Wits University academic at centre of international anti-Semitism row
A highly respected professor at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) is at the centre of a raging international war of words over anti-Semitism and freedom of speech following widespread criticism of his past writings.
Acclaimed African academic Achille Mbembe, 63, has been accused of being anti-Semitic in countries like Germany where he is a popular public figure. He has been further criticised for trivialising and relativising the Holocaust in his writings; equating the state of Israel with apartheid; and questioning Israel’s right to exist. Mbembe says the “shameful allegations” against him are unfounded.
“I’m not a mere abstraction, but an actual human being with a name and a history,” Mbembe, who was born in Cameroon and obtained his PhD in History at the Sorbonne in France, told the SA Jewish Report. He is professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser), and his academic focus is on social science and post-colonialism. He has written extensively about contemporary politics and philosophy.
“The politician, the bureaucrat, and their allies who are waging a campaign against me aren’t scholars. I doubt they care who I am, where I come from, and what I stand for. I bet many are unable to pronounce my name correctly,” he said.
For several weeks, the eminent philosopher and historian has been the subject of a heated argument in Germany. The debate was triggered when Mbembe was invited to deliver the opening address at one of Germany’s most popular cultural festivals, the Ruhrtriennale, in August. The festival has since been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the debate over Mbembe’s invitation caused a mudslinging battle of wits.
In late March, the spokesperson of the Free Democratic Party in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Lorenz Deutsch, called for Mbembe to be barred from giving the festival’s opening speech. He criticised Mbembe for aligning himself with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) camp, something taken very seriously in Germany where the German parliament has declared the BDS movement to be anti-Semitic.
Mbembe told the Jerusalem Post that “this politician [Deutsch] has been waging a relentless racist campaign of defamation against me”.
Dr Felix Klein, the German government’s Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against anti-Semitism, entered the fray, demanding that the festival’s organisers rescind the invitation.
Klein’s involvement raised the ire of a string of left-leaning Jewish scholars who in turn called on German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer to replace Klein.
They described Mbembe as “one of the most important intellectuals in Africa” and said Klein’s attempt to frame Mbembe as an anti-Semite was “baseless”, calling the attack a witch hunt. They said “unjustified allegations” of anti-Semitism interfered with freedom of speech, especially when it came to controversial issues like Israel.
Meanwhile, another academic organisation, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, countered this with a show of support for Klein.
The long-winded and highly nuanced affair has generated a significant amount of media coverage internationally.
The intellectual, who lives with his partner and fellow academic, Professor Sarah Nuttall, and their two children in Johannesburg, has vehemently denied all the allegations.
Referring to his accusers, Mbembe asked the SA Jewish Report, “Why should anyone give them credibility on scholarly matters when internationally recognised scholars, each of whom is a specialist in the field, have condemned their misuse of the necessary struggle against anti-Semitism for political and ideological purposes?”
Mbembe told the weekly Die Zeit, “Everything I have ever written or said rests on a single foundation, namely the hope for the development of a truly universal community from which no one is excluded.” He added that anti-Semitism was a “terrible crime”.
In another interview, he said it would never occur to him to contest Israel’s right to exist.
“The truth is that although I am committed to Palestinian equality and freedom, I have no relationship whatsoever with BDS.”
However, over the past ten years, Mbembe’s record in this area speaks to the contrary.
In 2010, he was a signatory to a University of Johannesburg petition, backed by BDS-SA, calling for academics to support the call for the university to terminate its relationship with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University.
Two years later in 2014, he wrote the forward for an anti-Israel ebook titled: Apartheid: The Politics of Analogy. In it, Mbembe writes, “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.” … “And since all they are willing to offer is a fight to the finish, since what they are willing to do is to go all the way – carnage, destruction, incremental extermination – the time has come for global isolation.”
He again aligned himself with a BDS-backed campaign in 2015, which called on academics to sign a declaration supporting the rights of Palestinians, and pledging not to accept invitations to visit Israeli academic institutions or participate in Israeli conferences.
In 2016, Mbembe wrote a lengthy essay titled, “The Society of Enmity” in the publication Radical Philosophy, in which he has been accused of equating Israel with the former apartheid regime, and minimising the Holocaust.
Then in 2018, he supported the actions of BDS-SA against the inclusion of Israeli and Palestinian academics who were mostly involved in peace work in a conference at Stellenbosch University. The story was widely reported in the SA Jewish Report.
