Monday, September 14, 2020

The Mbembe Affair: Mbembe and Uniqueness

In this final installment of the series on the Achille Mbembe affair, we'll look at how Mbembe has been incorporated into the debate over the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

By early summer, the controversy over Mbembe's invitation to the Ruhrtriennale had blown over, at least in part because the event was canceled due to COVID. However, two essays on the affair have appeared since then. The first, a short piece by Jonathan Lanz, a doctoral student in history and Jewish Studies at Indiana University, was published by Open Democracy at the end of May. In that essay, Lanz addresses some of the topics noted in this series. The second, "The Attacks on the Uniqueness of the Holocaust" by Manfred Gerstenfeld, appeared in July on the website of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Had Lanz wished to see the issues addressed in his piece reified in written form, he could have asked for no better example than the Gerstenfeld essay.

A note first on Gerstenfeld is warranted. Austrian by birth but raised in the Netherlands, he made aliya in 1968 and since has had a long record of activism for right-wing concerns such as BESA and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. His career has not been without controversy, as a perusal of his Wikipedia page will attest. He is one of the chief ideologues in Israel invested in the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. To be clear, there is indeed significant overlap here, but as I hope to have already demonstrated, there is room enough for a distinction to be drawn.

As the title of Gerstenfeld's essay suggests, his concern is the increased question of the unique status of the Holocaust. This is not a new debate. On one side are academics and intellectuals arguing that the Holocaust should be considered in the context of other historical genocides, even as certain unique aspects of the Holocaust (e.g., the assembly line nature of killings in the Reinhard camps) are acknowledged; on the other side are those who consider the Holocaust as categorically unique. The sides in this debate break down roughly across political lines to the left (not unique) and right (unique).

Gerstenfeld is in the uniqueness camp, but his argument in the BESA Center essay for being there is often ahistorical. For example, he argues the Holocaust was unique because of “its impracticality (instead of exploiting Jews for labor purposes, they were killed),” while this point is demonstrably untrue; Jewish populations were routinely screened for able bodied laborers, and only those unable to work were immediately sent to their deaths. Similarly, Gerstenfeld repeatedly states that the Nazis’ designs on the Jews were global, whereas the available evidence suggests that their concerns were limited to Europe.

Gerstenfeld’s essay recklessly repeats the disproved allegations against Mbembe, adding without any evidence whatsoever that he “has been involved in antisemitic acts.” Then Gerstenfeld transitions to a discussion of the controversy surrounding the uniqueness debate within academia, specifically citing the case of Israel Charny, director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem. Charny is a longstanding fixture in Holocaust and genocide studies, including writing a preface to the excellent collection of essays edited by Alan S. Rosenbaum entitled Is the Holocaust Unique?

Although he had earlier distinguished himself among genocide scholars for acknowledging the Armenian genocide and condemning those who refused to call it a genocide, Charny in recent years has launched a broadside against the Journal of Genocide Research, alleging Holocaust minimization, if not outright denial in some of the journal's publications. The response -- authored by five major genocide scholars in the Australia, Israel, Spain, the U.S., and the U.K. and undersigned by luminaries in Holocaust studies such as Daniel Blatman, Debórah Dwork, Peter Fritzsche, Thomas Kühne, Dominick LaCapra, Jürgen Matthäus, Mark Roseman, Timothy Snyder, and Nicholas Stargardt -- found Charny's allegations baseless, but he has continued his frontal assault against JGS.

If Mbembe's specific case seems distant from this kerfuffle, return to the Deutsche Welle article on Mbembe, in which Aleida Assmann is cited as "point[ing] out that comparisons are always necessary for historians and should not be confused with equations." The bottom line is that, probably on the basis of his having signed a BDS petition, Mbembe was adjudged antisemitic and his words interpreted in that light. Regardless of his clearly having not minimized or relativized the Holocaust, he did make comparisons -- but comparisons are necessary for scholars.

A year ago, I sat in a seminar in Jewish history in which one of the two professors team teaching the course and I had a discussion about the Goldhagen affair. The professor noted how Goldhagen had asserted the uniqueness of the Holocaust and had found insult in Browning's assertion in Ordinary Men that the act of genocide itself could be carried out by wholly typical people, given the right circumstances. For such people, the professor said, comparison with the Holocaust is impossible; but, he continued, barring comparison robs historians of one of their principal techniques of analysis. That, he said, is what Goldhagen and the proponents of uniqueness failed to understand.

Beyond the debate over Israel and the Palestinians lies this matter. That Mbembe was drawn into this ongoing debate is deeply unfortunate for everyone involved, but in the end, it has accomplished nothing for the side of the debate advocating for uniqueness beyond showing its willingness to smear an innocent man in pursuit of its agenda. That should give everyone with a stake in this matter deep cause for concern.

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


  1. You guys appear to be running out of steam. By the way uniqueness is not at all unique to historical events. Every event is unique because it occurs at a unique point in space and time. Oh, and we have lot's of additional unique events, like the virgin birth of Christ and the resurrection of Christ. Miracles do happen? These events are unique because they are extremely improbable. I don't know whether you guys really want the holocaust to be unique in the latter sense, do you? ;-)


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