On its face, Naomi Klein’s article, “Minority Death Match” , does a disservice to both the movements for reparations and redress for crimes against people of African dissent and for self determination for the Palestinian people. But, given her reputation as an anti-imperialist thinker and recent high-profile visit to Palestine, where she endorsed the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, we want to give her the benefit of the doubt.
It is no mean feat to publish an article in a corporate magazine that includes any reportage that exposes Israel’s lies.
1. She reports well on the case for reparations
2. She provides an insightful narrative on aspects of the African reparations movement
3. She recognizes the synergy of interests between US, Israel and Europe
4. She points out that Obama betrayed Black people by waffling on reparations and boycotting the UN’s anti-racist efforts in Geneva.
But the critical failures of the article sabotage her good intentions. At first glance, one might forgive the title “Minority Death Match” as an editor’s attempt to sensationalize Klein’s material. Unfortunately, the theme of “Jews against Blacks” – or more precisely “Blacks must choose between Jews and Palestinians” recurs throughout Klein’s article. This theme takes different forms in Klein’s account of the April 2009 UN Conference on Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Geneva. But regardless of the form, the conclusion is the same: Ahmedinejad, Muslims and by implication: Palestinians,-- not Israel, the US and other Western Countries—have primary responsibility to preventing the UN from holding a conference that would advance a pro-reparations/anti-racist agenda.
Here are the steps Klein takes to let Israel, US and Western imperialism off the hook.
First: She presents Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and main organizer of the Conference, as a naïve champion of African peoples’ struggle against racism. Pillay, according to Klein, attempted to negotiate a shifting array of demands from the United States—most in direct conflict with pressure from Muslim countries—while a phalanx of pro-Israel pressure groups did their best to sink the gathering. Yet, with the assistance of her lieutenants—none of whom were African or from the African Diaspora or accountable to an African constituency—long before the Conference convened, Pillay capitulated to all the demands of the US. For example, Yuri Boychenko, Pillay’s right-hand man and Chair of the Intergovernmental Working Group secured Muslim—including Iranian—capitulation to US demands. He told one of the authors of this article that the Obama Administration had nothing to fear from the endorsement of either the 2001 Program of Action or the 2009 Consensus Document. The 2001 commitment to reparations was “vague”, Boychenko emphasized and, moreover, Obama could have easily signed the Consensus document with “conditions” that would exclude the US from commitment to the 2001 Program on the grounds the US never signed it in the first place.
Klein also neglects to mention Zionist influence within Pillay’s High Commission Office. For example, Pierre Hazan, a staff member of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, author of a pro-Israel book on the Six Day War and fellow of the Congressionally-funded US Institute of Peace, mocked the Durban Review Conference as “an immense ritual of collective atonement and social purification”. (quoted by www.news24.com April 17, 2009).
While only a handful of European countries followed the lead of US and Israel, the threat of a wider boycott accomplished another objective. On March 17, Conference organizers announced their attempt to appease Israel, the United States and their fence-sitting allies by revising the Draft Outcome Document. They removed all references to Israel as a perpetrator of racial discrimination, cut out any mention of the Palestinians’ Right to Self Determination and also excised all language related to reparations, any acknowledgement that the Transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity; and a proposal to strengthen the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. But fearing open rebellion from Non-Aligned Countries, African countries and other Islamic Countries—who repelled Zionist and US machinations break their solidarity-- Conference organizers balked at Obama’s final demand to totally renounce the hard-won Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) of 2001.
Second, Klein makes the superficial observation that there was a “synergy of interests between Ahmadinejad, US, Israel and Western Europe”. Here she embraces the ahistoric and false assumption that settler colonial states and Ahmadinejad all shared an equal stake in derailing a serious anti-racist agenda. While Ahmadinejad represents an oppressive regime, within the context of the history of colonialism and imperialism, he has both materially and politically, supported Palestinian liberation and other struggles for self-determination of African peoples. Also, this observation falsely implies an equal and independent status of each of these four forces. Although she recognizes the stake of settler colonial regimes in rejecting reparations and other measures to rectify the crimes of slave trade etc, by equating Iran and the US, she obscures the main contradiction and provides an argument against solidarity among African, Palestinian and all people oppressed by settler colonial regimes.
