Colonial discourses are stifling free speech in Germany

Germany is using accusations of anti-Semitism to protect Israel from criticism and stifle discussions about colonialism.

Achille Mbembe
Cameroonian academic Achille Mbembe was accused of anti-Semitism and Holocaust relativisation in Germany for his works criticising Israel's treatment of the Palestinians [Wikimedia commons].

In late March, the organisers of Ruhrtriennale, an annual music and arts festival that takes place in the Ruhr area of Germany, announced that the Cameroonian philosopher and post-colonial theorist, Achille Mbembe, would be delivering the keynote address at this year’s event.

Mbembe, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, is globally renowned for his writings on colonial legacies and neoliberal capitalism. He is also very popular in Germany. In the last few years, he has been a guest speaker at a number of public events and received several prestigious academic and literary honours in the country. Thus, there should have been nothing newsworthy about his planned participation in a German arts festival.

Nevertheless, the announcement of Mbembe’s planned keynote address at the Ruhrtriennale quickly stirred controversy. Several German politicians and public figures accused Mbembe of anti-Semitism and Holocaust relativisation and called on the festival’s organisers to rethink their decision. 

This year’s Ruhrtriennale was eventually cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the widespread and vocal opposition to Mbembe’s planned attendance triggered continuing discussions about the limits of free speech and criticism of Israel in Germany and revealed the country’s reluctance to face its own colonial legacy.

Accusations of Holocaust relativisation and anti-semitism

The first prominent figure to publicly oppose Mbembe’s attendance to the Ruhrtriennale was Lorenz Deutsch, the group spokesperson of the Free Democratic Party’s (FDP) North Rhine-Westphalian faction. 

In an open letter published on March 23, the conservative politician urged the director of the Ruhrtriennale, Stefanie Carp, to disinvite Mbembe from the festival due to his alleged support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the comparisons he made between Apartheid South Africa, Israel and Nazi Germany in his academic writings. 

He particularly took issue with Mbembe’s 2016 essay, Society of Enmity, and claimed that it makes an “impermissible” comparison between the apartheid system in South Africa and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Deutsch also accused the Cameroonian academic of “Holocaust relativisation” for arguing in the same essay that: “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 [a] phantasy of separation.”

A few weeks later, the politician doubled down on his accusations against Mbembe in an essay published on his personal website. In the essay, titled Postcolonial Israel Hostility, he accused Mbembe of regularly making “distorting representations of Israel and the occupation” in his writings and listed sections from his body of work which he deems “anti-Semitic”.

Deutsch claimed that Mbembe’s criticisms of Israel are aimed at “delegitimising the state” and “questioning its right to exist”, and are therefore unacceptable. He added, however, that “there is, of course, constructive support for Palestinian interests, which is also critical of Israeli politics, but does not unfairly defame Israel as a whole”.

In arbitrarily drawing the limits of permissible criticism, Deutsch tried to confine criticism of Israel to a space that he deems acceptable. His reasoning was clearly rooted in a colonial mindset, which expects the colonised peoples – in this case, the Palestinians – to respect the red-lines drawn by the colonisers in their criticism of, and revolt against, the system that is oppressing them.

Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Jewish life and the fight against anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, also came out against Mbembe’s participation in the Ruhrtriennale. In an interview on April 15, repeating Deutsch’s talking points, Klein accused Mbembe of questioning Israel’s right to exist and classified the comparisons he made between Israel and Apartheid South Africa as “anti-Semitic”.

Following Klein’s interview, the topic was widely discussed in German media. While several prominent public figures and analysts supported Klein and Deutsch’s stance on the issue, many others refuted their allegations as “unfounded” and dangerous. 

BDS as a litmus test

Mbembe’s alleged support for the Palestinian BDS movement has been at the centre of the accusations of anti-Semitism directed at him in Germany.

The movement was initiated in 2005 by the Palestinian civil society. Its goal is to peacefully pressure Israel into complying with international law and granting the Palestinians civil and citizenship rights. 

Although support for the BDS movement is quite marginal in Germany, the German parliament passed a non-binding resolution in 2019 which labelled it as an entity that uses anti-Semitic tactics to fulfil its political goals. All major political parties supported the anti-BDS motion which called on the government to “not provide premises and facilities under the administration of the Bundestag to organisations that express themselves in anti-Semitic terms or question Israel’s right to exist”. 