Mbembe and Nuttall, who works with him at Wiser, threatened to boycott the conference “as a non-violent strategy for ending the occupation”.
Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, said Mbembe’s claim that he did not support BDS actions was “simply not credible”.
“Over the past decade, Mbembe has been at the forefront of some of the most vicious BDS assaults on academic freedom globally. Mbembe’s claim that he is merely critical of Israeli government policies and not the existence of the Jewish state is disingenuous. He should dry his crocodile tears over academic freedom after consistently attempting to deny these freedoms to Israelis.”
Mbembe obtained his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris, and has enjoyed a sterling academic career. He has held visiting professorships at several prestigious American colleges. In Germany, Mbembe has been honoured many times for his work, and has received numerous international academic awards.
He told the SA Jewish Report that since his public statements on the issue, “I have left it to people of goodwill to judge for themselves.”
Joburg – city of architects and dreamers
In spite of its reputation for being the “engine room” of the country, Johannesburg has many elegant, experimental buildings designed by Jewish architects.
Johannesburg Heritage Foundation’s Flo Bird and Brian McKechnie recently took viewers on a virtual tour of many of these buildings, downtown and uptown. Some of them have fallen into disrepair, but they are still a testament to innovation, and continue to contribute to the lives of those who live and work in them.
The tour, unusually, linked the buildings to their creators’ graves at Westpark Cemetery, with epitaphs contributing to our understanding of who they were.
“This tour was inspired by encountering the graves of architects whose work I loved,” Bird said, pointing out that a virtual tour allows us to traverse the large Westpark Jewish Cemetery with ease.
It started with Morrie (MJ) Jacob, who died in 1950. Jacob designed the Doornfontein Synagogue (1905) otherwise known as the Lions Shul, named for the bronze lions on either side of the stairs. In its day, Doornfontein was a desirable address for Jews. Though today the shul is squashed up against Joe Slovo Drive with an ugly fence, it’s still loved for its beauty and unusual touches like minarets, stone columns, and basilica-like space.
Another one of Jacob’s buildings, Cohn’s Pharmacy in Pageview (1906), is an example of the city’s obsession with corner buildings, which tended to be far more elegant and accentuated than those in the middle of the block. Jacob’s Jewish Guild War Memorial building in the old city centre (1922/23) is a pile of an Edwardian building which also celebrates its corner status.
Israel Wayburne (1983) is known, among other things, for employing famous activist and communist Rusty Bernstein. He’s responsible for a number of the maisonette flats (two down, two up) in Yeoville.
“Each building contributes to an interesting and varied landscape [compared, say, to monotonous Fourways],” said Bird.
One of his most well-known buildings is, in fact, the ohel at Westpark, which has a religious and aesthetic function (in spite of an unsightly drainpipe addition at the front). “Luckily Issie doesn’t have to see it as his grave is on the other side of the building,” Bird commented.
Louis Theodore Obel (1956), who was in partnership with his brother, Mark, was a graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – as were many of the architects mentioned. Obel and Obel made a great contribution to art deco architecture, including the Barbican Building (1930), which was the tallest building in Johannesburg at the time, Astor Mansions, one of Joburg’s first skyscrapers, and Beacon Royale flats (1934), at the bottom of Yeoville on Louis Botha Avenue.
Maurice Cowen (1990) contributed to the decorative facades of many of Joburg’s best-known schools, including Parktown Girls and Jeppe Boys, and the panels gracing 1930s-era Dunvegan Chambers, Roehampton Court, Shakespeare House, and Broadcast House in the Johannesburg CBD. The latter was the original home of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The crazy antennae designed for the top of this building didn’t have any real function, McKechnie said, though it copied the antennae on top of the BBC, and there was briefly the idea of using it to dock airships.
Another Wits graduate, Leopold Grinker (1973), was an anti-establishment figure who disliked modernism. Grinker’s Normandie Court (1937) in Delvers Street, Newtown, combines art deco with his obsession with the streamlined form of ships. So too does Daventry Court in Killarney (also built in the 1930s), which was Killarney’s first modern block of flats.
Harold Leroith (also a Wits’ alma mater) is best known for designing Temple Emanuel in Parktown (1954). This minimalist, modern building has concrete recesses which make it sculptural and provide shade for its windows. It also shows concern for materials like stone and face brick.
