Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Mbembe Affair: What Has Mbembe Written?

Our first order of business must be determining whether Achille Mbembe's writings reflect antisemitism and Holocaust relativization. As noted in the article from Deutsche Welle, the claims are based on two pieces of writing: his book Necropolitics (originally published in French as Politiques de l'inimitié -- Politics of Enmity); and the introduction he wrote to a volume of essays entitled Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy.

There are several mentions of the Holocaust in Necropolitics. The first includes a reference to Jews who "managed to escape the gas chambers" (p. 39) among other populations deemed undesireable in a world increasingly characterized less by equality and more by separation. Less than ten pages later, Mbembe continues this examination of separation: "The apartheid system in South Africa and the destruction of Jews in Europe—the latter in an extreme fashion and within a distinct context— constitute two emblematic manifestations of this fantasy of separation" (p. 46). Note that this juxtaposition of apartheid with the Holocaust clearly notes which of the two was worse.

The second mention of the Holocaust includes it among several other notable crimes against humanity, including slavery and colonialism (p. 61). Mbembe evokes the "fantasy of annihilation," writing, "The Jews, as we know, paid the price for it at the very heart of Europe" (p. 63). A few pages later, he includes Nazi death camps in elaborating on the role played by power over life and death in national sovereignty (p. 67).

The third mention comes in a discussion of what Mbembe considers the colonial nature of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories; here, the author notes how the competing narratives of Israelis and Palestinians, being irreconcilable while they struggle over the same land, result in the occupation being "profoundly underwritten by the sacred terror of truth and exclusivity" (p. 80); that part of the Israeli claim on Palestine lies in "the terror of the Holocaust" (ibid) merely complicates matters further. While perhaps controversial, this material is not qualitatively different from the claims made by the Israeli historian Tom Segev in The Seventh Million -- Segev being merely one of multiple authors who have investigated how the Holocaust has informed Israeli national identity and foreign policy.

The fourth mention of the Holocaust in Necropolitics comes in the fifth chapter. After noting the role played by Jews in the Dolchstoss myth that emerged after World War I and the exterminationist rhetoric that it gave rise to, Mbembe writes that the Holocaust and its use of concentration camps as sites for genocide added an additional layer of complexity to their pre-existing role as infrastructures of colonialism -- in Mbembe's words, "the space where humans were made to experience their becoming-animal in the gesture by which other human existences were reduced to the state of dust" (p. 123). And while we might question the wisdom of considering the Holocaust within the larger context of colonialism, Mbembe is careful to note that concentration camps and death camps ("the extermination camps in which the Judeocide was perpetrated" (p. 126, emphasis in original)) are indeed different. In addition, Mbembe is not alone in discussing the Holocaust alongside colonialism. Multiple authors have undertaken such investigations, including Thomas Kühne, Sven Linqvuist, Stephan Malinowksi, and others. 

None of these references to the Holocaust amounts to minimization or relativization. Nor is there anywhere in the text that Mbembe condones or excuses antisemitism. Hatred of Jews is classed with any other irrational and murderous hatred, as Mbembe's own comments in his defense from last spring clearly indicate.

Mbembe's intro to the Apartheid Israel collection was published online by the excellent Africa Is a Country blog, where it can be read in its entirety. It is not kind to Israel, but it would be surprising if it were, given its place in a volume with the title that this one has. The questions to bear in mind, again, are whether anything in the essay can be considered antisemitic or relativizing of the Holocaust. Taking the second point first, Mbembe refers nowhere in the short intro to the Holocaust, so if there is Holocaust minimization or relativation to be found in his work, we must look elsewhere. Regarding antisemitism, the intro also literally never refers to Jews directly, so it's difficult to conclude he's being antisemitic, even as he is deeply critical of Israel.

That said, there is one problematic passage in the intro to the apartheid volume. I quote it here in its entirety (emphasis added):

We each know why they do what they do—the army, the police, the settlers, the pilots of bombing raids, the zealots, and the cohort of international Pharisees and their mandatory righteousness, starting with the United States of America.

This could, frankly, have been worded better. You're not doing much to ward off attacks that you're antisemitic by engaging in the rhetoric of the Gospel According to St. John. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that English is not Mbembe's first language or likely even his second (it's not clear whether he originally wrote the intro in French or English); moreover, the larger context in which he makes this statement is defensible: Israel's actions, regardless of how one feels about them, are underwritten by the support given it by the United States in the form of military aid and a veto in the U.N. Security Council.

The larger question looming from Mbembe's intro to the volume of essays is whether his harsh criticism of Israel itself is antisemitic. Over the last decade in particular, there has been increasing enunciation by some on the right that, while criticism of Israel is fine, certain forms of criticism cross a line into antisemitism. Accepting for a moment for the sake of argument that these points of view are correct, do they even apply in Mbembe's case?

It is said that questioning Israel's right to exist is antisemitic on its face. But in the intro, Mbembe writes, "Israel is entitled to live in peace. But Israel will be safeguarded only by peace in a confederal arrangement that recognizes reciprocal residency, if not citizenship." This is not negation of Israel's right to exist; it doesn't even demand citizenship for Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza.

The final point to consider is whether it is antisemitic, as some claim, to apply the label of apartheid to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Here again, Mbembe likely could be more delicate or at least draw a sharper distinction. The term is certainly not appropriate to describe the condition of Israel's non-Jewish minority citizens, who enjoy multiple civil and legal rights despite persistent second-class citizenship status. The situation on the West Bank is more complex. There, two populations -- Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jewish settlers -- live under two sets of laws, the latter of which undoubtedly provides for more expansive rights and privileges than the former, which is a law of military occupation. Many analysts, including Israelis, have used the term "apartheid" to describe it; others have seen it inappropriate to do so. There would seem to be sufficient debate to undermine the definition of the term's use as prima facie evidence of antisemitism.

In short, Mbembe's cited writings do not bear out the charges of antisemitism and Holocaust relativization, even if the tone is sometimes hostile and the language sometimes lacking in art. Next, we'll look at how the Holocaust has been weaponized in the debate over BDS. 

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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