One of Germany’s leading cultural festivals was at the center of a row over antisemitism on Tuesday, as a German Jewish organization joined in with earlier demands to cancel the opening address at the event by an academic charged with “antisemitism” and “Holocaust relativization.”
In a letter to the elected leadership of the North-Rhine Westphalia state in western Germany, the Jewish Values Initiative asserted that the invitation to Prof. Achille Mbembe to speak at the renowned Ruhrtriennale festival on Aug. 14 should be revoked.
The group said that Mbembe — a Cameroonian sociologist currently teaching in South Africa — had in his writings made the “antisemitic” equation between the former apartheid regime in South Africa and the Israeli government, endorsed the anti-Zionist campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction the Jewish state, and diminished the Holocaust by bracketing it with the apartheid system.
“As Mbembe accuses Israel of apartheid and compares the former South African apartheid system to the Shoah, this leads to the legitimate assumption that he equates the position of the democratic State of Israel towards the Palestinian Arabs with that of the National Socialists during the Shoah –an antisemitic picture in its purest form,” the letter argued.
The Jewish Values Initiative protest came a few days after Germany’s top federal official dealing with antisemitism called for Mbembe’s appearance at the festival to be nixed.
“Delivering the opening speech to such an important event is a task of responsibility, not least given the fact that the festival is financed with public funds,” Felix Klein — the German government’s antisemitism commissioner — told the WAZ news outlet last Friday. “The person selected should be someone who lives up to this responsibility, not someone who has been criticized in the past for the relativization of the Holocaust.”
Klein said that Mbembe had “questioned Israel’s right to exist and also compared South Africa’s apartheid system to the Holocaust — something that is out of the question in view of the unprecedented crimes during the Nazi era, and especially given Germany’s historical responsibility for it.” He warned that the Ruhrtriennale festival would suffer “considerable damage” if Mbembe’s speech went ahead.
The controversy has stemmed largely from a lengthy essay Mbembe wrote in 2016 titled “The Society of Enmity.” Arguing that the present state of world politics was “characterized by forms of exclusion, hostility, hate movements, and, above all, by the struggle against an enemy,” Mbembe went on to state that “the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories can be seen to serve as a laboratory for a number of techniques of control, surveillance and separation, which today are being increasingly implemented in other places on the planet.”
Later in the same essay, Mbembe argued that the “metaphor of apartheid” — the brutally-enforced segregation of the black-majority population in South Africa for much of the twentieth century — could not “fully account for the specific character of the Israeli separation project.”
Wrote Mbembe: “[G]iven its ‘hi-tech’ character, the effects of the Israeli project on the Palestinian body are much more formidable that the relatively primitive operations undertaken by the apartheid regime in South Africa between 1948 and the early 1980s.”
Mbembe was also criticized for his statement that the “apartheid system in South Africa and the destruction of Jews in Europe — the latter, though, in an extreme fashion and within a quite different setting — constituted two emblematic manifestations of this phantasy of separation.”
In an email on Monday to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, Mbembe vigorously denied that the charges against him had any validity.
“I am not a member or supporter of BDS or any other organization involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Mbembe stated, adding: “I don’t believe in a general boycott of Israeli academics.”
Furthermore, he disputed the accusation that he had relativized the Holocaust, saying that he knew of “no serious social scientist who would compare the apartheid system in South Africa with the Holocaust.”