Journalist Gershom Gorenberg has written a remarkable article, “Is Israel a Democracy?” on the website of The American Prospect (he is its correspondent in Israel). He has uncovered archival evidence that counters the anti-Zionist argument that the leadership of the Yishuv (the self-governing Jewish community during the British Mandate in Palestine) always intended to ethnically cleanse its Arab population:
… The standard line of the country’s boosters is that it’s the only democracy in the Middle East. The most concise criticism is that it is an “ethnocracy,” as Israeli political geographer Oren Yiftachel argues in his 2006 book of that name. An ethnocracy, he explains, is a regime promoting “the expansion of the dominant group in contested territory … while maintaining a democratic façade.” Looking at this debate in light of two new books by Israeli scholars and of a faded and remarkable document that I’ve just read in the Israel State Archives, it seems both sides could be right.
The document is from late April 1948, a few weeks before Israeli independence. It’s the blueprint for the administration of the Jewish state, detailed down to the location of regional health offices and the budget for day-care centers to be opened in large Arab villages. An Emergency Committee of top Zionist political leaders produced the plan, according to the unpublished doctoral dissertation of Israeli political scientist Jonathan Fine. … The committee had begun work the previous October, after a U.N. panel recommended dividing British-ruled Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. In the territory assigned to them, Jews were only a slight majority. Partition didn’t turn out that way, of course. Most of the Arabs residents fled or were expelled from what became Israel. Among those who say the exodus was premeditated ethnic cleansing, one argument is that Zionist leaders had to know that a Jewish state with such a large Arab minority wasn’t viable.
What’s striking about the Emergency Committee’s blueprint is that it assumes that Israel will include that large Arab minority. The planned Education Ministry, for instance, is expected to take responsibility for schools in the “248 Arab villages” that would be in the Jewish state according to the U.N. partition. Likewise, the ministry would be responsible for Arab schools in Tiberias, Safed, and Beit She’an — towns whose Arab populations left during the war. …
In early May of 1948, as fighting intensified, Shertok described the growing Arab exodus as “quite unprecedented and unforeseen.” …
Gorenberg goes on to discuss this issue in detail, although with remarkable concision (I suggest you read it in full). He observes that the United States evolved from an ethnocracy, given its provisions for slavery and its treatment of the indigenous peoples, and concludes with a paradox and a puzzle:
Israel has become more democratic and more ethnocratic since its birth. Its democracy is sometimes seen as a model by Palestinians seeking their own independence. Whether it ends the occupation and discrimination against Arab citizens within its borders will alter our perception of whether the nation began as an imperfect democracy or a false one. Today’s political battles, strangely enough, will determine not only its future but also its past.