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Naomi Klein on “Minority Death Match: Jews, Blacks and the 'Post-Racial' Presidency”

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We speak with journalist Naomi Klein about her latest article for Harper’s Magazine, “Minority Death Match: Jews, Blacks and the 'Post-Racial' Presidency.” The piece examines the World Conference Against Racism that was held in Geneva this past April, a follow-up to the first racism conference in Durban, South Africa in 2001. There was a major boycott with the Obama administration refusing to attend, claiming the conference would unfairly target Israel. Critics say the controversy over Israel could have been an excuse to avoid dealing with the conference’s key issues, including addressing the legacy of slavery. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On a related topic, I want to turn now to your piece in Harper’s Magazine. The World Conference Against Racism was held in Geneva this past April, a follow-up to the first racism conference in Durban, South Africa that took place, well, right before the September 11 attacks, actually.


AMY GOODMAN: It was in the midst of that.

Well, unlike Toronto, this time there was a major boycott. The Obama administration refused to attend, claiming the conference would unfairly target Israel. Several other countries joined in, despite the fact that the declaration ultimately contained no criticism of Israel. Instead, it reaffirmed a conference text from 2001 that recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination and calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Critics say the controversy over Israel could have been an excuse to avoid dealing with the conference’s key issues, including addressing the legacy of slavery.

Well, the piece you wrote in Harper’s, “Minority Death Watch: Jews” [sic] —-

NAOMI KLEIN: “Death Match.”

AMY GOODMAN: “Minority Death Match: Jews, Blacks and the [quote] ‘Post-Racial’ Presidency,” goes through what happened, what, eight years ago and how it was cast. Talk about it.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I always find it fascinating that this is what the world was talking about right before September 11, that, in a sense, September 11th interrupted violently this conversation that was taking place. And in the United States, the discussion was far less about Israel, although that was an issue at the conference, and much more about the issue of reparations for slavery. This was the issue in 2001. It was the hot issue on CNN and on all the talk shows. This was the hot issue on campuses. I mean, this has been sort of erased from history, and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to retell the story of Durban and take it out of this misinformation campaign.

You know, in the lead-up to Durban II, you couldn’t find an article about this conference -— Durban II is what the follow-up conference in Geneva was called, was described as. You couldn’t find a reference to it without the pairing of the word “hate-fest.” It was just universally described as a “hate-fest.” People believed that this conference was equating Zionism with racism. It absolutely was not. The conference in 2001 did not. And it was an enormously important forum. This was the only UN gathering of its kind, which looked frontally at racism.

And to me, what was so striking about this, as well, is that, you know, in the middle of an economic crisis — and we’re certainly in one — this is a time when we know that racist ideas spread. We know this historically. So it seemed to me an extraordinary decision on the part of the Obama administration and all of these Western European governments, my government, Canada, Australia, to say, as they did in April, we are not going to talk about racism, because we don’t like a couple of things that may or may not be on the agenda. To me, it seemed reckless. I mean, this is a time when, you know, across Europe far-right parties are rising. Look at what’s happening in this country with rampant racism directed at Obama himself. And there was just this decision, we’re not going to talk about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Your piece begins, in Harper’s, where you are visiting the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. Explain what happened as you were there, as the hours unfolded.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I had this interview set up with Navi Pillay, who is the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and that means that she’s in charge of this conference. This is her conference, just as in 2001 it was Mary Robinson, who had her job, and she was in charge of the first Durban conference. So we had this interview set up the day before the conference was set to open, and when I arrived, she was having an extremely rough morning, because she had just gotten the news that the Obama administration was definitively boycotting the conference. More than that, as soon as the Obama administration announced that, all of these other countries started dropping like dominoes. So she had been on the phone nonstop trying to prevent a full-scale walkout by the entire European Union, which would have meant no conference whatsoever. And she was drafting a press conference condemning the US actions when I walked into the office.

And they did manage to stop the walkout, the wholesale walkout from the conference, but, of course, the big distraction at the event, I’m sure many of your viewers and listeners remember, was that Ahmadinejad was the only world leader who decided to come to the conference, and this was related to this attack campaign. No senior officials wanted to be there, because it had been so effectively smeared. And so, while he was speaking, all of these EU officials walked out in droves. And that became the only thing we heard about Geneva, was just Ahmadinejad, the EU walkout. Some French students had clown wigs on. A friend of mine texted me. I was in the press gallery while this was happening, while they were walking out. And she said, “It looks like a fire drill,” like all these people walking — running for the doors, sort of this — I think that these guys all thought they were Winston Churchill. They were standing up to the neo-Nazi threat, and they felt very, very smug, very, very good about themselves. But the feeling — my feeling at the time was that they didn’t want to be in the room anyway. I mean, none of these Western governments relish the opportunity of talking about their own race relations records. So Ahmadinejad gave them the perfect excuse to flee. There was a sort of amazing convergence of interests going on in that room.

AMY GOODMAN: And Naomi Klein, in your article in Harper’s, you quote the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor. One day before the conference opened, he was interviewed by the BBC Radio. During the interview, he was questioned for asserting that the Durban conference declaration singled out Israel.

    YIGAL PALMOR: Look, in the previous conference, Israel was singled out as the most racist state on earth, probably almost the only racist state. And all the problems that we were facing here in the Middle East were not historical or political or military or geographic or anything else; they were all attributable to one unique factor: Israel’s innate racism.

    JULIAN MARSHALL: And this was speakers —-

    YIGAL PALMOR: [inaudible] this is absurd enough -—

    JULIAN MARSHALL: This was speakers, was it, at the Durban conference, rather than any final declaration?

    YIGAL PALMOR: No, it was also included in the final declaration.

    JULIAN MARSHALL: Because I’ve been looking at that final declaration, and I can see nothing that comes anywhere near to what you are saying.

