An ethnocracy is a type of political regime in which the state apparatus is appropriated by a dominant ethnic group (or groups) to further its interests, power and resources. Ethnocratic regimes typically display a combination of 'thin' democratic facade covering a more profound ethnic structure, in which ethnicity (or race, or religion) - and not citizenship - is the key to securing power and resources. An ethnocratic regime facilitates the ethnicization of the state by the dominant group, through the expansion of control, often through conflict with minorities and neighboring states.

In the 20th century, a few states passed, or attempted to pass, nationality laws, through efforts that share certain similarities. All took place in countries with at least one national minority that sought full equality in the state or in a territory that had become part of the state and in which it had lived for generations. Nationality laws were passed in societies that felt threatened by these minorities' aspirations of integration and demands for equality, resulting in regimes that turned xenophobia into major tropes. Nationality laws were passed in states that were grounded in one ethnic identity, defined in contrast to the identity of the other, leading to persecution of and codified discrimination against minorities.[1]

A comprehensive model of the ethnocratic regime was first formulated by political and legal geographer, Professor Oren Yiftachel. In a series of articles and books articulated the regime's key principles, and its typical mechanisms of dealing with immigration, development, land, law, culture and security. Yiftachel drew on the prime example of Israel/Palestine, placed within a comparative framework of other recent ethnocracies such as Northern Ireland, Estonia, Latvia, Serbia, Croatia, Lebanon, Cyprus, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Yiftachel's work also relates to Israel as a 'settler ethnocracy' which is historically comparable to settler societies such Australia, South Africa and Canada.

Research shows that several spheres of regime control are vital for ethnocratic regimes, including the armed forces, police, land administration, immigration control and economic development. These power government instruments ensure the long-term domination of the leading ethnic groups, and the stratification of society into 'ethnoclasses', which has been exacerbated by the recent stage of capitalism, with its typical neo-liberal policies. Ethnocracies often manage to contain ethnic conflict in the short term by effective control over minorities, and by effectively using the 'thin' procedural democratic façade. However, they tend to become unstable in the long term, suffering from repeated conflict and crisis, which are resolved by either substantive democratization, partition or regime devolution into consociational arrangements. Alternatively, ethnocracies that do not resolve their internal conflict may deteriorate into periods of long-term internal strife and the institutionalization of structural discrimination or apartheid.

In ethnocratic states the government is typically representative of a particular ethnic group holding a number of posts disproportionately large to the percentage of the total population. The dominant ethnic group (or groups) represents and use them to advance the position of their particular ethnic group(s) to the detriment of others.[2][3][4][5]

Other ethnic groups are systematically discriminated against by the state and may face repression or violations of their human rights at the hands of state organs. Ethnocracy can also be a political regime which is instituted on the basis of qualified rights to citizenship, and with ethnic affiliation (defined in terms of race, descent, religion, or language) as the distinguishing principle.[6] Generally, the raison d'être of an ethnocratic government is to secure the most important instruments of state power in the hands of a specific ethnic collectivity. All other considerations concerning the distribution of power are ultimately subordinated to this basic intention.

Ethnocracies are characterized by their control system – the legal, institutional, and physical instruments of power deemed necessary to secure ethnic dominance. The degree of system discrimination will tend to vary greatly from case to case and from situation to situation. If the dominant group (whose interests the system is meant to serve and whose identity it is meant to represent) constitutes a small minority (typically 20% or less) of the population within the state territory, substantial degrees of institutionalized suppression will probably be necessary to sustain its control.

Mono-ethnocracy vs. poly-ethnocracy

In October 2012, Lise Morjé Howard [7] introduced the terms mono-ethnocracy and poly-ethnocracy. Mono-ethnocracy is a type of regime where one ethnic group dominates, which conforms with the traditional understanding of ethnocracy. Poly-ethnocracy is a type of regime where more than one ethnic group governs the state. Both mono- and poly-ethnocracy are types of ethnocracy. Ethnocracy is founded on the assumptions that ethnic groups are primordial, ethnicity is the basis of political identity, and citizens rarely share multiple ethnic identities.


Lise Morjé Howard [7] has labeled Belgium as both a poly-ethnocracy and a democracy. Citizens in Belgium exercise political rights found in democracies, such as voting and free speech. However, Belgian politics is increasingly defined by ethnic divisions between the Flemish and Francophone. For example, all the major political parties are formed around either a Flemish or Francophone identity. Furthermore, bilingual education has disappeared from most Francophone schools.


