never never never too late

July 7, 2009 Toufic Haddad

A Palestinian coalition that seeks to organize an international boycott of Israel hosted a lecture with the progressive Canadian author Naomi Klein in the West Bank town of Ramallah on June 27.

Klein is the author of the highly acclaimed, best-selling books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, both staples of many Western liberal/leftist book collections. She was invited to speak by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions Campaign National Committee (BNC) because Klein is one of a growing number of high profile Western authors, artists and cultural figures who have signed on to a 2005 Palestinian civil society call to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) Israel until it complies with international law.

Over three hundred people crammed the small venue which was followed by a lively question and answer session. Although technically in the region on a book tour for the Hebrew release of Shock Doctrine, Klein focused her remarks on critiques of boycotting Israel as a tactic, and the motivation of Western states to torpedo the recently held Durban Review Conference held in Geneva this past April. She ended by making an emotional appeal to those “who are on the fence [about the call for boycott] to please join,” acknowledging that her delayed endorsement of the boycott campaign in 2008, three years after the call was initially made, “was nothing but cowardice.”

Below is an slightly edited transcript of her talk. The only edits made have been to assist the reader with flow, stemming from the inevitable long sentences and repetition that exists in such a forum. I indicate where these places are and take the liberty to add some basic reference links.

[Naomi Klein, June 27, Ramallah:] “This is I think the most emotional event I have ever done. I give speeches once in a while, but I have never had this feeling before, this feeling of overwhelming emotion.

I want to thank the orchestra of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music – the musicians who performed so beautifully [before Klein took stage] and brought the spirit of the great Edward Said into the room with us. That truly is an opening act.

I also want to thank my friend and publisher, Yael Lerer, publisher of Andalus Books, a supporter of BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions]. We have figured out along with the wonderful Omar Barghouti [a primary organizer within the boycott movement] and the BNC how to do this very unconventional book tour in support, cooperation [and] collaboration with the BDS call. It’s been a learning experience and one of the things that we have learned is that one of the criticisms of […] applying a boycott strategy, is that it cuts off communication. “Don’t we all want to communicate more?” and “Shouldn’t we all communicate more if there is to be peace and justice in this world?”

Well let me tell you, when you actually try to put BDS into practice in your life – when you try to figure out how to write and publish books and produce culture and do business while supporting this call, you have to communicate all the time. We have built new networks. We have made many new friends. We have had many new meetings. We have chatted incessantly across all kinds of religious, ethnic and national boundaries. So this is most certainly not cutting off communication. It is forging new forms of communication because that’s what happens when you build movements.

[…] The first movement I was a part of as a university student was the movement against South African apartheid. We occupied the office of the president of the University of Toronto, demanding divestment from South African businesses of our university’s investment plan. And the people who were really at the forefront to that movement, continued to be at the forefront of all kinds of movements. It was a training ground, it built relationships. After the struggle against apartheid was won, the people who were part of that movement – those networks that were forged – became actually the infrastructure of the movement calling for debt relief around the world, taking on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization. […] What we see in this movement is that many of the people who were involved in that struggle continue to be involved in politics and are involved in this struggle today.

I wanted to start by letting you in on a little secret. There is a debate among Jews. I used to say “the Jewish community” but then I got excommunicated. So there is a debate among Jews – I’m a Jew by the way – about whether the lesson of the Holocaust should be “never again to anyone”, or “never again to us.” That’s what it pretty much boils down to. And there are a lot of people who believe that the lessons of the Holocaust was “never again to us, never again to the Jews.” Because we suffered this tremendous crime against humanity, we have the right to do whatever it takes to keep ourselves safe. In fact we even think we get a kind of get one genocide free card out of this. […]

There is another strain in the Jewish tradition that says that the lessons of the Holocaust is “never again to anyone”, and that it is precisely because of what we experienced as Jews that we must denounce racism, denounce systems of segregation wherever they crop up, even and especially when they crop up amongst our own. I am proud to put myself – and I thank my parents for this – in that second tradition. That’s why I’m proud to join in here tonight.