Mbembe was accused of being a “BDS supporter”, and therefore an “anti-Semite”, simply because he signed a petition calling for an academic boycott of Israel some 10 years ago. For his part, the academic said while he is “committed to Palestinian equality and freedom”, he has “no relationship whatsoever with the BDS”.

But the passing of the resolution equating the BDS movement with anti-semitism did not only cause any organisation or person openly supporting the peaceful movement to be labelled as “anti-Semitic”. It also paved the way for people critical of Israel, who have no direct ties to the movement, to be smeared as “anti-Semites” and excluded from public events.

Indeed, individuals are now expected to have a particular position on Palestine/Israel in order to be allowed to participate in public events in Germany, regardless of the topic of their work. As a result, attempts to start an honest debate on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are regularly obstructed in Germany. Conversations on apartheid and settler-colonialism are terminated in advance with a discourse of “appropriate language”, and Israel is shielded from any criticism through the weaponisation of accusations of anti-Semitism. 

Concerns over freedom of speech 

Despite the widespread support for the state’s anti-BDS policies across the German political establishment, there are many in the country and across the world who believe that the muzzling of critical voices through unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism could have dangerous consequences for free speech in Germany.

Following the controversy surrounding Mbembe’s attendance at the Ruhrtriennale, more than 400 scholars, including Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, and Etienne Balibar, signed a pledge “opposing ideological or political interference and litmus tests in Germany”. 

Meanwhile, dozens of anti-Semitism researchers published an open letter in support of Mbembe and rejected “the misuse of the term anti-Semitism” for political interests “that have nothing to do with the fight against anti-Semitism”. Particularly in Germany, they argued, “everyone should be aware of the seriousness of the anti-Semitic threat and the urgency to act against it.” 

These concerns were also repeated in another open letter by Jewish scholars and artists, calling on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to replace Klein. The scholars said they “consider Klein’s attempt to frame Mbembe as an anti-Semite baseless, inappropriate, offensive and harmful” and accused Klein of harming academic freedom. They warned of an increasing “climate of fear in Germany, deterring intellectuals, journalists and the public at large from exercising free speech regarding controversial issues that should be publicly debated”.

Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in Near East, a group that itself has faced unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism in Germany, also called on German politicians and institutions to stop silencing criticism of Israel’s human rights violations. In a letter co-signed by other rights groups, it argued that “[t]he attempt to silence the intersectional approach to racism through an unsubstantiated accusation of anti-Semitism is another low point in the emerging censorship culture in Germany.” 

German Colonialism 

Indeed, the intersectional approach to racism is particularly unwelcome in Germany, and for good reason.

Germany’s support for colonialism in Palestine cannot be separated from its calculated and continuous amnesia about its own colonial crimes. Confronting settler-colonialism in Palestine requires confronting colonialism as a whole and all of its surviving legacies. But this has proven rather difficult in Germany. 

During its Colonial Era, the German Empire committed the first genocide of the 20th century against the Herero and Nama peoples in present-day Namibia. Decades later, West Germany supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and actively tried to hinder the struggle for freedom and equality in the country. It took Germany more than a century to even marginally acknowledge its crimes in Africa. Berlin is still fighting the descendants of the victims of its genocide in Namibia in court. 

Despite all this, many Germans still do not know much about their country’s colonial past. Articles on Mbembe often describe him as an African or Cameroonian post-colonial theorist, but rarely mention the fact that his home country is a former German colony. Apartheid analogies that involve Israel are categorically dismissed as “racist”, but Germany’s support for the former South African apartheid regime remains largely ignored. 

Germany’s refusal to talk honestly about its own colonial legacy contributes greatly to the hostile reception of Mbembe and other African post-colonial thinkers in the country. Coupled with a guilt-ridden desire to protect and support Israel unconditionally, Germany’s colonial amnesia lays the groundwork for African voices talking of the legacies of European colonialism in Palestine and beyond to be aggressively silenced. 

In a letter to the German government, more than 700 African intellectuals condemned the accusations “of right-wing extremist xenophobic and right-wing conservative groups in Germany” against Mbembe. The signatories also stressed their dismay over “the ongoing attempts in Germany” to stigmatise, intimidate and silence African intellectuals.

In the German context, defending Israel unconditionally also means shielding Berlin from accountability. It helps the country to atone for the Holocaust and allows it to avoid having an honest debate about its colonial history. 

Today, Germany is using unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism not only to protect Israel but also to stifle intersectional discussions about racism that would force it to take responsibility for its past crimes. It is thus no coincidence that Mbembe, a Black man from a former German colony, stands accused of racism in Germany.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.