Sunday, May 03, 2009

Klein's Conceit

My friend Julie (c/p Alas) says that this Naomi Klein article finally brought her around to the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against Israel. She says Klein "responded very effectively to almost every concern that I had."

Hmmm. Maybe we just have different concerns, but to my ears Klein's responses were almost laughably weak. Yet I'm not laughing, because the construction of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict she is trying to impress upon the rest of us is, I believe, lethal towards efforts which will actually bring an end to the conflict and instead promise more antagonism, more anger, more hostility, and more extremism.

I devoted a rather long comment explaining why the linchpin of Klein's argument for Why Israel is basically that "Israel is small and weak, and doesn't require any substantial sacrifices out of the boycotters," so I won't rehash that. I'll also briefly point out that Klein is pretty clearly resting her justification for treating Israel in this fashion on utilitarian, not retributive grounds -- that is, because she thinks this sort of punitive action will lead to positive results, not because Israel necessarily "deserves" it more than the countries she is ignoring. I wrote about the differences between utilitarian and retributive models here; suffice to say, there are advantages and pitfalls to both, and it is way beyond the scope of this post to argue in favor of one or the other. But if one has particularly strong retributivist (or utilitarian) inclinations, it is something to keep in mind.

From that light, the biggest implication to draw from Klein's position is that if it could be shown that, say, Operation Cast Lead was a critical step towards peace, Klein would be obliged to support that to, regardless of whether Palestinians "deserved" it. Utilitarians aren't about achieving cosmic justice. It is all about the bottom line. To be slightly less confrontational, it means that Klein's argument has to be defended purely on its instrumental value -- concerns about the relative goodness or badness of Israelis or Palestinians is off the table. One can't say, in other words, that you have to support the boycott because it is the only way to effectively punish Israel for its misdeeds, and we have an obligation to pursue justice. And Klein would have to respond to alternative, constructive endeavors not by saying that they aren't sufficiently attuned to Palestinian suffering, but solely on the question of whether they will work better or worse than her program.

But anyway. I want to focus on Klein's other two points, which are, to be as kind as possible, inane. But I want to take them in reverse order, because I think the first one is the most important.

Klein's latter point is in response to the claim that "Boycotts sever communication; we need more dialogue, not less." She responds "with a personal story," which is another way of saying "my response is pathetic but maybe if I flail my arms you won't notice." She talks about how when she published her book in Israel, she selected an anti-occupation press and directed that all the profits go to them. First, I'm not sure how donating your proceeds to an Israeli company rather than keeping them (i.e., putting more money into the Israeli economy) adheres either to the letter or spirit of a boycott. Second, it is at best ambivalently cross-applicable to other economic interactions -- she uses this "personal story" because she knows there is no way to replicate it across a broader spectrum. Third, given that the her BDS campaign apparently also targets Israeli academics and artists, it is difficult to take seriously the claim that it boycotts the economy but not the people. And in general, I think that if someone said "You are so vile that I refuse to buy any of your products. Dialogue about it?", the most likely response is a hearty "Fuck off!" Here, incidentally, I want to raise the question about whether a BDS campaign that is targeted as broadly as Klein seems to want might violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (forbidding "discrimination on the ground of ... national origin"). I know, for example, that the British proponents of an academic boycott of Israel were informed that such an act could violate parallel provisions of British law.

In any event, Klein is essentially dismissive about the dialogic project, saying that "We are drowning in ways to rant at one another across national boundaries. No boycott can stop us." Well, as much as a I love a good rant, perhaps some of us don't consider "rant" and "dialogue" to be the same thing. By using the language of "rant", Klein indicates quite strongly that she doesn't think dialogue will go anywhere -- it will inevitably result in people simply screaming at each other. Buy into that model if you want, but be explicit about it. Elsewhere, she implies that the dialogic problems aren't real because a boycott will spark conversation amongst the boycotters. I didn't realize they weren't on speaking terms with each other to begin with; but regardless, sparking conversation between folks who already agree isn't really the point of using discourse to solve problems.

This goes to Klein's other point, which tries to convince us that niceties like moral suasion and diplomatic engagement are futile. This comes in response to the claim that BDS would alienate Israelis. She concedes it, but says that "The world has tried what used to be called 'constructive engagement.' It has failed utterly." I read this, and my first thought was "who was doing constructive engagement in the last eight years"? The Bush administration's policy towards Israel was self-consciously hands off -- it publicly cast itself against the Clinton program of actively intervening in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to try and push a solution. Trade alone is not "constructive engagement". Constructive engagement is showing through word and deed that we are your friend, and then using that position to try and impress the need to make necessary changes. Step two is pretty important in that maneuver.

