Curious as it may seem, our neutral republic is at the vanguard of anti-Israel sentiment in Europe. Or pro-Palestinian if you like, but insofar as support of the Palestinian cause tends to be blind, reflexive, absolute and obsessive, and is expressed by heaping unmeasured opprobrium on Israel, then pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli are two sides of the same coin: heads Palestine, harps Israel.
We have had Dublin City Council endorsing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Ireland (2018). We have had the Occupied Territories Bill, passed by majorities in the Dáil and the Seanad (2018), although yet to be enacted. We have had the Dáil motion, supported by the government, condemning the building of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as “de facto annexation” (2021), making Ireland the first EU country to officially designate them as such. And now we have the decision by Sally Rooney, one of our brightest literary stars, to refuse publication rights for her latest novel to the Israeli publishing house that had brought out Hebrew translations of her two previous books (2021).
What all these initiatives have in common is their leading-edge nature. They go further in condemning Israel than other parliaments, councils and novelists have gone.
Not that sympathy for the Palestinian plight is new in Ireland, or surprising. Our history primes us to feel solidarity with any small nation or aspiring nation we see as oppressed, and we are not apt to be reassured when the oppressor is a democracy. Moreover, this identification with the Palestinians is not counterbalanced by a strong Jewish presence in Ireland, whereby the viewpoints of the other side would be put forward spontaneously in everyday discourse by people with a stake in the perception and existence of a Jewish homeland. Not that all Irish Jews defend Israel in any given case – just as Jews all around the world, inside and outside of Israel, have a wide range of views on Middle Eastern politics – but their criticism is inflected by a sense of identification with the land of their ancestors. This contrasts with a lot of Irish criticism, which is fundamentally hostile and immoderate.
To give two examples of what I mean: When a trade union leader – the ICTU is a supporter of BDS – steps up to a podium and rails against Israeli iniquities in a manner bereft of balance and understanding, there are few if any Jewish workers in the audience to roll their eyes and cough. Or when a TD stands up in the Dáil and spouts anti-Israeli invective, they do not have to worry about losing their Jewish voters.
Frequently, the language used in this country to denounce Israel is not only intemperate but surreally so. Reading over recent Dáil debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict is a dispiriting experience. In one short speech on May 20th of this year, given during the latest spate of violence, leader of the opposition Mary Lou McDonald denounced Israel as a “racist, apartheid regime” engaged in the “barbaric violation” of basic human rights. She condemned the “aggressive Israeli military onslaught” on Gaza, “vicious attacks” on Palestinians in the West Bank and the “terrifying pogroms” (sic) inflicted on Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Furthermore, Gaza had been turned into an “open-air prison” that was enduring a fourteen-year “siege”.
Similar language was used by many TDs on the left of the political spectrum. The prominence of such blistering verbal attacks on Israel in the Dáil debate is partly a function of the make-up of the current government and opposition, but the troubling question remains as to why so many people on the left hold such extreme positions on this one foreign policy issue and why their rhetoric reaches such an alarming pitch. After all, there are strong currents of socialist thought and tradition in Israeli society (kibbutzim being a famous example) as well as much criticism of government policy by left-wing thinkers and activists inside Israel. The Irish left would find a great amount of common cause with the Israeli left on every substantive issue – including that of Palestinian suffering – if it could refrain from hurling epithets such as “racist, apartheid regime” at Israel.
But any contact with the peacemakers on the Israeli left would make the wholesale denunciation of Israeli society that much more difficult. And what is the point of a bogeyman with a human face?
No doubt these vociferous critics of Israel would rejoin that they are just speaking the unvarnished truth, ignoring the tremendous amount of varnish on terms like “apartheid” and “racist” and “barbaric” and “pogrom” and “open-air prison”. Even allowing for a proper degree of moral indignation whenever blood is shed and lives lost, those terms are nowhere near a neutral designation of what is going on. It is not so much calling a spade a spade as calling it a blood-soaked bludgeon of perfidious slaughter.
Although Sally Rooney’s statement explaining her decision to refuse rights to her Israeli publisher was more considered, it still carried a heavy freight of contentious language. In six terse paragraphs, the word “apartheid” appears no fewer than six times. In addition, it refers to “racial domination” and “segregation”, terms not only laced with potent associations but with, at most, partial and uncertain applicability to Israel. Meanwhile, she endorses the BDS movement unreservedly, characterising it as “anti-racist”.
