A Climate of Suspicion, Uncertainty and Denunciation

Here’s my translation of Aleida Assmann’s contribution to the debate on Mbembe, and the relation between (non-)antisemitism and postcolonial studies:


A Climate of Suspicion, Uncertainty and Denunciation[1]

After the attacks on the director of the Ruhr-Triennale, Stephanie Carp, and the philosopher Achille Mbembe: suggestions for a more clearly formulated concept of antisemitism.

Germany has not only an old, but also a new antisemitism problem. The identity of the Germans cannot be detached from the Holocaust. The responsibility for this crime against humanity is linked to a special responsibility for the State of Israel. This responsibility is not only part of the German raison d’être of the state, but also shows itself in the close cooperation with people in this state and its institutions. It borders on being a miracle that Jews of the third and fourth generation are once again living in Germany after the Holocaust and have found a basis for their existence here.

It is all the more shocking that this Jewish life in Germany is now under dramatic threat. Wearing kippas makes people the target of verbal and physical attacks, Jewish community facilities are no longer safe and finally the attack in Halle suddenly calls into question everything that has grown and been achieved in this country. We cannot rest easy, the spread of the poison of antisemitism in right-wing extremist groups and on the internet has reached a new level of escalation and requires decisive action by the police forces, clear positions from politicians and the vigilance of all citizens. This fight against antisemitism needs all our efforts and should thus be unanimous by all means. Unfortunately, it is precisely this unanimity that is disturbed by a debate that distracts from this important task, confuses minds and targets the wrong opponents.

Targeted are the director of the Ruhr-Triennale, Stephanie Carp, and the philosopher Achille Mbembe, whose texts suddenly appear in the public spotlight and have found many readers who read them with only one interest: to discover suspicious statements in them. Jürgen Kaube immediately found what he was looking for in the FAZ and promptly confirmed the accusation of antisemitism based on the ‘fruits’ (findings) of his reading. The consequences of this hermeneutics of suspicion are severe for people in leading positions; they must expect to be dismissed and to face permanent stigmatization because the cultural-political spokesman of the FDP, Lorenz Deutsch, the antisemitism commissioner Felix Klein and the Central Council of Jews have turned this into a case.

Three letters in particular have contributed to the scandalizing of the case: “BDS.” They stand for an alliance founded in 2005 for boycott, investment withdrawal and sanctions. This is a movement of non-violent political resistance against the progressive occupation of the Palestinian territories by the Israeli state. On the Internet I found two statements on the BDS by scientists I know and respect very much. Wolfgang Benz, former director of the Center for Antisemitism Research in Berlin, considers the BDS to be “very complex” and not antisemitic, but a “political movement critical of Israel,” which “does not prevent antisemites from participating.” Whoever, on the other hand, categorizes BDS as “antisemitic,” has “primarily a political interest – and not an interest in enlightenment and peace. My other guarantor is Moshe Zimmermann, historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In his opinion not every BDS supporter is automatically antisemitic and not every boycotter is a BDS supporter. He sees these attributions as a “technique of silencing” in the interest of the Israeli government.

Why has this initiative suddenly hit the German headlines? In order to understand this, I would like to broaden the horizon a bit and move from the three letters BDS to the four letters IHRA. They stand for “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance,” an alliance of states that came together in Stockholm on January 27, 2000 for an International Forum at the initiative of Swedish President Göran Persson. The founding document of this alliance is the “Stockholm Declaration”. Its aim was to introduce January the 27th as a mandatory day of remembrance and to combat antisemitism in order to “sow the seeds of a better future in the soil of a bitter past”. Since then, the IHRA states have met annually in one of the member states to discuss the practical issues involved in implementing the Holocaust remembrance culture in the different political and cultural milieus. In 2016, under the impression of the growing topicality of a new threat of antisemitism, the member states of IHRA have extended their definition of antisemitism by the following passage: “In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”[2] In 2017, this expanded working definition of antisemitism was adopted by the German federal government, followed in 2019 by the Conference of German University Rectors.

