Naomi Klein?s speech in Ramallah

An esteemed reader asks me, “What do you think of Naomi’s Klein participation in the [BDS] movement – just listen to a speech she gave in Ramallah calling for a global boycott movement?” Thanks so much for this question, though I suspect it’s a clever way of getting me to sit down and listen to more of Naomi Klein (to which I do not, of course, object at all). Klein is a leading voice in favor of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) program for dealing with Israel, and is an intelligent and influential commentator and activist.

Of course, I think it’s fine and laudable, since it’s what she thinks is right. The question is whether or not BDS is the best approach for Palestinians in dealing with the occupation and the all-important task of bringing it to an end at the earliest possible date. Klein makes a powerful moral case for why Jews should oppose the occupation, with which I, of course, whole-heartedly agree. I would add that a crucial additional point is that the occupation is not in Israel’s interests or those of the United States, two decisive reasons why Jewish Americans in particular should be strongly in favor of ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state. It strikes me that to ignore this vital point is letting perhaps the most powerful argument of all fall by the wayside in an unfortunate and unnecessary manner.

The comparison of the occupation with apartheid on which Klein focuses a great deal of her remarks is apt in many ways, but there are two serious problems with it. First, it can often serve as a conversation stopper, by asking Western audiences that need convincing to conclude up front that Israel behaves like apartheid-era South Africa when there is a strong resistance to coming to this conclusion. I have always preferred to simply describe the facts of the occupation and let audiences come to their own conclusions. But this is not a major problem, and is more or less of a tactical quibble. The bigger concern is that drawing this analogy promotes the idea that because there are clear parallels between the practices of the occupation and apartheid, therefore a South Africa-style solution is readily available between Israel and the Palestinians. I will have much more to say about why this is a serious error in the near future, but suffice it to say that all the pressures that pointed White South Africans in the direction of doing a deal that in effect exchanged political power for the protection of existing privileges, in Palestine militate towards an end to the occupation. It seems to me that clear parallels in the practices of the occupation with apartheid aside, all of the other basic elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including demography, history, ideology, power relations, the role of the west and more, are entirely different. Klein describes this observation as “silly,” but, in fact, it is crucial, especially from the point of view of Palestinian national strategy. If the situations are fundamentally different, and they are, then the solution perforce cannot be the same.

Klein’s argument that Zionism is a form of racism based on economic exploitation seems to me a very poor explanation of the conflict indeed. I have heard this many times before and it seems to me an effort to smash the square peg of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the round hole of traditional colonialism and imperialism. I can only think that the persistent effort to make this mistake is based partly on ideology, partly on a lack of a sophisticated understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian history and interactions, and partly on sheer intellectual laziness. Klein may not be guilty of the last, but she does seem to fall victim of the first two. In fact, Zionism is driven by many imperatives, economic exploitation being, I think, among the very least of them. Even the taking of land does not correspond to this, since land could have been had far more cheaply and easily elsewhere. The Zionist movement is far, far more complicated than that, and is plainly driven largely by different motivations.

My fundamental concerns about BDS as a Palestinian strategy were outlined earlier in the Ibishblog, and Klein did not really address any of them. This may be because she is thinking in terms of western activism and I am thinking in terms of the practical strategies the Palestinian national movement can use to advance its cause, which are different perspectives. There is no reason to reiterate these concerns, but they remain entirely unshaken, if not reinforced, after listening to her talk. Specific forms of boycott that target the products of the settlements and the occupation can indeed be useful, but the BDS project rarely focuses on those. The same applies to companies that contribute to the apparatus of the occupation, which could usefully be targeted by boycott or public relations campaigns. Were this the main focus of BDS projects, it would be a different and much more appealing idea. But the reality is that BDS generally challenges Israel itself, which creates a very different dynamic that I think has more costs than benefits to the Palestinians, as I have explained.

Klein suggests that the BDS movement is a useful tool “for peace,” but crucially she does not define what peace would mean. Indeed, I detected a great deal of ambivalence and even contradiction on this crucial point in those parts of her talk that referred rather opaquely to the end goal. For this project to be, as she put it, “an effective strategy,” it must be crystal-clear about what its goals are. The tendency to fudge its aims to encompass visions that focus on both ending the occupation and eliminating Israel altogether — which are incompatible goals requiring very different strategies, tactics, rhetoric and everything else — seems to me entirely crippling. Klein’s Ramallah speech falls squarely into this trap. I listened to it carefully and could not come away with any clear sense of what, precisely, she thinks BDS would be promoting: an end to the occupation or an end to Israel? Any strategy, movement or project that is ambiguous about and cannot clearly define and articulate its goals, it seems to me, will not be able to serve as a useful strategy for anything (except maybe public education in a very limited sense) and cannot develop effective tactics either.