Subsequent knee-jerk attempts to brand Rooney as antisemitic were unwarranted. (Although the knockabout silliness of it all had its amusing side: “You’re apartheid, Israel!” “No, you’re antisemitic, Rooney!”) In its way, her decision is selfless and principled and could even have some serious consequences for her career. The German government has officially condemned BDS as an antisemitic movement and banned federal money from going to BDS supporters. Various state governments have adopted similar resolutions. This could make it difficult for Rooney to appear at literary festivals in Germany and could disqualify her from literary prizes that receive government funding. Other countries to pass anti-BDS resolutions include Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada and the United States.
As much as Rooney’s stance may be motivated by the loftiest humanitarian principles, it is also a hardline political act. Singling out one country as unworthy to publish your work is effectively to assert that that nation is uniquely bad. Sometimes BDS supporters make the softer claim that Israel is being targeted not because it is the worst offender, but because, as a democracy, it is susceptible to moral pressure. But that status – as the best of the worst, the most morally reachable country in which human rights abuses occur – would hardly merit a draconian international boycott not just of goods and services, but of the whole society and of any cultural or academic exchange with it. And this equivocation – uniquely bad / best of the worst – serves merely to allow critics to lambast Israel in the most extreme of language while not having to apply the same standards to any of its neighbours or other regimes around the world.
Rooney makes the sound point that choosing one country only for a concentrated boycott campaign is not unprecedented, as it is what happened in the case of apartheid South Africa. It is never a strong argument to say that one wrong should not be righted just because we cannot right them all. Surely less oppression is less oppression is less oppression. But what if a hardcore global boycott of Israel, as BDS proposes, is actually doing a wrong, based on a lie, which if successful – that is, with the disappearance of Israel as a Jewish-majority state – would bring justice to the region in the same way that the Second Gulf War brought the fruits of democracy to Iraq or the toppling of Gaddafi brought human rights to Libya.
The second productive ambiguity of the BDS campaign is the “apartheid” label. Nobody who knows anything about Israeli society – how it is structured, the multi-ethnic flavour of daily life – thinks that it is anything like apartheid-era South Africa. Any attempt to map the structures of discrimination in the South Africa of that time on to current Israeli reality would be doomed to failure. As a direct comparison, it is nonsense. As an analogy, it can be kind of made to work if you squint at this and ignore that and exaggerate the other.
But Rooney and other BDS supporters do not use the word as an analogy. They refer to a definition of apartheid under international law, one that Human Rights Watch and other NGOs have accused Israel of meeting. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, for example, defines apartheid as inhumane acts “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.
Leaving to one side the questions of whether this definition seriously applies to Israel or can be fairly made to apply to Israel only; and of whether such a general definition could ever be enforceable; and of whether it is the job of NGOs to interpret international law – the very fact of its existence sows semantic confusion. It allows enemies of Israel to bandy the word “apartheid” around without specifying whether they mean it in the sense of meeting an untested legal definition or in the sense of genuine similarity with South Africa. For example, when TDs in the Dáil call Israel an “apartheid state”, they elicit all our proper moral repugnance at the thoroughly racist apartheid-era society in South Africa so that we transfer these feelings on to Israel.
Any impartial application of the International Criminal Court definition would catch a lot of fish in its net, while any sober analysis of human rights in Israeli society would allow it to escape all but the broadest interpretations of the definition. So what are we left with, if “apartheid” is not an accurate analogy with South Africa, and not a legal definition that could ever designate Israeli society without equally designating scores of other nations?
Well, we are left with a dishonest label and term of abuse. In fact, the whole triangulation of Israel – Apartheid South Africa – Legal Definition of Apartheid is a crummy exercise in deliberate ambiguity. It is nothing other than a rickety framework erected to leverage the word “apartheid” for anti-Israeli propaganda. Far from furthering the cause of truth and justice – and categorically, yes, Palestinians are suffering from injustice – it propagates confusion and paints a crassly misleading picture of Israeli society.
Speaking of pictures, I do not think it is inaccurate to describe the image of Israel in the minds of a broad swathe of left-wing opinion in Ireland as being of an apartheid state founded on racial oppression and forever committing barbaric acts. And if this were a true and accurate and balanced picture, it would behove us all to condemn it in the strong terms of Mary Lou McDonald and with the strong gestures of Sally Rooney. But if the picture is rather a grotesque caricature, then it is time for less finger-pointing and more soul-searching.
