Discussion about the historian Mbembe A quest for clarity

The Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem (Israel)
The Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem (Israel) | Photo (detail): Peter Kneffel © dpa-Report

Classic partisan thinking dominates the debate surrounding the accusation of anti-Semitism against Achille Mbembe. More ambivalence would be advisable.

By Peter Ullrich

The discussion about possible Israel-related anti-Semitism and Holocaust relativisation as a result of inappropriate comparisons by philosopher Achille Mbembe is having a far-reaching impact. After attacks on Mbembe, his defenders are now taking up their positions, even calling for the resignation of the minister for anti-Semitism from the government, the incident that kicked off the discussion.
The daily newspaper taz published several essays, not so much fanning the flames but conducting the debate with a largely neutral tone. But although the perspectives expressed are a noticeable contrast with the level of debate about Mbembe on social media, they also document a dilute form of the same problem that has been characterising the viewpoints within the discussion about anti-Semitism and the Middle East for a long time.

What we are repeatedly seeing in this context is a logic of polarised side-taking and a quest for clarity in the analytical and ethical classification of events or people. In most cases this leads to Mbembe being either discredited or defended across the board. It’s no coincidence that this is reminiscent of other occurrences of partisanship for Israel or the Palestinians, who are always on standby with the strongest verbal weapons (quite often NS associations).

Apart from the cliché-ridden and minimal dissociations that are now part of the apologetic tone underlying this debate, such as “We don’t all share his views”, or “Some of us have a certain opinion of the BDS, others think differently”, most contributions do seem to belong in one of the antagonistic camps.
This reveals quite a bit about the characteristics of this area of discourse.

Neither in politics and civilised society nor in the field of science is there an argument about different perspectives of a complex issue that’s more fertile or informative than this, the tendency is more towards labelling opponents and allies. In this discursive trench warfare everyone is acting as though the most important thing is not to lose a single metre of territory and to go in with all guns blazing for each metre of land gain.

Insecurity, (corrigible) mistakes, ambiguity – there’s no room for that sort of thing on the front line. Which individual, which thinker, is supposed to be able to meet the purity ideal upon which this discussion is apparently based? Is it conceivable that Mbembe is an important theorist, but nevertheless there are aspects of his philosophy that need to be criticised – without rejecting him outright for it?

Radical partisanship

This tendency towards all-out partisanship and unambiguity in the pronounced verdicts – in my research on the political left wing I called it “radical identification” – is surprising. You see, there has barely been any other conflict as complex and confusing as the one between Israel and Palestine – because of its duration, its international as well as regional significance, and its religious, economic and human rights relations in terms of both current and historical politics. Simply taking sides with one of them, if you think of it as “Israel” versus “the Palestinians”, or the two together as a global solidarity camp, just doesn’t work. Why?

Many of those involved have made some fairly substantial contributions on the subject. Yes – in his criticism of Israel, Mbembe uses a language that is in some senses highly problematic, with echoes of patterns also employed in anti-Semitic texts. He draws on strong linguistic imagery to express his disgust towards the occupation policy in Israel.

Saba-Nur Cheema and Meron Mendel also rightly point out that some areas of Postcolonial Studies in this context may not be sensitive enough in their approach, and too theoretical. But this criticism possibly applies more to the adoption of this discourse in everyday political practices by parts of the critical whiteness scene with their inverse essentialisations than to the entire breadth of the subject.

But crucially the same applies in reverse, as British sociologist Robert Fine already pointed out some years ago: research into racism and anti-Semitism is still largely conducted as two isolated entities. Instead of bringing mutual enrichment, academia is doubling the victim competition that keeps rearing its head at the moment, especially between those affected by anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism.

Perspectives as a factor

Mbembe’s defenders focus on his undisputed achievements in Postcolonial Studies and racism research, putting his ideas into context. They put right the crudest injustices relating to the attacks, for instance the accusation by Cheema and Mendel that Mbembe is opposing the “very existence of the Jewish state” – as well as against his explicit and completely contrary views in der Zeit.

At the same time the defence points out the perspective held by Mbembe, who teaches in South Africa, and therefore comparable perspectives of other postcolonial theorists. Israel and the apartheid state had close relations, which have also been characterised by racist and militaristic aspects. This context is significant. Mbembe’s criticised comparisons may or may not be convincing. The apartheid accusation for example is untenable with regard to the situation of Israeli Arabs.

The situation in the occupied territories does look different. His comparison between South African apartheid and the National Socialist genocide of the Jews, which was more of a passing mention, quite definitely does not hold up. However, it is brazen to evaluate this remark at best as commensurate with the definition of anti-Semitism propagated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – which is completely vague and contradictory, but currently highly popular all the same – as  proof of anti-Semitism and holocaust relativisation.

But there’s still a gap arising from the separation of these discourses. With regard to the problems that remain nevertheless from an anti-Semitism critic’s point of view, Mbembe’s defenders make no comment, or dismiss them as trivial. This applies to the call for solidarity with Achille Mbembe amongst intellectuals and even more so to Dominic Johnson’s commentary on the background to the philosopher’s work.

As much as it’s understandable for them to close ranks, in view of the trench warfare situation of the debate and the increasing juridification and securitisation of the entire discussion due to the implementation of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and the variety of anti-BDS rulings, it isn’t really possible to settle for that.

Contradiction and dilemma

The fact is that the actual subject of the dispute – not Mbembe but the Middle East conflict and the way it’s interpreted – is far too ambivalent to permit straightforward side-taking. Cheema and Mendel for example find it unacceptable to use emphasis (likely often too much emphasis) in reference to the colonial aspects of Israel. In their response, Amos Goldberg and Alon Confino on the other hand try to highlight precisely this aspect of Zionism, which is not at the centre of the German historical and political overdetermined perception of Israel as an outcome of the Holocaust. This contradiction illustrates the whole dilemma in a nutshell.

You see, they are both more or less correct. Israel is as much a consequence of anti-Semitic persecution, in other words a refuge and nowadays simply home, in the same way that Zionism had and still has aspects of settler colonialism. From a progressive perspective, what follows on from this is empathy and criticism. The quest for clarity often only permits one of these. Incidentally, it would be possible to present a similar argument for the “other side”.

Palestinians are justified in their fight against occupation, and are after all to some extent vulnerable to anti-Semitism, responsible for terror attacks against Israelis – probably just as much out of despair as delusion. But viewed in that light, considerations on the conflict parties and their supporters become incremental, with prejudices only being formed in the contradictory nature of their subject. But the debate is dominated by “anti-Semitism”, “advance” and “retreat” – or defence. Anything in between, or at odds to this, is apparently still not admissible in this discourse.
This article was originally published in the daily newspaper taz on 05.05.2020.