Germany’s anti-Semitism czar has sparked an international backlash following its attempt to disinvite world renowned philosopher Achille Mbembe from delivering the opening speech at the Ruhrtriennale Festival. The Cameroonian political philosopher, scholar of African history, and one of the most prominent theorists on post-colonialism, was smeared as an anti-Semite for drawing parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Klein reportedly accused Mbembe of “relativizing” the Holocaust and questioning Israel’s right to exist and demanded Mbembe’s keynote address at the popular Ruhrtriennale arts and music festival this summer be cancelled.
The attack on Mbembe triggered an international backlash. Some 377 scholars and artists from more than 30 countries signed a pledge opposing litmus tests and political interference by institutions, municipalities and public officials in Germany.
The group of scholars and cultural figures standing against the silencing of advocates for Palestinian rights in Germany committed not to serve on juries or prize committees or in academic hiring consultations in Germany whenever there are “convincing indicators that their decisions may be subject to ideological or political interference or litmus tests.”
Signatories include many distinguished figures, including philosophers Judith Butler and Étienne Balibar, award-winning screenwriter and producer James Schamus, Nobel laureate in Chemistry George P. Smith, linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, literary and postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, author Ahdaf Soueif, former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Hans von Sponeck, Holocaust history professor Amos Goldberg, and artist and writer Molly Crabapple. Renowned architect Michael Sorkin also signed the pledge before he passed away in late March from COVID-19.
In a press release, the group said that the pledge was in response to multiple instances in which artists and scholars suspected of supporting the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights were subjected to repressive political interference and smear campaigns.
The pledge signatories stated: “To reverse a prize jury’s decision or to withdraw an invitation to speak on ideological grounds is an intolerable interference that we cannot condone, even by our participation in juries subject to such interference.” They argued that making decisions contingent on a commitment to disavow BDS violates academic freedom and freedom of expression, making “a mockery of the very system for and purpose of awarding prizes to individuals judged to be leaders in their fields.”
Amongst the concerns raised in the pledge was the targeting of black and African academics that are critical of Israel. The signatories warned that there was a “disturbing trend in Germany of silencing critical voices, in particular people of color.”