Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? An Interview with Josh Ruebner
Muftah: Let’s start with the title of the book itself: Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State?Could you elaborate on that titular question? Why is it important to ask, and does your book come to a definitive conclusion?
Josh Ruebner: For most of its 70 years of existence, Israel has succeeded in garnering support from the West by successfully portraying itself as a liberal democracy. Yet, the reality of its policies toward the Palestinian people is very different. Israel has always been a separate and unequal regime that has provided Palestinians with either lesser rights or no political rights at all based on their nationality and/or religion. Therefore, I think that a fundamentally important part of ending U.S. complicity in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people is to undermine the notion that Israel is a functioning liberal, Western-style democracy that grants equal rights to the people over whom it rules, because it is clearly not.
Stating that case in the form of a question, as I did in this book, is really designed to get those who have questions about it to hopefully pick up the book and learn a little bit about Israel’s separate and unequal rule over the Palestinian people and to make their own decisions over whether that constitutes Apartheid or not.
In my opinion, it clearly does. Apartheid is not whether a country is or isn’t like South Africa was before its transition to democracy. Apartheid is an international legal term, and Apartheid, as defined by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, makes it very clear that all of the policies that Israel pursues—both in terms of its treatment of Palestinians under military occupation; of its own citizens; and of Palestinian refugees who are denied their right of return—are examples of what is defined internationally as Apartheid. So, for me, the evidence is incontrovertible, and I hope it would be to anyone who reads the book as well.
Muftah: You mentioned Palestinian citizens of Israel. How would you respond to defenders of Israel who argue that there are Palestinian or Arab citizens of Israel that have “equal rights” and thus Israel is not an Apartheid state?
Ruebner: Well this is one of the things that differentiates Israel from Apartheid South Africa, where no black South Africans were enfranchised and none had any civil or political rights within the existing system. Israel is different in that respect, in that Palestinian citizens of Israel do have the formal vote. But having the vote is not the same thing as enjoying equality. Israel’s supporters often point to the recently completed term of Israel’s first Supreme Court justice who was a Palestinian citizen of Israel as proof that there is no racism; that there is no inequality; that Palestinian citizens of Israel are fully integrated into the state. Well, Thurgood Marshall was a black Supreme Court justice, but that didn’t change the fact that there were separate and unequal Jim Crow laws in the United States and that there still is systematic racism, inequality, and white supremacy in the United States.
You can’t only look at what a people’s rights are on paper to determine whether those people enjoy equality in a particular political system. Not to mention the fact that Israel has dozens of laws on its books that are blatantly discriminatory, and if you compared them to the United States, they would be classified as something out of the Jim Crow South. Separate and unequal is still the rule within Israeli society for Palestinian citizens of Israel. For example, Israel has a completely segregated educational system at the primary and high school levels. There is Arabic language instruction for Palestinian citizens and Hebrew language instruction for Israeli Jewish citizens, with almost no crossover at all. There exists a gross disparity in funding between the two groups based on the language used for instruction.
There are other blatant forms of discrimination and inequality that Palestinian citizens of Israel face, especially when it comes to land use. A good example of this is the Jewish National Fund Law passed by Israel in the 1950s, which I talk about in the book. When Israel was established in 1948, it expropriated land from Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from their homes and properties and designated it state land. Israel then turned over the right to lease this land to the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Today, the JNF controls, I believe, 93 percent of all state and public lands within Israel. In the charter of the JNF, it says that the land of Israel is not for the benefit and enjoyment of its citizens but for the benefit and enjoyment of the Jewish people worldwide, whether or not they are citizens of the State of Israel. Here you have a blatantly religiously discriminatory charter written into the very land-use laws of the country. This is just one of dozens of examples of the blatant discrimination that makes Palestinians, at best, second class citizens within Israel.
Muftah: I want to turn to one passage in your book that particularly caught my interest. When discussing the future of Israel/Palestine, you cite the United Nations report that predicts Gaza could become uninhabitable by 2020. You state that this could become Israel’s “day of reckoning,” with Gazans perhaps marching en masse into Israel. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that? What would make this a “day of reckoning,” when, over the past 70 years, Israel has managed to block the return of past generations of Palestinian refugees to their homes?
