On September 15, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is inviting participants to an online symposium about the Cameroon-born philosopher, Achille Mbembe, who teaches at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. The invitation for this event says that it takes place in the wake of the recent campaign against him in Germany and the denunciation of his work as antisemitic.
Except that Mbembe has correctly been exposed for his antisemitism. That is far from the only reason he is a highly problematic and negative figure. Alan Posener, an editor at the German weekly, Die Welt am Sontag, wrote: “Mbembe's work represents a total attack on the European tradition of the Enlightenment. That is in particular true of his essay, Necropolitics.” Posener added, "While the Enlightenment itself is not free of antisemitic characteristics, for the counter-Enlightenment, antisemitism is a constituting factor like anti-Zionism is for Mbembe who is against the Enlightenment."
Posener wrote: "I don't know what I consider worse, Mbembe's antisemitism or his contempt for the Enlightenment, his unjust criticism against Israel or his unjust criticism against liberalism." Posener also claimed that Mbembe's essay was blurring differences between "resistance and suicide, victimhood and redemption, martyrdom and freedom." He accused Mbembe of "justification of suicide murder." Posener defined Mbembe as a “nihilist.”
He noted that Mbembe had written that Israel's behavior toward the Palestinians was "worse than South Africa's treatment of the black population under apartheid." Mbembe is also an academic supporter of BDS even though he denies this. He signed a 2010 petition calling for the University of Witwatersrand to cut all ties with Ben Gurion University.
German antisemitism commissioner, Felix Klein, said that the opening speech for such an important festival should not be made by someone who has been shown to relativize the Holocaust.
The festival was cancelled in April due to the Corona pandemic. Yet the Mbembe affair did not end there. Mbembe published an article which contained two major lies. He claimed that he was attacked because he was black. This, however, had not come up in the discussion about him at all. The second false claim was that the assaults on him came from the extreme right. In fact, most attacks came from the German mainstream.
Several additional aspects of Mbembe's incitement against Israel gradually came to light. One was that he had caused an Israeli scholar to be disinvited to a 2018 symposium at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Mbembe made his participation conditional on her not attending.
The Hebrew University's invitation for the symposium hides all this and much more. It says that it seeks to revisit Mbembe's contribution to our understanding of Palestine-Israel. In other words, the seminar wants to comprehend how this nihilist, democracy-minimizer, extreme anti-Israel inciter and part-time antisemite can help us understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As far as is known, Mbeme has not published anything on the glorification of genocide, murder and death in Palestinian society. Serious academics would consider this to be yet another major drawback to a possible contribution to the subject of the seminar.
Not so the Hebrew University organizers. They write that they "wish to explore how his work might be used to analyze key occurrences and dynamics with reference to the Naqba and its aftermath, the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories or pertaining to the Israeli regime in general. We hope that this event will open up the opportunity to introduce different aspects of his work to local scholars, whether based on the well-known Necropolitics (2019) or other interventions."
In this caricature of an academic introduction, various other aspects of Mbembe's interventions are not mentioned in the invitation to the symposium. It does not refer to his comparison of the Holocaust and apartheid. Mbembe had admitted that there was a quantitative difference between the two. Posener reacted in writing that this was fundamentally false: “The Holocaust was not a much bigger form of apartheid, and what was more important apartheid was not a smaller version of the Holocaust. It was not a quantitatively different process, but one which was qualitatively dissimilar.
In the old days, admittedly a few decades ago, it could be assumed that universities furthered the advancement of knowledge. Based on existing knowledge, one could develop additional insights through dispassionate inquiry. That is still true for part of the academic community, including some departments of the humanities and social sciences. Yet, this is not so for the originators of the symposium. Instead, they supposedly try to develop additional knowledge by not mentioning essential elements of existing information.
There is another ugly aspect as well. The symposium organizers promote in Mbembe a person who was in favor of boycotting another Israeli university, and has caused the cancellation of an invitation to an Israeli scholar to a conference in South Africa. Yet the problem is not what this does to the image of the organizers, who have with their invitation to the symposium academically disqualified themselves. The bigger issue is that it taints a respectable academic institution - Hebrew University.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld has been a long-term adviser on strategy issues to the boards of several major multinational corporations in Europe and North America.He is board member and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and recipient of the LIfetime Achievement Award (2012) of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism.