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Naomi Klein Shows You Can Boycott Israel Without Cutting Off Dialogue Over Palestine

An interview with Klein and Israeli publisher Yael Lerer on why boycotting Israel will pressure the country to live up to international law.

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Cecilie Surasky: What is the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions? Why are you supporting it?

Naomi Klein: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: It's a tactic with a very clear goal, to force Israel to comply with international law.

The call [for BDS] was made in 2005 by an extraordinarily broad range of Palestinian civil society groups, political parties, and trade unions. But it didn't really start to gain an international profile until the Israeli attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

In the midst of the war, the writer John Berger sent out a letter, signed by many prominent artists, mostly European, declaring their support for the boycott strategy. When that letter surfaced, I was in the middle of writing The Shock Doctrine, and I made a personal decision at the time that when the book came out, I wouldn't do what I had done with the Hebrew translations of my previous two books, which was to publish with a fairly traditional commercial publisher.

Instead, I planned to do what John Berger was calling for, which was to find a way to publish in Hebrew that directly supports groups that are working to end the occupation. So that's how I met Yael, who is anything but a traditional Israeli publisher, and who has been outspoken in her support of BDS, at genuine professional cost.

Surasky: You must have grappled with this idea of a cultural boycott. Many critics would say that it shuts down communication rather than opening it up. What brought you to take this step?

Klein: Well, it has to do with the fact that the Israeli government openly uses culture as a military tool. Though Israeli officials believe they are winning the actual war for land, they also feel that the country suffers because most of what the world hears about the region on the news is about the conflict: militarization, lawlessness, the occupation and Gaza.

So the foreign ministry launched a campaign called "Israel Beyond the Conflict," which involves using culture, film, books, the arts, tourism and academia to create all kinds of alliances between Western countries and the state of Israel, and to promote the image of a normal, happy country, rather than an aggressive occupying power. That's why we are always hearing about film festivals and book fairs with a special "Israel spotlight."

And so, even though in general I would totally agree that culture is positive -- books are positive and film is positive and communication is wonderful -- we have to understand that we are dealing with a state strategy to co-opt all of that to make a brutal occupation more palatable.

There are other things that also fall into that category: the state of Israel has an open strategy of enlisting gay and lesbian rights and feminism into the conflict, pitting Hamas's fundamentalism against Israel's supposed enlightened liberalism as another justification for collective punishment of Palestinians (never mind the ever-growing power and intolerance of Israel's ultra-orthodox Jews). It's a very sophisticated strategy.

That means we have to come up with equally sophisticated strategies that defend culture and human rights on the one hand, but that, on the other, reject all attempts to use our work and our values to whitewash the ugly reality of occupation and segregation.

Surasky: You've done a book tour unlike any other book tour. Yael Lerer, your company, Andalus, published the book in Hebrew. On the face of it, there's an inherent contradiction in coming to Israel-Palestine and doing a book tour while supporting a boycott. Yet you've managed to make that work. Can you explain?