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Oppose the state, not the people

Yotam Feldman | Ha’aretz

2 July 2009

Ramallah’s intellectual elite, foreigners and curious spectators gathered last Saturday at the Friends School in Ramallah to hear writer and political activist Naomi Klein lecture to a packed auditorium. Following a musical interlude by a string quintet, one of whose members is blind, Klein took the stage. She chose to speak – in Ramallah – about her Jewish roots.

“There is a debate among Jews – I’m a Jew by the way,” she said. The debate boils down to the question: “Never again to everyone, or never again to us? … [Some Jews] even think we get one get-away-with-genocide-free card … There is another strain in the Jewish tradition that says, ‘Never again to anyone.'”

It seems that during her brief visit, which began last Thursday night, Klein has not rested for a moment. Straight from the airport, she set out for a tour of Highway 443 that runs through the West Bank between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, connecting them to Modi’in and the adjacent Jewish settlements. She went on to the demonstration against the separation barrier at Bil’in, where there was a press conference on the civil suit in Quebec against Green Mount and Green Park, two Canadian companies that are providing construction services to the Jewish settlement of Upper Modi’in. In the evening she attended an event at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem.

At the beginning of this week, Klein went to the Gaza Strip, where she interviewed residents. Wednesday she appeared at the Almidan Theatre in Haifa.

Since her 1999 book “No Logo” become an undisputed textbook of the anti-globalization movement, Klein, 38, has lectured at hundreds of meetings around the world. A celebrity journalist, political activist and commentator, she came to Israel to launch the Hebrew translation of her latest book, “The Shock Doctrine” (Andalus Publishing).

Klein, who supports an economic and cultural boycott of Israel as pressure to end the occupation in the territories, thought long and hard about publishing her book in Hebrew, as well as visiting Israel. She finally decided to issue the book with Andalus Publishing, which specializes in Arabic literature, and to contribute her royalties to the press. Klein and Andalus publisher Yael Lerer carefully planned Klein’s itinerary in Israel to avoid the impression that she supports institutions connected to the State of Israel and the Israeli economy.

“It certainly would have been a lot easier not to have come to Israel, and I wouldn’t have come had the Palestinian Boycott National Committee asked me not to,” said Klein in an interview before her arrival, at her Toronto home. “But I went to them with a proposal for the way I wanted to visit Israel and they were very open to it. It is important to me not to boycott Israelis but rather to boycott the normalization of Israel and the conflict.”

So why did you decide to come nevertheless?

“First of all, I deal in communications. It’s my profession and my passion and I naturally rebel against any kind of cutting off of channels of dialogue. I think that one of the most powerful tools of those who oppose the boycott is the argument that it is a boycott of Israelis. It’s true that some academics won’t agree to accept an article by an Israeli for publication in a journal. There aren’t many of them, and they make stupid decisions. This is not what the boycott committee has called for. The decision isn’t to boycott Israel but rather to oppose official relationships with Israeli institutions.

“I try to be consistent in the way I act in conflict areas – I don’t want to act in a normal way in a place that seems very abnormal to me. When I was in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, I didn’t go to cocktail parties and also in Iraq – no cocktail parties. The State of Israel is trying to show that everything is fine in its territory, that it’s possible to spend a nice vacation here or to be part of Western culture, very Western culture. I don’t want to be a part of that. I am waiting impatiently for the time when I will be able to come for a vacation or a normal book launch in Tel Aviv. But this is a privilege that should be reserved for all the inhabitants.”

Last April Klein attended on assignment for a magazine the Durban 2 conference in Geneva, which Israel and a number of Western countries boycotted because of the invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. She is still upset by her experiences there.

“The most disturbing feeling,” she explains, “was 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. In their midst, Jewish students from France ran around in clown costumes and plastic noses to say ‘Durban is a joke.’ This was pure sabotage, which contributes to the tensions between Jews and blacks – Durban wasn’t just about Israel: The Durban Declaration acknowledged for the first time that the trans-Atlantic trade is a crime against humanity and that opened the way to compensation. The boycott of the conference created a vacuum that was filled, on the one hand, by Jewish students who wanted to sabotage the conference, and on the other, by Ahmadinejad – both of them were truly awful.”

Do you think it was necessary to allow Ahmadinejad to speak out so prominently at a conference against racism when he is calling for Israel’s destruction and denying the Holocaust?

“I think that silencing the Palestinians was a big part of the reason he got so much attention. He is the only one who acknowledged what happened this year – more Palestinians were killed in 2008 than in any year since 1948. The boycott seems to me to have been an irresponsible decision – the Jewish community unifies in an attempt to shut down a discussion of racism when there is a shocking rise in racism on the right in places like Austria, Italy, Switzerland, in the midst of an economic crisis, in conditions close to those in which fascism spread in all of Europe.”

Extreme neo-liberalism

In her new book, Klein analyzes how politicians and corporations have fomented neo-liberal change in various countries’ economic systems. She describes how countries have been thoroughly privatized, have almost entirely lifted government market intervention and have given a foothold to multinational companies, while stealing money from citizens and denying them basic services they had previously received from the government.

The economic crisis in the United States, which erupted less than a year after “The Shock Doctrine” was published, could have provided a dramatic final chapter for the book. In Klein’s opinion, it embodies one of the most extreme and absurd manifestations of neo-liberal reform.

“We are living in the most corrupt stage of neo-liberalism,” she says. “At least in the 1990s the idea was to take the state’s assets and privatize them so that the state would get money while private interests would run the services. What is happening in the United States is that they are using the crisis to transfer unprecedented amounts of public money into private hands. The banks aren’t providing any service to the public and they are still getting its money. In the economic crisis the debts were nationalized, the risks were nationalized and the profits were privatized. They are keeping the profitable part of the market ideology, but the moment it isn’t profitable they are throwing the laws out the window to save the banks that have failed. We see this when [United States President Barack] Obama says, ‘We don’t want to run the banks.’ What they should be doing is using their power to influence the banks to keep the jobs and the social services, but he isn’t doing this.”

Nevertheless, there also have been unexpected developments – a new president has been elected who has promised social responsibility.

“Yes, there’s a new president, and he was elected because he promised to regulate the financial sector. There is no doubt that the public wants the change – Obama promised that he would rescue not only Wall Street but also Main Street and that this would be a success from below, not from above. I think that things have improved in some areas, and of course it’s better than [Republican presidential candidate Senator John] McCain or [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”

However, Klein is also critical of Obama, and has reservations about the adoration for him that has swept up many people on the radical left in the United States and Canada.

“It’s strange,” she says. “I’m very glad that he’s the president and he is clearly an intelligent man, but the idea of falling in love with the most powerful man in the world, with the most powerful arsenal in the world, is incomprehensible to me. I can’t understand that people are still wearing the shirts with his image printed on them – stop it, the elections are over. It’s embarrassing.”

Are you concerned that identification with Obama will blunt criticism and popular protest against the rule of the corporations on the American left?

“That’s a pretty theoretical danger, almost an intellectual exercise. First you have to imagine that there is opposition and then you have to imagine that it is swallowed up. There is no such thing, and the nature of the political culture in the United States is that the elections swallow up everything. That wasn’t so before the Bush era. What was special about the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, and hasn’t recurred since, is that political movements demonstrated an independent position. The same people who demonstrated outside the Democratic convention also demonstrated outside the Republican convention.”

Israel’s politics and economy are woven though various chapters of Klein’s book. Stanley Fischer, the current governor of the Bank of Israel, was involved in his capacity at the International Monetary Fund in negotiations with various countries on the introduction of liberal reforms, and a number of the oligarchs who led the privatization of the Russian economy in the 1990s have found refuge in Israel.

In a chapter entitled “Losing the Peace Incentive,” Klein describes the Israeli economy during the past decade as a model of a liberal market that is not affected by a state of conflict, and even gains from it thanks to its military exports.

“The first collaboration of the economics department at the University of Chicago wasn’t with the Catholic University of Chile,” she says, “but rather with Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I look at Israel as an economic model that various countries in the world are heading toward. Because of its history, Israel needed extensive government involvement in issues like planning and land ownership during its first years. It is interesting to see that today, governments all over the world are realizing the disastrous results of neo-liberalism in creating the economic crisis.

“Meanwhile, here in Israel, this same ideology – Milton Friedman’s ideas about how the government isn’t the solution but rather always the problem – are flourishing.”

Klein believes that corruption is an integral part of neo-liberalism.

“The idea that corruption is a surprise when you deregulate is crazy,” she says. “The free market ideology that various countries have adopted believes that greed is the main growth engine for human development and social justice. Milton Friedman advised [Chilean leader Augusto] Pinochet: ‘The basic error is to try to do good with public money.’ In other words, Don’t try to be kind, don’t try to deal with poverty – just pursue your interest and that way you will be more successful than if you attempt to take care of other people. Therefore, maybe it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that even if you are a little corrupt and look out for yourself, by doing so you’re just propelling the growth engine of capitalism – that everyone should look out for his own interests.”

Do the new rich believe in the market ideology, or are they just plain greedy?

“I’m not sure it matters, because the ideology they choose is one that celebrates greed. In the United States there is an exaggerated need to believe in people’s goodwill, but I think it’s better to judge people by their deeds than to busy yourself speculating about their good intentions.”