Leroith also designed Redoma Court, which architects consider one of Johannesburg’s best buildings, and the iconic, shiplike San Remo (1937) Both are sadly in a dilapidated state in Yeoville.
Monty Sack, an architect and artist and another Wits graduate, (2009), incorporated the work of artists in Killarney Hills built on top of Killarney Ridge, built to house actors for the studio of American financier Isidore Schlesinger.
Sidney Abramowitch (2016) passionately lobbied to save Joburg’s historical buildings such as the Markham Building, and is known for designing Innes Chambers in 1963, now used by the National Prosecuting Authority. This unusual building with Y-shaped columns representing the scales of justice, was covered with mosaics, which recently had to be painstakingly restored.
Lastly, the tour touched on the work of Gerald Gordon (2016), also a Wits graduate, who the group described as “an outstanding brain who was unable to limit himself to any single factor”. Gordon, who incubated many of South Africa’s best-known architects in his many years of lecturing at Wits, is best known for designing mountain houses on Linksfield Ridge, such as 7 New Mountain Road (early 70s), which literally cling to the edges of cliffs.
He’s also known for developing a new construction method he named “thin-skin architecture” which uses no bricks and is extremely strong because of its monocoque construction (a type of construction used in cars and aeroplanes).
Like many others, the brilliance and bravery of these Jewish architects leaves a legacy that can’t be eradicated.
Nominations open for a historic Jewish Achiever Awards
The Absa Jewish Achiever Awards 2020 is now open for nominations.
Just when you thought nothing familiar and fabulous was going to happen, the SA Jewish Report is calling you onboard to begin its journey to this year’s Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.
COVID-19 may have brought live entertainment and events to a grinding halt, but this year’s awards will be held in a format that will make history and give ample recognition to those who have achieved great things.
This is the 22nd year of this unique awards ceremony in which Jewish individuals are acknowledged for the powerful, influential, and life-changing roles they play in South Africa. The Absa Jewish Achiever Awards acknowledges those who deserve recognition for their contributions to society, paying tribute to the men and women who have enhanced our community.
Scheduled to take place in mid-October, the annual extravaganza evening will go ahead in spite of a host of virus-related challenges.
“For the first time in the event’s history, we will be holding an online-offline event,” says Howard Sackstein, the chairperson of the SA Jewish Report. “While the actual event will be streamed live for people to watch without being present, guests will still be able to take part in this incredible event.”
Sackstein explains that while tables can be purchased as usual, the seating is virtual, as guests will experience a gourmet dining experience in the comfort of their own homes while watching the live event.
“Those who buy tables will have their meal delivered to their home, from cocktails to dessert,” says Sackstein. “We will also feature a virtual red carpet, with guests taking photos of themselves at home and sharing them online.”
While they tuck into their meal at home, guests will enjoy a livestream of the event, enjoying the evening’s entertainment and awards.
The awards are another area where exciting changes have been made.
“While guests are eating and watching the event, award winners will be announced live and have their awards handed over to them at home by a team waiting to ring their doorbell. This means that guests will actually see the handover of the award, and feel as though they are still part of the event without actually being there.”
Some of the award categories have also been transformed. In spite of the challenges posed by our trying circumstances, members of our community remain determined to stand out and make tangible contributions, and the awards need to reflect this, Sackstein says.
“Beyond being online, the event must be experiential in that it is relevant to the times in which we are living,” he says.
“COVID-19 has ensured that the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards has changed, and certain award categories have been adjusted to reflect our reality. Business leadership in the time of COVID will replace the usual Business Leadership Award, the Professional Excellence award will become the Professional Excellence in COVID award. Other categories will be similarly adjusted.”
Changes like these are essential, Sackstein says.
“Awards which ignore our circumstances would be meaningless,” he says. “We have moved to recognise those doing remarkable work and their efforts at this very moment which are most relevant to our community.
“We are celebrating our heroes. Heroes emerge in moments like these. Ordinary people have really grasped the mantle of leadership and provided such a remarkable example that we should all emulate.”
Every member of our community is encouraged to participate in acknowledging the tremendous efforts of those who have risen to the occasion of COVID-19 and beyond.
“While a lot of people are depressed and fatalistic about our reality, others have seen the opportunities it offers and striven to make our lives so much better,” says Sackstein. “We have to recognise and celebrate them, using them as an example of what we can do in these difficult times.”
Neighbour snatches family from fire
A fast-acting neighbour has been hailed as a hero for rescuing a young family whose flat was moments away from being engulfed in smoke and flames.
