Naomi Klein and Durban

(August 28, 2009) “Minority Death Match,” Naomi Klein’s feature story in the September Harper’s, is about the two ill-fated United Nations-sponsored Durban conferences on racism—in 2001 at the South African city, and in Geneva earlier this year—and what tied their failings together: the interrelations between Blacks and Jews, the manipulations of Zionism, and US presidential politics. It’s a typically sharp Klein piece, excoriating in its rendition of the betrayals by the great, including our Barack Obama, hard at work putting distance between himself and his black brethren. 


But there’s a problem. About midway in her article, Naomi turns to the disaster that took place in Durban-2001 and assigns blame for what went wrong. She concludes that a lot of the fault lay in the insertion of the “Zionism is racism” claim by Islamists into what was intended to be an event focussed on anti-black racism and the cause of reparations. This allowed the Israel lobbies in America and Europe to run wild with charges of blood-libel and other kinds of anti-semitism, thereby giving the US a pretext for withdrawing and throttling the rising cry for reparations. The fact that the conference ended just before 9/11/01 also had a great deal to do with this, as Naomi admits. But her main idea is that the reparations cause got side-swiped by the anti-Zionism cause although the former had all the legitimacy, the latter, none. For Klein, “The original Durban conference was not at all about Israel [as Zionists have charged]. . . ; it was overwhelmingly about Africa, the ongoing legacy of slavery, and the huge unpaid debts that the rich owe the poor.” 


I find this claim way off the mark, empirically, logically, morally and politically. 


• empirically, I have seen images of people marching at Durban in support of the anti-Zionist cause. Some were Neturai Karta, Orthodox anti-Zionist Jews, who came all the way from the United States for the purpose. 

• logically, it is nonsense to claim of an issue this immense, subtle and interrelated, that it is all one way or the other. 

• morally, it is wrong to prioritize amongst victims of injustice. The reparations movement is noble and worthwhile; but so is the Palestinian quest for justice.

• politically, the UN, however flawed, cannot afford to either ignore or foreground any valid claim of collective racism. Naomi might have meant her judgment to be tactical, in that

Africa, the continent plundered of black human beings as well as resources, can be seen as a natural setting for the reparations issue. But Africa is also home to many millions of Muslims and a smaller number of Jews (including Ethiopian Jews) caught up in the rift set going by Zionism. And the city of Durban, South Africa, is home to the most vibrant Indian community anywhere outside of India itself, and the setting, a century ago, for Gandhi’s development of Satyagraha. The flourishing Indian community of Durban was a haven for a major presence at the 2001 conference by representatives of the giant Dalit community (aka “untouchables”), at a quarter billion, the largest oppressed group in the world. For India’s Dalits, participation in Durban 2001 was just as important as participation was for African-Americans seeking reparations. (I was in India in January 2002, and Dalits were still vibrant with excitement over the event.) Properly understood, nothing could be better for each of these movements than for all of them to come together in a massive outpouring against the common roots of racism. It is hard to think of a worse outcome than to set them against each other. 

Naomi Klein starts off and ends strongly. In the middle, however, her article runs into trouble, as the following passage reveals:

There was one hitch. Six months before the meeting in Durban, at an Asian preparatory conference in Tehran, a few Islamic coutnries requested language in their draft of the Durban Declaration that described Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories as “a new form of apartheid” and a “form of genocide.” Then, a month before the conference, there was a new push for changes that were sure to grab international headlines. Some references to the Holocaust were placed in lower case, pluralized (“holocausts”), and paired with the “ethnic cleansing of the Arab population in historic Palestine.” References to “the increase in anti-Semitism and hostile acts against Jews” were paired with phrases about “the increase of racist practices of Zionism,” and Zionism was described as a movement “based on racism and discriminatory ideas.”

There is a strong argument to be made that Israel’s legal system­ which has different laws and even roads for Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank, and which grants and denies citizen rights based largely on religious affiliation­meets the international definition of apartheid (a few years later, former president Jimmy Carter would use the same term to describe the segregation in the occupied territories). But taken as a whole, this proposed language­by attempting to downplay the significance of the Holocaust and diluting the clauses on anti-Semitism­carried an unmistakable whiff of denialism.

Most importantly, by reviving the incendiary equation of Zionism with racism that had torn the U.N. apart for decades, the Islamic states instantly upstaged Africans’ demands. As Nicole Lee, the current director of the TransAfrica Forum, told me, there was an acute awareness in Durban that “if you put Zionism on trial, that’s all you can do.” What was particularly frustrating to the countries fighting for a new consensus on the legacy of slavery was that the Zionism sentences were attracting all the media attention despite the fact that they had no chance of making it into the final draft. The Islamic states did not have the votes, and Mary Robinson, the conference’s secretary general, had made it very clear “that we cannot go back to the language of Zionism as racism.” In short, the proposed clauses had little hope of helping Palestinians, but they did serve another, entirely predictable, function: they gave the U.S. government the perfect excuse to flee the scene….

