Long Read | The metamorphosis of Achille Mbembe

German politicians stirred up a hornet’s nest when they accused the world renowned academic of antisemitism for being critical of Israel.

As Achille Mbembe awoke one late March morning from uneasy dreams of Covid-19 and the impending lockdown, he found himself transformed in his bed in Johannesburg into an alleged antisemite in Germany. 

The 62-year-old Cameroon-born political philosopher, political theorist and public intellectual is widely respected and acclaimed for his work on postcolonial legacies and his trenchant critiques of “inexorably spreading neoliberal capitalism”. He has enjoyed much recognition and popularity in Germany over the last few years.

In 2018, he was honoured with the city of Ludwigshafen’s Ernest Bloch prize, as “one of the most important thinkers on the African continent”, and he was also awarded accolades from the country’s Gerda Henkel Foundation in the same year for his research achievements. Mbembe’s books have sold well in Germany, and he has regularly been invited to deliver lectures and speeches. Earlier this year, Stefanie Carp, director of the major annual international cultural festival Ruhrtriennale invited the University of the Witwatersrand-based academic to deliver the opening address at Bochum this August. 

Speaking from Johannesburg, Mbembe recalls, “I hesitated a lot before I said yes – for practical reasons because in August I usually take my son to his soccer camp and I didn’t want to miss it, I was also really exhausted – I had just finished writing a book called Brutalism, which took a lot of energy, and I was tired of travelling, so I hesitated a lot.” Eventually he accepted and, after much prodding from Carp, told the director that his opening address would deal with “planetary living, how do we share the world together as a precondition for its sustainability?” 

However, Mbembe wasn’t aware when he accepted the invitation that Carp had been the subject of much criticism in Germany from certain quarters for her support for artists and intellectuals who back the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has been declared an antisemitic organisation in Germany. The Palestinian-led campaign promotes boycotts against Israel. 

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In 2018, Carp angered members of the parliament of North-Rhine Westphalia, where the festival is held, when she invited the Scottish band Young Fathers, which supports the BDS movement, to perform at the festival. The parliament has banned the use of public funds for institutions that allow platforms for BDS activists. 

After outcries from Jewish organisations and the North-Rhine Westphalia parliament, the band were uninvited before being reinvited. They refused the invitation. The outcry and U-turn were condemned in a letter signed by 75 artists including Patti Smith and Massive Attack. 

It was seen as one of several incidents of what many critics of Israeli policies towards the treatment of Palestinians see as a disturbing trend in Germany, where “Artists and scholars suspected of supporting the nonviolent BDS movement for Palestinian rights [have been] subjected to repressive political interference and smear campaigns”. 

These have included the decision by the city of Dortmund in 2019 to reverse the awarding of the Nelly Sachs Prize for literature to author Kamila Shamsie because of her support for the BDS campaign and the decision by the organisers of Düsseldorf’s Open Source Music Festival to uninvite hip-hop artist Talib Kweli because of his support for BDS. Shamsie is a British writer of Pakistani descent, Young Fathers are a band made up of predominantly black members and Kweli is African-American – but, of course, race, as the supporters of these attacks and the one on Mbembe would have you believe, has nothing to do with anything. 

The fracas

Mbembe was a signatory to a petition initiated in 2010 by South African academics calling on the University of Johannesburg to sever ties with Israel’s Ben Gurion University because of the institution’s “links with both the Israeli Defence Forces and the arms industry, structurally facilitating the Israeli occupation”. 

He was also the author of the introduction to a 2015 book, Apartheid Israel: The Politics of Analogy, in which he wrote: “The occupation of Palestine is the greatest moral scandal of our times, one of the most dehumanising ordeals of the century we have just entered, and the biggest act of cowardice of the last half-century.” But he has never been accused of antisemitism by anyone, either in South Africa or anywhere else, as a result of any of his political positions or writing. 