In 1950, Israel passed the Law of Return legislation that gave Jews the right to live in Israel and to gain Israeli citizenship as an oleh. In 1970, the right of entry and settlement was extended to people with one Jewish grandparent or people married to a Jew, although they were not considered Jewish under Jewish law. By guaranteeing the right of Jewish immigration, the state encouraged Jews to immigrate, thereby increase and ensure the Jewish demographic majority.[8] However, Palestinians exiled in 1948 are denied their right of return.[9]

Despite the fact that Israeli security legislation for Palestinian territories does not state that military law applies only to Arab residents of the territories, and not to Jews or to Israeli citizens.[10] Israeli citizens are governed by Israeli law whereas Palestinians are governed by military law.[11]

Critics claim that the guaranteed right for Jews to immigrate to Israel is discriminatory to non-Jews and therefore runs counter to the democratic value of equality under the law.[8] Israel has been labeled an ethnocracy by scholars such as: Alexander Kedar,[12] Shlomo Sand,[13] Oren Yiftachel,[14] Asaad Ghanem,[15][16] Haim Yakobi,[17] Nur Masalha[18] and Hannah Naveh.[19]

However, scholars such as Gershon Shafir, Yoav Peled and Sammy Smooha prefer the term ethnic democracy to describe Israel,[20] a term which is intended[21] to represent a "middle ground" between an ethnocracy and a liberal democracy.Smooha in particular argues that ethnocracy, allowing a privileged status to a dominant ethnic majority while ensuring that all individuals have equal rights, is defensible. His opponents reply that in so far as Israel contravenes equality in practice, the term 'democratic' in his equation is flawed.[22]

In 2003, Citizenship Law was passed which stipulates that the interior minister does not have the authority to approve residence in Israel for a resident of the West Bank and Gaza Strip unless they are Jewish settlers. The law prevents Israeli citizens from marrying the spouse of their choice and living with this spouse in Israel, if the spouse is a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza Strip.[23]

In March 2011, the Israeli parliament passed two laws. One authorizes rural (usually Jewish-majority) communities to reject applicants for residency based on "suitability" (it included a section that made it illegal to discriminate, but some claimed that this section cannot be enforced, and that the purpose of the law is to discriminate against Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel), and the other imposes fines on state-funded organizations (including towns and local authorities) that commemorate Nakba Day. Critics said the laws will increase discrimination against Arabs.[24]

In November 2014, the Israeli cabinet approved a bill declaring Israel to be a "Jewish state".[25] The law would mean that Jewish law will be the inspiration for Israel's parliament and it enshrines the automatic citizenship granted by the Law of Return. The bill affirms "the personal rights of all [Israel's] citizens according to law" and reserves communal rights for Jews only.[26] Arabic was demoted from its status as an official language, alongside Hebrew.[9] The bill was seen as controversial by some politicians due to its potential effects on Israel's Arab minority, which make up around 20 percent of the population.[27] This bill did not become a law.

Latvia and Estonia

There is a spectrum of opinion among authors as to the classification of Latvia and Estonia, spanning from Liberal or Civic Democracy[28][29] through Ethnic democracy[30] to Ethnocracy. Will Kymlicka regards Estonia as a democracy, stressing the peculiar status of Russian-speakers, stemming from being at once partly transients, partly immigrants and partly natives.[31]

British researcher Neil Melvin concludes that Estonia is moving towards a genuinely pluralist democratic society through its liberalization of citizenship and actively drawing of leaders of the Russian settler communities into the political process.[32] James Hughes, in the United Nations Development Programme's Development and Transition, contends Latvia and Estonia are cases of ‘ethnic democracy’ where the state has been captured by the titular ethnic group and then used to promote ‘nationalising’ policies and alleged discrimination against Russophone minorities.[30] (Development and Transition has also published papers disputing Hughes' contentions.) Israeli researchers Oren Yiftachel and As’ad Ghanem consider Estonia as an ethnocracy.[33][34] Israeli sociologist Sammy Smooha, of the University of Haifa, disagrees with Yiftachel, contending that the ethnocratic model developed by Yiftachel does not fit the case of Latvia and Estonia; it is not a settler society as its core ethnic group is indigenous, nor did it expand territorially or have a diaspora intervening in its internal affairs as in the case of Israel for which Yiftachel originally developed his model.[35]

