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Naomi Klein enters the mirror world of conspiracy, colonialism and fascism

Klein's latest book Doppelganger appeared before the current Israeli onslaught on Gaza, but its arguments have become central to the discourse about the unfolding genocide in the strip
Muslim activists hold placards during a rally and prayer supporting Palestinians in Gaza, in Jakarta, Indonesia on 7 April, 2024 (Reuters)

The release of Naomi Klein’s latest book was tragically timely. 

Published a month before the Israeli assault on Gaza began on 7 October that has killed over 33,000 Palestinians, its concluding chapters tackle themes that have moved from a peripheral debate to the heart of the humanitarian and legal discourse about the unfolding genocide in the strip.

Like much of Klein’s previous work, Doppelganger is about weaving connections between seemingly disparate phenomena. Using the motif of the doppelganger, or doubled self, she traces an “arc of fascism” that circles from European colonialism, to the Holocaust and extending to the Gaza Strip.

Rashid Khalidi charted the same arc in The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, noting that “those who analyse…the entire Zionist enterprise from the perspective of its colonial settler origins and nature are often vilified”.

Since 7 October, intellectuals and public figures have drawn fire for making these analogies. 

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In his Oscar acceptance speech for his Auschwitz-set film Zone of Interest, director Jonathan Glazer condemned, “the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of 7 October in Israel or the ongoing attack in Gaza".

The film itself depicts the camp as a settler-colonial project, with the camera trained on the details of daily life of a high ranking Nazi official’s family, whose garden overlooks the camp’s smoking chimney.

Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen had the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought initially revoked for a New Yorker essay they wrote comparing the scenes in Gaza to the conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Gessen was challenging what they termed “memory culture” in Germany, which insists on the “singularity of the Holocaust” and casts it as “an event that Germans must always remember and mention but don’t have to fear repeating”.

Unearthing suppressed stories

In a recent article for the London Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra wrote that the Holocaust’s memory is wielded as a means to obfuscate what is happening in Gaza, but that it “remains indispensable as a standard for gauging the political and moral health of societies; its memory, though prone to abuse, can still be used to uncover more insidious iniquities”.

The Zone of Interest: The banal dreams of Nazi settler colonialism
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Doppelganger is an attempt to do just this, to re-universalise the Holocaust through the unearthing of suppressed stories that connect the besieged Gaza Strip with what has happened before it.

The book’s premise is unusually personal, initially misleadingly trivial.

It springs from Klein’s experience of being repeatedly confused with feminist writer turned right-wing conspiracy theorist, Naomi Wolf, who she dubs “my big haired doppelganger”. Initially known as the author of The Beauty Myth, Wolf soared to prominence as a lockdown and vaccine sceptic during the pandemic.

The confusion becomes an entry point to examining a society populated by doubles, what she dubs the “mirror world,” a new coalition of far-right Trump supporters and wellness influencers turned anti-vaxxers that converged around resistance to vaccine and mask mandates.

By tracing her doppelganger’s drift into the mirror world, Klein shows how the far right has become a mirror image of the left, by occupying the political vacuum it left during the pandemic and adopting its language of resistance.

Using the metaphor of mirroring, Klein unveils a web of connections: between wellness influencers and the far right, European colonialism and Nazism, and finally, between the Holocaust and Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

The West's shadow

The final two chapters of the book trace the influence of European colonialism and racial apartheid in Jim Crow America on Hitler’s concentration camps.

Klein identifies two competing stories that describe the evolution of fascism in Europe. In the dominant story, the Nazis were the diametric opposite of European liberalism. 

The dominant story casts the Holocaust as something so singularly horrific, it is lifted out of history and stripped of historical precedents and antecedents

In the second suppressed story, told by Black intellectuals like Aime Cesaire and WEB du Bois in the 1930s, Hitler “was not the civilised democratic West’s “other”, but its “shadow, its doppelganger".

"Concentration camps were not invented in Germany. It is the English who are their inventors, using this institution to gradually break the backs of other nations," Hitler said in 1941.

The dominant story casts the Holocaust as something so singularly horrific, it is lifted out of history and stripped of historical precedents and antecedents. 

Klein recalls her experience at a Hebrew school in Montreal, where education about the Holocaust was restricted to "surface level emotions: horror at the atrocities, rage at the Nazis, a desire for revenge". "I am struck that we never actually grieved, nor were we invited to seize our anger and turn it into an instrument for solidarity," she writes.