This expansion of the antisemitism definition has created the current climate of suspicion, uncertainty and denunciation. For in the meantime it has become increasingly unclear who can come into the crosshairs of the fight against antisemitism. Not only the BDS, but also philosophers like Achille Mbembe. “All in one pot” —this headline of Jürgen Kaube’s article, which accused the author of mixing historical events such as the Holocaust, apartheid and colonialism, also applies to the concept of antisemitism itself. I therefore propose a distinction between three antisemitism terms:

1. old-new antisemitism as hatred and violence against Jews, which can be traced back 2500 years in history and whose images and stereotypes are constantly renewed;
2. antisemitism as struggle and war against the state of Israel – it denies Israel’s right to exist and is today widespread, especially in Islamic states;
3. the new antisemitism as a criticism of certain aspects of the politics of the State of Israel, which goes back to the expanded definition of IHRA.

Here, no distinction is made between a denial of the state’s right to existence (2) and a criticism of the occupation policy in this state. This ambiguity is responsible for the fact that the new definition of antisemitism (3) has provoked explosive reactions here in this country and led to a climate of general suspicion.

Article 3 of the Stockholm Declaration from 2000 states: “With humanity still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils.” This task has become not easier, but more urgent over the past 20 years. However, the new concept of antisemitism does not strengthen, but rather hinders global solidarity in the fight against hatred of Jews. For now there is a new dividing line between those who strive to support and improve the State of Israel with their criticism and those who are determined to immunize it against all criticism.

—Aleida Assmann has published several standard works on cultural memory and Holocaust remembrance. In 2018 she and Jan Assmann received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

[1] Aleida Assmann, “Ein Klima des Verdachts, der Verunsicherung und Denunziation” Stand: 15.05.2020, 13:17 Uhr, Frankfurter Rundschau.
[2] [see Drucksache 18/11970, April 7, 2017 p. 23, my translation; see also IHRA’s The working definition of antisemitism from May 26, 2016, “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”; see also the “Working definition of Antisemitism” of The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) from 2004 (Archived 24 November 2015 at the Wayback Machine).]


I would also like to recommend the article by Michael Rothmann, The Specters of Comparison, with the only objection to turning the debate around Mbembes’ work into “a case”:

“The theory of multidirectional memory does not presuppose that all articulations of public memory are equally valid; we certainly need an ethics of comparison to distinguish the valences of multidirectional articulations. Some comparisons deserve to be taken seriously; some do not. Some comparisons lead to greater solidarity among victims; some lead to increased conflict. Some comparisons may turn into forms of facile equation, but comparison usually involves distinctions of genre and scale. In this context, the theory of multidirectional memory suggests, above all, that the fear of comparison that currently reigns in Germany could itself be productively rethought. Instead of seeing every juxtaposition of the Holocaust with colonialism or apartheid as a threat to Germans’ responsibility-based identity, Germans might instead reflect on the broader histories and responsibilities that come into view when we pause to take multidirectional comparisons seriously. While engagement with the Holocaust is and should remain a touchstone of German identity, there is also a pressing need to engage with the legacies of German and European colonialism and with Germany’s implication in the structural racism and economic inequality of the present. Because of how closely linked the aftermath of the Nazi genocide is to the occupation of Palestine, Germans would also do well to reflect on their implication in that ongoing injustice. Instead of targeting Mbembe because of the uncomfortable issues he raises, all of us who are invested in coming to terms with injustices past and present might turn to his writings as a source of insight.

Writing in the 1960s, the Austrian-Belgian Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry argued that the proper attitude of post-Holocaust Germans was that of “self-mistrust” [Selbstmisstrauen]. I believe Améry’s caution is even more crucial today, precisely because Germany has accomplished so much in the realm of “working through the past” [Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung]. It seems to me that, instead of positioning itself as the arbiter of antisemitism and the unquestioning defender of Israeli policy, Germany might return to the practice of “self-mistrust”: it might welcome the specters of comparison and view them through a multidirectional lens.”

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