So what is this Israel, when not the poster child for international villainy? Well, first and foremost it is a Jewish state. Indeed, that is its raison d’être. Moreover, its position as the world’s only Jewish state – and as the sole guarantor of safety for Jews from persecution and ultimately extermination (I’m afraid we squandered any claim to that role in Europe) – is the source of certain laws that privilege the Jewish faith and are designed to maintain a Jewish majority. Within these parameters, Israel is an ethnically diverse country with robust rights for its citizens, including not only Jews from all corners of the world, but also its sizable Arab Muslim, Christian and Druze minorities.
It is a Jewish state, then, just as Egypt, Jordan and about two dozen other countries are Muslim ones or, say, Cambodia and Sri Lanka are Buddhist ones. It is generally recognised that having a state religion does not ipso facto mean that a country is discriminatory or racist. When Israel’s opponents characterise the country as a racist, discriminatory state, they often refer to laws designed to safeguard Israel as a Jewish nation, while ignoring the freedom of religion and general equality under the law enjoyed by minorities. And although religion and ethnicity are mixed up with each other in Israel as elsewhere, there is hardly a racial component to Israel’s legislation. (We can think back here on the International Criminal Court definition of apartheid.) If you think laws designed to preserve the religious or ethnic character of a particular state are inherently wrong, well that’s all fine and good, but there is no reason why the world’s only Jewish state should particularly exercise you.
Israel is the best place in the Middle East to be gay, and its treatment of LGBT people forms a sharp contrast to the situation in Palestinian-controlled areas. Given the amount of orthodox religiosity in Israel, this social liberalism is no negligible achievement. It also gets back to the question I raised earlier as to whether the disappearance of the Israeli state – and remember that this is what BDS is effectively seeking – would lead to less oppression.
Another defining fact of Israeli existence – and one that goes some way to explaining the few laws privileging the state’s Jewish character – is that it is a small Jewish country (with a smaller land mass than Munster) surrounded by Muslim ones. It has good, and improving, relations with some of its neighbours. Others want to wipe it off the map.
In its young history, Israel has had a lot of wars, uprisings (intifadas), terrorism and failed peace deals. Unsurprisingly, these things have shaped its laws and given a martial cast to its society. For example, men do about two-and-a-half years of military service while women serve about two years. (For Arab citizens, military service is voluntary.) Its victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 left it in control of new territories won from Jordan, Egypt and Syria. These occupied territories, with their uncertain legal statuses, have been the source of a lot of conflict and misery since then. Some of the territory has already been returned in peace deals (the Sinai) or by unilateral withdrawal (Gaza, although Israel has retained control of its territorial waters and airspace), and any comprehensive peace deal will see much of the rest returned also.
The account above is not to excuse Israel its faults or to gloss over its failings. There has been a lot of injustice suffered by Palestinians at Israeli hands, and particularly in the occupied territories. And the ongoing settlements there were in fact, I think, rightly condemned by the Irish government. But the history of Israel has not been just a litany of abuses and rapacious violence, no matter what its most hostile opponents contend.
And when seen in their context, Israeli actions are no longer the isolated psychopathic acts of a deranged people, but the mixed, complex and sometimes brutal response of a relatively open society to the unique pressures around it. Just to take the recent violence, the Israeli airstrikes are not to be explained without the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. The two things are not equivalent or the same, to be sure, but they are causally connected. In the same series of Dáil debates in which Mary Lou McDonald let fly with her best invective, Deputy John Brady, also of Sinn Féin, having presented a long list of Israeli crimes without any mention of Hamas or rocket attacks, said the following:
These are all breaches of the Geneva convention, in other words a war crime. This violence did not take place in a vacuum.
The heart skips a beat. Is the real Israel going to make an appearance in Mr. Brady’s speech? But then he continues:
It was a direct consequence of 54 years of Israeli occupation and colonisation of Palestinian lands.
As for the texture of everyday life in Israel – what the beaches are like, the club scene, the persimmons, terebinth trees, family life, religious festivals, the weather, the public transport, the telly, the tensions and conflicts of a multi-ethnic society – well, that’s best conveyed by artists and writers. And that is what BDS wants us to boycott. It wants to make Israel even more unreal in the minds of the rest of the world.
