Friday, September 11, 2020

The Mbembe Affair: Introduction

Nick Terry named this blog "Holocaust Controversies" nearly 15 years ago, but we don't do much here on actual controversies regarding the Holocaust in our public discourse as much as we do attacking the perceived or imagined controversies about the history of the Holocaust cited by Holocaust deniers in their writing.

This series seeks to remedy this shortcoming. I want here to discuss the recent (last few months) controversy that emerged over the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, who is currently professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mbembe's academic work focuses on postcolonial studies regarding Africa and has contributed to the concept of necropolitics, i.e., the power over life and death.

Back in the spring, in "The Before Times," Mbembe found himself in the German news cycle, accused of antisemitism and relativization of the Holocaust. The backstory is that Mbembe had been invited to give a speech at the Ruhrtriennale -- a triennial music and arts festival held in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). The center-right Freie Demokratische Partei in NRW criticized the Ruhrtriennale's organizer, Stephanie Carp, for inviting Mbembe given the latter's signing of a petition supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to coerce Israel to disengage from the Palestinian territories. Carp was apparently already on notice for already having done the same two years earlier. A pile-on of sorts then began, with Felix Klein, Germany's Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism -- a position created two years ago -- demanding that Mbembe be disinvited because he had relativized the Holocaust.

The summary of the controversy at Deutsche Welle notes the attempts to mine Mbembe's writings for quotes to support the allegations of antisemitism and Holocaust relativization. The article provides some quotations without judging them one way or the other. It also notes that Mbembe has utterly rejected the charge, citing his longstanding commitment to universal human rights and his assertion that the Holocaust cannot be equated with the crime of apartheid in South Africa.

In this series, I intend to do the following: (1) examine Mbembe's writings for evidence of the charges of antisemitism and Holocaust relativization; (2) investigate the politicization of the Holocaust in the context of increasing pressure on Israel via BDS; and (3) have a look at some of the bad historical writing that has come out of the Mbembe affair.

Should be fun.

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


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