Speaking in an interview in February, Klein said that, today: "We are having a war over whether we are going to tell a singular story about European fascism or a story about fascism with a much longer arc.”

In Klein’s book, Gaza sits at the end of this arc, with her final chapter examining Israel-Palestine as an example of “doppelganger politics".

Klein argues that Israel became a doppelganger of European nationalisms that had cast Jews as “the devils onto which all evil is projected". But it also duplicated settler-colonial projects, aping core Christian colonial ideas like “Terra Nullius,” which in Israel, became “A land without a people for a people without a land.”

Like all settler-colonial projects, Klein writes, the Zionist project relied on an invisibilising of the indigenous population. To this end, trees were planted over the ruins of Palestinian villages, Arabic place names were renamed in Hebrew, olive groves uprooted.

In The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, Khalidi also stresses this continuity between Zionists and 19th century European colonisers. He cites Lord Curzon of the British Raj, who said: “To feel that somewhere among these millions you have left a little justice or prosperity, a sense of manliness or moral dignity, a spring of patriotism, a dawn of intellectual enlightenment, or a stirring of duty where it did not before exist - that is enough, that is the Englishman’s justification in India."

In a letter to Yusuf Diya' al-Khalidi, then mayor of Jerusalem, from the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, the latter refers to the country’s Arab-Palestinian inhabitants as the “non-Jewish population”.

“The point being made here is that the Palestinians did not exist, or were of no account, or did not deserve to inhabit the country they so sadly neglected,” Khalidi writes. “If they did not exist, then even well-founded Palestinian objections to the Zionist’s movement’s plans could be ignored.”

The first experiment

Released a month before the Israeli onslaught on Gaza began on 7 October, Klein’s expansive lens urges us to see the violence in a historical context, but also to view it as a warning about what is to come.

“Palestine is a laboratory for an eco-fascist future,” Klein said in an interview. Adding that, the global South “sees in Gaza a glimpse of their future.”

Thanks to Gaza, European philosophy has been exposed as ethically bankrupt
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Her words echoed those of the Colombian president, Gustavo Petro, who said: “What we see in Palestine will also be the sufferings in the world of all the peoples of the South.” Gaza, he added "is just the first experiment to consider us all disposable."

Palestine is often described as a "laboratory" for Israeli technology and colonial practices that it exports around the world. 

Israeli arms companies boast of them being “battle-tested” on the besieged strip. Much of this technology is being deployed on Europe’s borders to stem the flow of refugees from North Africa.

In the central Mediterranean, much like Palestinians in Gaza, the journeys of migrants attempting to cross to Europe are subject to intense surveillance by drones manufactured in Israel.

But in death, they suffer an enforced anonymity, many disappearing into the wine-dark waters of the central Mediterranean or into unmarked mass graves.

Over the last few months, we have seen the same attempts to cloak the immense loss of life in Gaza. Routine blackouts severed Palestinian journalists in Gaza from the outside world, with Israel using these windows to carpet bomb residential homes.

An act of re-membering

Unlike her previous writing, Doppelganger offers little optimism. Klein’s tone is uncharacteristically despairing in places.

But there is a glimmer, which stems from the sprawling coalition that is forming in the Palestine solidarity movement, uniting a burgeoning anti-Zionist Jewish movement in the US and the UK, trade unionists, Black Lives Matter activists, migrant rights groups, and environmentalists.

But there is a glimmer, which stems from the sprawling coalition that is forming in the Palestine solidarity movement

Their strength lies in their ability to join the dots, and reassert the suppressed story of fascism that stretches from European colonialism to Gaza. “This generation is able to identify what is happening in Gaza because they’ve seen genocides before,” Klein said in an interview.

Klein says this is an act of “re-member-ing”, of putting a shattered history back together in order to chart how we got here. 

The dominant story about the Holocaust "re-traumatises", freezing us in a state of incapacitating horror and forbidding solidarity.

Our only hope is the triumph of the hidden story, because it allows us to join the dots, between genocides, the devastation wrought by climate change and the invisibilised people fleeing it.

It is this story that says “never again” for anyone.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Katherine Hearst is a writer, film maker and organiser. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2015, she has directed three animated shorts that have featured on the BBC and Sky Arts. Her journalistic writing has featured in Open Democracy and The New Internationalist.
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