Ruebner: It’s hard to envision exactly how something like that could unfold, but, 2020 is only two years away, and indications show that Israel’s ongoing blockade and siege of the Gaza Strip is intensifying the process of Gaza becoming truly uninhabitable for human beings. If this does turn out to be the case and there simply is not enough food or adequate sanitation and clean water, then, as we’ve seen throughout the world, desperate people on the move will not be constrained by walls and fences—or even by guns.
So, is it going to get so bad and so desperate for the 2 million people who are locked in Gaza right now that they simply try to escape by any means that they walk out of the Gaza Strip en masse? And, if that happens, how many people will Israel kill? How many people will the world allow Israel to kill? Clearly, Israel could not kill 2 million people searching for food and water and desperate to survive. So, there is going to be a massive humanitarian catastrophe for Palestinian residents of Gaza that I do not think Israel will be able to contain.
Muftah: Let’s shift now to the American side of things. Since the Trump administration has taken office, it has strongly endorsed Israel and the Netanyahu government. In your role as Policy Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), how do you see this administration and its impact on support for Palestinian rights among Democratic voters and officials, if at all, now and in the next few years?
Ruebner: The election of Donald Trump and the staffing of his administration with individuals who are keenly personally, ideologically, and financially committed to Israel’s settlement project has intensified a process that has already been underway for several years, namely, a growing partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians.
The divide is starting to manifest itself at the Congressional level, and even more so on the level of popular opinion. If you look at the annual public opinion polls put out by Pew asking about American sympathy with Israel or the Palestinians, traditionally there has been high identification and sympathy with Israel over the Palestinians among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. We started seeing the trend lines diverge a few years ago, to the point where Republicans, almost wall-to-wall, sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians. On the Democratic side, sympathy is now about evenly split between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, when you look at what the Pew report defines as the self-identifying “liberal” segment of the Democratic Party, there is actually double the support and sympathy for Palestinians than there is for Israel.
Now, I think 2016 was a year of reckoning for the Democratic Party, and events are still unfolding that will determine its future. It remains to be seen, but the trend within the Democratic party certainly seems to be that progressives are showing up and gaining political power in a more assertive way, which really augurs for a much more fundamental split between the two parties on this issue.
We just saw the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conclude its annual policy conference, at which it made a huge showing of attempts to be bipartisan, and, frankly, I think it came off sounding quite desperate. There have been a number of good articles on this already. Peter Beinart wrote a few pieces that show how the demographic trends of AIPAC attendees reveal that this veneer of bipartisanship simply cannot be sustained. AIPAC and its base are reflecting a more right-wing, nationalist, Trump-friendly agenda and are continuing to move in that direction. As this occurs, AIPAC is having difficulty attracting the diversity of young Jewish Americans who can continue to present this facade of unity. So, I don’t think AIPAC will be able to stem the growing partisan divide. You see this reflected in the fact that the anti-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) bills that AIPAC is currently trying to pass on Capitol Hill are being supported primarily by Republicans. Of course, this is with significant—but not overwhelming—Democratic support. In fact, many Democrats are staying off these bills, including many of the names that are being thrown around as contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. So, I think it’s clear where things are headed.
Muftah: As progressives are getting more of a voice in the party and pushing these ideas forward, do you think that it is better for activists, from a messaging standpoint, to represent Donald Trump’s destructive policies towards Israel and the Palestinians as a continuation of U.S. policy under previous administrations or is it better to tap into widespread opposition to Trump and treat his administration as a destructive break from past policy as a way to bring more Democrats into the fold?
Ruebner: I don’t think these trends are dependent on Donald Trump. I think his presidency and the extremism of his policies on Israel and the Palestinian people quicken the process of Democratic support for Palestinians. This process, as I mentioned, was already well underway before Trump. It began during the Obama years, when it was actually the Republicans who tried to turn this into a partisan issue. We [at USCPR] noticed something very interesting when we started looking back at our scorecards for grading members of Congress [on their support for Palestinian rights]. We noticed that in the Bush era, the members of Congress who made our “Hall of Shame” and were least supportive of Palestinian rights tended to be roughly equally mixed between Democrats and Republicans. During the Obama era, however, we started to see that diverge, and most of the “Hall of Shame” award winners tended to be Republicans. This occurred largely because Republicans tried to portray Obama as being hostile to Israel, which tapped into the myth that he was Muslim and all the Islamophobia that was directed against him.
