This article by Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld was originally published at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), and republished here with the authors consent.
THE MAJOR WHITEWASHING OF ACHILLE MBEMBE’S ANTISEMITISM
Achille Mbembe is a public intellectual from Cameroon who has taught at a variety of prestigious universities. He currently holds a position at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mbembe is an extreme anti-Israel inciter. Nevertheless, he was invited to be the keynote speaker at this year’s August 14 inaugural event of the German Ruhr Triennale. This music and cultural festival was scheduled to take place in August and September 2020.
The first opponent to Mbembe’s invitation was the cultural spokesman of the liberal FDP party in the parliament of the German federal state of North Rhine Westphalia. In late March, Lorenz Deutsch wrote an open letter to Stefanie Carp, the festival’s artistic director, asking her to disinvite Mbembe. Deutsch noted that Mbembe wrote that Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians was worse than South Africa’s treatment of the black population under Apartheid. The invitee was also an academic supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement which demonizes Israel. Deutsch noted that in 2018, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia banned public funds for institutions that provide BDS activists a platform.
Deutsch also mentioned that Mbembe was one of around 300 signatories of a 2010 petition calling for the University of Johannesburg to cut all ties with Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
Major antisemitic developments in Germany are not often noticed internationally due to the language barrier. However, Benjamin Weinthal brought the scandal to the attention of readers of the Jerusalem Post. Mbembe denied to the Jerusalem Post that he was an antisemite. Yet later the Mbembe affair developed largely in German without English readers being able to follow the details.
Several media recalled that Carp was also heavily criticized in 2018 when she invited a music group that holds close ties to the antisemitic BDS movement to the festival.
A major attack on Mbembe followed a few days later by Alan Posener, an editor at the national daily, Die Welt. His article was titled: “Enough Tax Money for Anti-Israel Inciters.” Posener noted that in 2016 in a major essay, “The Society of Enmity,” Mbembe had declared that Muslims and Blacks are the Jews of today. Furthermore, Mbembe wrote that Israel’s policy in the occupied territories was a laboratory for the worldwide policy of control, monitoring and exclusion of Negroes. Thus, many people in the world are victims of the Jews.
Posener pointed out that Mbembe also suggested that Israel’s current policy towards the Palestinians was worse than apartheid. He wrote that Israel has a “fanatic policy of destruction which aims to turn the life of the Palestinians into a pile of trash which has to be cleaned. In South Africa, the rubble piles never reached those dimensions.” Mbembe denied the charges in an email to the national daily, Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
On April 23, Posener doubled down on Mbembe with an article titled: “The Three Major Untruths of the Israel Hater.” He defined Mbembe’s defense in three ways. First, the accusation of antisemitism disturbs academic freedom and freedom of thought. Mbembe’s second claim was a repeat of an old one – that he couldn’t be an antisemite because he based his arguments on the thoughts of Jewish thinkers. Among which was the highly controversial Hannah Arendt.
Third, Mbembe claimed that he should be allowed to criticize Israel, all the more so, as Israel’s actions are very severe. He now introduced a new confusing issue into the debate – post-colonialism. Posener described Mbembe’s text as sloppy. He wrote that the only issue at stake was whether a man like Mbembe should be the opening speaker of the Ruhr Triennale. That issue, however, had been settled toward the end of April as this year’s festival was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
This cancellation was very convenient for the board of the festival which no longer needed to make a decision whether to disinvite Mbembe. NRW’s Minister of Culture, Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen, said that she doubted whether Mbembe’s invitation was in line with the state parliament’s 2018 decision against BDS. The minister fully condemned “all boycotts against Israel.” She convened the supervisory board of the Ruhr Triennale to discuss the situation. Carp’s contract which was set to expire later this year was not prolonged.
German antisemitism commissioner, Felix Klein, also came out against Mbembe’s antisemitism. Klein told the WAZ (Funke Group) on April 15 that the opening speech for such an important festival should not be made by someone who has been known to relativize the Holocaust. Klein added that Mbembe had contested the right of Israel to exist in his writings. This went even beyond his comparison of Israel with the apartheid system of South Africa “which represents a well-known antisemitic motif.” Klein commented that an opening speech by Mbembe at a festival which received public money would cause political damage.
