Anti-Semitism Accusations Against Achille Mbembe Interpreting Trauma

Decolonisation: Aspangbahnhof - Memorial of the City of Vienna to remember the deportations of Austrian Jews during Nazism
Aspangbahnhof - Memorial of the City of Vienna to remember the deportations of Austrian Jews during Nazism | Photo (detail): Hans Ringhofer © picture alliance / APA /

The African historian Achille Mbembe was the symbolic figure of a North-South dialogue that was just emerging. The debate about him is damaging to Germany, since memory culture must allow for engagement and debate with other perspectives and traumas. 

By Sonja Zekri

Opponents of corona restrictions protest with pictures of Anne Frank (Darmstadt) and warn against a health dictatorship along the lines of “Dr. Mengele” (Munich) Along with Bill Gates they blame George Soros or, more simply, “the Jews” for the virus. The rage from the internet has reached the streets and that it will be reflected in voting behaviour is obvious. Already last year the number of anti-Semitic crimes rose by 13 percent, including the attack on the synagogue in Halle. Anti-Semites can be found in German parliaments, anti-Semitic jokes in German comedy.

It seems as if all the public enlightenment about guilt and responsibility did not exist, as if something that goes back centuries, that was never mastered, never contained, but only temporarily went out of sight, is breaking through. The old, new anti-Semitism of the Germans is a fearsome sight.

And yet at the centre of the anti-Semitism debate is a man who is not German at all: the historian Achille Mbembe, who was born in Cameroon and teaches in South Africa. An intellectual star of the African continent, he was a welcome guest until a few weeks ago. His appearances with then-Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the “Berliner Korrespondenzen” in the Gorki Theatre, his awards such as the Geschwister Scholl Prize of the City of Munich or the Gerda Henkel Prize were welcomed as proof of Germany's willingness to engage in dialogue with the global South, of course “on an equal footing”.

Postcolonialism researchers see the Mbembe case as a diversionary tactic

But what was hailed back then as the original, far-reaching approach of a global thinker is suddenly suspect. Comparisons between the Israeli occupation policy and South African apartheid serve as evidence of his hostility towards Israel and his anti-Semitism. His Suhrkamp volume Politik der Feindschaft (i.e.politics of enmity) of 2017, travel notes on Israel from 1992 - almost every day, passages are added that are often disingenuously shortened and distorted with the intention of documenting a relativisation of the Holocaust and anti-Semitic leanings. Connections of Postcolonial Studies to Jewish intellectual history are examined - Mbembe references the conservative philosopher Franz Rosenzweig - analyses of the religious anti-Semitism of the Dominicans are also drawn upon - Mbembe attended a Dominican boarding school. When he wrote in DIE ZEIT that Israel's right to exist was “fundamental to the balance of the world”, this statement was not read as an unconditional commitment to the Jewish state, but as a formulation that the inhabitants of Israel perhaps might not share.

As is now almost always the case in Germany, such accusations are linked to the accusation of being close to the excessively overrated boycott movement BDS. Another aspect of the controversy is open condescension. When Felix Klein, the German government's anti-Semitism commissioner and chief critic of Mbembe, remarks that a “philosopher from Africa”, a “foreign academic” has interfered in a question that belongs to “German identity”, this reveals not only a peculiar “claim to ownership of the interpretation of the Shoah” (taz), but also a judgement on knowledge and competence. Incidentally, other countries do not enjoy this privilege: Klein, who lived for years as a diplomat in Mbembe's native land of Cameroon, did his doctorate on Cameroonian marriage law.

The resonance of the dispute abroad is tremendous. 377 eminent academics from Israel, the USA, Great Britain and other countries have expressed their solidarity with Mbembe. On Monday, more than 700 African intellectuals plan to publish an open letter to Chancellor Merkel in which they call for unconditional condemnation of the false and grotesque accusations” against Mbembe and - like 37 intellectuals before them - Klein's dismissal. Others support Felix Klein. To say that the front lines have hardened would be an understatement.