    YIGAL PALMOR: I don’t have the text in front of me, but in all the —

    JULIAN MARSHALL: Well, I do have the text in front of me, and I can see nothing that comes close to what you are saying. I can see a final declaration that speaks out against anti-Semitism, that says we will never forget the Holocaust, that says we are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people, but nonetheless recognize the right to security for all states in the region, including Israel, and call upon states to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.

    YIGAL PALMOR: [inaudible] we talk about the same conference.

    JULIAN MARSHALL: That is a mention of Israel in the final declaration.

    YIGAL PALMOR: Right. I’m not sure we’re talking about the same conference, because even though I don’t have the text in front of me, I remember quite precisely some quotes that were completely contrary to those that you’ve just quoted. So we must be speaking about two different documents.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Julian Marshall of the BBC interviewing the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor. Your response? You write about this interaction, Naomi Klein.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, because this — Julian Marshall was seemingly the only journalist who had actually read the declaration. And what’s relevant about this is that when the Obama administration announced that they would be boycotting the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, this is three months into the Obama administration, in a context where the Congressional Black Caucus had made this a major, major priority. Barbara Lee had gone to extraordinary lengths, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, to make sure that there was nothing in the declaration that in any way singled out Israel.

I mean, many argued that they had taken out too much, that they had made too many concessions to create a context where the Obama administration would feel comfortable coming. There was no mention of reparations for slavery, didn’t talk about the slave trade as a crime, no mention of Israel whatsoever, no mention on the defamation of religion which was another demand of Muslim — some Muslim countries. This was also controversial, seen as a threat to free speech, so that wasn’t in there. So there was no reason not to go. I mean, Barbara Lee and the Congressional Black Caucus had managed an incredible negotiating feat. There was no reason not to go now.

And so, the only thing the Obama administration came up with is that in the declaration — this is the declaration for the new conference, the conference that just happened in Geneva — they said it reaffirmed the old declaration, and the old declaration was so unfair to Israel, as you just heard from the Israeli spokesperson, that they couldn’t go. And Obama himself made this argument. And so, what was so striking is that no journalist went back and read that declaration, except this BBC journalist who put him on the spot, saying, “Where does it say all these terrible things about Israel?” And, in fact, it says Israel has a right to security, it recognizes the importance of remembering the Holocaust. It’s actually quite a banal document. It says nothing that, you know, any government would object to, including the Obama administration. I mean, Joe Biden has gone further than this document.

So what you really see here is the success of an extraordinary misinformation campaign that was launched in the aftermath of the first Durban conference to discredit a very. very important forum, because it was seen as potentially a threat to Israel, because it could potentially apply international law to Israel. And it didn’t — they would use any misinformation to discredit the gathering.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, I wanted to go to your Guardian piece in London, the piece that you call — or that they called for you, “Obama’s Big Silence.” Has the President turned his back on Black America, dealing with all of the latest issues, even in these last few weeks in the Obama administration?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, this is — I think we know this summer really has been a turning point, that the myth of post-racial America is, I think, definitively buried. This was the sort of euphoria after the election of Barack Obama. We heard again and again that the country had entered into a post-racial era; it was no longer important to talk about race. This whole summer has been about race, starting with the accusations that Sotomayor is a racist, then turning on Obama for telling the truth that the police actions in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his home — that the police actions were stupid or had acted stupidly, whatever the phrase he used, that that made him a racist. I mean, this summer has been obsessed with race.

And the undercurrent of the protests against Obama around healthcare, really a lot of them use this language of, you know, he wants to take what’s ours and redistribute it. And there’s often discussion — you know, people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, often invoke reparations to accuse Obama of being obsessed with race and that he has this covert agenda, apparently, of taking white wealth and giving it to black people. And I think the phrase that Limbaugh used was “secret reparations.” And what’s so ironic about this, actually, is that, in fact, Obama has completely turned his back on the entire reparations discussion, which is what was happening in 2001.

And John Conyers, as we know, has tried to get HR 40, the resolution that would open up a discussion on what kind of reparations are due to African Americans. You know, often people think that people are talking about a check in the mail. And, in fact, what most reparations activists are talking about, overwhelmingly, are group solutions, investments in communities, in education, in healthcare, precisely the programs that are missing from the Obama administration in its response to the current economic crisis, which, let’s remember, began because of the enormous wealth gap, the net worth gap, between minority communities and the dominant sectors of society, because people did not have access to traditional credit.

And this is a direct legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. They turned to subprime lenders and were discriminated against by traditional lenders, and that this is really the root of the current crisis, was those terrible loans that then were bet against. So what we see is that the failure to deal with the income gap, the continued income gap, which is the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, actually is at the very heart of our financial crisis. So we have a collective interest in addressing that gap.

Not only has it not been addressed, but the economic crisis has affected blacks and Latinos disproportionately. I mean, you’ve covered this on the show very, very well, again and again, that it is these communities that were already facing this discrimination, which is why they had those bad loans, overwhelmingly had those bad loans, that are overwhelmingly facing the foreclosures, facing the job losses.

So that gap, that wealth gap, that race-wealth divide, as it’s often called, is widening in the midst of the crisis. And the Obama administration is absolutely refusing to talk about the need for policies that will look at this specifically, at closing the gap. It’s insisting on treating everyone as if they’re equal. So we’re in this very awkward position where the right is accusing Obama of being, you know, this radical reparations advocate at the same time as he won’t even talk about the basic need to address the race-wealth divide. It’s a very, very difficult moment, I think, for race relations.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, I want to thank you very much for being with us, journalist and author. Her books include The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. Her article “Minority Death Match” appears in Harper’s Magazine. And her piece “Obama’s Big Silence” is in The Guardian of London.

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