After that, I hearkened back to a comments conversation I had with Kevin Andre Elliot (it was how we "met", actually) on civility. Kevin argued that civility had proven itself not to work in terms of overcoming American racism. I retorted that "saying something 'hasn't worked' with regards to civil rights is redundant. If it had worked, we wouldn't be having the conversation." But that was equally true about "incivility" -- it's not like Louis Farrakhan shocked White America out of its apathy. One could indict basically anything we've "tried" over the past 100 years we've lived in a racial hierarchy -- from "civility" to "incivility" to "having a civil rights movement" to America itself, on the grounds that they have "failed utterly". It's a meaningless point -- superficially persuasive when isolated from context, but utterly without critical bite when examined with the slightest scrutiny.

In all truthfulness, any longstanding conflict will have had a cocktail of tactics and strategies tried, many of them contradictory to each other. Picking any one of them out of a hat and saying "this one has failed" is a pretty arbitrary endeavor. Israel has faced a BDS movement from its inception -- from the Arab states that to this day have no diplomatic relations with it, no trade with it, and often make it a criminal offense to even interact with it. Klein takes that history and says "we haven't boycotted hard enough!" But maybe that's the policy that's been an utter failure. A significant chunk of Israel's policies are justified based on the threat it feels from its hostile neighbors, combined with the belief that they will never recognize Israel or treat it as an equal no matter what actions it takes. What would be the result if that was immediately and unconditionally taken off the table? I don't know -- it might work, and it might not. Unlike Klein (and definitely unlike Ampersand, who devotes nearly all of his comments to the proposition that it is utterly inconceivable that anything bad could possibly happen to Israel), given the complex array of factors, interest, tactics, strategies, and events in play here, I don't pretend omniscience about the true causal links or clairvoyance about how any given shift will play out. But BDS is at least as plausible a target for "failed policies" as engagement is.

I think it is worth noting that Klein's history, which purportedly shows that BDS is the only way forward, is more than contrived, it is almost entirely at odds with the actual facts. None of the major Israeli steps towards peaceful coexistence -- Camp David, the peace accords with Jordan, Madrid, Oslo, Camp David II -- came in the wake of anything as antagonistic and hostile as a Western BDS movement. They all flowed from what Klein dismisses as "constructive engagement." Klein starts her timeline in 2006, which is convenient in that it ignores Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and Lebanon in 2000 (and covers only Bush years -- an administration which as noted above specifically declined to engage the conflict). There is simply no reason to believe Israel is non-responsive to anything but a movement like BDS, and Klein is disingenuous when she implies otherwise.

In the Alas comments, Amp justifies supporting BDS on the grounds that it is "the only prominent non-violent international civilian movement to oppose Israeli violence against Palestinians." Radicals love to create these false binaries, where any choice that's less confrontational doesn't count, and anyone who doesn't buy into the favored program is a collaborationist (at the moment, he tells me my position is "[in]compatible with a serious commitment to the idea that the lives and human rights of Palestinians have value."). But here, it is simply a lie, and I honestly don't know where Amp gets off trying to pretend that it isn't.

This really gets at the heart of the matter, which is Klein trying to take constructive engagement off the table. Because at the end of the day, we are faced with a choice: We can choose to support constructive and diplomatic efforts at ending the conflict, focused on building bridges, fostering connectedness and reminding Israelis and Palestinians that at the end of the day, "us and them" have to work together. Or we can choose hostile and antagonistic ones, which focus on re-entrenching divisions and promoting an attitude of "us versus them" and the glorious struggle. The simplest way I can describe the split here is that Klein wants to intensify the conflict (hoping that this extra push can end it once and for all), whereas I want to relieve the pressure -- trying to walk both sides off the precipice. I simply don't believe that the problem with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that the respective partisans have been too timid. Fundamentally, I think the last thing this conflict needs is the opening of yet another front.

There are constructive endeavors which don't reinscribe the language and mentality of conflict. OneVoice is a prominent example. TULIP -- Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine -- is another (it amazes me how much labor-oriented progressives seem hell-bent on torching links between Israeli and Palestinian unions). I doubt that a BDS campaign is compatible with support for OneVoice; I know that it is akin to throwing a Molotov cocktail at TULIP. You can align yourself with PACBI or TULIP, but not both. Don't pretend your hands are tied -- a don't pretend you can straddle the line. It's a choice.


Jenny said...