Yes, Trump, and, especially, his advisors on the issue—David Friedman, Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt—are so extreme and so pro-settler that they make it so obvious to all Americans just how biased the United States is. But I want to say this and this is very important: Trump’s policies, extreme as they are on this issue, are not a fundamental break from U.S. policy. It’s all just a bit less coded; it’s less diplomatic in its support for Israel; and it does away with the pretense of caring about the rights of the Palestinian people.
We haven’t seen the details, if there are any, of Trump’s so-called “deal of the century,” but if and when it is released, I would be very surprised to see it differ substantially from what John Kerry put on the table in 2013-2014. It will probably be a little worse for the Palestinians, but, within its general parameters, it will be more or less the same thing that Obama proposed, that Bush proposed before him, and that Clinton proposed before him. That is: a non-sovereign entity that is completely dominated and controlled by Israel, in which all major settlement blocs are annexed to Israel; in which Palestinian refugees are denied their right of return; in which Israel exercises undivided control and sovereignty over Jerusalem, with Palestinians having no actual sovereignty in the city; with a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis, on the other side of the wall, cut off from Jerusalem; and with inequality remaining for Palestinian citizens of Israel. This was the essence of every plan put forward by Clinton’s advisors, Bush’s advisors, and Obama’s advisors on the issue. In many cases, these advisors were the exact same people from one administration to the next, like Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk. So, when all is said and done, I would not be surprised that if a Trump peace plan comes out, it won’t differ substantially from what’s been put out there before.
Muftah: Staying on this question of Democrats and the partisan shift in U.S. politics: Since the numbers are becoming significant for Democrats who, when asked the question, would sympathize with the Palestinians over Israel, how does one make that a priority for Democratic voters? When these voters are going to the polls, they might like a candidate who is more sympathetic to the Palestinians, but other more domestic policy questions usually take precedence in their decision making. Meanwhile, for Republican voters that are more sympathetic to Israel, such as the Evangelical base, Israel is a key issue. Is there a way to make Palestine a priority issue for Democrats in, say, this year’s political primaries and in the upcoming presidential election?
Ruebner: Yes, absolutely, I think there is. Our [USCPR’s] strategic thinking on that is informed by our experiences at the 2016 national political conventions. We went to the Republican National Convention (RNC) and Democratic National Convention (DNC). We had been before, but we had never made as concerted an attempt to try and organize within the political conventions as we did in 2016. At the RNC, there was no interest whatsoever among the delegates in the materials we had. At the DNC, on the other hand, delegates were literally running up to us asking to buy our signs, stickers, and shirts, which we distributed free of charge to all those interested.
There were lots of articles written about how visible the Palestine presence was at the DNC in 2016, which was partially a result of our organizing efforts. I was there on the floor of the DNC, and lots of delegates were wearing our stickers, holding our signs, wearing our t-shirts. It was such a visible presence that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, one of the most rabidly anti-Palestinian figures in the country, tweeted from the convention floor about how dispirited he was that there was this huge presence in support of Palestinian rights at the convention. So, to me, the lesson learned there is that it doesn’t actually require a lot of arm twisting to get the base of the Democratic Party to visibly show their support for Palestinian human rights.
I think we’re seeing that phenomenon manifest itself right now at the grassroots of the party. The California Democratic Party passed an exceptionally good platform on Israel and the Palestinians in 2016, and they just passed resolutions at their convention last month opposing anti-BDS legislation and supporting Representative Betty McCollum’s bill to prevent U.S. funds from being used to detain and abuse Palestinian children. This is the largest, and I would argue the most influential, state Democratic party there is, and I think this shift is a harbinger of the type of work being done at the grassroots level of the Democratic Party.
I think we will see more and more of this grassroots shift occur as the Republican party becomes further identified not only with Israel, but with the most extreme nationalist, settler, and messianic parts of Israeli society. We saw this quite clearly in the RNC’s 2016 platform process. Before 2016, the RNC and DNC platforms on Israel and the Palestinians didn’t look that different. The gist of both platforms was that the parties supported “two states for two people.” In 2016, Republicans stripped out any mention of support for a Palestinian state at the behest of David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s campaign advisors on Israel. Instead, they inserted language that basically said that Israel gets the right to dictate a solution to the Palestinians. So, this divergence on the issue is happening at the base of the party in a truly incontrovertible way.
Muftah: Could you speak more about Representative Betty McCollum’s bill and where it stands on the Hill, as well as what it represents?