The BDS movement calls not just for the political and financial isolation of the country but wants us to shun Israeli writers, artists and academics and treat them as pariahs. Other writers and public figures might have absentmindedly signed a BDS petition without realising its ramifications, but Rooney’s boycotting of her Israeli publisher is consequential. Elsewhere, BDS has protested against Israeli academics, orchestras and football teams and even tried to stop Israel from hosting the Eurovision Song Contest.
Furthermore, BDS is committed to boycotting Israeli culture until all its thoroughly unrealistic demands are met. These include the right of return for all Palestinian refugees (primarily refugees of the 1948 Palestine War), including their descendants. Given that the arrival of somewhere between five and eight million Palestinian refugees would put Jews in a minority and spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state, it is safe to say that no Israeli government will ever agree to that.
So what is the point of demanding something that will never be granted, that lies so far outside the parameters of any possible peace deal? Well, if the demand is never realised, then Israel can forever be vilified and ostracised. Like pretty much everything BDS does, it is a toxic gambit wrapped up in flowery human rights language.
Here is Omar Barghouti, co-founder of BDS, on this subject:
Just as we would oppose a “Muslim state” or a “Christian state” or any kind of exclusionary state, definitely, most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.
But of course Barghouti is not protesting “exclusionary”’ states like Egypt or Jordan, or Cambodia or Sri Lanka. He is not campaigning for Islam to be removed as the official religion of Palestine. He is not advocating for gay rights in Islamic countries. He is not concerned about creating a liberal, secular Middle East. The whole MO of the BDS movement is to trick or entice Western progressives into offering partisan support for any number of extremist positions. And this leads us to the second defining feature of BDS: it is a movement of peaceful protest in pursuit of extreme, hardline goals.
The other main BDS demands are similarly unrealistic. Unilateral Israeli disengagement from the West Bank and other occupied territories is unthinkable after the disastrous consequences of its unilateral disengagement from Gaza. And yes, that actually happened. The great evildoer, the totem of all malfeasance, evicted Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and ceded control to the Palestinians. Certainly, its motives were mixed and strategic and not all altruistic by any means. But in any case, the move backfired spectacularly with the election of Hamas, a terrorist organisation committed to Israel’s extinction.
BDS also wants Israel to tear down the separation barrier – the “West Bank Wall” – which has been so successful in protecting its citizens from terror attacks. The construction of the wall was unquestionably associated with injustices and hardships for ordinary Palestinians, and its removal is an excellent goal, but of course expecting Israel to unilaterally take it down is another exorbitant demand. Until the threat of suicide bombings and other attacks has diminished, the wall will not come down.
All these demands would be met – the refugee one partially – by a peace deal based on a two-state solution. Everyone who has the region’s best interests at heart should want a stable peace with a strong Palestinian state. At the moment, a peace agreement seems a long way off, but this should not tempt anyone into seeking shortcuts.
A peace deal would put an end to settlements and make Palestinian citizens of most of the residents of the occupied territories and Israeli citizens of the rest. It would involve compromises on both sides and require hardliners to abandon cherished territorial dreams.
So why is BDS, which touts its peaceful nature, making demands that run against the grain of peace?
Omar Barghouti has been upfront about his goals. In an event at a university in Los Angeles, in which he opposed a two-state solution, he addressed the fact that there are Israeli Arabs in prominent positions of the Israeli government and judiciary – an indicator that the state is not, you know, actually practising apartheid, not really, not like they did in South Africa – by branding them “collaborators”. And he cheerfully asserted Palestinians’ right to “resistance by any means, including armed resistance”.
Clearly, this is neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King. And neither should the woolly BDS talk of peaceful protest deflect us from noting that the Palestinian BDS National Committee includes the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, which contains such “peaceful” members as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Despite all this, who was invited in 2018 to speak before the Irish Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, but self-styled “human rights defender” Omar Barghouti? Having listened to Barghouti’s fanatically one-sided account of the situation in Palestine, presented in extreme language (“regime of military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid”, “Israel’s descent into unmasked, right-wing extremism”, “Israeli colonies”, “Israel’s regime becomes more overtly associated with the global far right, including white supremacist and antisemitic groups in the United States and Europe”, “Israel’s pillage of Palestinian energy resources”), Ivana Bacik was moved to respond as follows:
I thank Mr Barghouti for, as the Chairman said, such a concise and clear presentation. I think he has set out very succinctly why Ireland should support the boycott, divestment, sanctions, BDS, programme. I am personally a supporter of it. I am proud to support it on behalf of my party, the Labour Party.
