Can a minority rule a majority in perpetuity?

Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? by Josh Ruebner, Olive Branch Press (2018)

“With the two-state solution fading into obsolescence, a secular, democratic state in all of historic Palestine re-presents itself as the only realistic alternative short of interminable bloodshed and unacceptable ethnic cleansing.”

So writes Josh Ruebner – policy director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights – in his latest book, Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State?

The book’s January 2018 publication coincides with Trump administration shocks that are possibly driving the last nails into the coffin of the two-state solution. US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is foremost among those developments as no Palestinian state is viable without a capital in East Jerusalem.

The fact that Ruebner raises either a single, secular democratic state or a binational state akin to Belgium as the only realistic alternative is thus more than appropriate as the Palestinian national movement and its allies consider their next steps.

His argument is in part demographic. Without the prospect of a two-state solution, he maintains, Israel will continue to be a state belonging to a Jewish minority ruling over a Palestinian majority, a situation that Ruebner says has existed since 2010. A US State Department report indirectly pointed at the demographic reality in 2005.

This imbalance further exposes Israel as an apartheid state and is guaranteed to increase its isolation from the international community.

“Can a minority govern over a majority indigenous population in perpetuity?” Ruebner asks before answering: “The history of decolonization in the developing world in the last century suggests not.”

No national rights

The question of one or two states and whether Israel should be considered democratic or an apartheid state are only two of the numerous topics addressed in this somewhat schematic book.

Among other topics are the impact of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the Balfour Declaration, Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing and denial of basic democratic rights to Palestinians, the failure of the peace process and what lies behind the special relationship between the US and Israel.

Each of these topics is covered in 22 chapters that range in length from one to eight pages. Ruebner’s previous book, Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace (2013), demonstrates a much more rigorous and analytical approach to its subject.

The contrast, however, does not detract from the value of this slim, 120-page book, which is full of insights, useful historical information and sidebars for Palestinian rights campaigners.

As one such campaigner, this reviewer was extremely grateful for the extensive quotation from the 1978 legal opinion by the US State Department regarding the illegality of Israel’s settlement projects in the territories it occupied in 1967.

Many of these factoids demolish the historical and contemporary myths the Israeli government and its supporters attempt to perpetuate. Among the more recent is the claim that BDS is having no impact on the Israeli government, a claim the government itself undermined when in June 2015 it labeled the movement a “strategic threat,” as Ruebner notes.

Similarly, the chapter on the 1917 Balfour Declaration contains nuggets such as the quotation from then British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour to Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Balfour acknowledges that the “weak point of our position” in recognizing a Jewish homeland in Mandate Palestine “is of course that in the case of Palestine we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination.”

Under the terms of the League of Nations mandate, however, the British colonial empire was obliged to do precisely that. But instead the Balfour Declaration favored a “Jewish homeland” as if Palestine belonged to the United Kingdom and Palestinians had no national rights that Britain was bound to respect.

Special relationship

Also of particular value is the chapter titled “US-Israel Relations,” which helps rebut the notion that US policy toward Israel and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination is decided solely by the power of the Israel lobby.

While acknowledging the strength and major role of this lobby, Ruebner examines two other key factors. The first is the benefits that the US military-industrial complex derives from its military relationship with Israel. The second is the shared “values” between these two settler-colonial states as both became hegemonic powers on the basis of the ethnic cleansing of indigenous populations.

To make the case that the Israel lobby is not all-powerful, Ruebner notes that the lobby failed to prevent the 2015 US-Iran nuclear agreement despite its all-out effort to get the US Congress to block the deal. As for the role of military spending, the author points to the enormous profits made by the US arms industry due to the country’s special relationship with Israel.

One might also add that the Pentagon and the US national security establishment regard Israel as an ally with a superior military advantage in a geostrategic, oil-rich region.

Despite the additional influence of Christian Zionists who represent an important part of the Republican Party, Ruebner calls attention to the base of the Democratic Party where young people and people of color increasingly see Israel’s racist treatment of Palestinians as inconsistent with their values.

The recognition of this conflict will play an increasingly important role in determining which narrative – the Israeli ethnic exclusivist narrative or the Palestinian equal-rights-for-all narrative – will become dominant.

Ruebner also provides BDS campaigners a useful primer for organizing and educating.

This reviewer wishes that the author, editors and publisher had given more careful thought to the book’s title given the range of issues covered. Because only one, brief chapter focuses on the question of apartheid, the title may mislead some readers expecting an in-depth investigation of the subject.

Fortunately, numerous such books exist, including Saree Makdisi’s Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, Ben White’s Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy and numerous anthologies comparing Israeli and South African apartheid, such as Israel and South Africa: The Many Faces of Apartheid.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.




Israel has been an apartheid state ever since the 1948 enactment of its Basic Laws. This is painstakingly analyzed by Israeli historian Uri Davis in his "Apartheid Israel". It is not becoming, or in danger of becoming, an apartheid state. It always has been.