This hysterical response to Durban can perhaps best be explained by a phenomenon psychologists call “illusory correlation”: it happens when people experience two intense events in close proximity and their minds make a causal connection where no factual link exists. The first intense event was Durban itself. For many Jewish delegates the experience was unquestionably traumatic. It was not only the incidents of anti-Semitism, which were real and frightening. It was the dominance of a political discourse that described Israel’s citizenship and security laws as being a version of apartheid, deserving of the same kind of economic sanctions that ultimately put an end to the practice in South Africa. For Zionists in Durban, seeing an international consensus build around this idea­one that challenges core Zionist policies­was jarring enough. But the real trauma happened when they went home and immediately faced the far greater shock of the September 11 attacks. The pro-Palestinian activists in Durban seemed to merge with the Muslim hijackers, becoming a single, hostile Arab mass, while the political threat Israel faced at the conference dissolved into the very real attacks on New York and Washington, until somehow these wholly unrelated events fused into a single, seamless narrative.


Let me count some ways this passage goes awry:


 1. The language is invidious, and serves to both marginalize the proponents of the Zionism=racism charge  [“one hitch”; “a few Islamic countries”] and impugn their motives with derogatory images, for example, “unmistakable whiff …”. Later in the article, when the 2009 events are discussed, the maniacal figure of a certain president of Iran is trundled out for the civilized world’s derision: “six hours after the conference began, the inevitable: a rustle of men in slim-fitting suits escorting the president of Iran to the podium. After ranting for a while about the imperialist makeup of the UN security council, Ahmadinejad proceeded to do exactly what everyone expected him to do: he called Israel ‘the most cruel and repressive racist regime.’ ” Well, if this madman says it—and his is the only actual voice brought forth by Klein to do so—then why should the rest of us take the charge seriously?

Naomi fails to give agency to the Palestinians, whom we evidently are to regard as mere pawns in the machinations of a “few Islamist countries,” with no role in their own liberation struggle. Nor is there a recognition that these countries are home to a billion people the great majority of whom have no difficulty in accepting the notion that Zionism=racism because, in fact, it corresponds to a definite history that has blighted their lives. Naomi suggests that the Islamist leaders are manipulating these masses. I would say, rather, that the leadership, for the most part thoroughly bought off by the West, are forced to give some expression to the feelings from below lest they be toppled.


2. The Zionism=racism charge is further adulterated by Naomi’s substitution of the part for the whole: it is “Israel’s legal system” that “meets the international definition of apartheid,” not Israel itself. No recognition here that Israeli law is both the expression and perpetuator of a massive—and growing—pattern of anti-Arab racism that grips the great majority of Israeli society, just as it did in the  United States South during the Jim Crow era, when the legal system also colluded in and upheld societal racism.


A whole society takes on a racist character if its basic project entails radical exclusion of others from the social contract. In the case of Israel: because it could not make use of an actual national liberation struggle, the Zionist movement had to fabricate its national story out of the expropriation of an indigenous people. The criminal implications of this are impossible to bear without secondary adjustments, and so racism is brought in to degrade the victims and make them deserving of their fate. This allows Israeli society to coalesce around an intractable and cancerous core of racism. The notion, Zionism=racism is not in itself an empirical statement, though mountains of evidence can be brought forth for purposes of demonstration. It is essentially a logical identity, which would be as self-evident as the notion that the Pope is Catholic were it not for Zionist propaganda and repressive muscle-power.


3. The “whiff of denialism.” Lacking a structural concept of Zionism, Naomi is forced to buttress her position. This she chiefly does by absolutizing the Holocaust and taking after people who do not see things that way, with the charge of “denialism.” As this passage shows, Naomi believes that “denialism” includes using the lower case in describing the Holocaust when pairing it with “ethnic cleansing of the Arab population in historic Palestine.”; or when references to “the increase in anti-Semitism and hostile acts against Jews” are paired with “the increase of racist practices of Zionism.”


This is quite an extreme point of view and puts Naomi in league with the likes of Elie Wiesel and Abe Foxman in asserting the incomparability of the Shoah, and even of anti-Semitism. I hope she thinks more constructively about this. If one believes that the sufferings of Jews are incomparable then you are already on the way to affirming that Jews are human beings on a different ontological plane than others, i.e., you have stepped into the zone of racism. She should also bear in mind that Zionism showed its racist propensities long before the Third Reich hove into view; and that the absolutization of Jewish suffering deprives us of the power of understanding it and hence blocking its repetition. Understanding requires making comparisons and differentiations. That some people would abuse this principle is only to be expected, and must be contested when it arises. Smears such as the “whiff of denialism,” will not do, however, especially given the fact that those comparisons which she considers to be denialist are perfectly reasonable as stated.


