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Jewish, Israeli scholars back African intellectual smeared for Israel criticism

Germany’s antisemitism czar sparked backlash after trying to cancel an event with Achille Mbembe for comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa.

A group of prominent Israeli and Jewish scholars, many of whom specialize in the study of the Holocaust, antisemitism, and Israel, have called on Germany’s interior minister to fire Felix Klein, the federal commissioner for Jewish life and the fight against antisemitism, following what they described as his “shameful attack” on renowned African professor Achille Mbembe.

In what has become a major controversy capturing headlines across Germany, Mbembe, a Cameroonian political philosopher, scholar of African history, and one of the most prominent theorists on post-colonialism, has been smeared as an antisemite for drawing parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Klein accused Mbembe of “relativizing” the Holocaust and questioning Israel’s right to exist, and demanded Mbembe’s keynote address at the popular Ruhrtriennale arts and music festival this summer be cancelled.

While the festival was ostensibly cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Klein’s intervention has drawn notable pushback and sparking a debate around academic freedom and the legitimacy of historical comparisons, which appears to be breaking through the paralysis in Germany around Israel and antisemitism.

Klein turned the matter into a national conversation after Lorenz Deutsch, a member of the neoliberal and staunchly pro-Israel Free Democratic Party, sent a letter on March 23 to the festival director, Stefanie Carp, condemning her for inviting Mbembe and suggesting his work has antisemitic underpinnings. (Carp has been the target of criticism in the past for inviting other artists who support the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement).

Activists from the ‘International Block’, hold a BDS sign, during the annual May Day demonstration, Berlin, Germany, May 1, 2017. (Activestills.org)

Deutsch’s letter opened with a quote describing the sinister nature of antisemitism on the left, taken from the book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” written by conservative New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. The book, which equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism, has been criticized as “shallow” and “ahistorical.”

Mbembe, who is well-known in Germany, has signed onto academic boycotts of Israel in the past but says he has no affiliation with the BDS movement, which the German parliament deemed antisemitic in a non-binding resolution last year.

‘They did not see me’

In their letter to the German government on April 30, the 37 Israeli and Jewish scholars argued that Klein “has assumed a leading role in the ‘weaponization’ of antisemitism against critics of the Israeli government,” adding that he “has done a disservice to the urgent fight against real antisemitism, casting a shadow over the integrity of his public office.”

Several mainstream German intellectuals who study the Holocaust, among them Professors Micha Brumlik and Wolfgang Benz, each of whom have served as directors of centers that focus on the study of antisemitism in Germany, have signed on to another letter of solidarity with Mbembe (Brumlik also backed the call to replace Klein).

“To accuse our colleague of trivializing the Shoa [Holocaust] or even equating the genocide against European Jewry with the racist regime of Apartheid South Africa calls into question a fundamental basis of science [history as an academic discipline] and is, therefore, wrong,” the letter reads. “Historical comparisons, which serve to highlight differences and similarities between events, discourses and processes, are necessary and legitimate.”

Visitor at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany. October 26, 2012. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

The accusations levied against Mbembe center around two texts he has authored. One is in the forward he wrote for the 2015 book “Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy,” a collection of articles by 18 scholars of Africa and its diaspora on the similarities and differences between apartheid-era South Africa and contemporary Israel.

“The occupation of Palestine is the greatest moral scandal of our times, one of the most dehumanizing ordeals of the century we have just entered, and the biggest act of cowardice of the last half-century,” wrote Mbembe, and concluded his forward asserting that “the time has come for global isolation.”

The second text is from his book “The Politics of Enmity,” in which he compares elements of the Israeli settlement enterprise, as well as the destruction of the Jews of Europe, to the colonial fixtures of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which he calls “emblematic manifestations of this phantasy of separation.”

Responding to the controversy in an interview with the site New Frame on April 23, Mbembe said, “A proper critique of colonialism and racism has nothing to do with the relativization of the crime of the Holocaust. In fact, such a critique is a key element in the fight against antisemitism. Such a critique is also absolutely necessary for those who genuinely seek to understand how our modern world came to be, what it is today and how, together, we can repair it.”