While he has written about the treatment of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, the subject is only peripheral to his broader concerns. Mbembe is adamant he doesn’t have a position on Israel. “Israel is not the main object of my work. I have written books, articles, thousands of pages and Israel appears in them maybe two or three times – not even Israel but Palestine and that is in part of my work peripherally…  It wouldn’t even occur to me to contest Israel’s right to exist, that’s something for me that is self-evident. If you ask me whether I’m for Israel’s right to impunity, that’s something else. And that’s as valid for Israel as it would be for South Africa, Cameroon, the USA, France and the rest.” 

Mbembe seems to have become a pawn in a political battle initiated by Lorenz Deutsch, the spokesperson of the centrist libertarian Free Democratic Party in North Rhineland-Westphalia. He published an open letter on 25 March 2020 in which he criticised Carp for inviting Mbembe, who Deutsch accused of being a supporter of BDS. He criticised the movement, saying it “is not characterised by factual criticism of Israeli government acts, but aims at demolishing its existence through demonisation, delegitimisation and disinformation. Achille Mbembe, who you invited, is unfortunately an example of this way of dealing with Israel.” 

Deutsch then used quotes from Mbembe’s 2016 article The Society of Enmity, published in the respected academic journal Radical Philosophy, to accuse Mbembe of comparing Israel’s policies to those of apartheid South Africa and of relativising the Holocaust. What seemed to be a regional political fight was then elevated to the national stage in Germany, when Felix Klein, the federal commissioner for Jewish life and the fight against antisemitism, took up Deutsch’s call for Mbembe’s address to be cancelled. Covid-19 has since put paid to that call – the festival has been cancelled – but the debate has snowballed into a major media issue in Germany. It has led to calls from Mbembe supporters to have Klein removed from his post and to put an end to “political litmus tests in Germany” as a means of silencing opposition to Israel. 

Israel and Jewishness

Klein has been backed by academics who support the position that criticism of Israel is a form of antisemitism. This is an accusation that has painted many with its emotionally outraging but falsely equivalent brush, including South African Jewish activists Ronnie Kasrils and the late Denis Goldberg; renowned humans rights lawyer Richard Goldstone; former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn; and academics such as Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Žižek and Norman Finkelstein.  

When critics of Jewish origin dare to disagree with Israel’s policies, they’re dismissed as “self-loathing Jews” – because, after all, how could it be possible that you could be Jewish and not agree with the policies of the Jewish homeland unless you hate yourself as a Jew? The best answer is still that given by comedian Larry David: “I hate myself but it has nothing to do with being Jewish.” 

At the time of its publication, Mbembe’s article, which Deutsch used as the basis for his claims, was never criticised for any of the things it is now claimed offer evidence of its author’s alleged antisemitism. 

As Mbembe says, “What is said in relation to Palestine in the article is common sense and so banal – hundreds of thousands of people have written exactly the same thing, it’s nothing peculiar. In the article, the source of those descriptions of movements in particular in the occupied territories is a bunch of Israeli scholars and ethnographers, not even Palestinians themselves. All the references come from fieldwork done by Israeli scholars, all of them very respected in their disciplines. So I wasn’t inventing anything. These are also articles that have undergone peer review – the book itself too.” 

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He believes that Deutsch and Klein have exercised a retrospective and selective reading of his work to further their campaign against Carp and BDS. As he sees it, “They accused me and then they scrambled to find evidence and what they presented as evidence are short sentences picked here and there and taken out of context.” 

Mbembe observes that Deutsch, “who initiated this, as far as I am concerned, defamatory campaign – because that’s what it is, others have called it a witch hunt – is not even an academic. He’s a local politician who pretends to read my work better than all my peers, at least a thousand of whom have signed petitions to condemn what he’s doing and to denounce it. So I don’t understand why the words of a politician and a single bureaucrat should have more weight than the word of academic peers on a piece that has undergone peer review, which is the usual mechanism through which academic work is judged.” 

