracy, the state and the ruling majority understand the need and right of minorities to maintain their unique identity – national, religious, ethnic, or other, their heritage, and their culture, and protect this right. This is an essential condition for trust between the minority and the majority and for creating a foundation for discussion of the relationship between the different groups that live in the state.

The relationship between a majority and a minority is complex, and the relationship between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in Israel, with its own unique history, is particularly complex (see the Report of the Or Commission, Part One, Chapter A, in Hebrew). Since the establishment of the State of Israel, approximately 20 percent of the state’s citizens have faced systematic and institutionalized discrimination. The long-standing policy of strengthening the Jewish majority, enacting legislation that distinguishes between Jews and Arabs, allocating resources on a discriminatory basis, and implementing a power-based approach to the Arab minority (an approach that reached its peak in the events of October 2000) has heightened the sense of alienation and mistrust among the Arab minority.

It is important to note that the Arabs in Israel constitute not only a minority, but an indigenous people – that is, a minority that was present before the establishment of the current political entity. This status was recognized, inter alia, in the Report of the Or Commission (Part One, Chapter A, Section 5, in Hebrew). An indigenous minority, as distinct from an immigrant minority, bears a stronger affinity to the local land and history, and views the country (though not necessarily the state) as its historical homeland. International law has enshrined the rights of minorities in general, and of indigenous minorities in particular, notably the right to equality, the right to property, and the right to maintain cultural identity, in a series of conventions and declarations to which the State of Israel is committed.

A democratic state does not demand that a minority – and certainly an indigenous minority with the history and circumstances of that which is present in Israel – forego its identity in order to receive rights. An understanding on the part of the Jewish majority, and on the part of the institutions of state, of the indigenous affinity between the Arabs in Israel and this country is critical in order to build relations of trust between the state and the Arab minority. It is also critical to understand the manner in which the Arab minority perceives its identity, as well as natural affinity – in historical, national, social, and familial terms – with the Palestinian residents of the Territories and with the Arab inhabitants of neighboring countries.