If the reputation of a single scholar were at stake, the damage would be limited, even for Mbembe. During a Skype call to South Africa, an indignant man speaks, who intends to insist on an apology from Klein for the rest of his life”, but internationally is anything but finished: Mbembe has never received so many translation requests, including from Israel, so many lecture proposals and book offers. He should tell what happened to him in Germany. He will not be appearing there any time soon.

And then Mbembe utters a sentence that would be a banality if it did not lead to the heart of the German controversy: I respect the German taboos, but they are not the taboos of all other people in the world. And the same goes for German guilt.” Mbembe sees the fight against global anti-Semitism as a task for humanity, but he reserves the right to refer to other experiences of violence, to German colonialism, global techniques of exclusion, camps, disenfranchised people, or, as he calls them: Negroes”.

Can someone like that be allowed to comment on Germany's past? May he, to complicate matters, talk about Israel? A few years ago the question would have been easier to answer. But while Germany's anti-Semites are brazenly out in force, the public's attitude to the Holocaust has changed. In Israel, comparative research on the Holocaust and the Naqba, the expulsion of the Palestinians through the founding of the Israeli state, can be carried out at universities. In Germany, such a debate would be virtually unthinkable, as even a simple overview of these historical events would quickly come under suspicion of relativisation.

Mbembe would be the key to providing immigrants with access to German history

Emblematic of the new standards is Düsseldorf FDP state parliament member Lorenz Deutsch. He had kicked off the debate with his demand for the cancellation of Mbembe's appearance at the Ruhrtriennale, which was later rendered superfluous when the Ruhrtriennale was cancelled due to the Corona crisis. He has not yet commented on the anti-Semites at Corona demos, but he regularly tweets about Mbembe, and his homepage still carries the text “Postkoloniale Israelfeindschaft” (i.e. post-colonial hostility to Israel). If it were up to him, the Israeli occupation would basically be excluded from any comparative consideration: If someone says I have to take care that Africa doesn't turn into an open-air prison like Gaza, then things get problematic”.

It is an attitude that is certainly born of the best intentions. If it prevails, a scientific exchange with the global South is impossible, because there Israel is also perceived as a - white - occupying power. Researchers of National Socialism or anti-Semitism, as well as museum educators, have been deploring for years the dwindling scope for action, but now they fear that the Mbembe case could become a Khodorkovsky moment. If a figure of his stature can be demolished at this speed, who else will dare to participate in a conference in Germany? The cultural scientist Aleida Assmann, one of the few who still speak by name, speaks of a „caesura, a disgrace for Germany as a centre of science and scholarship”. One researcher adds helplessly with regard to German conferences: Then we can just forget about it.”

Post-colonialism researchers see the Mbembe case as a diversionary tactic: it would once again forestall Germany’s having to face up to its colonial crimes and the issue of reparations or restitution of looted assets. But that is only one part of the picture.

“The fixation on the singularity of the Holocaust”, according to Assmann, leads to the isolation of the Shoah and its encapsulation as memory. This ultimately makes it sterile. The last contemporary witnesses are dying. Syrians, Iraqis, Eritreans, however, bring other traumas with them. If one wants to awaken their empathy for the Holocaust, one must take their experiences of violence seriously and relate them to the Shoah, otherwise one will lose them.  “We are no longer the pure-bred (biodeutsche) German collective of perpetrators, but an immigrant society and need new approaches to our history. We could enter into conversation by crossings and traversings”, says Assmann: “Mbembe would be the key here.”

The Historikerstreit (historians' dispute) concerned the identification of society with the Shoah, and the issue of a special responsibility for Israel was part and parcel of it. Almost 35 years later, Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu shows autocratic traits and gets along well with his Hungarian colleague Viktor Orbán, who occasionally makes anti-Semitic remarks. The AfD admires Netanyahu: for his ruthless treatment of Palestinian Muslims and his efforts to create a religiously and ethnically homogeneous state that the AfD would approve of. It is easy to guess which side the AfD is on in the Mbembe case.

This article was first published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung of 15.05.2020.