Last Thursday night, Jonathan Penn and his heavily pregnant wife Simone put their children and themselves to bed early due to unscheduled load-shedding, which plunged their flat on the third floor of Glen Manor in Glenhazel into darkness.
The couple ate an early dinner while it was still light enough to see, and were tucked up in bed by 18:30 with their two children, Judah, 5, and Ayden, 3, in the main bedroom with them.
Simone had lit candles to provide some soft ambient lighting, including a vanilla scented Yankee Candle on the mantle.
Sometime later, the family was shaken awake by frantic, loud banging on their front door and screams to get out.
The Penns were oblivious to the fire which had broken out in their kitchen just a few doors away.
Neighbours Marlon Nathan and his daughter, Tali, were arriving home after fetching takeaways when they saw rising flames in the kitchen of the flat next door to theirs. Had they been a few minutes earlier, they wouldn’t have seen the fire.
“As we rounded the stairs and turned left, we saw flames and thick black smoke coming from Jonathan and Simone’s kitchen. We dumped our bags and takeaways, and rushed to try get them out of there,” said Tali, 23.
Working together, the father and daughter team sprang into action and began screaming and knocking at the door to the flat. Pandemonium ensued as the family jumped out of bed and were greeted by a wall of smoke.
Simone, who writes a blog titled Mothers’ Nature, related her experience the next day. “In the glass windowpane above the front door we could see burning orange reflections. We all started to cough. We couldn’t breathe. The children were screaming. Jonny was trying to pull us away from the flames and the smoke into the lounge. He was scared the blaze was in the passage. He knew not to touch the handles. He knew not to open any doors. He thought we were trapped.
“I fumbled with the keys, one arm over my mouth. I couldn’t remember how keys worked. I couldn’t remember how the door worked.”
She told the SA Jewish Report that at that moment, she feared for their lives.
As Marlon was about to kick down the front door, it opened, and frantically, he pulled Simone, Judah, and Ayden out. The little girl, disorientated, ran back inside when she couldn’t see her father through the smoke. Marlon ran headlong into the smoke to retrieve her.
Tali, a student nurse currently working the COVID-19 wards at Milpark Hospital, said, “I’ve seen my share of trauma, but it’s entirely different when you see your father dash into a fire.”
Once the family was safe, Marlon said his focus turned to extinguishing the fire which was getting out of control.
“My priority was first to get the family out of the flat, and then to contain the spread of the fire. There are 88 flats with many elderly residents. I had no time to think about anything other than putting out that fire,” he said.
Jonathan and Marlon ran through the building collecting fire extinguishers to battle the flames.
Security guard Prince Elliot used large buckets of water to put out the last of the fire.
A distraught Judah was worried about his two birds, Tweety and Koko, whom he had left behind in all the commotion. He was calmed when a firefighter much later appeared clutching a perfectly intact bird cage containing two finches.
“That was when I broke down. Every single Penn was safe and accounted for,” said Simone.
The family believe a surge caused by the power outage caused a spark which ignited the fire. “We suspect a spark landed on a large tablecloth I had folded in the kitchen,” said Simone.
Relieved and grateful, she said, “I think Hashem sent angels in the form of Marlon and Tali, and then Prince. But of course we owe everything to Marlon. We owe him our life. He and Tali appeared at the exact right moment. I shudder to think what five minutes either way would have meant.”
Marlon, 56, who has been treated for smoke inhalation said, “I’m not a hero. I just did what anybody in that situation would’ve done.”
He was meant to be in Israel for his daughter’s wedding, but cancelled his trip the day before the fire. His daughter says she now knows why. “He was meant to be here to save lives,” she said.
“I believe the family was minutes away from dying. The smoke was so heavy and thick, they would have died in their beds. They wouldn’t have got to the front door. You could hardly see them when they came out. It was scary,” said Marlon.
A firefighter told the SA Jewish Report it could have ended very differently. “This was a potentially deadly fire. One flat can take out the building. There are many different people living there with different needs, including elderly in wheelchairs. There is a petrol station next to it and restaurants. It was potentially very dangerous.”
The Penns say their experience has taught them a lot about fire prevention. They recommend keeping a fire extinguisher, installing smoke alarms, turning off the mains when the power is cut, and installing surge plugs for appliances.
Both the Penns and the Nathans are living with family members while their homes are cleaned and repaired.
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