Naomi Klein and the End of Zionism

The leading liberal author Naomi Klein has publicly called for an exodus of Jews from Zionism.  This is momentous, particularly to those who remember her pro-Zionist interventions of yesteryear.  Arzu discusses why, notwithstanding this welcome news, the movement for a better world needs to still hold those who upheld the old world to account.

This article is based on an X / Twitter thread from 26th April, that can be found here.

A short letter to Ms. Klein

Welcome to the right side of history Naomi.  Your ten minute speech (transcribed in The Guardian) at the Emergency Seder in the Streets in New York City on the Golden Calf was electrifying. Your description of today’s false idol as Zionism is powerful and extraordinary (not least because of what I will outline below):


“It is a false idol that takes our most profound biblical stories of justice and emancipation from slavery – the story of Passover itself – and turns them into brutalist weapons of colonial land theft, roadmaps for ethnic cleansing and genocide.

” It is a false idol that has taken the transcendent idea of the promised land – a metaphor for human liberation that has traveled across multiple faiths to every corner of this globe – and dared to turn it into a deed of sale for a militaristic ethnostate.”



The thing is, and this may seem brutal, many people – including many Jews – have been trying to tell you this for decades.  They tried to tell you and the elite participants (US / colonial government adjacent politicians, journalists, NGOs, like yourself) at the UN World Conference against Racism held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa.  Like you, I was there.  And I still remember you reviling and demonising pro-Palestine solidarity.  Your characterisation of events was appalling.  It’s a characterisation you didn’t let go of for a long time.  Have you now?




The Long Walk to Anti-Zionism

Naomi Klein’s personal journey is great.  It can’t have been easy, and it was a long time coming (even Peter Beinhart got there earlier), but this doesn’t erase the decades of demonisation of the NGO Forum at the World Conference Against Racism caused by Klein, Kenneth Roth (who has over the years also moved to something akin to an anti-Zionist position), Mary Robinson and many other establishment figures who took it upon themselves in Durban to crush pro-Palestine mobilisation using the slur of antisemitism, denouncing and decrying the comparison to apartheid, and in Robinson’s case denouncing the NGO Forum Declaration’s contention that ‘Zionism is racism’.

This critique by Joel Kovel in Mondoweiss (itself not without its problems) highlights many of the ways Klein was instrumental in this process.  He refers to Klein’s 2009 article in Harpers (‘Minority Death Match’), which speaks about both the 2001 conference and its 2009 follow up known colloquially as Durban II, held under much stricter circumstances in Geneva at the UN itself[1].

Kovel notes the framing of ‘Islamists’, the references to the preparatory conference Tehran and Islamic states, used to delegitimise the language that equates Zionism and the acts of the Israeli regime as ‘racist’ and ‘genocidal’, terms which Klein could still not countenance in describing either Zionism or the Israeli state and / or society.

These are now well-worn tropes and Islamophobic narratives that have underpinned twenty plus years of Israeli impunity for genocidal acts now unfolding as a full-blown genocidal war. Klein’s objection to the comparison of apartheid even in 2009 was out of touch.  So much has been written since then on why this comparison is more than apt. I would add that many of the veterans of the struggle in South Africa that I have spoken to have said that they felt the situation for Palestinians was worse than theirs had been.  In-depth comparison can be found the book, Why Israel?: The Anatomy of Zionist Apartheid : a South African Perspective by Suraya Dadoo and Firoz Osman.


Harping on about Durban

Whilst Palestine generally and much of the mobilisation in Durban specifically came from practising Muslims (e.g. many of the Islamic Human Rights Commission team who were instrumental in much of it at the NGO forum), support and organisation came from across the board.  The IHRC team also included three anti-Zionist rabbis.  Their images were beamed world-wide, exposing the accusations of anti-Semitism for what they were.