Ruebner: Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill, H.R. 4391, is really a landmark piece of legislation. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time a member of Congress has introduced a bill centered on Palestinian human rights in some respect. There have been plenty of resolutions introduced over the years that support the notion of Israeli-Palestinian peace, but never within the context of supporting the human rights of the Palestinian people. So, it is quite a remarkable and courageous bill for Rep. McCollum to introduce.
This has been an issue near and dear to her heart for many years. She had previously led a number of “Dear Colleague” letters on the issue to President Obama that, unfortunately, did not go anywhere politically. She felt that legislation was needed to establish a mechanism in U.S. law to ensure that the now 3.8 billion dollars in weapons that we give every year to Israel are not going to be used to detain, interrogate, abuse, and, in some cases, torture Palestinian children through a military court system that lacks fundamental due process guarantees. Israel is the only country in the world that systematically and routinely prosecutes children in military court.
McCollum’s legislation is designed to ensure there is some modicum of transparency and accountability for the money we provide Israel. The bill states that no amount of U.S. funds can go toward detaining, interrogating, and abusing Palestinian children, and it also puts forward reporting requirements that compel the Secretary of State to report on the amount and types of weapons used to commit these human rights abuses against Palestinian children. It is a very important piece of legislation because it shines a light on this very egregious aspect of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Currently, 22 members of Congress are supporting the bill. However, in the current Congress, let’s be honest, the Republican-led House is not going to pass this bill. All 22 members of Congress who currently support the bill are Democrats. So, it won’t pass unless something dramatic happens between now and the end of this Congressional session. This is not really the point, however. The point is to raise awareness about this issue and to try and set a marker for where we can go from here, in terms of potential to pass this legislation, hopefully, in the near future.
Muftah: Your book emphasizes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a key tool to push for peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. A lot of the BDS victories one reads about involve university campuses passing resolutions or religious congregations voting to divest from Israel and companies involved in the occupation. For the type of individuals we were talking about earlier, those who are sympathetic to the Palestinians and sympathetic to the BDS movement, how can they turn that sympathy into action, especially if they are not involved in any of the larger organizations that have investments in Israel?
Ruebner: I can’t overstate the game-changing nature of the call that emanated from Palestinian Civil Society in 2005 for these campaigns of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, because it really galvanized an international movement of solidarity with the Palestinians and gave people something tangible to do to express solidarity and opposition to Israel’s oppression.
Most individuals in America belong to some kind of institution or association that could take effective steps towards boycott and divestment (sanctions, however, are at a governmental level). If you belong to a church, for example, you can work to get your church to be a Hewlett-Packard-free church and not buy any products from that company because it is providing biometric equipment to the Israeli military used to crack down on the freedom of movement of Palestinians. It is providing equipment to the Israeli navy to enforce the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip from the Mediterranean Sea. Dozens of individual churches have now passed resolutions prohibiting purchase of HP Printers. This is a signal to the company that their corporate policies are being watched.
That’s one small tangible example; you can work through your trade union; you can work through your political party; you can work through your PTA, etc. There are any number of avenues available for Americans to express their opposition to Israel’s oppression through BDS campaigns.
And you can see how effective and important BDS is by the intensity that Israel and its supporters in the United States are challenging it. You have an Israeli ministry, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, that has its own budget to globally confront BDS, which is now viewed as an “existential threat” by the president of the State of Israel. Indeed, there have been many articles about how Israel is using this money to carry out cyber warfare against people who support BDS. We are also seeing the manifestation of really draconian and Orwellian and McCarthyite bills being introduced and passed, in many cases, at the state and federal level, trying to penalize and, even in some cases, criminalize support for a boycott of Israel or even Israeli settlement products.
This is so totally inane and completely repugnant to First Amendment values and is now being challenged in a very fundamental way by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU has pressed Congress not to pass these laws and is litigating in Kansas and in Arizona right now to push back against these laws. Based on preliminary indications, the ACLU looks to be successfully challenging these laws in court and is setting a very important precedent that boycotts of Israel are protected First Amendment speech and cannot be punished by the government.