I know this is a kind of weird place to start, but I wanted to start in Geneva. I was in Geneva recently for a conference called the Durban Review Conference that took place at the end of April. In the press, particularly the Israeli and American press, it was not referred to by its proper name “the Durban Review Conference.” It was called “Durban II” – a.k.a “hate fest.” For those of you who follow this, the Durban Review Conference – which was a follow up on the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban South Africa – was the subject of an extraordinary propaganda campaign to equate the word “Durban” with the word “hate fest”, “anti-Semitic hate fest.”  This word came up all the time to delegitimize the conference. There are a whole series of groups who devoted themselves to this project. In Israel the group that was on the forefront of this was NGO Monitor associated with the Jerusalem Center headed by Gerald Steinberg. There is also U.N. Watch in Geneva, [as well as] Eye on the U.N. There are a couple of infrastructure groups that were born after the first Durban conference in order to prevent a follow up to that conference.

As the [second Durban] event drew near in April, what you saw was almost every major Zionist organization around the world winding up to call for governments to boycott the DRC. Israel boycotted the conference. So did Canada. There was a thought that the new administration of President Barak Obama would break with Bush policy and attend this anti-racism conference, that it would be extraordinarily important symbolically as the first African American president for him to do that. And they [the Obama administration] did reengage a little bit with the negotiations. But ultimately the U.S. did boycott. Once they decided to boycott, many other countries pulled out very quickly: Italy, Germany, the Netherlands.

We heard a lot of […] claims that were made about this conference that in actuality were not true. The official declaration that came out of the Conference in 2001 actually didn’t say Israel is a racist state. The only thing it did [say] – and it’s extremely mild and extremely banal – it said that we recognize the plight of the Palestinian people who we encourage [to engage in] speedy peace negotiations [and that] everybody has a right to security. So there was this chasm between what people thought this conference was and what actually happened.

What I’ve been researching and looking into […] was try[ing] to understand why this was such a priority for the state of Israel. Netanyahu wrote thank-you notes to all ten countries that boycotted the DRC. Why was it such a priority of the Israeli state?

Now I want to say first of all that there were anti-Semitic incidents that took place in Durban in 2001 – absolutely. There were cartoons that were circulated by some [Non Governmental Organizations] NGOs that had [a] Der Stürmer-style, of hook nose Jews and all of this. It was bad. But it was a very marginal part of the conference. You don’t derail an entire U.N. process because some idiots passed out anti-Semitic cartoons. That would be like derailing the Kyoto Protocol because something extreme happened on the margins of one of the conference. So what was really at the root of this successful campaign to totally delegitimize a global discussion?

Keep in mind that the first Durban conference was a big deal.  There were 16 heads of state that traveled to Durban. There were 48 foreign ministers who traveled to Durban. Fidel Castro went. Arafat went. Now one of the reasons why people don’t really remember what happened and what was significant about that first Durban conference and why it is so easy to spread misinformation about it and claim that things happened that didn’t happen, is because that conference ended on September 9, 2001. There were two days when the truth could have seeped into the culture after which point the discussion was decisively changed to the endless war on terror. So anything could be claimed about this conference.

As I looked into this, what I found was that the reason why there is such a zealous opposition to the Durban process is because the birth of the BDS movement – the campaign of equating the practices of the Israeli state with the practices of Apartheid South Africa – was really first fully articulated in Durban in 2001 at the NGO forum. If you look at the NGO declaration [from that conference] it says that Israel is practicing a form of apartheid and it calls for the use of precisely these tactics in order to isolate Israel and to force it to comply with international law.

As all of you know who are part of the boycott committee, the attempt to stop this campaign is very strong. […]A lot of writing about, or against this movement that we are a part of here tonight, traces the origin [of the BDS movement] back to Durban 2001. What we see is a tremendous fear of the Palestinian cause becoming the next South Africa, becoming the next big global civil society movement.