Muslims, Dalits, anti-Zionist Jews, Black activists from the UK and US, campaigners for reparations from Africa and the Caribbean, native Americans and indigenous peoples from many parts of the world were just some who stood side by side on this.  They understood the interconnectedness of their causes – something Klein derides in her Harpers piece.

In it she claims that the Durban conference was effectively hijacked by the Palestinian issue, detracting from what should have been a conference on anti-black racism and reparations.  She could not / did not want to see the connections then, and was happy to describe the NGO forum that did as: ‘a free-for-all, with the Arab Lawyers Union passing out a booklet that contained Der Stürmer–style cartoons’.  A ‘free for all’, a rabble maybe?  The underserving and uneducated?  Thus 8000 NGO participants, the majority of whom were part of an unprecedented mobilisation for racism, not cowed by threats from the US and Israel that connected the dots between all forms of racialised oppression, are pushed back down the hierarchy, and are tainted with a comparison to the Nazis based on one cartoon in a leaflet from one NGO[2].

Maligning these activists in 2001 (this was not only or evenly mainly Klein but many others) not only destroyed individual careers, hampered pro-Palestinian advocacy and gave succour to Zionist crimes; it added to the delegitimization of their causes too.

This goes beyond the ‘West’ e.g. the way fault lines have been drawn in Indian politics have been aided in no small part by events in Durban.  As Hindutva rhetoric aligns with Zionism so too the mobilisations against Zionism and Islamophobia, the fight for Dalit rights espoused in 2001 are seen as markers of what is inimical to a new and chauvinist vision of the state.


The Truth of Genocide

It is not easy, I know, to give up on ideas so closely cherished and held.  As late as October 12 last year, Klein was being accused of ‘parroting Zionist anti-Palestinian talking points to score some points and look awesome all while Palestinians are genocided’ by the soon to be martyred Palestinian poet Reefat Al-Areer.  This was after Klein made changes to an article in The Guardian after a backlash against her for, demonising Palestinian and pro-Palestinian responses to the events of October 7.




She had to concede (and makes changes in her text to the effect) the celebrations of the breaking of the siege of Gaza were entirely legitimate and distinct from ‘celebrations’ of the massacre of Israelis.  Nevertheless the article focuses on the effect of the few who to her mind did celebrate, on helping militant Zionists pursue their agenda.  “What could lessen its power, drain it of some of that fuel?” Klein asks, “True solidarity. Humanism that unites people across ethnic and religious lines. Fierce opposition to all forms of identity-based hatred, including antisemitism.”  Like we had at the NGO Forum in Durban in 2001 maybe?

As we move towards a new world, let’s definitely welcome those who have made the difficult shift to a progressive anti-racism like Naomi Klein.  But, let’s have a conversation on how the mistakes – all of our mistakes – of the past can be learned from, and atoned for.

Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher based in London, UK.  She reported on the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban 2001, and took part in the Islamic Human Rights Commission team’s work there.

Photo: CC 2.0 Deed Naomi Klein by Justine Warrington, 2008



[1] The Durban conference of 2001 saw some 8000 thousands of participants from across the world attend the NGO Forum.  South Africa allowed visas and provided space for the NGO Forum.  Durban II was deliberately restricted, with a less open visa regime from Switzerland helping to keep participation down from organisations which had consultative status with the UN.   The NGO Forum itself was removed from the program, something unheard of hitherto.  Framed as a concession to the US, it was clear that the demonisation of 2001, had resulted in exactly the narrative needed for the US, Israel and their supporters to silence the pro-Palestine movement.

[2] The Harpers piece, despite the continued portrayal of the NGO Forum as antisemitic, did at least see Klein challenge the Israeli narrative about the Durban Declaration approved by the states attending (at the point it was agreed the US and Israel had left the conference in protest at the pro-Palestinian mobilisation, and in the case of the US, the demand for reparations for enslavement also emanating from the same forum).  This criticism of Durban she conceded was ludicrous.  There was no anti-Semitism here.