Writer and Activist Naomi Klein Speaks at Swarthmore on Israel-Gaza and the “Doppelganger” Effect

Courtesy of Centre de Cultura Contemporánia de Barcelona

On Thursday, April 18, author, activist, and professor Naomi Klein visited Swarthmore for the final event in the “South Africa to Gaza: World History and the Politics of Accountability” series. The series is hosted by the Aydelotte Foundation, the President‘s Office, Swarthmore College Libraries, Arabic, art history, Black studies, educational studies, English literature, history, the InterCenter, Islamic studies, philosophy, and sociology and anthropology as “a timely response to the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) hearings on genocide in Gaza that invites prominent academics, artists, and writers to advance a scholarly understanding of issues related to human rights and social justice today.”

Klein is well-known and respected for her activism, organizing, and writing on climate change and environmental justice, neoliberalism, globalization, fascism, labor rights, and international politics, including the Israel-Gaza crisis. Klein was born to Jewish activists in Montreal, Canada after her parents left the U.S. in protest of the Vietnam War. After attending the University of Toronto for three years, she dropped out and began her career at the Canadian newspaper “The Globe and Mail.” 

Since then, she has risen to fame partly because of her books, “No Logo,” which dissects globalization and large corporations, and “The Shock Doctrine,” an account of the spread of neoliberal and free-market economics, especially in times of shock and disaster. More recently, she has written “This Changes Everything,” which centers on the climate crisis under capitalism, and “Doppelganger,” a narrative on the fragmentation of society into cultural, political, and historical mirror worlds. She has also supported climate activism and the Green New Deal, was the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University, and has been a leading voice for Palestinian rights. Currently, she remains a prominent writer, thinker, and activist, is a senior contributor to The Intercept, and a professor of climate justice at the University of British Columbia.

Her Swarthmore lecture – which concluded with a Q&A – began with introductory remarks by Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Peace and Conflict Studies Sabeen Ahmed on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Ahmed spoke on the statistics, conditions, and discourse surrounding the violence before introducing the topic of the evening’s lecture, Klein’s “Doppelganger” effect, and its relation to the crisis. She then introduced Klein.

Klein began her remarks by discussing the unique and special nature of the “South Africa to Gaza: World History and the Politics of Accountability” series, which has speakers that “don’t mince words” on Israel and Palestine. She continued about the uniqueness of the series, remarking, “I’ve lost track of how many events have been canceled, how many student groups have been banned, how many protests have been repressed, and how many chants have been twisted to mean their opposite.”

Klein went on to discuss what she calls the “word front of the war.” By this, she referred to the endless battles, toxic discourse, and enforcement surrounding the language, coverage, and conversations taking place on the topic of Israel-Palestine, especially since Oct 7. “The words that tend to feel most combustible are reliably the ones that draw parallels between Israel’s actions and the actions of the Nazis during the Second World War,” she observed.

“This war over words began very early, as soon as Israeli politicians responded to Hamas’ horrific attacks on Oct. 7 by openly stating that they held 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza responsible, pledging to cut off food and water and rain down indiscriminate hellfire and treat Palestinians as ‘human animals.’”

In discussing these events, Klein began by focusing on leaders in the global South. She started with Gustavo Pedro, President of Colombia, who remarked in October that Israel’s attacks and campaigns are a ‘prelude to genocide,’ and articulated their place in global sociopolitical phenomena. 

“What we see in Palestine will also be the suffering of the world of all peoples of the Global South,” Pedro wrote. Klein continued on to discuss Lula de Silva of Brazil, who compared the “deliberate slaughter and starvation of the trapped Palestinian population in Gaza” with the Nazi genocide. Finally, she spoke on the South African government’s charge of genocide against Israel in the International Court of Justice.

“Every time Israel has faced accusations that its actions in Gaza fit the legal definition of genocide or imminent genocide, the response has been a very clear pattern. We are told that the accusations are inherently antisemitic, indeed, blood libel against the Jewish people who cannot possibly be committing genocide because a) Israel defines itself as a state of the Jewish people and was forged out of the flames of the Nazi holocaust, ergo, according to this logic, to compare Israelis to Nazis is to blame the victims for attempting to survive and b) the Jewish state is under a perennial threat of another Nazi genocide as Oct. 7 allegedly proved,” Klein outlined.

Klein discussed some of the responses and backlash that different figures have received for any form of comparison of Israeli behavior to that of the Nazis, even if “none of the people who I’ve cited were saying that Israel’s crimes in Gaza are a carbon copy of the Nazi holocaust, the most murderous chapter of the 20th century.” 

“To compare is not to conflate. Not to erase specificity. Gaza is not a factory deliberately designed for mass murder, as the Nazi death camps were. And thankfully, we are not yet close to the scale of the Nazi death toll. But as we’ve already heard, multiple UN and U.S. human rights experts tell us that millions of Palestinians face starvation now, moreover, the entire reason that the post-World War II edifice of international humanitarian law was erected, including the ICJ and the Genocide Convention, was so that we would have the tools to collectively identify patterns before history repeats at scale. And some of the patterns, the walls, the ghettos, the mass killing, the repeatedly stated eliminationist intent, the mass starvation, the pillaging, the joyful dehumanization, and the deliberate humiliation are indeed repeating,” Klein articulated.

She continued, “I agree that we should never make nasty analogies casually, because it risks trivialization. But neither should we be so timid, or so proprietary, that we turn real-world political tendencies into mystical worlds.”

Klein continued to place these controversies over comparisons in the context of a battle between two competing stories about the ‘birth of the modern world.’