Actually, this is a good point if Obama could actually be brave enough to include Hamas in the discussion and bring up the palestinian plight.

ansel said...

I find this post utterly unconvincing and kind of enraging. Don't have time to fully elaborate right now... I'll just note that you should stop repeating the falsehood that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. It enforced a harsh embargo on the area, controlled its borders, and effectively continued to occupy it. Then for good measure, it bombed the fuck out of it in January. I don't remember you (correct me if I'm wrong) calling out that attack as being too "hostile and antagonistic" with same kind of derision or passion. I remember you trying to minimize harm of the attack done to Gazan civilians. C'mon.

David Schraub said...

You need to work on your memory: I had plenty to say about the relative wisdom of the Gaza operation, see here ("The military option inherently limited in what it can accomplish, because you can't in the modern world -- consistent with any modicum of human rights treatment -- prevent people from getting a hold of guns and launching attacks.... [military endeavors] aren't going to win the day -- at best they are dilatory.") and here (linking to Robert Farley's explanation for why Israel's Gaza operation is likely strategically foolish); as well as the civilian toll it took (see here and here).

You also need to work on your sense of space and time. Space: Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. A trade embargo along its borders (Gaza, of course, also borders Egypt, which if I'm not mistaken is capable of formulating its own policies) is not the same thing as occupying -- unless I'm allowed to say that Klein wants to "occupy Israel". Isolation and trade boycotts are the same thing, I'm told! More fundamentally, adopting this definition of "occupation" would make it legally incumbent under the Hague and Geneva Conventions for Israel, to, well, re-occupy Gaza completely, which is kind of not what we want. This is why David Luban -- arguing that the Gaza operation was illegal -- nonetheless rightfully rejected defining "occupation" in this manner. The alternative is a classic -- classic -- case of people being so quick to try and construct international legal categories in the way that most beautifully maximizes the moral indignation that can be brought to bear against Israel that they forget about actually helping Palestinians, in favor of a lolcats statement about how you iz good progrezive.

Time: Israel withdraws in 2005. Gaza enters a civil war between Hamas and Fatah, which Hamas wins. Thousands of rockets and mortars get shot at Israel, and Gilad Shalit is kidnapped. Three years after the initial withdrawal, Israel reinvaded in late 2008. You make it sound like a rope-a-dope -- they left just so they could wreak more devastation. That's a baffling sentiment. But I've long since discovered that there is a branch of folks out there who make it a practice to interpret every remotely contestable fact or inference in favor of Israeli monstrosity, so, you know, whatever.

From an Israeli perspective, the lesson they've drawn from the Lebanon and Gaza withdrawals (Lebanon even more so than Gaza) is that withdrawal doesn't seem to change their circumstances one bit, except making the eliminationist forces bolder. Both withdrawals came tied with more attacks, and barely a skipped beat amongst the anti-Israel set as they tried to figure out how to spin the moves into just another step in the Zionist perfidious dance.

ansel said...

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Yes, you had "plenty to say about the relative wisdom" of the attack on Gaza. That's my point. You felt it was an unwise move for Israel. Even in the one post where you show some empathy for Palestinians, about Dr. Abuelaish, you say, "Sometimes, military strikes have to happen. But this is their inevitable result."

So reading your (again, unconvincing) argument against Klein struck a nerve with me. You're dripping with contempt for her and your language is unambiguous. You intimate that folks like her who support BDS are hostile to Israel, are seeking to inflame the situation and throw out the peace process. You don't recognize that she's arguing for BDS because she wants an end, as soon as possible, to the destruction of Palestinian lives, after hundreds of innocents were irreparably harmed in January.

Dr. Abuelaish's case, by the way, was the exception to the rule in terms receiving treatment in Israeli hospitals. See any number of human rights reports or these two stories:, The attack on Gaza was one of choice. Hamas abided almost perfectly by a ceasefire from Spring of 2008 until November 4. On the day Obama won, Israel launched a lethal raid into Gaza. Hamas then resumed rocket fire until it negotiated a new truce with Israel, which the IDF promptly violated once again. These facts were ignored by the corporate media, with the exception of Rick Sanchez on CNN.

Israel enforced its embargo on Gaza through military force. It physically controlled the ports and borders. It could, and did, launch military incurious into the territory with at its will. You must know that this is not at all analogous to the grassroots economic and cultural boycott of Israel Klein is advocating. Whether Israel's actions in Gaza after 2005 meet the legal definition of occupation, I don't know. But it did not withdraw in nearly the full sense of the word.

