by Ayelet Harel-Shalev. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2010. 514pp. Cloth $95.00/£59.95/€70.00. ISBN: 9780739126844.

Reviewed by Martin Edelman, Department of History, Philosophy, Political Science, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY. Email: me354 [at]


This is an important if ultimately disappointing book. It is important because it addresses a vital question with a vast array of data. It is disappointing because the wealth of material overwhelms the presentation thereby making the work inaccessible to all but the most determined reader.

Harel-Shalev analyzes the complex issue of how a nation comprising religiously and ethnically plural societies – dominated by a single ethnic majority – sustains democracy. A legitimate democratic regime is freely elected by a majority of its citizens. In an ethnically and/or religiously polarized nation, however, one sector of the population is continually and systematically denied access to effective governmental power. This poses the possibility of such severe societal conflict and instability that the very survival of a democratic regime is called into question. The original democratic structures of Cyprus and, more recently, Sri Lanka could not surmount such challenges.

According to the heretofore prevailing response in the political science literature, consociational democracy is the best way to produce regime stability in deeply divided societies (Lijphardt, 1969). Power is shared among significant groups that have considerable internal autonomy and a veto over major decisions. Consociational democracy may violate the norms of liberal democracy, where each citizen, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation, has equal weight, but it does engender regime stability.

India and Israel are deeply divided democratic nations that do not conform to the consociational model. They are each liberal democracies based upon Westminster style majority rule systems. How, then, have they maintained democratic regimes for more than 60 years? Harel-Shalev’s research suggests that the answer is that India and Israel maintain “a complex rights discourse that manifests itself in a balance between the provision of liberal (individual) rights and certain collective rights thereby enabling the minority to be part of the social collective” (p. 431).

Both India and Israel contain a large unassimilated minority. In India, Muslims comprise roughly 13.4% of the population of 1.18 billion. In Israel, Palestinians comprise 20.4% of the population of 7.7 million. Neither country is willing to moderate its majority rule democracy – to grant collective group power to the minority – because of the minority’s affiliation with an enemy. In India, the Hindu majority mistrusts the Muslim minority because of suspected extra-territorial ties to [*61] Pakistan. In Israel, the Jewish majority worries about the Israeli-Palestinians’ ties to the Palestinians in the in the West bank and Gaza. In each case, the suspicions are fueled by continual cross-border tensions.

Harel-Shalev maintains that both India and Israel have been able to sustain democracy by a complex, intricate set of policies that promotes group rights. While neither state officially recognizes a national minority from a political perspective, each acknowledges the minority’s existence as a cultural, religious, and linguistic minority. As a constitutionally secular republic, India permits the Muslim community to maintain its own schools and religious practices that are at variance with those permitted the Hindu majority. The Jewish, democratic state of Israel maintains a separate Arab school system and gives the Christian, Druze and Muslim religious courts control of the family law practices of the Palestinian minority. It is the actual operation of group rights through such mechanisms, she argues, that helps sustain democracy in these deeply divided societies.

Harel-Shalev begins her analysis with a detailed examination of the formative years in India and Israel. In each case, she shows how the founding fathers structured their polity to deal with difficult circumstances while maintaining their commitment to democratic values. India’s constitution stresses the equality of individual citizens while simultaneously committing the nation to the protection of minorities. These conflicting commitments meant that the state was ‘secular’ only with respect to the Hindu majority, but was ‘sectarian’ in terms of minorities – it entitled them to maintain autonomy in the management of their religious life. Hindu religious practices, such as the caste system, were vigorously attacked as violations of individual rights. Muslim religious norms restricting the role of women were tolerated. Israel’s Proclamation of Independence committed the state to a liberal, secular political and legal system. Though Israel was created to establish a home for the Jewish people, the state was committed to universal justice. Hence the Jewish democratic state recognized the autonomy of virtually all Muslim, Druze, and Christian religious practices in the name of religious freedom.

The book then focuses on how the patterns associated with minorities in India and Israel have played out.Harel-Shalev develops her argument by examining the policies pursued by the political, administrative and judicial authorities in each country. She examines the workings of the political parties, the legislatures, the administrative agencies, and the courts in exacting detail. The material she provides is supportive of her thesis and entirely convincing.

Here, it makes sense only to touch upon the judicial policies in each country. In both India and Israel, the courts have become firm defenders of the individual rights of the members of the minority. To be sure, this was not always the case in Israel where the courts sustained the military administration of Arab affairs until 1967. But beginning in the 1970’s, Israeli courts have an exceptional record of protecting the equal individual rights of Palestinian-Israelis. The protection of individual rights, according to Harel-Shalev [*62] has had two beneficial effects. First, it actually helps polarized societies survive as democracies. Equal citizenship rights give the members of the minority community a feeling of belonging to the greater society – a sense that is hard to come by in a minority effectively excluded from power. Second, judicial protection of equal individual rights puts pressure on the other public agencies to further the autonomous agencies' functioning in the minority community. The best example is the funding of schools for the minority. In both India and Israel, funding for those schools has been grossly unequal. Judicial emphasis on the important democratic value of equality has slowly, too slowly, moved the political and administrative authorities to allocate more money to schools serving the minority. And that, in turn, has strengthened the minority’s functional autonomy. Functional sectional autonomy gives the Muslim citizens of India and the Palestinian citizens in Israel the hope that they can attain a reasonable quality of life despite their permanent minority status.

Ayelet Harel-Shalev has produced an important, comprehensive study of an especially pertinent issue. The depth of material provided is remarkable. One could only wish that it had been edited to remove the constant repetitions and had been written in a more engaging style. Still, this book is plainly worthy of scholarly attention by all students of comparative politics, especially those concerned about the future of democracies in pluralistic societies – which is to say most of the world.

Lijphart, Arend,1969. “Consociational Democracy.” 21 WORLD POLITICS 207-225.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Martin Edelman.