Manufactured enmity

Without going down the rabbit hole of an in-depth reading of the article and the many ways in which it is evidently not an example of what Deutsch and Klein accused it of being, the Society of Enmity is a complex and wide-ranging philosophical examination of the contemporary era, which Mbembe describes  as “undoubtedly characterised by forms of exclusion, hostility, hate movements, and, above all, by the struggle against an enemy. As a result, liberal democracies – already considerably ground down by the forces of capital, technology and militarism – are now being drawn into a colossal process of inversion.”

The article goes on to make the point that “by heightening and reproducing the affect of fear, liberal democracies have also gone on to manufacture bogeymen designed to scare their citizens – today a young veiled woman, tomorrow a terrorist novice returning from the battlefields of the Middle East, lone wolves and sleeper cells hidden away in the crevices of society, observing us, looking for the right moment to strike”.

Mbembe may well have added the image of the anti-Zionist, Jew-hating antisemite to this list, because the way he and others who critise Israel are treated demonstrates the tactic used by defenders of Israel to create a fearful picture of a world populated by antisemites waiting to pounce and re-enact the mass genocide of the Holocaust. These antisemites, it is said, are not only the obvious ones we see in neo-Nazi groups or those who desecrate Jewish graves with swastikas but, more insidiously, they also exist in the armies of those who have written and spoken out against the treatment of Palestinians. 

The pro-Israel camp uses the flimsy argument that Israel is the Jewish state and therefore to criticise Israel is to be against all Jews. To question the way Israel currently exists is thus said to be evidence of the belief that Israel shouldn’t exist at all. These claims cast enough doubt on critics to stop people from carefully evaluating their arguments. Accusing them of being antisemitic means they are not worthy of being listened to at all. 

When it comes to the thorny issue of comparisons between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the methods employed against black people during apartheid South Africa, South African-born supporters of Israel such as Ephraim Mirvis, the UK’s chief rabbi, and former Rand Daily Mail reporter Benjamin Pogrund argue that Israel is a democracy in which Arab citizens enjoy equal voting and other rights accorded to the country’s Jewish citizens. So when you question Israel’s policies, you are accused of being against a Jewish state, but when you compare it to apartheid, you’re reminded that it’s not an exclusively Jewish state and told that its recognised Arab citizens are treated without discrimination. 

Likewise, to compare the Holocaust to anything other than the Holocaust is considered by many supporters of Israel to be a clearly antisemitic lessening of the suffering of the Jews rather than a realisation that, as writer Jonathan Lanz recently argued in an article for Open Democracy, “the Holocaust was sadly not a unique crime, and historians and the public alike should reject the dangerous notion that the murder of Europe’s Jews by Nazi forces and their collaborators is above any comparison”.

Sowing doubt

Israel’s crisis of identity has also led to increased criticism of its policies from its own citizens and academics. 

Amos Goldberg, associate professor at the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a leader of the campaign in support of Mbembe, points out that “despite the narrowing of free speech in Israel, it is still the place where one can be most critical of Israel’s policies and even of Zionism. But in Israel we are not accused so much of being self-hating Jews or antisemites but mostly as traitors, unpatriotic and disloyal citizens!

“Outside of Israel the damage is huge. Israel and its supporters managed to manipulate the whole discourse on Israel-Palestine. Instead of talking about Israel’s crimes in the occupied territories and in Gaza, it’s fundamentally discriminatory nation-state law, it’s apartheid policy of occupation and annexation, and its violations of human rights and international law, we are all preoccupied by the question whether to criticise Israel for its crimes is antisemitic. Israel has become the accuser instead of being accused. She does not need to refute the charges of apartheid for example, it’s enough for her to label them as antisemitic in order to get away with it and to turn the tables on the oppressed, labelling them and their supporters antisemitic.” 

This strategy is aided by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) 2016 definition of antisemitism. While it acknowledges that “criticism of Israel, similar to that levelled against any other country, cannot be regarded as antisemitic”, the clause that suggests it is antisemitic to deny “the Jewish people their right to self-determination eg by claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour”, which makes it possible to conflate criticism of the country with antisemitism. The IHRA definition, which has been condemed by progressive scholars and critics of Israeli policy, also defines as antisemitic any criticism of Israel that it sees evidence of “applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”. 

