German politician urges festival to disinvite BDS academic

State bans public funds for BDS activities at cultural and music events

German politician Lorenz Deutsch (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
German politician Lorenz Deutsch
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
BERLIN — The Free Democratic Party (FDP) politician in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Lorenz Deutsch, urged the director of the music and cultural festival Ruhrtriennale to pull the plug on an appearance from an academic supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel who has also trivialized the Holocaust.
Writing in late March, Deutsch told the director of the festival, “The BDS movement is not characterized by factual criticism of Israeli government acts, but aims at demolishing its existence through demonization, delegitimization, and disinformation. Achille Mbembe, who you invited, is unfortunately an example of this way of dealing with Israel.”
Deutsch termed the BDS an “antisemitic movement” and noted that, in 2018, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia banned public funds for institutions that provide BDS activists a platform. The Ruhrtriennale festival, which runs from  August 14 to September 20, is a recipient of tax-payer money.
Deutsch, who is the cultural spokesman for the FDP, noted that Achille Mbembe signed a petition calling for an academic boycott of the Jewish state.
The FDP politician said he finds this education boycott “attitude fundamentally questionable among academics. In addition, he [Achille Mbembe] also stands out in a recent publication with theses on Israel and the occupied territories, which have no factual basis and fall under the categories mentioned above.”
Deutsch cited Achille Mbembe's essay titled, "The Society of enmity" in the publication Radical Philosophy from 2016 to show that he equates Israel with South Africa's former apartheid system, which is well-known from BDS circles.
Deutsch wrote that Mbembe even surpasses attacks of comparing Israel with the former apartheid system. He cited additional passages from Achille Mbembe’s essay: "However, the metaphor of apartheid does not fully account for the specific character of the Israeli separation project. In the first place, this is because this project rests on quite a unique metaphysical and existential basis. The apocalyptic and catastrophist elements that underwrite it are far more complex, and derive from a longer historical horizon than those elements that used to support South African Calvinism. Moreover, given its ‘hi-tech’ character, the effects of the Israeli project on the Palestinian body are much more formidable than the relatively primitive operations undertaken by the apartheid regime in South Africa between 1948 and the early 1980s.”
The 62-year-old Cameroonian philosopher Mbembe continued that “This is evidenced by its miniaturization of violence – its cellularization and molecularization – and its various techniques of material and symbolic erasure. It is also evidenced in its procedures and techniques of demolition – of almost everything, whether of infrastructures, homes, roads or landscapes – and its fanatical policy of destruction aimed at transforming the life of Palestinians into a heap of ruins or a pile of garbage destined for cleansing. In South Africa, the mounds of ruins never did reach such a scale."
Deutsch responded to the academic paper, stating that “Here completely different situations become the same in an impermissible way," adding that Mbembe uses terms such wall, border separation, destruction, etc. in an attempt to create supposed connections.
Deutsch wrote that “a second apartheid comparison [in Mbembe's essay] has left me speechless. Here the South African apartheid system is compared with the Holocaust, the two ‘manifestations’ of a ‘separation fantasy.'"
Achille Mbembe wrote: "The apartheid system in South Africa and the destruction of Jews in Europe – the latter, though, in an extreme fashion and within a quite different setting – constituted two emblematic manifestations of this fantasy of separation."
Deutsch accused Mbembe of “relativizing  the Holocaust” and “placing the Jews of Israel today in the logic of the overall argument of national socialist white criminals - a well-known pattern. It seems to confirm that many people can deal better with dead Jews than with living Jews.”
Mbembe told The Jerusalem Post via email on Friday that "this politician has been waging a relentless racist campaign of defamation against me."
He said the that "for African scholars like myself, the Holocaust was an unspeakable crime. It is not the subject of my work, of my writings or of my public commentary. Not ever having written about it or publicly commented on it, it therefore defies both reason and common sense to now be accused of ‘trivializing’ it."
In response to the Post's query about this support for BDS, Mbembe said that "I am neither a member nor an associate of BDS or of any other organization dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict or involved in one form of activism or another for the benefit of one party or the other.
From a philosophical point of view, I contest the morality of blind or indiscriminate sanctions or boycotts. This is a philosophical position and I am not engaged in any form of activism around this issue. It is my own position and it fully derived from no other source than my own human conscience and moral self."
The academic appeared to concede that he a signed a petition calling for the educational boycott of Israeli scholars.
Mbembe said that "If and when invited personally to collaborate with individuals, scholars or institutions which are involved in human rights violations in any part of the world, I have systematically declined.
If and when needed and if and when publicly asked, I have made such a decision known. Should I add that the freedom of consciousness and of expression including on matters such as this is entirely legal in South Africa where I live and work?"
BDS is classified as an antisemitic movement by both the German and Austrian parliaments. Germany's Bundestag said the BDS movement recalls the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses from the 1930's.
Mbembe said "The article ‘The Society Of Enmity’ cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be construed as directed against any community or event. To argue otherwise is not just ignorant, it is simply malicious. "
He continued that "I am not a German citizen. Nor am I a protagonist in debates concerning German politics or the present and future of Israel-Palestine.
"Mine is a voice from Africa, a thoroughly neglected part of our common world left to fend for itself. This is the overwhelming reality which occupies my mind and my energy. This is also the core object of my scholarly work and dedication."
In his public letter, Deutsch cited a quote from the American author and expert on antisemitism, Bari Weiss: “Antisemitism that originates on the left is a far more subtle and sophisticated enterprise [than on the right]. It’s typically camouflaged in language familiar to Jewish tongues and ears: the language of social justice and anti-racism, of equality and liberation.”
Mbembe was a guest professor at the University of Cologne in 2019 and is slated to talk at the festival about “planetary life.” Stefanie Carp, who oversees the festival in the city of Bochum located in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has faced criticism over the years for her sympathy with the BDS campaign.
The Post sent a press query to Carp on Thursday.