Portrait Dr. Remko Leemhuis
/ Comment

Debate on Achille Mbembe: Distorted Optics

For anyone unfamiliar with the facts behind the case of Achille Mbembe, Daniel Bax’s text on the subject could be highly alarming. A phalanx has seemingly risen from the ranks of politics, culture and other “watchmen of public discourse” to silence a critical scholar. Seen through Bax’s lens, the very freedom of artistic and individual expression is in fundamental danger - and all because Mbembe just made critical statements about Israel’s politics and associated with the harmless peace initiative “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS).

Before turning to Mbembe’s statements and actions, we should briefly shed light on the demands made by BDS. Astoundingly, supporters of the Cameroonian historian in this debate are persistently silent on the content and political positions of BDS. That is no coincidence. Any serious examination of BDS would leave little room for defense of Mbembe.

One look at the central demands of BDS suffices to show that it is not a harmless collection of peace activists defending Palestinian rights. The first demand requires ending “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the wall.” BDS is deliberately vague in its reference to “Arab lands.” While German BDS groups have specified that this point refers to the territories gained by Israel in the Six Day War, that has not prevented them from endorsing the original ambiguous wording. It can be assumed that “Arab lands” is also meant to include Tel Aviv and Haifa. Thus, this is a thinly veiled threat to the very existence of the Jewish state.

The second BDS demand calls for equal treatment of Israeli Arabs. Here, Israel is frequently accused of “apartheid.” It should be noted that all Israelis, including the Arab minority, share the same inalienable civil rights. Do Arab Israelis face discrimination and disadvantages? Certainly. As do minorities in every other Western democratic society. But to use the word “apartheid” shows a complete ignorance of the concept and system of apartheid, derriding its victims and revealing a striking lack of knowledge about Israeli society.

The final central demand of BDS is the unlimited right of return of Palestinian “refugees.” Unlike other refugee groups, the term “Palestinian refugees” refers not only to those who actually fled, but also to their progeny, regardless of their actual current situation. Brought to its logical conclusion, this also represents a threat to the Jewish state’s existence because a “return” of millions of Palestinians to Israel’s heartland would mean the end of Israel.

There is an undeniable absurdity in Bax’s decision to name Roger Waters as a pillar of honor within BDS. Waters has been known to include an inflatable pig imprinted with a Star of David in his performances and he recently called for the destruction of Israel in one of his songs. Bax’s claim that the director of the Jewish Museum of Berlin had to leave his position due to a BDS tweet is also untrue. It should be noted that under the aegis of Prof. Dr. Peter Schäfer, the Jewish Museum not only presented a heavily criticized exhibition about Jerusalem, but he himself met for coffee with Iranian diplomats - representatives of the regime that threatens to repeat the Holocaust on a daily basis.

To operate under the label of BDS is to ascribe to BDS’ demands presented here, whether willfully or passively. There is no other BDS campaign. The central positions of BDS are not a secret knowledge preserved for experts. On the contrary, anyone - including Achille Mbembe - can easily find the information in question online.

Accordingly, Mbembe cannot claim ignorance of what he was endorsing; and he has given more than just verbal support. It was recently revealed that he was instrumental in having an Israeli academic disinvited from a conference simply because she is Israeli. He further signed a petition demanding an academic boycott of Israel. In 2015, he wrote the foreword for a book whose profits went to the organization “Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel,” which is among the founding members of BDS. For someone who continues to claim that he has no association whatsoever with BDS, this is a surprising number of connections. His words in the aforementioned foreword are similarly revealing. He describes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the “greatest moral scandal of the 21st century.” This distorted perspective raises questions. Has Mbembe never heard of the civil war in Syria? Or the civil war and persistent famine in Yemen? Mbembe needn’t look to the Middle East to find significantly more dramatic conflicts. As an academic in South Africa, it would suffice to look across the border to Zimbabwe at the decades of cruelty under the rule of Robert Mugabe. And what are the historian’s views of the humanitarian and ecological catastrophe on Lake Chad? Where is his moral outrage towards the misogynistic fascists of Boko Haram?

Apparently, only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arouses so much anger, leading to calls to "isolate Israel globally." He’s not known to have called for such measures in other cases. That says more about Mbembe himself than the conflict.

Of course, Mbembe can criticize Israeli politics here in Germany if he feels the need. No one intends to forbid him from entering the country or restrict his right to free speech. There is, however, no fundamental right to express these anti-Zionist positions on a publicly funded stage.


This article originally appeared in the TAZ.