The recent meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu highlighted the difficulty of untying the tightly woven knots of hatred, fear and injustice that have brought the Middle East to the precipice of disaster.
One need not be a fan of the right-wing Netanyahu (as I assuredly am not) to at least acknowledge the legitimacy of his fear about what a nuclear-armed Iran might mean for the very survival of Israel. Nor is it necessary to support Netanyahu’s politics in order to understand his fear of Hamas (an organization fervently committed to Israel’s destruction) attaining the ability to target Tel Aviv with an expanded arsenal of missiles.
These fears are shared by Israelis from across the political spectrum, and they are fears that Barack Obama fully respects. Yet they are fears that are either completely ignored or casually dismissed by all too many on the left.
Given her progressive superstar status, Naomi Klein’s writings represent the most influential example of this politically (and morally) myopic view of the many dilemmas facing Israel at this critical moment.
When Klein joined the call to “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” Israel in a January column, she provided the “BDS” campaign with an instant boost. In the wake of Israel’s brutal three-week offensive in Gaza early this year, opposing those on the left who support the campaign has become a far more difficult proposition. Nonetheless, it is crucial for progressives to stand up and challenge this morally problematic and politically counterproductive effort.
Numerous progressives have penned compelling arguments opposing the BDS campaign. Some, like David Hirsh, one of the leaders of the British-based organization Engage, stress the historic echoes and anti-Semitic overtones of a boycott. Others, like Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, have noted how counterproductive calls to divest from Israel are.
But I want to focus on Klein so that others on the left might look more critically at the oversimplified dogma now so prevalent within progressive circles.
In her January column, Klein never once mentions the fact that Israel has “neighbors” – Hezbollah to its north and Hamas to its south – that have explicitly and repeatedly stated that they will never accept Israel’s right to exist and that they are committed to its destruction – their promises of limited and temporary truces notwithstanding.
None of this is to deny the numerous obstacles that Israel – and to a lesser extent, the Palestinian Authority – have placed in the way of arriving at a final peace agreement. Rather than dismantling its settlements in the West Bank, Israel has continued to expand them. And the PA has yet to prove itself capable of preventing attacks against Israel launched from the West Bank.
All sides are to blame for the current situation. Yet Klein completely ignores Hezbollah and Hamas in her one-sided condemnation of Israeli policies.
But as myopic as this particular column was, Klein’s highly regarded book The Shock Doctrine is even more problematic. The main thesis of the book’s chapter on Israel (titled “Losing the Peace Incentive”) is that “the rapid expansion of the high-tech security economy created a powerful appetite inside Israel’s wealthy and most powerful sectors for abandoning peace in favor of fighting a continual and continuously expanding, War on Terror.”
Klein’s evidence? She points to the fact that the value of Israel’s annual exports of counterterrorism-related products and services increased by 15 percent in 2006 and was projected to reach $1.2 billion by 2007. But the total value of Israel’s annual exports is more than $40 billion, with its GDP equaling approximately $200 billion. How can such a small portion of Israel’s GDP be such a determinant factor in its policies on matters of war and peace?
Klein also asserts that the Israeli economy’s continued growth – regardless of the impact of terrorism and/or war on its society – is further evidence that Israel is “losing the peace incentive.” She tops off her argument with a couple of blatantly cherry-picked quotes, including this highly misleading 1993 comment from then-foreign minister Shimon Peres: “We are not seeking a peace of flags, we are interested in a peace of markets.”
But Peres was also reported as saying – in the very same off-the-record remarks – that “a Palestinian state is inevitable.” In other words, Peres was willing to reach a peace settlement (i.e. “a peace of the flags”) with the Palestinians. Furthermore, as anyone familiar with Peres’ political views knows, he believes economic integration is a way to assure peace – that when various peoples are dependent on each other for their livelihood and are prospering, they’re less likely to go to war with one another.
Klein’s analysis doesn’t stand up for two basic reasons. Her views are wedded to the dogmatic notion that economic motives can explain all human endeavors, and her rigid ideology prevents her from seeing what even casual observers of Israel can easily see: There is a deeply felt desire for peace throughout all parts of Israeli society.
Despite the results of February’s election, which returned Netanyahu to the prime minister’s post, a reputable poll conducted just after the election reported that 74 percent of Israelis believe a peace agreement leading to two states living as good neighbors is “essential or desirable.”
Naomi Klein has made important contributions to our understanding of economics and the impact of globalization. But we have the intellectual and moral responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff – regardless of how popular the chaff might be among progressives at any given point in time.