As the festival had already been cancelled in April, one could have assumed that with that the Mbembe affair would have ended. On the basis of quotes from his writings he had been exposed as a (part-time) antisemite. The leading academic scholar of antisemitism in our generation, the late Robert Wistrich, had summarized the 2000 year old history of antisemitic intellectuals in an interview. One more contemporary intellectual antisemite among others was thus not very significant.
Yet all this turned out to have been only a prelude to another major development. A large number of antisemitism whitewashers – many very aggressive — came to Mbembe’s defense. Toward the end of April, Andreas Görgen, the Director of the German Foreign Ministry Department for Culture and Communications, tweeted at least seven posts on the issue.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, (SWC) stated that the German Foreign Minister should launch an investigation into these tweets. He added that the SWC is considering including Görgen’s actions in its list of top ten antisemitic and anti-Israel activities in 2020. Later FDP parliamentarian, Frank Müller-Rosentritt, questioned the foreign office about Görgen’s tweets. The Ministry gave an evasive answer. It seems however, as initially mentioned, that the official did not tweet only pro-Mbembe posts but an equal number of pro- and-anti Mbembe posts. Not smart perhaps but no reason to include these in a list of antisemitic incidents.
German and international scholars wrote a letter declaring their solidarity with Mbembe. There was a second letter that was far worse. Jewish teachers at Israeli and US universities and artists — many of them well-known Jewish masochists — wrote to the German Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer. They claimed that Mbembe was not an antisemite, BDS was not antisemitic and that Klein should be dismissed as German antisemitism commissioner. Stating that the obvious antisemite was not an antisemite and thus the antisemitism Commissioner should be fired was an extreme case of antisemitism whitewashing.
In response to these letters, a number of Jewish and civil society organizations in Germany addressed an open letter to Seehofer, defending Klein. They were backed by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, (SPME), an organization representing 50,000 academics.
Uwe Becker, the antisemitism Commissioner of the state of Hessen and mayor of Frankfurt, also supported Klein. He stated that “Mbembe’s bigoted comparisons of apartheid with the Holocaust, his negative portrayal of Jews going back to the 1990’s and his completely one-sided criticism of Israeli politics have contributed to the defamation and delegitimization of the Jewish state.” Becker added that Mbembe promotes the spread of anti-Israel and antisemitic resentment. He condemned the “campaign” to have Klein removed. This campaign included partly antisemitic motifs, Becker said.
In the meantime, it also became known that Mbembe had threatened to withdraw from a conference at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University in 2018 because a leading Israeli psychologist was among the invited speakers. Professor Shifra Sagy of Ben Gurion University was subsequently disinvited.
On May 8, Mbembe placed an article in French on his Facebook page titled, The Moral Conditions of the Struggle Against Antisemitism. It was also published by the extreme left German daily, TAZ. As Mbembe’s antisemitic texts had been exposed, he now answered with insinuations. The first was that he claimed he had been the object of a totally unfounded crazy and sneaky attack from right and extreme right wingers in Germany. This was untrue. The attacks came mainly from the mainstream of German society. Others were local and international Jewish organizations.
The second insinuation was presented shrewdly. He wrote that at the origin of the defamation campaign against him was the local politician from North Rhine Westfarling, Lorenz Deutsch: “I have been asked whether he has any connections to neo-Nazi circles or ultra-nationalists. I don’t know anything about that.” He thus constructs this insinuation suggesting that others have asked him this question. Yet Deutsch had not defamed Mbembe, but exposed him as an antisemite, something radically different.
Mbembe then moved on to insinuation number three. He wrote that “our politician could not say that he did not want a negro at the Festival…so he found something better. He had a demonic idea: an antisemitic negro….for Deutsch the idea is unbearable that a negro can think by himself and have moral viewpoints.”
The truth is that antisemitism definitions are color-neutral. They are based on facts. There is no antisemitism premium or discount depending on whether the antisemite in question has white, black, brown, yellow or red skin. In the article, Mbembe admitted that he had signed a call to break off relations with Ben Gurion University.
