Recently hailed as "the most visible and influential figure on the American left", the writer and intellectual Naomi Klein has led the global anti-corporate charge. While on a recent controversial tour in the region she spoke about her firm support for Israeli isolation.
In Israel, Naomi Klein finds little engagement with 'Shock Doctrine'
"She's coming!" announces the grinning student, as I lie by the pool at Tel Aviv University's sports centre, pointing to the book at my side. "Naomi Klein, she's coming to Israel!" he reaffirms, bobbing up and down with enthusiasm, sharing details of the author's itinerary and raving about her latest title, before bouncing off to slice some laps through the cool, blue water.
That an Israeli student might be excited by the Canadian writer's visit is no surprise: the award-winning journalist and international bestseller tends to inspire such reaction. Released nearly a decade ago, Klein's first book, No Logo, became the handbook of the global anti-corporate movement and catapulted the writer into the spotlight as a public intellectual. It was translated into over 28 languages - including Hebrew. Recently described by New Yorker magazine as "the most visible and influential figure on the American left", Klein's latest work, The Shock Doctrine, is garnering applause, awards and accolades across several continents. It is discussed in Israel - where she has a sizeable fan base - just as it is anywhere else.
But still, her arrival to the region last month couldn't really be described as a conventional book tour. She was promoting Hebrew and Arabic translations of The Shock Doctrine, but there were none of the airy lecture halls, wide public theatres or jammed cinemas that are the standard venues of a crowd-drawing public speaker. In fact, Klein says, the tour was "not normal" by design. And on the subject of not normal, so was the Israeli media's decidedly frosty lack of interest in the celebrity author - a polar opposite to the peppy reaction of the student swimmer.
"This is the first country I have been to where I haven't done any national television - ever since No Logo came out," says Klein. Her recent call to boycott Israel, she thinks, may have had something to do with it.
Earlier this year, just after Israel's devastating war on the Gaza strip, Klein announced that enough was enough. In a syndicated article for the British newspaper The Guardian, which spread across the internet at a viral rate, she argued that it was time to impose a boycott, sanctions and divestment on Israel.
"The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa," she wrote.
More than just a book tour, she says, her visit to the country was a field exercise in what a boycott might look like in practice.
"Boycott the state, not the people", Klein condensed the message time and again, when asked. And she has been asked a lot, since her piece came out in January. Opponents of the boycott campaign view it as a highly contentious tactic, raising the spectre of anti-Semitism and the ostracising of Jews.
"It is important to me not to boycott Israelis but rather to boycott the normalisation of Israel and the conflict," she told one newspaper. Days later, at the end of a crammed itinerary of travelling and talking, she says: "People don't want to boycott Israel - they just want to find other ways of coming here that don't feed the state strategy. If we are going to close front doors, then we have to open back doors."
Klein is signed to a small, independent Israeli publishing house, Andalus, which specialises in translations of Arabic literature into Hebrew. Royalties from The Shock Doctrine in Arabic and Hebrew go directly to Andalus, so that the press can translate more Arabic works - a political enterprise in a country where Arabic culture is woefully overlooked. The boycott-driven principle of avoiding state-sponsored venues meant that Klein's speaking circuit was made up of smaller spaces, each somehow engaged in anti-occupation work. It was an obvious downsizing: wherever she appeared - Haifa, Jaffa, Ramallah and East Jerusalem - there were always more people than space to accommodate them.
During the 10-day trip, Klein criss-crossed the region, travelling with her husband, Avi Lewis, a documentary filmmaker and journalist - formerly a high-profile political talk-show host on Canadian TV who now presents for Al Jazeera International. The two made trips to Palestinian villages in the West Bank, along Israel's separation barrier, and took in a "demolition tour" of the neighbourhoods of Palestinian East Jerusalem, where homes are evacuated and torn down by the Israeli government.
They spent two unexpected days in Gaza (they didn't really believe that Israeli border officials would let them cross into the strip). They travelled south to greet the unrecognised Bedouin villages of the Israeli Negev and up north to encounter the Palestinian struggle for equal citizenship rights in the Galilee. Klein's publisher, Yael Lehrer at Andalus, confirms that the tour she organised for the duo was designed as a crash course on the politics of the land, on the ground.
"My overall impression is that time is short," Klein says, at the end of another long day of talks, meetings and vigorous handshakes. "And there is not nearly enough of a sense of urgency outside Israel. The amount of construction in the West Bank is really overwhelming."
