Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Mbembe Affair: BDS and the Holocaust

In this installment on the Achille Mbembe affair, we'll examine how the battle over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has engaged the issue of the Holocaust. It's necessary, however, to state some important things right off the bat.

First and foremost, although it should be obvious, antisemitism is a very real and very deadly phenomenon. Many Jews, particularly those living in places that are unsafe -- Israel among them -- are right to fear it and to be proactive about opposing it. The mistake is not one of magnitude but one of kind; i.e., Jews (and their purported allies) who identify antisemitism in BDS are to a large extent driven by this fear, and it would be wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Overcoming the current problem requires understanding where the other side comes from and comprehending its narrative. That means acknowledging the very real concerns of Jews everywhere about antisemitism.

These concerns include the fear of genocide. Seventy-five years might seem like a long time, but it really isn't, and we would be mistaken to think that the Holocaust does not constitute a very real example to people on both sides of the current debate where unchecked antisemitism can lead. Moreover, Holocaust denial is virtually always an attempt to make the ideologies that resulted in the Holocaust seem more palatable. We ought never forget this point because, whether we like it or not, the Holocaust affected not only those Jews who survived it (to say nothing of the millions who were murdered) but also their children and grandchildren, as well as generations of Jews in safe places, the U.S. chiefly among them, who saw newsreels at the end of the war of hundreds or thousands of murdered Jews and realized that only the accident of their country of residence had saved them from the same fate. Waving one's hands and asking one's opponent to live in the present day do not change the lessons taught to these witnesses. Understanding and empathy are far more constructive in engendering a dialogue.

All of this is a long way of saying that, while it can be tempting to see Achille Mbembe's detractors and the opponents of BDS as cynically deploying the Holocaust in defense of their positions, it is not necessarily the case that they are. In some cases, it is the manifestation of the concerns enunciated in the foregoing paragraphs. Delegitimation of Israel in the minds of many who oppose BDS is akin to inviting a second Holocaust. Frustratingly, discussions about possible solutions to the conflict that would alter our current understandings of how Israel is constituted as a state or about how the Palestinian population on both sides of the Green Line can be fully emancipated end up being non-starters as a result. To his benefit, as noted in the last installment of this series, Mbembe has been clear where he stands on Israel's future -- he has acknowledged Israel's own needs for security while being resolute in pressing for equality for Palestinians, even conceding the possibility of a resolution that does not include citizenship for Palestinians.

Some behaviors on the BDS side -- principally Holocaust denial itself -- are inexcusable and should be rejected out of hand. To its benefit, the International Solidarity Movement has been proactive in isolating elements of the BDS movement engaging in such rhetoric. Other forms of rhetoric employed by some in the BDS movement are unhelpful or incorrect but probably informed more by misunderstanding or emotion than by genuine malice.

For instance, referring to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory or even of the ethnic cleansing of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs in the wake of the creation of Israel as "genocide" is wrong. While undoubtedly immoral and, in certain respects, illegal, it is not genocide by any reasonable definition of the term. Rather, the death toll among Palestinians and the growth of the Palestinian population, both in the territory west of the Jordan River and in exile, indicate a persistent, low-level war of attrition (which flares up periodically) that has displaced, sometimes deliberately, hundreds of thousands --  but not genocide. The claim of genocide against the Palestinians is particularly egregious when packaged with Holocaust denial, but even for those who accept the historicity of the Holocaust, charging Israel with genocide against the Palestinians is unproductive. We can describe the situtation accurately with all its negative realities without needing to resort to such a term.

Here, as noted earlier, Mbembe's rhetoric has sometimes been unhelpful, although it bears repeating that he has consistently in his work acknowledged the extreme brutality of the Holocaust and placed it outside the sorts of cruelty that normally characterized the phenomena of colonialism and slavery. If nothing else, the case of Mbembe should demonstrate that one can sign a petition supporting BDS and not be advocating antisemitism, the delegitimation of Israel, or the relativization of the Holocaust.

In the next and final installment, I'll look at how the Mbembe affair has been incorporated into the debate over the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

Intro: The Mbembe Affair
Part I: What Has Mbembe Written?
Part II: BDS and the Holocaust
Part III: Mbembe and Uniqueness


  1. The word "genocide" seems to undergo an expansion; I've seen assertions that all examples of what we call "ethnic cleansing" should be considered genocide, since doing otherwise legitimizes ethnic cleansing as "not that bad". Combined with an instrumental definition of intent, it certainly increases the cases.

  2. The legal definition, which is applied by the UN under the Convention on Genocide, is pretty broad, based as it is on the phrase "in whole or in part," which leaves the matter of scale indeterminate. From an historical standpoint, I think a more stringent definition would be useful, but I can understand the desire from the legal community to keep it less so.


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