Third, Klein fails to identify Israel as a settler colonial regime that is occupying Palestinian land and, in several places, equates anti-zionism and anti-semitism. This weakness in her understanding of Israel’s role in relation to Palestine and, historically, in support of oppressive regimes, is the most basic problem with her article. She refuses to acknowledge that Zionism is racism. Instead, she hedges. First she states, “There is a strong argument to be made that Israel’s legal system…meets the international definition of apartheid” (p. 59) And then she concludes the same paragraph with the Zionist red herring— that the 2001 Durban document, in spite of its explicit renunciation of anti-semitism and the holocaust, “carried an unmistakable whiff of denialism.” In the next paragraph, in an inexcusable display of victim-blaming, Klein blames the Islamic states for “upstaging African demands” and giving the U.S. government a perfect excuse to flee the scene.
But she contradicts herself because she has already recognized there was no level of appeasement the Obama Administration would accept. The very Islamic states she blames for upstaging African demands had allied with African countries on every issue and had given up their main demands for a repudiation of Islamophobia. As Obama has shown in his pattern of pandering to Wall Street, Health Insurance Companies, and the US military establishment currently leading policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, he needs no excuse to sell out Black and other oppressed people.
In her most extreme capitulation to the Zionist narrative, Klein excuses the two-year comprehensive campaign waged by Israel and its Zionist supporters against the UN Conference. She excuses it as an “illusory correlation”. According to Klein, “Zionists” –which she sometimes uses interchangeably with “Jewish people” were so traumatized by the anti-semitism at the 1st UN Conference in Durban, and the possibility that Israel might be treated like apartheid South Africa on the international stage, combined with the “shock of September 11, that they acted irrationally when it came to the 2nd UN conference. Here she never mentions the creation and manipulation by the Israeli state and it’s US backers of this “illusory correlation”. The well-organized, military style organization of Zionist activists that invaded the Conference and gloated over their disruption of any sincere discussion of racism is reduced to the presumably misguided actions of traumatized Jews. The well-documented Israeli campaign to protect its status as a settler colonial nation doesn’t seem to matter in Klein’s psychological framework. In fact, Israel launched a campaign using similar tactics against the 2001 Conference in Durban.
And just to emphasize her denial of the critical geo-political role Zionism plays in maintaining settler colonialism in Israel and US hegemony in the Middle East, she implies that all the Zionist mobilization against the UN Conference was about to fizzle for lack of a psychological enemy. (page 62) Such psychological reductionism that conveniently echoes the Zionist narrative leads Klein to conclude that Ahmadinejad saved the day for the Zionists and others opposed the UN’s anti-racist agenda—at least in the PR arena. (It is telling that she misreports the order: the Zionist activist clowns disrupted Ahmedinejad’s speech, at least ten minutes before some of the European representatives walked out.)
Again, Klein succumbs to victim blaming. As she must know, corporate media echo and reinforce the dominant narrative. Whether they define the enemy as “communists”, “terrorists”, “anti-semites”, “welfare queens” or “criminals”—they are never at a loss to demonize oppressed people and find justifications for perpetuating the status quo.
Without question the corporate media won the propaganda war over the UN conference. But that should hardly be the main take-home message for progressives. Klein concludes that after the brouhaha over Ahmedinejad, the press left and “inside the main Assembly Hall low-level bureaucrats were delivering meaningless speeches to an empty room.” (p.64) This statement, along with the characterization of the Black Liberation Movement as merely a “civil rights movement”, is arrogant, insulting and myopic. Like the corporate press Klein often criticizes, this article succeeds in ignoring the real accomplishments of the Conference.
At least 145 UN member states endorsed The Outcome Document by consensus. The very first paragraph reaffirmed the Durban Declaration and Program of Action as it was adopted at the World Conference against Racism in 2001. Moreover, delegate after delegate reiterated the praise that the South African Foreign Minister and spokesperson for the Africa Group gave to the DDPA:
“The DDPA is viewed as an inspiration that would define the 21st century as the century that restored to all their human dignity. It provides a solid and concrete basis for every country to develop its own measures to combat all forms of racism, and to strengthen the protection regime for victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”
In the end, only 10 countries—all European or European-settler States—boycotted the DRC. At least 17 State delegates expressed disapproval of the boycott in their official statements. Despite the diplomatic language, they clearly denounced the boycotting countries for their lack of commitment to overcoming racism. More than 100 remaining delegates implicitly criticized the boycott orchestrated by Israel and the U.S.