There is a history to this too because there were two anti-racism conferences before the U.N. anti-racism conferences [at Durban and Geneva][…]. The most recent one was in 1983. Both of those conferences focused on South African apartheid, and they were very important gathering places. So in some of the writing that I’ve been seeing by people like Irwin Cotler who is our former justice minister from Canada, they talk about the South Africa strategy [..] as it relates to Israel, having been born in South Africa, in Durban [in 2001]. Because there is such a particular resonance as many of you know, among South Africans, precisely because they know apartheid when they see it. And they have seen it here, and they have named it here and were naming it back in 2001, seven years after their own first free elections.

Now one of the things that we have heard a lot – and this relates to this whole discussion about apartheid in Israel – is this claim that, “Yes, O.K., there are separate roads [for Israeli Jewish settlers and Palestinians]. There are special passes [for Palestinians to travel]. There is this whole system. But that doesn’t have to do with racism. That has to do with a dispute over geography and land and it has no place within a discussion about racism. And while we can accept that the way Afrikaners were in South Africa, as racist, Jews can’t be racist and this is not about racism.”

This is where what I think should probably be called “the Durban Consensus” really comes into play and why this idea of an international, civil society, broad-based movement, on the South African model, is such a threat. Because during that [first Durban] conference a lot of very significant things happened. Arguably the most significant one was that all over the global South, but particularly in Africa, people refused this idea that they [the U.N.] would have this nice easy conference about racism where everybody can agree that its bad and its wrong, and they would sign a well-meaning declaration [against racism], but most of all, they would just pat each other on the back for all the good things they’ve done, like defeat Apartheid in South Africa. That was what was supposed to happen in Durban. But what actually happened – and we would know this I think if it weren’t for September 11th – was that racism was put in a historical context. And the consensus – what I am calling the Durban consensus – was that there is no way to understand the particular form of racism that we have -[…] white supremacy, which says that people with white skin are somehow better than people with darker skin, and the darker the skin, the worse it gets – this system can only properly be understood in the context of the history of colonialism and in particular the economic history of the need of two very profitable things: one, free labor; two, free land.

Contemporary racism as opposed to just general suspicion of otherness and difference, needs to be understood as a theory that allowed European settlers to rationalize slavery on the one hand and land theft on the other.  In order to justify treating Africans as cattle, you had to have a theory that said that Africans were not fully human. You had to have a theory that justified that. Racism wasn’t the end – it was the means. It was the means for this extraordinarily profitable proposition.

Now the early explorers in the Americas recognized that indigenous people all over the Americas had agriculture, sophisticated architecture [etc.] This is in all the journals including in North America, and not just the Aztecs. But as the imperative was built to be able to take land and not pay for it, to claim that it was owned by nobody, […] the same indigenous people who were recognized as having cultivated and built sophisticated cities on the land, were suddenly only people who ranged over the land. And if they ranged over the land, then they didn’t have property rights according to people like John Locke. So once again, that was the story that was being told in Durban.

Is it any wonder that that story is extraordinarily threatening to the most recent arrival to the settler state game, that being Israel. What you saw was a kind of solidarity in Durban between the older settler states like Canada, Australia, New Zealand – who all boycotted the second Durban conference – and Israel. It wasn’t just that they were acting on Israel’s behalf. It was a common purpose, a common cause being found in challenging this very threatening narrative around racism. The reason why it was threatening is because the demand in Durban was for reparations […] for both slavery and colonialism. So racism was suddenly getting expensive. It wasn’t just “oh we’re all against it.” There was a price tag attached. And there was a question being asked of “who really owes who?” All these countries have been cast as the debtors of the world. Well maybe they are the creditors of the world?

I think that should put perhaps this discussion into a little bit of context.

I’ve looked at the Zionist response to this conversation. More and more I see all these fears around an Islamist and left alliance.  But we also hear discourse where everybody is being smeared as the anti-colonial Left. This we should see as a great compliment by the way. I think increasingly what we are hearing more overtly from the more radical sectors of Israeli society is the idea that there is somehow some  kind of discrimination going on against Israel when it is not allowed to be as racist as European settler states. Somehow that is anti-Semitic if white European Jews can’t do what non-Jewish Europeans were able to do 200 years earlier. This is not a definition that any of us should embrace or accept.