In addition to being targeted with racists threats and insults, Mbembe said in the interview that he feels violated by the officials’ charges against him. “They did not see me. They have not read my work. They hardly care about voices such as mine, nor about where we come from and where we are going. They saw a ‘Negro.’”

Young Palestinian men sit beneath the Palestinian side of the Separation Wall in the West Bank city of Al-ram. Israel says the barrier is necessary for security while Palestinians call it a land grab.September 29, 2014. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90

Mbembe told +972 that Klein owes him a “public apology.” He says the letter signed by Jewish scholars, which includes Seth Anziska, Eva Ilouz, and Moshe Zuckermann, “captures precisely what is at stake.”

“I think it is best to focus our attention on all these voices,” says Mbembe. “They speak louder than mine and they articulate better than any of us what is at stake in the weaponization of antisemitism that is threatening to become a feature of the German public and academic sphere.” He notes that another letter signed by 300 U.S.-based academics is due to be published as well.

Another group of Israeli scholars expressed solidarity with Mbembe. Academia for Equality, an organization of over 550 academics dedicated to a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians and to social justice within Israeli society, penned a letter in which they state, “Once again, supporters of the Israeli government are politicizing and weaponizing the struggle against antisemitism for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting Jews against racial hatred.”

Weaponizing antisemitism

Numerous artists and intellectuals who engage in or express support for boycotts of Israel, and specifically the BDS call, have faced punitive consequences in Germany.

In September 2019, a German jury reversed its decision to grant a book award to author Kamila Shamsie over her participation in a cultural boycott of Israel. Last summer, American rapper Talib Kweli was disinvited from a summer festival for endorsing BDS. And as I reported on +972, the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum was forced to resign last year after the museum favorably tweeted an article about a letter by Jewish and Israeli scholars that challenged Germany’s equation of BDS with antisemitism.

Demonstrators hold signs outside a Berlin courthouse on the opening day of the trial of three BDS activists charged with assault for interrupting an Israeli MK during a lecture in 2017, March 4 2019. (Magda Stefanenco)

While such silencing of Israel critics appears to have increased, it has rarely received as much attention or pushback in Germany as it has this time. Mbembe’s case seems to have a struck a stronger chord in part because he is an internationally recognized scholar and because, for many, it crosses a red line vis-a-vis academic freedom.

The fact that German officials are “stigmatizing an African intellectual on his position on Israel,” as Professor Jose Brunner, one of the Israeli signatories to the letter, told +972, further complexifies the matter as it converges fears over anti-Black racism with accusations of racism against Jews.

In 2018, Mbembe was honored as “one of the most important thinkers on the African continent” with the Ernst Bloch Prize and the Gerda Henkel Prize, one of Germany’s most prestigious awards for scholarly research. He has held positions at Columbia University, Yale, and UC Berkeley, and is currently teaching at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Klein, a German lawyer and diplomat who is not Jewish, has held his position as commissioner on Jewish life and antisemitism since it was created in 2018, following a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents in Germany – the vast majority of which are associated with the far right.

Protestor holding a sign against the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Berlin. June 9, 2018. (Hossam el-Hamalawy/Flickr)

Still, Klein is supported by Germany’s mainstream Jewish organizations. Josef Schuster, chair of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, denounced the call for Klein’s resignation as “unjustified and unacceptable.” A dozen Jewish organizations – among them the Jewish Community in Berlin, the Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Anti-Semitism, and the Jewish Student Union of Germany – insist he should remain in his position. (Klein did not respond to request for comment.)

But according to Yossi Bartal, an Israeli anti-occupation activist living in Berlin, the elite of Germany’s organized Jewish community has become increasingly conservative, especially regarding Israel, and says that it is not surprising they are standing by the very person they recommended for the job. Bartal adds that Klein’s position is problematic since it “has no clear legal description of what authorities he has, and I doubt he himself knows what his exact job description is.”

The weaponization of antisemitism against critics of Israel and the suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy has been an issue in Germany for a long time, and is only intensifying. In this case, the attack on a prominent scholar’s academic freedom appears to have triggered a more open debate on the matter.

But as Mbembe told +972, “Many more will unfortunately be subjected to the same ordeal I am going through. Every time this happens, we will have to summon the courage to call it out.”

This article first appeared on the  +972 Magazine and can be accessed here

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