Postcolonial Theorists Antisemitism as white space

Against all anti-Semitism
Against all anti-Semitism | Photo (detail): Oliver Zimmermann / foto2press © picture alliance​

The merits of postcolonial research are very real. But the case of Achille Mbembe shows that it fails to recognise the true nature of anti-Semitism.

By Saba-Nur Cheema and Meron Mendel

The invitation of Achille Mbembe as opening speaker of the now cancelled Ruhrtriennale has been met with severe criticism. Felix Klein, the German government's anti-Semitism commissioner, accuses the Cameroonian historian of relativising the Holocaust, a criticism later echoed by FAZ editor Jürgen Kaube. Quotes in Mbembe's Politik der Feindschaft (i.e. politics of enmity) compare Israel's Palestinian policy with South Africa's apartheid.
In addition, he invokes the Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye” as the origin of the “ideologies of destruction” in the world - and thus once again makes Judaism responsible for all the havoc. In Die Zeit, Mbembe himself rejects the accusations with a light touch: he feels “not a trace of resentment or prejudice against anyone”. Conspicuously often he emphasises how much his writings were influenced by Jewish thinkers, only to finally admit that his research did not address the Holocaust, nor “Israel [...] nor its right to exist and to its security”.
If one nonetheless cuts him slack with his Jewish chief witnesses (à la “lots of my friends are foreigners”), one can still ask questions about the basis of his fundamental critique of Israel, which in the same sentence acknowledges its complete lack of expertise - quite independently of whether the right of states to exist can be the subject of serious research at all.

The Mbembe case points to a deeper problem

There is no doubt that current Israeli government policiy warrants sharp dissent, and many Israelis as well are following it only with desperation. However, “criticism of Israel” of Mbembe's sort arises from completely different concerns: For them the problem is not Israeli policy from Sharon to Netanyahu, but the existence of the Jewish state per se. The Mbembe case therefore points to a deeper problem, a problem of that branch of racism and colonialism research that identifies itself with Postcolonial Studies: its inability to take anti-Semitism as a problem seriously. There, it is understood quite predominantly as “just another form of racism” - while the continued, utterly unreflective demonisation of Israel reproduces anti-Semitic lines of thinking.
No one denies the merits of postcolonial research. Thanks to theorists ranging from Frantz Fanon to Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said to Achille Mbembe, research has been conducted into the impact of colonial history on the structure and everyday life of our society: German streets that used to honour slave traders; the unwillingness to acknowledge the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples (or even just deleting the N-word from children's books); a German drugstore chain that labels Afro hairstyles as “Wucherfrisur”, i.e. rampant overgrowth - Mbembe aptly calls this form of racism “nano-racism”, the “quite banal racism that has managed to spread everywhere and penetrate all pores and veins of society”.
 At a time when racist and right-wing ideologies are taking on deadly dimensions, analyses that reflect the colonial origins of these images are undiminished in their explosive topicality.
But just as racism must be identified where it is not obvious, anti-Semitism must be addressed when it is articulated among distinguished postcolonial theorists. Another German tribute in 2012, when the postcolonially-inspired gender researcher Judith Butler received the Adorno Prize, is worth recalling. Butler, herself Jewish, is known for her involvement in the Israel boycott movement BDS; among other things, she dubbed the Islamist Hamas a “part of the global left” due to its declared anti-imperialism. A prize, named after one of the most eminent critics of anti-Semitism, in the hands of a Hamas fan?

Partisanship against Israel

In Postcolonial Studies, unilateral partisanship against Israel seems so normal that even absurd positions are taken as legitimate. For instance, Mbembe feels for Palestinian suicide bombers: “The future martyr is looking for a happy life.” Every attack with “a few dead”, Mbembe says, “automatically leads to grief, as if on command”.
Gayatri Spivak defines Israel as a “colonial state", sees “in Palestine” only “old-style territorial imperialism and state terrorism” at work - and also shows understanding for suicide bombings, to which she attributes the emancipatory aspiration to “collectively change normality”. Edward Said, himself of Palestinian origin, categorically rejected the Oslo peace agreement and accused Israel of wanting to wipe out the Palestinians as a people.
What all these researchers have in common is that they cast the founding of Israel as a colonial project - and often display at least some degree of understanding for suicide bombings. In the case of such penetratingly critical intellects, which analyse even casual everyday expressions for their micro-aggressive potential, one must first of all be struck in a very fundamental way by how openly they justify deadly aggression against defenceless civilians - in this case Jews - without any particular ifs, ands or buts. Is this due to a fundamental flaw in the construction of Postcolonial Studies? Most of its theorists view it not only as a science, but also as a form of resistance. Current forms of hegemony and dependency are critiqued as neo-colonialism.

Forced identities

Founding father Fanon himself warned against “essentialist thinking”, which the colonial world order had produced in the first place and would continue to have an impact even after its abolition: Post-colonial societies should therefore not have positive recourse to the identity forced upon them by the former masters, but instead develop a completely new, emancipated identity.
Current Postcolonial Studies, however, are often far removed from this: a Manichaean division of the world into a “global North” and a “global South”, into oppressors and oppressed, reduces the complexity of the global situation to simple binary contradictions in which nothing third, nothing ambivalent is permitted. Israel is thereby lumped with the oppressors without further ado; not one thought is given to the fact that the founding of the state is due to centuries of persecution, from the pogroms in Russia and Poland to the Shoah. Jewish refugees and survivors rise in this reading to become powerful colonial masters; the founding of the state is construed as the birth of the “neo-colonial era”.
It is no coincidence that Postcolonial Studies' take on the concept of intersectionality often treats anti-Semitism only as a sub-form of racism. What is unique about anti-Semitism cannot be found in any description in Postcolonial Studies, since it contradicts the binary division of the world into oppressors and oppressed.

Accusations of anti-Semitism brushed aside

In contrast to racism, anti-Semitism is not based on the inferiority of certain groups of people, but conversely on their superiority, power and cunning. The anti-Semite sees himself as a victim, namely of oppression by Jews; he believes himself to be in a position of weakness and views his actions as self-defence. Theories which regard anti-Semitism merely as discrimination on the basis of “Jewish” characteristics are bound to fail, as are those which automatically assume that groups of people who consider themselves oppressed are in the right.
In a milieu in which it has become good practice to first of all believe those affected and to take all accusations of discrimination seriously, the “accusation of anti-Semitism” is often brushed aside as a “pretext” with ludicrous speed. It is then more than just significant that such arguments are gratefully accepted in a German society that sees the coming to terms with the past as completed and does not wish to put up with any more questions, but instead preaches morality to the state of the persecuted.
If postcolonial theorists do not wish to let themselves be instrumentalised by such all-too German needs, they must develop a concept of anti-Semitism that goes beyond a variation of racism, defines it genuinely in terms of social theory and keeps it out of trite binary divisions of the world into good and evil. Moreover, it must finally be acknowledged that all too often “criticism of Israel” is an outlet for precisely such resentment – a far cry from legitimate outrage at current Israeli governmental action.
If the postcolonial sciences do not succeed in abandoning such obsolete essentialism, they will indeed make themselves dependent on ex-colonial masters for the second time. In fact, it is hard to imagine what could be more colonial than German foes of Israel flying in from South Africa to legitimise their enmity. In this respect, too, a decolonisation of the debate itself is urgently necessary.

This article was first published in the Tageszeitung (taz) of 25.04.2020.