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has been described as an ethnocracy by numerous scholars. Wendy Pullan describes gerrymandering of electoral districts to ensure Unionist domination and informal polices that led to the police force being overwhelmingly Protestant as features of the Unionist ethnocracy. Other elements included discriminatory housing and polices designed to encourage Catholic emigration.[36] Ian Shuttleworth, Myles Gould and Paul Barr agree that the systematic bais against Catholics and Irish Nationalists fit the criteria for describing Norther Ireland as an ethnocracy from the partition of Ireland to at least 1972, but argue that after the suspension of the Stormont Parliament, and even more so after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, ethnocracy was weakened, and that Northern Ireland cannot be plausibly described as an ethnocracy today.[37]

South Africa

Ethnocracy indicates a specific principle of power-distribution in a society. In his book Power-Sharing in South Africa,[38] Arend Lijphart classifies contemporary constitutional proposals for a solution to the conflict in South Africa into four categories:

Lijphart argues strongly in favour of the consociational model and his categories illustrates that, on the constitutional level, state power can be distributed along two dimensions: Legal-institutional and territorial. Along the legal-institutional dimension we can distinguish between singularism (power centralised according to membership in a specific group), pluralism (power-distribution among defined groups according to relative numerical strength), and universalism (power-distribution without any group-specific qualifications). The three main alternatives on the territorial dimension are the unitary state, "intermediate restructuring" (within one formal sovereignty), and partition (creating separate political entities). Ethnocracy indicates a specific principle of power-distribution in a society.


Turkey has been described as an ethnocracy by Bilge Azgin.[39] Azgin points to government policies whose goals are the "exclusion, marginalization, or assimilation" of minority groups that are non-Turkish as the defining elements of Turkish ethnocracy. As'ad Ghanem also considers Turkey as an ethnocracy.[40] Jack Fong describes Turkey's policy of referring to its Kurdish minority as "mountain Turks" and to its refusal to acknowledge any separate Kurdish identity as elements of the Turkish ethnocracy.[41]


Uganda under dictator Idi Amin Dada has also been described as an ethnocracy favouring certain indigenous groups over others, as well as for the ethnic cleansing of Indians in Uganda by Amin.[42]

