Despite Passionate Defense of ‘Academic Freedom,’ Scholar at Center of German Antisemitism Row Campaigned to Exclude Israeli Professors
A prominent South African academic whose invitation to address a cultural festival in Germany has been at the center of an angry row over antisemitism and free speech himself threatened to boycott a university conference in 2018, because of his objection to the presence of colleagues from Israel.
Achille Mbembe — a cultural theorist described by national broadcaster Deutsche Welle as a “popular public figure in Germany” — had been invited to give the opening address at the renowned Ruhrtriennale festival on Aug. 14.
Although the annual event has since been canceled in accordance with coronavirus-related restrictions, the dispute over Mbembe’s invitation has roiled on.
Germany’s federal antisemitism commissioner, Felix Klein, and local Jewish groups were among those who condemned the invite, pointing out that Mbembe had made the “antisemitic” equation between the former apartheid regime in South Africa and the Israeli government, endorsed the anti-Zionist campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction the Jewish state, and diminished the Holocaust by bracketing it with the apartheid system.
Mbembe has been an active participant in the subsequent debate, emphasizing in several media interviews that while he was a strong supporter of the Palestinians, he had no connection with organizations promoting the boycott campaign against Israel.
“The truth is that although I am committed to Palestinian equality and freedom, I have no relationship whatsoever with BDS,” Mbembe told journalist René Aguigah in a German radio interview on April 23.
Mbembe’s record, however, would indicate otherwise. In addition to having signed a 2015 petition endorsing the academic boycott of Israel, the Cameroon-born professor threatened to withdraw from a conference at a South African university in 2018 because a leading Israeli psychologist was among the invited speakers.
Prof. Shifra Sagy — who teaches in the psychology department at Ben Gurion University (BGU) in Israel — was disinvited from the conference at Stellenbosch University following pressure on the organizers from, among many others, Mbembe.
Entitled “Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma,” the purpose of the Dec. 2018 conference was “to deepen understanding of trans-generational trauma and to develop strategies to deal with the repercussions of genocide and colonial oppression.” Sagy, whose work centers on peace education, had been due to speak on two panels at the conference.
The planned presence of Sagy and other Israelis sparked the ire of Mbembe and his colleague at Witwatersrand University, Prof. Sarah Nuttall, resulting in a statement in which the pair emphasized their support for “the boycott as a non-violent strategy for ending the occupation.”
Referring to the demand of South Africa’s influential pro-BDS lobby for a ban on Israelis at the conference, Mbembe and Nuttall wrote: “We let the organizers know this morning (Nov. 27, 2018) that we would have no option but to withdraw from the conference if a satisfactory agreement was not found between the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the Organizing Committee. A short while ago, we were informed by the organizers that the Israeli speakers who were on the program have rescinded their participation at the conference and for this reason, we are open to participating in the conference.”
At no point in recent weeks has Mbembe addressed his actions over the Stellenbosch conference, confining himself to general statements in support of academic freedom. In his interview with German radio, Mbembe went on to argue that the row over his festival invite suggested that Germany was struggling “to uphold three key principles of any liberal state: the freedom of conscience, the freedom of expression and academic freedom.”
The 63-year-old Mbembe, who obtained his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris, has enjoyed a sterling academic career across four decades. He has held visiting professorships at several American colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.
In Germany, Mbembe has been the recipient of numerous prizes, among them the 2015 Geswichter Scholl-Preis, the 2018 Gerda Henkel Award and the 2018 Ernst Bloch Award.