Boycott Divestment, Sanction (BDS)
[…] As soon as you start advocating for South Africa-style tactics to be used in the Palestinian context. […] [it is argued that] this tactic will do more harm than good because it will alienate otherwise supportive Israelis and that what we should be doing is to be more constructive. Now I don’t think I need to spend too much time on that in Ramallah […] [But] this idea of constructive engagement as opposed to a BDS strategy – what we see in the past three years is that as Israeli violence escalated dramatically – [I’m] thinking about the attacks in Lebanon in 2006 [and] the most recent assault on Gaza -what we see is that in this period, not only has Israel not faced any kind of reprisal from its trading partners, but actually trade relations have been deepened quite dramatically in this period. I think this is really important for us to keep in mind. You have new trade deals being signed. In 2007 Israel became the first non-Latin American country to sign a free trade deal with MERCOSUR, which is a Latin American trading bloc. In the first nine months of 2008 Israeli exports to Canada where I live went up 45 percent. So it’s kind of a reward that we see for this escalating violence. There’s a new trade deal with the European Union which is set to double Israel’s exports of processed food, and so on.

So when the attack on Gaza began, what you really saw was the cost of what happens when you truly have a feeling of impunity – total impunity on the part of the Israeli state. It [Israel] started that criminal act knowing that they would not face economic sanctions. In fact they were quite right. In the first seven days of war time trading – while Gaza is being pounded – […] the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, the TASE index actually went up by 10.7 percent. This is quite extraordinary. Actually as states go into a war, they [usually] see their stocks plummet. But the opposite actually happened.

Another objection we hear to BDS, is that Israel is not South Africa. Now this is sort of a silly objection as far as I am concerned, because no one has really ever claimed that there is an absolute equivalency. But […] the question is not “is Israel the same as South Africa?”, it is “do Israel’s actions meet the international definition of what apartheid is?” And if you look at those conditions which includes the transfer of people, which includes multiple tiers of law, official state segregation, then you see that, yes, it does meet that definition – which is different than saying it is South Africa. No two states are the same. It’s not the question, it’s a distraction.

The real reason, and what we really can learn from the South African example, is that when you have a relatively small trade dependent state, this is a tactic that can actually work.

[…] I won’t be spending time here today talking about the material in my book [where] I have a chapter on Israel and Palestine as a kind of laboratory for the Homeland Security sector. But I do want to talk about that just in the context of economic pressure. Because what I argue in the Shock Doctrine is that part of the reason why there is so little interest in peace within Israel – [there are] two reasons: one is the fact that it is possible to live a relatively normal, fun life in Israel; and the other is that Israeli companies are not feeling the pinch from war. And if you look at any other conflict zones, whether its Ireland, Sri Lanka….when a society ultimately gets tired of war, its because people begin saying “I just want to lead a normal life.” And also, because the business sector starts to put pressure on the government so that they can engage in normal trading. Because it is so very difficult to have a thriving economy in the context of war. You can have a thriving military economy, but a broader economy is very difficult to have in a conflict situation.

Both of those issues are challenged by the explosion of the Homeland Security sector in Israel which is of course intimately connected with the infrastructure of apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Because these technologies – the surveillance cameras, the walls that allow biometric identification – all of it is run by private companies. This on the one hand allows Israelis to live that so-called normal life even as the conflict rages, even as the occupation continues, even as peace and justice are denied. You can still have that bubble world. In addition to that you have a very large sector of the Israeli economy that is profiting directly from the Homeland Security sector – not just in Israel but because Israel is being treated like a live laboratory. […] The Occupied Territories are the laboratory and […] the Palestinian people are the test market for these technologies. That means that they can […] and are being exported. We see this very dramatically in the fact that we see Israeli companies that have built the apartheid wall here, are going and selling their expertise to the U.S. government. They call it the virtual fence. It’s also a two billion dollar project between the U.S. and Mexico, and also the U.S. and Canada. It’s a whole network of sensors and guard towers and electrified fences and so on. The two billon dollar contract went to Boeing, but the main subcontract went to Elbit [Systems] which is one of the two main Israeli companies building the wall here. So it isn’t just about the economy here, in Israel. It’s about saying “We know how to do this. Look at what a safe world bubble we have managed to create surrounded by a sea of enemies.”