Klein refers to the building of Israeli settlements and infrastructure in the occupied West Bank - illegal under international law. "Because I haven't been there before, I was really struck by how the phrase 'settlement' doesn't begin to describe what is being constructed. A settlement feels temporary and precarious and actually what you see in the West Bank is that Palestinian life is precarious. Whereas the Israeli presence looked permanent - the roads, the overpasses, the factories, the industrial zones, the wall, of course."
Naomi Klein was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1970, to Jewish parents who don't much sound like left-wingers of the armchair variety. Her mother, Bonnie Sherr Klein, is a public feminist and award-winning filmmaker who made a groundbreaking anti-pornography documentary in the early 1980s. Her father, Michael Klein, is a doctor and member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "I didn't have a very Zionist upbringing," says Klein. "But I did go to a Jewish school - my mother wanted me to learn a little bit of Hebrew. And just going to a normal, Jewish school you are completely pulled into the Zionist narrative - you're giving money to plant trees, you know, you are part of the colonial project." She laughs at her own jargon, then flips straight back to serious. "There are all kind of things you don't question... and then the more you read, the more you realise that a lot of what you have been told is untrue."
It clearly had an impact on the writer. "Look, I haven't been to Israel since 1989," she says. "I didn't want to come here as a Jewish person, because I knew how painful it would be to see what was being done in my name. It's more painful for me to be here than to be in Iraq - that's not being done in my name."
This personal, emotive approach anchors her argument during speaking engagements in Israel. "Of course young Israelis are afraid," she says. "There is a fear of having your narratives shatter, of having your world shattered - who is not afraid of that?" Although painful, she adds, this process is a part of social change. "You start by having your world fall apart - the women's movement, the civil rights movement, this is how change begins."
She applies a similar first-person response to accusations that the boycott Israel campaign is really just window-dressing for the anti-Jewish. "What makes this such a difficult movement to build is that we have grown up being told that the whole world is against us, that any attack is anti-Semitic and that's why we need to respond with military force, because nothing else works," she says. "Being part of a movement like this is an act of trust, because there are anti-Semitic people out there... and it's basically a choice to say, 'I'm not going to respond to this with fear.'"
Klein says she was previously hesitant about going near the subject. "I think the reason I didn't write about it more is that there is nothing quite as intense as the intimidation factor on this issue," explaining that writing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means setting aside some time to deal with the consequences: the feedback. "It is such a time commitment. The organised media response to anything that is perceived as being unfair to Israel is so effective, that a lot of the lack of critical coverage just has to do with that sort of calculation that is made by all kinds of editors, you know: is it really worth it, do I really want to write this article that is going to ruin the rest of my month... dealing with the ombudsman's complaint, the hate mail, all that."
For some detractors, the writer's recent engagement with the issue is a case of jumping aboard a bandwagon, of using the cause célèbre factor of Palestine - especially post-Gaza war - to promote "Brand Naomi". But the author's advocacy and her take on regional issues can just as readily be framed in the context of her existing themes and political critique.
"The first movement that I ever was a part of was the anti-apartheid movement. When I was at university, this was the big issue." Klein joins the dots from what she calls the "investigative activism" of those days - researching the university's investments portfolio and then pressuring it to pull funds from South African companies - to the tactics of the No Logo era. Those probing skills were learnt on the campuses of the global anti-apartheid movement, applied to the practices of the likes of Shell and Nike by anti-corporate campaigners and are now zoning in on the businesses that profit from Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.
There is also a place for Israel within the overarching thesis of The Shock Doctrine, a biting analysis of the way neoliberal capitalism uses natural and unnatural disasters to prise open markets and seize profitable state assets. In a chapter on the country, Klein argues that Israel has successfully promoted its security hi-tech wares post September 11, in a new global climate where homeland security is a major market - and Israel, with its experience of Palestinian resistance, can pitch as an expert leader in the field.
The issues get dense, but Klein's speaking gift is to air potentially dry-as-dust topics in a way that renders them lively and contemporary. Her approach is polished but ordinary; level-headed but regularly punctuated with jokey observations that slice through any stereotypes of the unsmiling, virtuous campaigner. Everywhere she goes, flocks of people want to connect with her, share information, cross-pollinate causes. After she goes, Israeli and Palestinian campaigners talk of the "galvanising" effect of her visit.
But beyond those set circles, Klein's trip didn't really make a mark - something that she sees as a kind of Israeli media tit-for-tat, a response to her support for the "boycott Israel" campaign. If that's the case, it's effective punishment for someone who seems to thrive on discussion.
"I was fully anticipating coming to Israel and having a lot of very strong debates but I haven't had that," she says. "I'm very disappointed that no one will fight with me - I had counted on Israelis as being up for a fight."