Wits University academic at centre of international anti-Semitism row

  • Achille Mbembe
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.
by NICOLA MILTZ | May 14, 2020

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.”

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