The Mandate Origins of Israeli Democracy

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June 28, 2024
By Nimrod Lin

The Mandate Origins of Israeli Democracy

As part of the joint CJH-Brandeis University initiative on the history of Israeli democracy, we are happy to present a selection of blog posts from members of the inaugural cohort of fellows from the Schusterman Center’s Institute for Advanced Israel Studies. Especially in the current period of acute crisis, CJH is committed to promoting scholarly research on all aspects of the Jewish historical experience, both in the Diaspora and the State of Israel, including trends in the years of Ottoman and British rule before 1948. This post comes from Nimrod Lin, who holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Toronto, and is managing editor of the “Journal of Israeli History.” 

Much of the historiography of Israeli democracy rests on two problematic assumptions: First, that pre-1948 history is not very relevant to the formation of Israeli democracy and, secondly, that the formation of Israeli democracy, whether before or after 1948, was to a large extent an intra-Jewish affair.

In what follows, I would like to advance a different narrative: Not only was there a robust Zionist democratic ethos before 1948, but this ethos was crucial in the formation of post-1948 Israeli democracy. Moreover, this ethos emerged as a direct result of the Zionist-Arab conflict in Palestine.

Generally speaking, the Zionist movement was happy with Britain’s colonial (read: autocratic) rule as long as it allowed for Jewish immigration and settlement. The Mandate Charter, however, charged Britain with establishing “self-governing institutions” in Palestine. Between 1923 and 1936, the British planned to establish a Legislative Council—a British-Arab-Jewish legislature with limited powers—in Palestine. Despite its limited powers, the Legislative Council would have reflected the Arabs’ majority status. The Zionist leadership was worried that the Arab majority in the Legislative Council would be able to slow down Jewish immigration and settlement.

Despite that fact, when elections for the Legislative Council took place in 1923, Palestine’s Jewish citizens voted in droves while most Palestinian Arabs boycotted the elections, arguing that voting was tantamount to a recognition of the Mandate. The boycott was successful and the Legislative Council was never established, although plans to revive it resurfaced throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.

Most Zionist leaders felt that they had dodged a bullet. They only agreed to participate in the elections under heavy British pressure—the Mandate hadn’t been ratified by the League of Nations at that point and the entire Zionist enterprise was still vulnerable—and were relieved when the Arabs boycotted the elections. The Arab leadership, for its part, regretted the boycott almost immediately, realizing that they had given up on real—if limited—political power.

After the 1923 elections, the Zionist leadership would never again agree to be part of representative institutions with an Arab majority. In order not to be painted as an anti-democratic movement, however, the Zionists had to offer an alternative to majoritarian politics. In the 1920s, a Zionist political philosophy called mutual non-domination emerged as a response to the threat of majoritarian politics. According to this philosophy, Jews should not rule over Arabs and vice versa. In practice, this meant either the creation of two national autonomies under British Mandatory rule and/or the eventual federalization of Palestine into ethnic cantons under a bicameral parliament: an upper house divided in half between Jews and Arabs and a lower house based on proportional representation.

Moreover, the Zionist leadership demanded that if a Legislative Council were to be established, there should be parity between the Jewish and Arab representatives to reflect the fundamental equality between the two nations—rather than the demographic disparity between the two populations.

The extent to which Zionist leaders were willing to actually follow through with these suggestions has been hotly debated by scholars. Nevertheless, mutual non-domination was a useful tactic in compelling Britain to postpone, again and again, the establishment of the Legislative Council. It became an official Zionist policy in 1931 only to be abandoned a few years later. In the same way that mutual non-domination was a pragmatic response to the Legislative Council, its abandonment was a pragmatic response to global and regional trends. Perhaps most importantly, the rise of rabid antisemitic regimes in Poland and Germany led to an unprecedented wave of immigration to Palestine, which doubled the size of the Jewish population between 1932 and the end of 1935. Zionist leaders began to hope that the creation of a Jewish majority would be achievable within a few years and no longer wanted to commit to mutual non-domination. In March 1936 the latest initiative to establish a Legislative Council was defeated in the British Parliament, leading the more radical factions among the Palestinian Arabs to conclude that only an armed revolt would stop Palestine from becoming a Jewish country; indeed, the Arab Revolt erupted a month later. The British, who were already preparing for conflict with Germany, Italy, and possibly Japan, could ill-afford to pour money and manpower into Palestine to put the revolt down. They chose to secure their position in the Middle East by strengthening their alliances with the Arab States and restricting Jewish immigration and settlement.

The confluence of these trends, in turn, led the Zionist leadership to abandon mutual non-domination in favor of the ethnic nation-state model, since the ethnic nation-state was the only regime that guaranteed Jewish control over immigration and colonization. Indeed, in July 1937, the Zionist Congress allowed the Zionist leadership to negotiate for the creation of a Jewish state in parts of Palestine. This new political model, however, came with new problems. The Jewish state would have had a substantial Arab population no matter its borders. How would a Jewish state, especially a democratic one, function with 40% or 50% Arabs? Two solutions emerged: One was population transfer, which would create an Arab minority—as opposed to creating a Jewish majority through immigration. The second one was the idea that the Jewish state would not be established as a parliamentary democracy, but would become one only when a robust Jewish majority was created.

Throughout the 1940s these two solutions were seriously debated, although transfer was much more prominent since a non-democratic Jewish state would have had trouble becoming a member of the League of Nations/United Nations. Indeed, although the Zionist transfer discourse does not point to a definite plan to expel the entire Arab population during the 1948 War, it does explain the determination of the Zionist leaders to expel Arab communities where they could and prevent the return of most refugees. The minoritization of the Arab population allowed Israel to be established as a functioning parliamentary democracy. Moreover, until 1966, Palestinian citizens of Israel lived under a military government that severely restricted their movement and violated their rights. Despite the fact that after 1948 Jews formed an overwhelming majority in Israel, Palestinian citizens had limited access, at best, to Israeli democratic institutions and procedures until 1966.

It is clear, then, that the pre-1948 Zionist democratic discourse—especially the imperative to create and maintain an Arab minority—shaped not only the conduct of the 1948 War but also the formation of early Israeli democracy and the relationship between the State of Israel and its Palestinian citizens.

Image: Mandate for Palestine and Transjordan memorandum, presented to UK Parliament in December 1922, prior to it coming into force in 1923.

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