There is nothing demonic about calling a specific black person antisemitic. ADL studies have found that African Americans remain considerably more likely than white Americans to hold antisemitic views. One might mention that the leading antisemite in the United States is Louis B. Farrakhan – an African American (or if one wants “black”.) The French black comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, is a serious contender for the title of France’s leading antisemite.
On May 10, Jürgen Kaube publisher of the national daily, Frankfurter Algemeiner Zeitung (FAZ), wrote that those who defend Mbembe often do not refer to his antisemitic texts. Instead, they claim to focus on the supposed aims of those who rightly point out that they exist. Kaube further noted that German historian, Thomas Weber, drew attention to a travelogue Mbembe published in 1992 under the title “Israel, the Jews and Us.” In it, Mbembe presented the Holocaust as an event in the history of colonialism and Israel as one big betrayal of the Jewish experience of persecution. Mbembe also claimed that Israel was “taking the place of the murderers,” mentioning that the God of the Jews is a God of vengeance. In 2015, he wrote that Israel is moving toward incremental obliteration of the Palestinians.
A few days later 337 scientists and artists from 30 countries published a letter protesting “political interference aimed at silencing advocates of Palestinian rights guaranteed under international law.” Among them were some well-known extreme Jewish masochists — a euphemism – such as Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky and Amos Goldberg.
On May 18, a letter was published whitewashing Mbembe’s antisemitism. It was signed by more than 700 African scholars and artists. The letter was addressed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Walter Steinmeier. It started with a lie which has already been exposed above: “We, African intellectuals, thinkers, authors and, artists condemn without any reserve the lying antisemitic accusation of extreme right, hostile to foreigners and right-wing conservative groups in Germany against Professor Achille Mbembe.”
Once a text starts with such a substantial fallacy, the whole document becomes suspect. Toward the letter’s end the signatories asked for the dismissal of Felix Klein-Antisemitism Commissioner. In between there is a lengthy text about morality and memorial culture which is irrelevant to the Mbembe affair. That part could have been mailed irrespective of it.
In an interview with the German paper, Die Zeit on May 20, Klein explained why he had condemned Mbembe: “You can find all the features of Israel-focused antisemitism: Israel is demonized, a double standard is established, and the legitimacy of the country as a whole is called into question. In 2015, Mr. Mbembe wrote a Foreword for the book, Apartheid Israel, in which he argued that Israel is worse than the apartheid regime of South Africa. Revenues from the book went to a BDS group.”
Klein also referred to the relationship between post-colonial studies and antisemitism: “Some of these theories very clearly stand in opposition to our culture of remembrance.” In this interview Klein didn’t even mention that since he made his original remarks, additional examples of Mbembe’s incitement against Israel had become known.
The Mbembe affair has not ended. The debate continues in the German media. Patrick Bahners wrote in the FAZ that less than half the signatories reside in Africa. The signatories reduced the debate to a question of origin. That origin they interpreted freely since white intellectual signatories also seemed to qualify as black Africans. In another article Bahners pointed out that it had come to light that two major German academic defenders of Mbembe, Aleida Assmann and Susan Neiman were not familiar with his theories and work.
In the meantime, it also became known that Mbembe had received two prestigious German awards. In 2015, he received the Geschwister Scholl prize (Sibings Scholl). This prize of 10,000 Euro was particularly misplaced because Hans & Sophie Scholl were symbols of the — not very big resistance — in Germany during the Nazi regime. In 1943 they were condemned to death and executed. In 2018, Mbembe received the Gerda Henkel prize of 100 000 Euro. The laudation was held by the German socialist Minister for International Cultural Policy, Michele Müentefering. She said that it was a great honor to have been asked to make this speech.
It would be very useful to have a psychologist comment on the attitude of Mbembe, his extreme statements and lies about them. The more so as this extreme anti-Israel inciter writes about empathy and the need to repair the world. Furthermore, it would also be worthwhile to have a university teacher task a student with collecting all the fallacies of Mbembe’s supporters and analyze what was wrong with them. In the above text only a small part could be mentioned.
The various defenders of Mbembe — who has made a series of extreme antisemitic remarks — have together created one of the most aggressive antisemitism whitewashing campaigns of recent years. The SWC in its annual list of top ten major antisemitic incidents of the year should include the combined defenders of Mbembe.