All this illustrates a key point, which Mbembe makes in The Society of Enmity: “Public deliberation, which is one of the essential features of democracy, no longer consists in discussing and seeking collectively, under the eyes of all citizens, the truth and, ultimately justice. The great opposition no longer being that between truth and falsity, the worst crime becomes doubt.” 

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After sowing doubt in the minds of many supporters of Israel as to Mbembe’s attitudes to Jews in general, Deutsch, Klein and those who back their accusations have not succeeded in smearing him with the stain of antisemitism that would result in the retraction of his awards or invitations. Rather, there is now a strong backlash against Klein and, more broadly, against the German government’s policies towards Israel and those who are critical of its policies. 

Following the initial reports of Deutsch’s accusations and Klein’s subsequent support of them, 40 academics, most of them specialising in the research of antisemitism and Jewish, Holocaust and Israel studies – many of them from Israeli academic institutions – wrote an open letter to Horst Seehofer, Germany’s Minister of the Interior, Building and Community calling for Klein to be removed from his post. The signatories to the letter wrote that they were “perplexed that Mr Klein [joined the attack on Mbembe] without bothering to study Prof Mbembe’s work”. 

The letter went on to accuse Klein of committing a “disservice to the urgent fight against real antisemitism, casting a shadow over the integrity of his public office”. The writers also protested that Klein’s accusations against Mbembe of relativising the Holocaust were “toxic”, and that the use of the Holocaust in a comparative context, “is legitimate, essential and in fact commonplace in Holocaust and genocide studies”. Some 600 leading Holocaust scholars recently asserted that banning analogies from the debate about the Holocaust is “a radical position that is far removed from mainstream scholarship on the Holocaust and genocide. And it makes learning from the past almost impossible.” 

The letter also argues, “BDS is not antisemitic and is essentially protected by freedom of speech and freedom of assembly … We wish to add that this anti-BDS crusade is undeniably contributing to the marginilisation of non-white voices and minorities in Germany, fostering racism and nationalistic sentiments. It is a shame that none other than the Federal Commissioner for the fight against antisemitism is leading this trend.” 

Remaining intact

For now, Klein continues to occupy his position but the Mbembe controversy has also spurred over 1 000 international scholars and artists to sign a pledge, which makes the argument that “accusations of the kind levelled by politicians like Deutsch, Klein and city officials in Germany are intended to narrow the frame of the discussion solely to antisemitism and it pernicious impacts. They are designed to draw attention away from, and to silence, any critical focus on the treatment of Palestinians in Israel-Palestine. We anticipate that some will seek to paint this point as an expression of or relativisation of antisemitism; to do so would be to engage in exactly the tactics we are opposing with this statement.” 

Mbembe sees the responses as “comforting”, but admits that he “would rather be left alone”. “Frankly I’m really happy to live my life outside of that kind of media attention. All of this is a bit crazy really. I hope they will get exhausted at some point and leave me alone. I’m beginning to feel that Covid-19 has not been good for me.” On the plus side, as he wryly told New Frame, “My publisher tells me that my books have never sold as much as they are now.” 

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Perhaps Deutsch, Klein and their supporters would do well do stop using the “find” function on their computers to search for examples of words they don’t like occurring next to each other in sentences they have failed to read in context, and read the Society of Enmity and the many other groundbreaking books and articles Mbembe has written over his long and distinguished career. In doing so they might, as Mbembe recently told an interviewer for Deutschlandradio Kultur, hear “a voice which is open to the world and all who inhabit it, which is sensitive to suffering and misery, and which assiduously testifies on behalf of the forces of life, hope and reconciliation. This, I should add, is the gift South Africa has given me. Trying to share it with the world at large and in my own words cannot, in any reasonable account, be conflated with antisemitism.” 

As to the strange Kafkaesque turn of events that have marred much of his time during the lockdown, Mbembe resolutely asserts, “On a personal level, I know who I am, I know what I have been doing, I know where I come from, I know why I’m here and that remains intact.”

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