See also


  1. Blatman, Daniel (27 November 2014). "The 'Nation-state' Bill: Jews Should Know Exactly Where It Leads". Haaretz. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  2. Yiftachel, O (1997). "'Israeli Society and Jewish-Palestinian Reconciliation: Ethnocracy and Its Territorial Contradictions'". Middle East Journal. 51 (4): 505–519.
  3. Yiftachel, O. (1999) ‘"Ethnocracy": the Politics of Judaizing Israel/Palestine’, Constellations: International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, Vol. 6: 3: 364-90
  4. Yiftachel, O.; Ghanem, A. (2005). "'Understanding Ethnocratic Regimes: the Politics of Seizing Contested Territories'". Political Geography. 23 (6): 647–67.
  5. Yiftachel, O. (2006) Ethnocracy: Land, and the Politics of Identity Israel/Palestine (PennPress)
  6. Kariye, Badal W. "The Political Sociology of Security, Politics, Economics and Diplomacy" AuthorHouse 2010; ISBN 9781452085470, p. 99, item 20 View on Google Books
  7. 1 2 Howard, L. M. (2012). "The Ethnocracy Trap". Journal of Democracy. 23 (4): 155–169. doi:10.1353/jod.2012.0068.
  8. 1 2 Omer-Man, Michael (7 August 2011). "This Week in History: Jewish right to aliya becomes law". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 1 December 2015.
  9. 1 2 "How Jewish a state?". The Economist. 29 November 2014. Retrieved 1 December 2015.
  10. Yakobson, Alexander (12 August 2014). "Try West Bank Settlers in Israeli Military Court - Just Like Palestinians". Haaretz. Retrieved 1 December 2015.
  11. Shabi, Rachel (12 November 2012). "The Israeli documentary putting military rule in Palestine on trial". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 December 2015.
  12. Rosen-Zvi, Issachar (2004). Taking space seriously: law, space, and society in contemporary Israel. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0754623519.
  13. Strenger, Carlo (27 November 2009). "Shlomo Sand's 'The Invention of the Jewish People' Is a Success for Israel". Haaretz. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  14. Yiftachel, Oren (2006). Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0812239270.
  15. Peleg, Ilan; Waxman, Dov (2011). Israel's Palestinians: The Conflict Within. Cambridge University Press. p. 73. ISBN 978-0521157025. It can be defined as an ethnocratic state [...]," writes Asaad Ghanem in the Future Vision Document
  16. Israel Studies Forum: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 22–23. Association for Israel Studies. 2004.
  17. Roy, Ananya; Nezar, AlSayyad (2003). Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0739107416.
  18. Masalha, Nur (2003). The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-colonialism in Palestine-Israel. 1. Zed Books. ISBN 978-1842777619.
  19. Naveh, Hannah (2003). Israeli Family and Community: Women's Time. Vallentine Mitchell. ISBN 978-0853035053.
  20. Uri Ram, Nationalism: Social conflicts and the politics of knowledge, Taylor & Francis, 2010 pp.63-67.
  21. Michael Galchinsky, Jews and Human Rights: Dancing at Three Weddings, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008 p.144
  22. Katie Attwell, Israeli National Identity and Dissidence: The Contradictions of Zionism and Resistance, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 p.26.
  23. Schocken, Amos (27 June 2008). "Citizenship Law Makes Israel an Apartheid State". Haaretz. Retrieved 12 December 2015.
  24. Sanders, Edmund (24 March 2011). "New Israeli laws will increase discrimination against Arabs, critics say". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 1 December 2015.
  25. "Israeli cabinet approves 'Jewish state' bill". Al Jazeera English. 24 November 2014.
  26. Yakobson, Alexander (25 November 2014). "Israel's Jewish Nation-state Bill: A Primer". Haaretz. Retrieved 1 December 2015.
  27. ""Jewish state" bill fuels fire in divided Israel". CBS News. 24 November 2014.
  28. Pickles, John; Smith, Adrian (1998). Theorising transition: the political economy of post-Communist transformations. Taylor & Francis. p. 284.
  29. Jubulis, M. (2001). "Nationalism and Democratic Transition". The Politics of Citizenship and Language in Post-Soviet Latvia. Lanham, New York and Oxford: University Press of America. pp. 201–208.
  30. 1 2 Discrimination against the Russophone Minority in Estonia and Latvia — synopsis of article published in the Journal of Common Market Studies (November 2005)
  31. Kymlicka, Will (2000). "Estonia's Integration Policies in a Comparative Perspective". Estonia's Integration Landscape: From Apathy to Harmony. pp. 29–57.
  32. Melvin, N.J. (2000). "Post imperial Ethnocracy and the Russophone Minorities of Estonia and Latvia". In Stein, J.P. The Policies of National Minority Participation Post-Communist Europe. State-Building, Democracy and Ethnic Mobilisation. EastWest Institute. p. 160.
  33. Yiftachel, Oren; As’ad Ghanem (August 2004). "Understanding 'ethnocratic' regimes: the politics of seizing contested territories". Political Geography. 23 (6): 647–676. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2004.04.003.
  34. Yiftachel, Oren (23 January 2004). "Ethnocratic States and Spaces". United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved 2009-10-18.
  35. Smooha , S. The model of ethnic democracy Archived June 2, 2010, at the Wayback Machine., European Centre for Minority Issues, ECMI Working Paper # 13, 2001, p23.
  36. Pullan, Wendy (2013). Locating Urban Conflicts: Ethnicity, Nationalism and the Everyday. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 208–209.
  37. Shuttleworth, Ian (2015). Social-Spatial Segregation: Concepts, Processes and Outcomes. Policy Press. pp. 201–202.
  38. Lijphart, Arend (1985). Power-sharing in South Africa. Berkeley : Institute of International Studies, University of California. ISBN 0-87725-524-5.
  39. The Uneasy Democratization of Turkey's Laic-Ethnocracy
  40. "Neither Ethnocracy nor Bi-Nationalism: In Search of the Middle Ground" (PDF). p. 17.
  41. Fong, Jack (2008). Revolution as Development: The Karen Self-Determination Struggle Against Ethnocracy (1949- 2004). Universal-Publishers. p. 81.
  42. Soldiers and Kinsmen in Uganda: The Making of a Military Ethnocracy by Ali A. Mazrui. Author(s) of Review: Rodger Yeager The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1977), pp. 289-293. doi:10.2307/217352
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