In this context, peace is a threat. Because if these companies can’t claim that they are protecting Israelis from an endless irrational enemy that they can never talk to, but yet they are still able to keep Israelis relatively safe, then actually they loose their market.

So one of the things that we are doing here with BDS is we’re creating another pressure in the Israeli economy that actually does want peace. We are challenging the idea of normalization because when a film that you really want to see isn’t playing in the Jerusalem film festival; when a conference you wanted to go to isn’t going to happen in Tel Aviv because people have decided that they are not going to have it there – that challenges such a central part of Israeli identity. On the other hand, you are going to have more and more companies that are going to go to [the] Israel[i] [government] – and this is what happened in the South African context – and they are going to say what the South African businesses said […] finally in the late 1980s: “Look! You’ve got to make this stop.” That’s what they said to the De Klerk government. “We can’t take it anymore. We can’t take this BDS campaign. It’s starting to hurt our bottom line.”

There already is a huge part of the Israeli economy that’s saying the opposite. It’s actually saying, “We don’t want peace. We want the status quo. We want security, not peace.” There has to be another section of the Israeli economy that says “No, we need peace. We need peace to have a normal life. Everybody deserves that.” But you cannot have unilateral normalcy. It has to all happen at the same time, or we’re loosing one of the most important levers of peace.

This is what this non-violent movement is trying to do. So many people have condemned Palestinians for using violence to support their cause. And it drives me crazy that those very same people are also against boycott, divestment and sanctions, which is a non-violent means of achieving peace and justice. If you question them a little further, what do they really want? Not much. Sign a petition or have a useless protest. But anything that is actually effective is going to get slammed.

The opposition that this movement is up against is really a measure of the fact that it is an effective strategy. We get slammed for using words with power, like “apartheid” or “ethnic cleansing”, [instead of using] “human rights abuses”, words that wash over us, not words that wake us up. Right. Everything would be fine if we used words that barely register and tactics that barely worked. […] But we are here to reject that. We are here to use language that resonates and reaches people. And we want to use tactics that actually work.

Now a couple of words about Barak Obama.

There is an apocryphal story out there about [former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] FDR. […] This is Harry Belafonte’s version of what Eleanor Roosevelt said to him [about FDR]: she said that when FDR would meet with civil rights leaders who would make demands that he didn’t think was politically possible at the time, he would say “that sounds like a great idea – I want to do it. Now get out there and make me do it. Create the conditions in which I can do it.”

Now I don’t really think that Obama is FDR, but I can tell you this: he needs us to make him do it. He needs that mass movement, that global mass movement, putting pressure on him because boy is he getting pressure from the other side. And when he takes this tiny little tentative stand – “no more [Israeli] settlements [in the Occupied Palestinian Territories]” – suddenly this is a crazy progressive position. How about no settlements?

We need to move the bar. We need to put really radical positions out there. How about a one state solution? How about a no state solution? Let’s get out there and make a lot of noise and build a mass movement for peace and justice in a way that is totally unapologetic, that doesn’t cater to the racists. That doesn’t apologize for itself. That knows that it is within the greatest traditions of anti-racism whether they are in South Africa in the liberation struggle, or whether they are in the Jewish community. […] Jews have been a part of struggles for social justice for so long and I am sad that so many of my fellow Jews have forgotten that tradition.

In closing, I don’t think it’s brave that I supported the BDS call in 2008 when Gaza was being attacked and children were dying. The call was made in 2005. I am ashamed that it took me this long. I am not being humble when I say that I am sorry. [..] It was nothing but cowardice.  But I ask all of you who are on the fence to please join. “


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