4. “Most importantly, writes Naomi, “by reviving the incendiary equation of Zionism with racism that had torn the U.N. apart for decades, the Islamic states instantly upstaged Africans’ demands.” I fail to see what most important here. And I hope that black activists reject the insinuation that their cause had priority because it was the only one feasible. I think rather that we all need to pay attention to why the Zionism=racism charge is in fact “incendiary.” Naomi’s thesis that it was the manipulations by bad Islamic states that caused such incendiarism is quite inadequate, not least because it mimics the ideological bludgeon of the Zionists themselves, that criticism of Israel is ipso facto anti-Semitic. No, the real reason for the power of the Zionism=racism charge is plain: once the world begins to recognize that Zionism is in fact necessarily racist—and on an expanding scale—then the legitimacy of Israel collapses like the proverbial house of cards. Zionism’s ideological apparatus reacts to any hint of this like a swarm of yellow-jackets when someone steps on their hive.


In this respect Naomi should eschew the psycho-babble centering on the “hysterical response to Durban.” There is a very real factual link behind said hysteria, which is that Israel is indeed a racist state. It is accepting this revelation that frightens. It is, in a word, the truth that threatens, not the rantings of demagogues like Ahmadinejad.


5. So what that “Mary Robinson, the conference’s secretary general, had made it very clear ‘that we cannot go back to the language of Zionism as racism’”? I should think that by now Naomi is well-versed in the fact that the UN is usually a big part of the problem and not the solution. (Interestingly, Robinson has herself recently run afoul of the Zionist Thought Police, which only proves that they are never to be appeased.) The point is that to embrace the notion of Zionism=racism is not to go back but forward. If this brings on the wrath of the United States, then that is no more than another demonstration of the seamless character of imperialism.


6. Naomi writes: “It was not only the incidents of anti-Semitism, which were real and frightening. It was the dominance of a political discourse that described Israel’s citizenship and security laws as being a version of apartheid, deserving of the same kind of economic sanctions that ultimately put an end to the practice in South Africa.” Yes, this is upsetting to those with a lingering affection for the State of Israel. But accepting the basic identity of Israel and South Africa as racist states happens to be the goal toward which we should strive, taking the lead of Bishop Tutu, Ronnie Kasrils, the leadership of the trade union confederation COSATU, and others from South Africa, who not only affirm the structural identity but go on to say that Israel is in fact worse than Apartheid South Africa, because the latter had an interest in preserving the labor power of black Africans, while Israel’s goal is the annihilation of the Palestinians.


Those who adopt the Boycott-Divestment-Sanction campaign against Israel are in effect accepting this linkage. South African state racism and not any particular abuse was the matrix of the contemporary boycott movements, and the same principle holds for Israel. This makes Naomi’s article doubly puzzling, as she has recently in a speech at Ramallah adopted the BDS strategy, to widespread and deserved praise. I hope that she will reflect further on this contradiction between what she puts into print and what she advocates as an activist.


7. Finally, we learn that the “shock”of September 11 raised fantasies of “a single, hostile Arab mass, while the political threat Israel faced at the conference dissolved into the very real attacks on New York and Washington, until somehow these wholly unrelated events fused into a single, seamless narrative.” It is Naomi’s conclusions that shock here. No, we are definitely not dealing with an undifferentiated and hostile Islamist force. But we are also definitely not dealing with “wholly unrelated events”—even if the relationship has yet to be pieced together, and never may be. It is remarkable how people forget the arrests of Mossad agents who were monitoring the attacks on the WTC on that day (they were—surprise!—shipped back home, where they disappeared from view). Equally pertinent is how often the statements of those associated with the WTC bombings (of 1993 as well as 2001) implicate the Zionist conquest of Palestine as a prime incentive to exact revenge, by terror if necessary.


No liberation movement from the beginning of the world has escaped moral ambiguities and contradictions. The movement to liberate Palestine from Zionism is no exception. That’s what makes it so challenging—and why we need to hold firm to basic principles and be steadfast in the struggle. A bedrock principle is that, yes, Zionism=racism. This is true whether or not people use it for the wrong purposes. Our task is to use it for worthy purposes–the non-violent transformation of Palestine/Israel into a just society, and not to shelve it so that other virtuous causes can go forward. Until people of good will across the world come together around this truth, Palestine cannot be free.



Joel Kovel is author of Overcoming Zionism.  

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