Otherwise, there was some gentle prodding by chairman Brendan Smith of Fianna Fáil about a two-state solution, while the only committee member to challenge Barghouti’s wildly lopsided presentation was Seán Barrett of Fine Gael. It was much the same throughout the debates on this issue in 2018 and 2021. It was left to Fine Gael, led by Simon Coveney in his capacity as minister for foreign affairs, to insist upon an amendment to the 2021 condemnation of Israel so that it also criticised Hamas. It is also generally thought that Coveney was the one who scotched the Occupied Territories Bill. Incidentally, I say this through gritted teeth, as someone who has never voted Fine Gael and is unlikely to in the future. Credit is also due to minister of state Thomas Byrne of Fianna Fáil for speaking out about the danger of antisemitism and the importance of supporting a two-state solution.
The idea of criticising Hamas is anathema to Israel’s hardline opponents, who do not even like to acknowledge that there is a conflict going on. It upsets their cherished picture of Palestinians as the faultless victims and Israelis as the wicked perpetrators. Barghouti cleverly exploits this simple binary to position Palestine as a colony and Israel as a colonial power, a frame that de-particularises the complex history of the region and casts it as something that people can understand without thinking. But to make this work, there can be no Hamas, no suicide bombings, no intifadas, no rockets, no human rights abuses committed by Palestinians, no discriminatory laws in Palestinian-controlled areas; there can be no Syria, no Jordan, no Egypt, no Iran; there can be no mention of Egypt closing its border to Gaza, but only reference to an “open-air prison” as an Israeli creation; there can be no ancient Jewish presence in the land. There can only be Israeli soldiers with guns and Palestinian children throwing stones. And the clock of history must begin in the middle of the twentieth century so that there can be colonising alien Jews and colonised indigenous Arabs.
The embrace of hardcore anti-Israeli sentiment by so many on the left in Ireland contrasts sharply with the situation in Germany, where the government’s condemnation of BDS as antisemitic in 2019 was supported by a broad spectrum of political parties, left, right and centre. And it was not just a top-down mandate either: student bodies at many universities had previously denounced BDS. People might be tempted to dismiss Germany’s stance as displaced guilt. Such an argument was advanced by Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch, in an article written to promote the NGO’s characterisation of Israel as an apartheid state:
In the months since, a growing chorus of voices, from former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa and current Knesset members to the ex-UN Secretary General and the French foreign minister, have referenced apartheid in relation to Israel’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians, in particular in the occupied territory. Yet many in Germany, including those critical of Israeli human rights abuses, remain hesitant to apply the label to Israeli conduct.
Given history, one can certainly understand Germany’s concern for the welfare of the Jewish people, but that should not carry over to an endorsement of abusive and discriminatory Israeli government conduct, especially in the occupied territory.
As if reluctance to apply the label of apartheid constituted an endorsement of abusive and discriminatory conduct!
Germany’s historic relationship with the state of Israel – ultimately informed by the holocaust – undeniably marks its attitude in these matters, but it does not follow that it creates a blind spot to abuses and discrimination. Rather, Germany’s stance is a function of what happens when a country takes left-wing antisemitism seriously.
The anti-BDS resolution has triggered a series of fascinating debates in German society. Many German cultural institutions felt it went too far and were worried about having to vet and disinvite BDS supporters. There were very proper concerns about free speech and the right to legitimate criticism. And there were discussions about the various definitions of antisemitism, including the form known in Germany as Israel-related antisemitism (israelbezogener Antisemitismus), which is roughly equivalent to the term “anti-Zionism” insofar as it refers to the delegitimisation of Israel or opposition to its existence as a homeland for the Jewish people. (A non-binding resolution by the French government in 2019 declared that anti-Zionism was a form of antisemitism.)
An illuminating case has been that of Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian philosopher and political scientist whose postcolonialist work had earned him prestigious awards, endowments and a large public profile (for an academic) in Germany.
Mbembe was due to give the opening speech at the Ruhrtriennale, a major festival of the arts, when a politician from the Free Democratic Party, Lorenz Deutsch, questioned his involvement. Deutsch cited the fact that Mbembe had signed a BDS petition calling for the academic boycott of Israel and that his published work contained anti-Israeli sentiments that relativised the holocaust and portrayed Israeli policies as not only comparable to apartheid South Africa, but as worse. Deutsch quoted the following passage from Mbembe’s article “The Society of Enmity” (as translated by Giovanni Menegalle):
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. 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.
