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Achille Mbembe accused of anti-Semitism: the German controversy

By Jules Crétois
Posted on Thursday, 7 May 2020 16:12

Achille Mbembe, professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg © Vincent Fournier/JA

Accused in Germany of anti-Semitism for drawing a parallel between apartheid in South Africa and the situation of the Palestinians, the Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe has received the support of several major intellectual figures.

Die Zeit, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, the Süddeutsche Zeitung… The biggest German newspapers have all taken up the polemic: Is Achille Mbembe anti-Semitic?

Since mid-April, the Cameroonian post-colonialist philosopher, historian, political scientist and thinker has been at the heart of a virulent debate that has been stirring up the German political-media sphere.

It all began with an open letter, signed by Lorenz Deutsch, the cultural policy spokesman of the FDP (Liberal Democratic Party) parliamentary group in the parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia, asking to ban Achille Mbembe from giving a speech at the Ruhrtriennale, an important summer cultural event – which has since been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The centrist politician’s argument?

A passage from Politiques de l’inimitié (ed. de La Découverte, 2016, published in a German translation the following year), in which Mbembe, referring to Israel’s settlement policy, argues that it is “in some ways reminiscent” of apartheid in South Africa.

A parallel which, according to the German politician, is anti-Semitism.

“A smear campaign”

But the controversy, which could have been confined to the borders of the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia, took on a national dimension when Felix Klein, who heads the Federal Government Commissioner for Combating Antisemitism – created in 2018 in response to the rise of extreme right-wing movements in Germany – echoed the demand.

“In his academic writings, Achille Mbembe has likened the state of Israel to the apartheid system in South Africa, which corresponds to a well-known antisemitic pattern,” he said in an interview, assuring that Mbembe “also questions Israel’s right to exist.”

“When I found out about these attacks, I thought I was going to throw up, literally. Then I thought it was a hoax,” says Achille Mbembe.

Today, the intellectual is not backing down in the face of what he calls a “smear campaign”.

He even claims that, as the controversy has grown, he has been the target of racist threats and insults.

READ MORE: Achille Mbembe on how to restore the humanity stolen by racism

“Klein speaks from a position of authority, but on the basis of a total ignorance of academic debates,” said Mbembe.

The “BDS” polemic

In the German press, several commentators have also pointed out Achille Mbembe’s positions on the “BDS” (“Boycott-Disinvest-sanctions”) campaign. A campaign that Berlin is the only European capital to ban, as the elected members of Parliament considered the call for an economic boycott of Israel to be anti-Semitic.

On this point, Achille Mbembe does not wish to go any further today.

His position is, however, known.

In 2010, the Cameroonian intellectual signed a letter from academics in South Africa calling for the University of Johannesburg to cancel a partnership with the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. The latter is accused by the signatories of having “links with both the Israel Defense Forces and the arms industry, structurally facilitating the Israeli occupation.”

In South Africa, where Mbembe now works with teams from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the BDS campaign is quite popular.

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And it’s not uncommon for the parallels between the apartheid regime and the situation in Israel to be drawn by political figures.

“I fought against South African apartheid. I see the same brutal policies in Israel,” wrote Ronnie Kasrils, a former South African intelligence minister and former ANC politician from a Jewish family fleeing European pogroms, in April 2019 in the British newspaper The Guardian.

Support from intellectuals

“Until proven otherwise, the comparative study of societies is an integral part of the social sciences and humanities. And comparison has never meant establishing equivalences,” says Mbembe, who makes no secret of his views on the situation in the Middle East: “it is my public refusal to collaborate with the oppressive mechanisms in the Occupied Territories that I am being reproached for.”

The work of the Cameroonian thinker is increasingly successful in Germany, a country that is rediscovering whole sections of its colonial history, and which has recently experienced heated debates about the massacres committed by German colonists in Namibia or the question of the restitution of works of art from the African heritage.

Achille Mbembe has made regular visits to Germany over the past decade or so, and occasionally collaborates with German institutions in Africa, including the Goethe Institute, which has branches on the continent.

A presence that has enabled him not only to weave a solid network of intellectual friendships, but also to establish his reputation and strengthen his academic recognition.

In 2018, the Cameroonian thinker was thus awarded the prize of the German Gerda Henkel Foundation, which every two years rewards a researcher who has distinguished himself in the field of human and social sciences, for his work on the restitution of African heritage.

Part of the German intellectual community has also taken up their pens to defend Achille Mbembe in the face of this anti-Semitic trial.

In an open letter to Angela Merkel, published on 30 April, some 30 personalities who describe themselves as “Jewish academics and artists from Israel and elsewhere” wrote: “we consider Mr. Klein’s attempt to present Professor Mbembe as an anti-Semite to be unfounded.”

In addition to the “personal and professional harm” caused to the Cameroonian intellectual, the authors of the text – including Eva Illouz, an Israeli intellectual from Morocco, and Moshe Zuckermann, an Israeli sociologist – believe that “Mr. Klein has served poorly in the urgent fight against genuine anti-Semitism and compromised the integrity of his position.”

“Dangerous instrumentalization”

On 1 May, a “Call for Solidarity with Achille Mbembe” was made public, again with around 30 signatories, including several of the authors of the open letter to the German Chancellor, including Gadi Algazi, one of the first “refusniks” in Israel, who was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army and who has since become a figure in the Middle East peace movement.

These signs of support do not prevent Achille Mbembe from regretting, with bitterness, that “the general atmosphere in Germany is not very serene, as the growth of neo-Nazi movements and the subjugation of conservative and liberal parties to themes coming from the extreme right attest.”

And the thinker concluded that this polemic shows that “there is a dangerous instrumentalization of anti-Semitism in order to silence any criticism of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories.”

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