Yet, pressure from the US and Israel did succeed in preventing serious strengthening of the 2001 DDPA. For example, most delegations from Africa and the Africa Diaspora had been working for the DRC to adopt measures to provide effective tools for implementing a commitment to reparations and establishing a “racial equality index” and timetables by which specific progress could be assessed. They also called for a Permanent Forum for People of African Descent, not simply a “panel of experts”. But in the end, perhaps in order to prevent the majority of European countries from following the boycotters, the Outcome Document was silent on these issues. Moreover, Ban Ki-Moon and Navi Pillay explicitly repudiated Ahmedinejad’s speech which had affirmed Palestine’s right to self-determination. Pillay admitted in her press conference on April 24th that she believed her denunciation of Iran was the price the EU demanded not to join the boycott. Except for Argentina, the 15 countries that explicitly denounced Iran were all European.
Some 18 countries—none of them European- explicitly supported the Palestinian people’s right to self determination and criticized to varying degrees, Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights. Most of these, plus Azerbaijan and Pakistan, were among the 15 that called for stronger measures against Islamophobia. Finally, 16 countries – all from the Global South (except Japan)--expressed concern for protecting migrants against racist attacks and the final Outcome document included protections for migrants that most European countries had opposed. In sum, about half the delegates took progressive stands in their speeches on the most controversial issues of the Conference. Their stands demonstrate the endurance of North-South/oppressor-oppressed relations.
Israel is a bastion of “European civilization”, a settler colonial state, on the edge of the African continent. To survive as a Jewish State – by definition, an apartheid state-- Israel is perpetually consolidating and expanding its narrative that turns the reality of its racist colonial project on its head. The global hegemony of US-led imperialism is cracking. US and European complicity with Israel demonstrates how white supremacist States will continue to join forces, and viciously attack when their positions and privileges are threatened.
The UN’s Durban Review Conference once again dramatized a lesson many learned long ago: appeasing settler colonial, neo-colonial and imperialist powers only emboldens them. The Palestinian Authority and other Muslim States (including Iran) agreed to a “consensus” document that omitted any mention of Israel or Palestine. The African and Caribbean States signed onto a “consensus” document that omitted mention of reparations. But the US never compromised in its unconditional support for Israel and opposition to reparations. Hopefully those NGO’s and others who argued, “Let’s just focus on our issues. The Palestine/Israeli conflict is just a distraction from the real struggle against racism” learned from Israel’s campaign to destroy the Conference. Just as the US, Europe and others bribed by them are united in their project to maintain their hegemony, African and African Diaspora people, Asian and indigenous people-- all colonized and formerly colonized people -- need unity.
1. Klein’s refusal to identify Israel as a settler colonial regime in the widely-distributed Harpers article is especially perplexing in light of her June 29, 2009 speech at the Friends School in Ramallah.. There, where her audience was much more critical of Israel, she explicitly explained why she thought Israel was “settler colonial” project.
2. See http://www.sfbayview.com/2009/the-facts-how-israel-orchestrated-the-real-geneva-%E2%80%98hate-fest%E2%80%99-against-black-and-brown-people/ for documentation of Israel’s two-year campaign to torpedo the UN Conference in Geneva.
3. Brazil, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Organization of Islamic Councils, Indonesia, Iran, Lesotho, Namibia, Nigeria, Norway, Spain, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda and Uruguay. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN High Commission for Human Rights, Navi Pillay and a number of others explicitly criticized the boycott.
4. Twelve countries explicitly advocated for Reparations: Angola, Barbados, Cuba, Guyama, Haiti, Iran, Jamaica, Libya, Namibia, Suriname, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Many others suggested that former colonial countries had the responsibility to ease poverty, forgive debt and assist in the economic development of the Global South.
5. Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxenburg, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and United Kingdom.
6. Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, Guyana, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, League of Arab States, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Nicaragua, Palestine (PLO), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates
7. Argentina, Burkina Faso, Cuba, Ecuador, Greece, Haiti, Honduras, Japan, Jordan, Mauritius, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Senegal, Tanzania and Turkey.
By Arlene Eisen and Kali Akuno—both of whom attended the UN Conference against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Geneva, April 2009 as part of the United against Racism Delegation. Arlene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Kali can be reached at email@example.com.