I guess if you could muster a similar level of outrage and harsh criticism for Israel's attacks on Palestinian bodies that you apply to various kinds of speech and protest that you construe (often rightly) as lethal to Jewish bodies, I might find posts like this one less offensive. And some of your facts are wrong. I know your heart is in the right place, but I think you have a warped view of the conflict sometimes.

David Schraub said...

Wrong wrong yourself. At no point do I say a word about Klein's motives. I suspect that Klein is not cackling in a dark room about her desire to bring pain and death down upon the world, but at the end of the day, that inquiry isn't really my concern. My attack on Klein is based off the fact that I think it will fail -- rather epically -- at actually ending the conflict, and in fact will actually make it worse. Which is the same problem I had with the Gaza campaign -- regardless of the motives, it seemed counterproductive and stupid if the goal was to end the conflict in a just fashion. I speak to the motives of neither the Israelis nor Klein, only their tactics. You want me to impeach the motives of the Israelis and absolve those of Klein. Not my game.

There are two ways one can approach conflict-resolution. The first is to intensify, in the hopes that you can forcibly prevail and impose a (just?) peace (Cf. Edward Luttwak's "Give War a Chance"). The second is that you deescalate, try and bring down the temperatures, and begin negotiating, mediating, and just talking.

Both the BDS campaign and the Gaza campaign fall squarely in column "A". The Gaza campaign wasn't justified as aimless lashing out. The Israeli government argued that if they could crush Hamas once and for all, the Palestinians would finally be so broken that they'd have to sue for peace, and then Israel could withdraw in peace. The idea (whether well grounded or not) was to win so completely that the other side is incapable of prosecuting the war any longer. BDS, likewise, operates off the premise that if we constrict around the Israelis hard enough, they will be weakened to the point where they can't fight any longer and have to sue for peace. The problem is that if the gamble doesn't pay off (you don't achieve that crushing victory), then all you've done is pour gasoline on the fire.

If I drip with contempt for Klein, it is because she dripped at me with her views on "constructive engagement." I happen to think she is trafficking in despair -- the idea that deescalation is impossible, dialogue is worthless, and the only way to accomplish anything is through conflict and discord. At least the Israelis vacillate between the two (cf. Gershom Gorenberg), exhibiting the sort of uncertainty you'd expect when you're genuinely confused about how to get where you want to go. Klein, on the other hand, is quite clear that her project stands is diametrical opposition to "constructive engagement". Consequently, those of us committed to constructive engagement -- who think that it is the best path to peace and think the last thing we need is intensification (even with good motives) -- have an obligation to push back against it.

ansel said...

- I didn't say a thing about the motives of the Israel government.
- You make another specious and offensive analogy, between a Western boycott and Israel's bombing of Gaza, as both being destructive rather than constructive. You can label a boycott 'destructive' if you like, but it is a world away from actual bombing. And I don't know why you assume a movement-supported boycott in other countries would preclude Israel or Palestinians from negotiating with one another, as bombing certainly does. I'm not especially knowledgeable about South Africa, so again correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe the boycott had any such effects in that case. It was a part of escalating global pressure on the government to negotiate with the ANC.
- You didn't respond to a bunch of other points.

David Schraub said...

This isn't a debate round -- we're not seeing who can cover the spread. It's not like you answered all my points either.

You basically said my acknowledgment of Palestinian suffering was insufficient because it didn't come couched in language saying how awful the Israelis were. I'm sorry for tip-toeing another inch and thinking that had to do with motives. Anyway, now that we're aware that neither of us care about motives for sake of this discussion, I think we can move accordingly.

Meanwhile, if the Israelis and Palestinians have demonstrating anything, it is that conversation can continue even as rockets and bombs fall. But that's neither here nor there. The dialogue I was talking about is between pro-peace activists across the world and with Israel. That's going to get short-circuited almost definitely by a boycott. I mean come on -- Klein explicitly says "constructive engagement" has been an "utter failure". She is not even trying to pretend that she is operating within a dialogic paradigm -- you're defending her on grounds she's already ceded. Klein puts the choice starkly between those of us who think engagement is still worthwhile (me, TULIP, OneVoice, Engage), and those who think it is a distracting waste of time (her, BDS, PACBI).

Finally, boycotts and bombings are very different from each other (boycotts and embargoes, not quite as different). But they're still part of the same class of conflict resolution (by intensification), and so long as the debate is on pure efficacy grounds (as Klein says it should), it's vulnerable to the same objections. I'm sorry if pointing that out offends you, but boycotts are a use of coercive force. That may or may not be justified, that may or may not be effective, that is less "forceful" than bombs, but still force. The analogy holds.