What else can Israel and its supporters do at this point? They can’t keep the truth of their oppression of the Palestinian people from reaching Americans or anyone else around the world. With social media and the proliferation of alternative media, there is simply no way to control the narrative anymore, like there was 20-40 years ago when you had two-to-five foreign correspondents in Jerusalem, and all the news that reached Americans was filtered through a few bureaus that could be pressured not to present a critical view of Israel. Now, that pressure still exists, big time for sure, on everyone who covers this issue in the media, but there is simply no way the narrative can be controlled anymore.
So, Israel’s supporters can’t control the narrative. If they have a debate, they lose because of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. The only option left is to try to suppress debate. Yet, the more Israel’s supporters try to suppress Palestine activism, the more everyone else looks around and says, “What’s going on here? these people who are engaging in BDS campaigns for Palestinian rights must be onto something if Israel and its supporters feel such an urgent need to suppress their First Amendment rights to do so.”
It is getting really desperate for Israel to maintain this Apartheid grasp on the Palestinian people. Things may be grim now, but from everything I know from the South African context, it was also quite grim there in the late 1980s and the early 1990s before the transition to democracy. So, as grim as things are now, I don’t think Israel’s separate and unequal rule over the Palestinians is sustainable, even for the medium-term.
Muftah: Let’s talk about that transition to democracy. There’s always a substantial debate over two states or one state, which you address in your book. Could you talk briefly about that debate and whether it is one worth having at all?
Ruebner: Ever since 1947, when the UN General Assembly recommended the partition of Palestine into two states, against the wishes of the majority of its indigenous population, the entire international paradigm for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been premised on this notion of dividing the land and having two states. This was rejected by both parties until 1988, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) issued its declaration of independence and accepted the notion of two states. It was only vaguely endorsed by Israel as part of the Oslo peace process – not as a real sovereign state, but as a fake Bantustan state without any authority.
I don’t think that there are any credible analysts out there who believe we are headed toward a two-state solution. I understand there are plenty of people who want to continue to advocate for that, and that’s their right. As an American, I’m not advocating for any particular resolution to this issue, but as an analyst who is looking at the situation, looking at history, and looking at other examples and contexts, I think it’s pretty clear where things are headed. Israel and its prime minister have declared there is never going to be a Palestinian state, so why are we still even talking about that as an option?
We’re at a kind of political stasis right now. We’re at a time when everyone, whether they want to say it aloud or not, realizes there is not going to be a Palestinian state and that whatever comes after current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is more right-wing not less right-wing. It is also very clear where the trajectory of Israeli politics and society overall is headed, and it’s in the right-wing direction. All that being said, we’re clearly headed to a situation that is going to resemble what happened in South Africa to a large degree. People say, “Well Israeli Jews don’t want to live as a minority in a one-state configuration.” Well, guess what: the vast, vast, vast majority of white South Africans, I believe it was over 90 percent according to public opinion polls, did not want to live in a one-state democracy where blacks had the majority vote either. But, history sometimes has a way of overtaking the wishes of the oppressing population.
If I were an advisor to the Israeli government, I would say, “Don’t be stupid. You can walk into the negotiating table tomorrow and say to Mahmoud Abbas, ‘I am going to give you a legitimate, sovereign Palestinian state on most, but not all, of the West Bank, and you can have Gaza too,’” and he would accept it in a heartbeat, no doubt, if it were a real sovereign state with even just a symbolic grasp on Jerusalem. I think that offer is still there for the taking.
So, again, if I were an advisor to the Israeli government, I’d say “you’d better take that deal before it is too late and a genuine two-state option is not on the table anymore, because the other two alternatives are Algeria or South Africa. Pick which of these latter outcome you want, because that’s where things are headed.” Israel can take the South African model, and it can transition into some form of unitary democratic state with equal voting rights for all, or Israel can simply wait for a situation in which the majority indigenous population simply says: “your presence is no longer wanted in this country, in this land; you have to leave,” which is the Algerian model. France colonized Algeria for 132 years. Many French Colons in Algeria were 2nd, 3rd, 4th, generation settlers, but they oppressed the indigenous population for so long that about half-way through the Algerian war of independence, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) was still considering different plans whereby French colons could stay under Algerian independence and sovereignty. Yet, the oppression became so intense; the killing became so intense that a switch was flipped and the FLN and the majority of Algerians said, “you are no longer wanted here, there is no political solution where you stay.”
So take your pick Israel: if you want to maintain Israeli Jewish presence in historic Palestine and you’re not going the two-state route, you better take the South African route sooner rather than later, because time is not on your side.