Naomi Klein speaks critically of Jews, and Jewish students in particular.
By NOAM SCHIMMELPublished: JULY 18, 2009 21:47Advertisement
Recent statements Naomi Klein made in public and to the media on her visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories raise a number of concerns as to Klein's perception and depiction of Jews, Israel and the Jewish students at the recent UN Durban Review Conference in Geneva.
How Klein reconciles racial and religious defamation and hate speech with her purported commitment to human rights and social justice confounds me. At her Ramallah lecture she said, "[Some Jews] even think we get one get-away-with-genocide-free-card." This is the most perverse of aspersions on Jews, an age-old stereotype of Jews as intrinsically evil and malicious, eager to murder innocent people because they are bloodthirsty.
It is not just an insensitive, crass, and highly offensive statement. It is a violent and unethical one, laced with antipathy toward Jews. The fact that Klein prefaced it by explaining that she is a Jew does nothing to minimize the pathology it manifests.
The facile distinction between Israel's citizens and the State of Israel that Klein makes when advocating a boycott of Israeli institutions, government and businesses is neither logical nor practical. Boycotting the State of Israel is an attack on its citizens, collectively. The state is constituted by its citizens, and for someone who argues, rightly, against collective punishment, the bizarre notion that the collective punishment of Israelis is ethical is hypocritical.
One can and should advocate for the rights of Palestinians, as Klein does. But when one's advocacy for the rights of one people comes at the expense of one's capacity to empathize and show solidarity with others who also suffer and experience injustice - including many Israelis - then one compromises both one's morality and one's humanity.
HUMAN RIGHTS are universal. If Klein is genuinely committed to that principle and to the principle of equality, she would, along with her fierce criticisms of Israel, issue vigorous criticisms of Hamas's policies of murdering innocent Israelis and deliberately targeting civilians in violation of international human rights law.
Whatever the power dynamics and asymmetries in this conflict - and Klein reduces them to David and Goliath terms that obscure a more complex reality and context - the weak have no right to murder the innocent by virtue of their relative powerlessness.
Klein has stated that boycotts are a tactic and not a dogma. Perhaps in an ideal world they can be characterized this way, but in the real world they are very much both a tactic and a dogma.
Boycotts generate powerful pejorative emotions; they often rely on stereotypes and demonizations of an entire society and human community. In this way, they can lay the groundwork for dehumanization. Often these stereotypes are implicit and not a formal part of boycott campaigns; nevertheless, they form a significant component of them and become a part of popular perception which motivates the boycotting action.
Many of the campaigns to boycott Israel have become projects of hatred and ideological orthodoxy, self-righteousness and refusal to engage in dialogue beyond a tiny circle of individuals who agree with the commitments and tactics of the boycotters. Until those demanding boycotts address this tendency, their calls will be stained by the cascade of violent emotions that it has unleashed and legitimized.
Klein claims that "the decision isn't to boycott Israel but rather to oppose official relationships with Israeli institutions." This distinction is itself problematic and largely untenable. Boycotting is a very blunt tool and you do not bring justice with a bludgeon.
By boycotting Israeli academic and cultural institutions one inevitably boycotts Israelis as individuals and Israel as a whole.
Klein should be more honest about this. She is hedging because she knows that she cannot reconcile her justified aversion to boycott Israelis as a people with her commitment to boycotting for the sake of pressuring Israel to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians and lay the groundwork for a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
COMMENTING ON the UN Durban Review Conference held in Geneva in April, Klein says that she was disturbed by "the Jewish students' lack of respect for the representatives from Africa and Asia who came to speak about issues like compensation for slavery and the rise of racism around the world." Again, Klein speaks in broad pejorative stereotypes about Jews, only this time, Jewish students in particular.
As a Jewish student who attended the conference, I reject this reductive characterization of a diverse group of more than 200 students from countries around the globe. Many of the Jewish students I spoke to attended the conference in large part out of their interest in and concern for human rights and social justice. To caricature them and demean them as being unconcerned with these issues is unfair and inaccurate.
The same Jewish students that Klein speaks of so disparagingly were engaged in advocacy for the rights of Rwandan genocide survivors, for the victims of genocide and mass atrocity in Sudan, for women and religious and ethnic minorities in Iran and around the world, for gays and lesbians, for indigenous peoples and for the poor and the marginalized in the developing world. Africa, Asia and Latin America were definitely concerns for some of these students and priorities for some as well. We met with ambassadors, attended plenary sessions, advocated on these issues, among others, and educated ourselves about them.
In an interview with Haaretz, Klein described the Jewish students who protested against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the conference as "truly awful" - in the same breath as she described Ahmadinejad as "truly awful." Is there really a moral equivalency between Jewish student protesters protesting his speech with clown outfits, and his anti-Semitic tirades and calls to destroy Israel? When the Jewish students wore clown outfits and plastic noses to say that Durban is a joke, they were protesting the masquerade nature at the heart of the Durban conference, including but not exclusively Ahmadinejad's speech and the anti-Semitic statements of the Iranian delegation. They were not mocking the rights and claims of African and Asian representatives seeking redress for historical injustices
Nations that engage in the most egregious human rights violations, including Iran, used the conference as an opportunity to deflect responsibility for their human rights violations and to project it onto Israel and the West, rather than to confront all human rights violations alike, including their own.
I did not wear a clown outfit or a red nose, but I am grateful to the student activists who did because without their protests the moral hypocrisy at the heart of the conference would not have been exposed.
KLEIN SEEMS to believe that the statements released at the Durban conference actually made a tangible difference for individuals and communities suffering from human rights violations.
They did not.
Durban, like much of the UN apparatus, was a self-congratulatory and self-serving exercise in the banality of language; it was a rhetorical echo chamber. There was no substantive budget provided to address human rights violations and no meaningful mechanism of accountability for human rights violators.
Conferences like Durban do more harm than good to the world's poor and vulnerable: They salve the consciences of the powerful and the wealthy by allowing them to use words to create the illusion of doing something about inequality and injustice. However, meaningful action was not an outcome of that conference nor will it be. The conference was designed to preclude that.
Rwandan genocide survivors implored delegates to do something to help Rwandan women who survived the genocide and are dying of HIV, as did indigenous peoples suffering from stigmatization and marginalization, Baha'is in Iran who are persecuted by the dictatorial theocratic regime, and Dalits in India suffering from persecution and discrimination.
They wanted action and justice. Instead, they got words and platitudes.
It is time that Klein brings greater analytical integrity to her writing and advocacy, greater humility, self-criticism and self-reflection to her observations and conclusions about complex social and economic issues, and greater nuance to her arguments.
Naomi Klein is brilliant, perceptive and extremely analytical and insightful in many of her writings. She is also, sometimes, wrong.
Were she to temper her stridency and the prejudices that sustain it she would find herself a more successful advocate for justice and peace. She would find Israelis and human rights activists better able to engage her arguments and concerns, knowing that they stem not from ideological dogmatism and hostility to the human rights and well-being of Israelis, but out of concern for the rights and well-being of Palestinians and Israelis alike and the universality of human rights.
The writer served as an intern with the Office of the Prosecutor at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and advocates for the human rights of genocide survivors, indigenous peoples, street children and the economically disadvantaged in the developing world.
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