Accusations against Achille Mbembe Lumping everything together

Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe | Photo (detail): Matthias Balk © dpa

Can the philosopher Achille Mbembe, who is widely admired in Germany, be accused of anti-Semitism? Jürgen Kaube asks this question in his article “Alles in einem Topf“ (Lumping everything together), published on 20th April 2020 in the feature section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

By Jürgen Kaube

The historian and political philosopher Achille Mbembe was invited by the director of the Ruhrtriennale to open the festival there in August 2020 with a speech. The German government's commissioner for anti-Semitism opposed this on the grounds that Mbembe has relativised the Holocaust and questioned Israel's right to exist. So is he suitable for a public appearance such as this? The Gerda Henkel Foundation, which awarded Mbembe a highly endowed prize for his research two years ago, replies that it is not aware of any writings by him that could justify such doubts. Director General Stefanie Carp, reports Deutschlandfunk, also reads the essay to which the critics of the invitation refer “completely differently”.

So let us read what Mbembe has written in the second chapter of his book Politik der Feindschaft (Politics of Enmity), published by Suhrkamp in 2017. In it he is concerned with the desire that arises in some states for an enemy, for the separation of population groups and the living-out of annihilation fantasies. Mbembe does not name the bearers of such wishes all that specifically. He says that “the subject” has such fantasies because of his or her fear of annihilation. Moreover, he has little interest in differences between the varieties of evil fantasies: “omnipotence, amputation, destruction or persecution, that is of scant significance”. In other words: The one is as bad as the other.

Perhaps in the fantasy of a “subject”. In reality, on the other hand, whether a fence separates residential areas or nations from each other or inmates of an extermination camp from survival is significant. Whether a population sees itself threatened for no reason or with reasons. Whether a country experiences itself in a state of war or not. Whether annihilation is what is planned, or “separation”. All these are evil or bad, but they are not the same.

Differences in what is bad are also significant in passages of Mbembe's text to which his critics refer. For Mbembe, Israel's “occupation of the Palestinian territories” is a unilateral matter of violence, destruction, harassment and “generalised prison-camp detention”. Cemeteries are desecrated, olive groves devastated, “targeted killings” committed. All this reminds Mbembe “in some respects” of apartheid as it was in South Africa from 1948 to 1980. But his text says nothing about the military attack on Israel on the day it was founded, about the circumstances of the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, about Palestinian terrorism, the Intifada and Iran.

In fact, for him the Israeli violence is much more drastic than that of the Boers in South Africa. For one thing, Israel's actions, through the use of advanced technological means (weapons, surveillance systems), have far worse effects. Mbembe ascribes to the Israeli state the intention to turn the lives of the Palestinians into “a mountain of refuse destined for disposal”. On the other hand, this project rests “on a quite unique metaphysical and existential pedestal”, on “apocalyptic resources and catastrophes”.

Apocalyptic origins

This seems to be nothing less than a claim that Israel's Palestine policy is to be understood both from the experience of the Holocaust and from Old Testament sources. Mbembe is one of those authors who can get by with a minimum of evidence in the case of maximally strong assertions. For the accusation that Israel seeks to “dispose of” the lives of Palestinians, referencing fifty pages of a photographic theorist whose book documents and comments on the massive destruction of Palestinian real estate since 1948 suffices. The author supports campaigns of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). In his estimation, the literary scholar Saree Makdisi, also a supporter of the BDS and an early advocate of the thesis that Israel is worse by far than the apartheid regime because of its intentions of annihilation, has demonstrated the Israeli “techniques of both material and symbolic extermination”.

Mbembe documents the apocalyptic origins of this will to destroy with statements by Judith Butler, who supports BDS, and with the Zionism study by Jacqueline Rose. In 2005, under the title “The Question of Zion”, she not only informed the reader that Zionism was an invention of psychiatric patients, but also gave out without commentary the tale that Theodor Herzl and Adolf Hitler had each drawn their inspiration for Der Judenstaat and Mein Kampf from the same Paris performance of an opera by Richard Wagner. (Herzl completed his book in 1895, Hitler was six years old at the time and only seldom in Paris).

Let us interrupt our reading of Mbembe's documentation at this point. Because no matter how one looks at the matter itself, there are a bit too many BDS sympathisers in his footnotes to believe what he now claims: that he has nothing to do with this boycott movement, as endorsement of the thesis that Israel has always been an illegitimate, violent and racist entity is not exactly a private hobby of its advocates.

Old-Testament destructiveness?

He himself not only believes that the apartheid regime was a weaker version of what Israel was doing to the Palestinians, but that it was a manifestation of the “separation mania” that was also evidenced on a completely different scale by the extermination of the European Jews. Hitler, the Boers and Netanyahu. Here we have a discourse in which analogy is the highest form of thought turns cynical. Annihilation presupposes separation, thus annihilation manifests separation, whereby separation is coterminous with annihilation? To be sure, everything is somehow connected with everything else, lurks in everything – the separation, colonialism, the shameful treatment of the Palestinians – all sorts of things and therefore also the annihilation. To be sure, even when the light of logic is switched off, everything somehow resembles everything else. But how much discernment is sacrificed in favour of buzz-word indignation when one expresses oneself in such a fashion?

In his essay, Achille Mbembe finds that the destructiveness that he sees at work in all ideologies is “in the final analysis” linked with the Old Testament. For there the principle of “an eye for an eye” applies. It is not quite clear what exactly this has to do with South Africa or Israel, except perhaps that, yet again, Judaism is responsible. Mbembe refrains from examining other early legal systems. What is clear, however, is that he does not grasp the extent to which this selfsame principle of the talion was intended to curb the desire for destruction in the form of revenge by establishing exact equivalents for punishment. Any comprehensive textbook on legal history will provide information on this.

There is a lengthier passage in Mbembe's text that deals with another reaction to perceived injustice, namely suicide bombings. He manages to deal with this fact without mentioning who carries out such attacks. For him, a suicide bombing is a critique of hedonism: “The suicide bomber who kills his enemy in the act of suicide proves how much, in terms of the political, the real rupture today runs between those who cling to their bodies and consider the body to be life, and those for whom the body opens the way to a happy life only when it is purified”. In favour of a higher hedonism, however: “The martyr-to-be seeks a happy life.” Just not for the others. Every attack with “a few dead”, Mbembe says, “automatically leads to grief, as if on command”. The way from tears to weapons is not long. So if a terrorist blows himself up along with a number of people who are not involved in the injustice, are those who consider this act hostile and react to it with police or military action ultimately evil? If the Henkel Foundation considers such arguments to be the results of outstanding research, then its notion of research surely deserves to be called into question.

But let us return to the question of whether Mbembe can be accused of anti-Semitism. In his essay he himself presents the concept of “nano-racism”. By this he means racist undertones in supposedly harmless communication: prejudicial utterances about skin colour, foreigners, other religions. If one applies this standard to Mbembe's own statements, one can at least speak of nanoanti-Semitism. Or how is it to be understood when, after a statement on the fatality of a group defined by blood and soil, he adds the remark: “As is well known, the Jews paid the price for this in the heart of Europe.” They paid it, the price, for what exactly, Mr. Mbembe? Endogamy? So the Holocaust was a deplorable reaction to their existence as such? Last time around, it was Ernst Nolte who in his later years had reasoned along these lines.

Achille Mbembe can blather on as he likes. One foolish intellectual is more or less irrelevant. But it is regrettable that publishing editors, foundation committees, festival directors and possibly even cultural officers in ministries do not read what is written here. That they don't take the time to vet whom they declare to be a major figure, even a moral authority. We have already seen better examples of this.

This article was first published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 20.04.2020.