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 phantasy of separation.
As with much postmodernist/poststructuralist writing, it is hard to know whether to take any particular claim here literally. For example, are the “mounds of ruins” on a greater scale in Palestine than in apartheid South Africa? But in any case, taking passages like this on their own, Mbembe is clearly not guilty of anything particularly egregious. Indeed, it is fair to say that loosey-goosey associations and slippery equivocations are baked into this kind of academic writing.
But there was more to come. German antisemitism commissioner Felix Klein entered the debate, decrying the “antisemitic pattern” in Mbembe’s work and his support for BDS. Although the coronavirus intervened and caused the cancellation of the Ruhrtriennale festival, relieving its organisers of the decision as to whether to disinvite Mbembe, a wide-ranging debate ensued about whether Mbembe had merely expressed legitimate criticism of Israel using the important tool of comparison, or whether the unmoored nature of his comparisons, combined with his BDS activism, amounted to antisemitism.
Citing the definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), Klein maintained that criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic when it delegitimises or demonises Israel or when double standards are applied. (It is this same non-binding definition that informed France’s resolution on anti-Zionism.)
It is easy to have sympathy for Mbembe’s predicament. He has got caught up in a fraught moment of German historiography, in which figures such as Australian historian Anthony Dirk Moses are seeking to inscribe the holocaust into the general global history of colonial atrocities, and are making the argument that holocaust remembrance in Germany should not be fetishised at the expense of sidelining the country’s colonial past. In addition, the government’s BDS resolution has shifted the goalposts of discourse.
But the more one reads of Mbembe’s writings on Israel and Palestine, the more one sees hysterical fantasies of violence being projected onto Israel, the more one sees him portray Israel as extravagantly laying waste to territories like some mythical dragon, the more the rum juxtapositions of Israel with South Africa and Nazi Germany proliferate, the more queasy one gets. Moreover, his response to the controversy – falsely denying any association with BDS, accusing his critics of wanting to silence a “n***o” voice, complaining of a “lynching” and spuriously blaming far-right elements for raising the issue – did him no favours.
Even worse was the revelation that Mbembe, together with colleagues, had successfully pressured his university in South Africa, in the name of BDS, to disinvite academic and peace activist Shifra Sagy from a conference being held there. The grounds for excluding her: being Israeli.
In all this, there are genuine concerns about freedom of expression. It must be permissible for academics and writers not only to criticise abuses committed by the Israeli state and individuals within the country, but also to risk comparisons and analogies and to view the holocaust within a wider postcolonial framework without denying its singular nature. There must be a place for imagination and re-imagination that does not stray into falsehood and demonisation. And no definition of antisemitism should be so broad that it implicates or stifles honest criticism.
Where Mbembe is situated within this matrix has been hotly debated. What is certain is that a situation in which he is showered with prizes one minute and condemned the next is unsatisfactory. The best venue for criticising his overblown fantasies would be peer review. But then we have the problem that baggy, abstruse works of critical theory are unlikely to be reviewed by anyone who might disagree with them. Hence the laughable initial response by some of Mbembe’s defenders that his work could not contain dubious passages because if it had someone would have noticed and he would not have won all those accolades.
And yet Mbembe occasionally drops the postmodernist jargon and says something insightful and clear. From the same article I referenced above:
What about the ‘Muslim’, the foreigner or the immigrant, those about whom one has continued, beyond all reasonable bounds, to weave images that, little by little, have begun to connect into vicious chains of association? That such images do not match reality matters little. Primary phantasies know neither doubt nor uncertainty. As Freud argued, the mass is only ‘excited by immoderate stimuli. Anyone seeking to move it needs no logical calibration in his arguments, but must paint with the most powerful images, exaggerate, and say the same thing over and over again.’
Donal Moloney is a writer and translator from Waterford. His work has appeared in New Irish Writing (The Irish Times); The Moth; the Dublin Review of Books; Cork Words 2; Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails (The Stinging Fly); Long Story, Short; Verge (Monash University); The Galway Review and Boyne Berries.
Opinion pieces published in the drb are not statements of editorial opinion.