“Story one doesn’t require much explanation, since it is the air we all breathe. It tells us that in the 1930s and ’40s, large parts of liberal democratic peaceable Europe felt the twisted and evil force that was fascism. In this story, the Nazis are the mirror opposite of everything for which Western powers stand,” she said. “So according to story one, this convergence of forces creates a kind of a rupture in the time-space continuum. That was the Holocaust, a specifically antisemitic form of mass slaughter that has never been seen before. But which has been unleashed could recur at any time. Not to anyone according to this story, but specifically to the Jews.”

Because of this phenomenon, Klein shared how story one declares the normal tools to fight against antisemitism too weak, and therefore calls for “a highly militarized ethnostate of Israel.” “In story one, Israel is the embodiment of ‘never again’.”

“And of course, story one is very convenient. Because all of these countries, the U.S., Canada, Germany, and the UK have their own geopolitical and economic reasons for wanting a Western outpost in the middle of the oil and gas-rich Arab world,” she continued.

Klein argued that story one was usually the one taught in Western schools, and therefore many people learned that speaking about the Holocaust was extremely sensitive and that the Holocaust was to be considered “a rupture of history, out of space and out of time, and… it happened once.” Klein then reframed these histories by challenging story one and invoking story two: “​​But what if it happened more than once? What if it happened many times albeit at different speeds and scales.” This story, Klein argued, has been consistently told in the Global South, a callback to the beginning of her lecture, and other places with ‘experience with European imperialism.’

“In story two, the Holocaust was not a rupture, nor a new invention. Rather, it was a homecoming of the violent exterminatory logics and methods that European powers had directed at those deemed savage and devilish since the Spanish Inquisition, logics that began in Europe, but for the past 500 years or so, mostly ravaged lands and bodies outside of Europe’s borders in the colonies.” This mirror world is how Israel-Palestine fits into her book, “Doppelganger.”

In discussing story two, Klein referenced sociologist and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, poet and politician Aimé Césaire, historian C. L. R. James, author George Padmore, and Indian anti-colonist Jawaharlal Nehru. These voices all made statements that reframed Hitler and the Nazis as connected to legacies of violence, racism, and colonization, and thus, in Klein’s view, advocate for the telling of story two.

“There are many of these stories where people with direct first-hand experience with colonization were actually able to see the threat posed by the Nazis earlier than the Western governments that would go on to wage war and defeat the Nazis,” Klein said.

Klein also referenced Hitler himself, who famously referenced past uses of his tactics by other governments. She focused on the use of concentration camps and other tactics of genocide by the Germans (before the Nazi government) in what is now Namibia against the Herero and Nama people. This was known as the 20th century’s first genocide, with the devastating elimination of the people. This violence, concentration camps, and obsession with biological differences, even at smaller scales, all represent similar tactics to those in the Holocaust, and connect it to previous legacies of violence. Klein added other ways that the Nazis built on, and were inspired by, other forms of subjugation and oppression in developing their genocide. 

Despite these devastating connections, Klein argued that conventional Western knowledge and education do not speak of them. “Even in universities, Holocaust studies are largely cordoned off from genocide studies, from studies in slavery and apartheid and racial capitalism and the study of settler colonialism.” Klein pointed to this lack of education as worrying for abilities to respond to warning signs for future genocides. “And I think this is part of why, since Oct. 7, so many of us have been talking past each other,” she concluded.

“I can’t cover [story two entirely], it is the history of the world: a long story of annihilating the other in the name of progress, civilization, and God’s will. It doesn’t actually begin in Europe’s colonies, but inside Europe in the Spanish Inquisition, and the bloody expulsion of Jews and Muslims. As many historians have noted, it’s striking that 1492, the year that Jews were officially expelled from Spain, is the same year that Christopher Columbus’s ships set sail on their voyage of so-called discovery. Those ships unleashed centuries of this same logic, deploying that supposedly God-given superiority to rid the land of infidels, now played out on vastly larger scales. Because these more sinister parts of the civilizing project are never reckoned with, nevermind repaired, when the impulse to exterminate reemerged in Europe under the Nazis, very few people were able to recognize it as a homecoming, mistaking it instead for something wholly new: a kind of alien invasion.”

Klein concluded by articulating what she feels society lost by choosing story one. “To place the Nazi Holocaust inside a lineage of Holocausts would have forced a reckoning with history. It would have radically changed how we understand our national origins, and how we make sense of the stark inequalities that scar our own societies and our world. It would have been revolutionary. Nowhere is the cost higher for these failures than in Palestine today.”

Toward the end of her speech, Klein read a short passage from the section of her book, “Doppelganger,” that discusses the doppelganger history telling of the Holocaust and its relevance in Palestine.

In closing, Klein presented artist Paul Klee’s “Agilus Novus” and quoted author Walter Benjamin, the work’s owner, in his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin’s quote on the painting reads, “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But the storm is blowing from paradise. This storm is what we call progress.”

Referring to Benjamin’s quote, Klein elaborated: “This really is his last wish for us: that we stop seeing history as a chain of singular disconnected events and crises and rather grasp the one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of a past that turns the future into a story, a story called progress.”

“It is possible to get out of this endlessly recurring genocide, it is not too late to learn the lessons our predecessors failed to learn.”

1 Comment

  1. Hamas’ actions on Oct 7 are no doubt horrific, and no one should be defending that. However, Isarel has killed well over 34,000 Palestinians since then, in an ongoing siege on Gaza. That is well beyond a proportionate response to Oct 7th. The IDF is certainly capable of surgical operations to root out Hamas fighters, but is instead dropping 2000 pound bombs on areas that are as dense as Brooklyn, NY. And for all the talk of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields, I ask, where would you expect them to be? Again, in an area as dense as Brooklyn, there are no areas where Hamas fighters could go to not be among other people. Israel will always should “human shields, human shields, human shields” as it justifies the slaughter of thousands of men, women, and children. Israel has clearly crossed the line into Genocide.

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