German anti-Semitism chief must resign, say Jewish and Israeli scholars

Jewish and Israeli scholars are calling for the resignation of Felix Klein, a German federal official who has falsely smeared critics of Israeli policies as anti-Semites (Wolfgang Kumm - DPA)

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  July13, 2020

Almost three dozen prominent Jewish and Israeli scholars are calling for the resignation of Germany’s top official responsible for combating anti-Semitism.

The latest demand for the removal of Felix Klein comes following his claim at an event on 30 June that “anti-Semitism from the left-liberal milieu” had been “making life a bit harder for me personally.”

Klein went on to say that “even if right-wing narratives currently have a higher potential for violence, we must not underestimate this area.”

The scholars reject this entirely: “No ‘left-liberal anti-Semites’ are bullying you, but Jews and non-Jews are protesting the way in which you are weaponizing the fight against anti-Semitism at the expense of free speech and basic civil rights – and the fight against anti-Semitism itself.”

The signers include Dani Karavan, Alex Levac, Yehuda Judd Ne’eman and David Shulman – all winners of the Israel Prize, the state’s highest official cultural honor.

They also include Harvard University’s Jean Comaroff, writer and Yeshayahu Leibowitz Prize winner Ilana Hammerman, and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Among the signers are Mark Levene, retired professor at the University of Southampton and winner of the Lemkin Prize of the Institute for the Study of Genocide; Michael Rothberg, chair in Holocaust studies at the University of California; and Barry Trachtenberg, chair of Jewish history at Wake Forest University.

The scholars call Klein’s latest declaration “deeply offensive.”

“You basically called us and many others criticizing you in a legitimate way anti-Semites,” they write. “We demand an apology for that.”

They also accuse Klein of minimizing the “acute danger that Jews in Germany face due to the surge in far-right anti-Semitism.”

Smears against Achille Mbembe

Klein already faced calls for his sacking earlier this year following what the scholars term his “shameful attack on Professor Achille Mbembe, one of the most important intellectuals in Africa and globally.”

In response to Klein’s smear campaign against Mbembe, hundreds of scholars pledged not to cooperate with institutions in Germany that censor advocates of Palestinian rights.

Many of the scholars now urging Klein to resign wrote to Germany’s interior minister Horst Seehofer following the Mbembe episode, urging him to fire Klein.

Despite the backlash, Klein refused to apologize for his false accusations of anti-Semitism against Mbembe.

Asked to justify those attacks, Klein made it crystal clear to the German newspaper Die Zeit in May that his motivation for smearing Mbembe was to shield Israel from accountability and criticism.

Klein claimed that Mbembe’s essay “The Society of Enmity” contained “all the features of Israel-focused anti-Semitism.”

According to Klein, this included that “Israel is demonized, a double standard is established, and the legitimacy of the country as a whole is called into question.”

In fact, the essay contains detailed and factually accurate descriptions of the systems of control and segregation Israel imposes on Palestinians, including walls, checkpoints, fences and watchtowers.

Klein also cited how Mbembe wrote the foreward to the 2015 book Apartheid Israel “in which he argued that Israel is worse than the apartheid regime of South Africa.”

Klein also complained that proceeds from the book “went to a BDS group” – a reference to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

The volume, published by Haymarket Books, is a thought-provoking and carefully considered collection of essays by 18 scholars of Africa – who can hardly be accused of making light of the term apartheid.

Comparisons of Israel’s system to the crime of apartheid as it was perpetrated in South Africa have been common for years – because they are accurate – and have been advanced not least by former Israeli prime ministers including Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak.

In his own defense, in an interview published in April, Mbembe has gone as far as to declare that “It would never occur to me to contest Israel’s right to exist” and to insist that “I have no relationship whatsoever with BDS.”

Klein, therefore, not only seeks to silence those who oppose Israel’s claimed “right to exist” as a racist Jewish state, but even those – like Mbembe – who don’t.

But facts are not important to pro-Israel zealots like Klein who are determined to smear any and all criticism of Israel as akin to anti-Jewish bigotry.

“For me, the matter is unfortunately clear-cut,” Klein asserted regarding Mbembe’s work. “And I am surprised that there are readers of this composition who apparently ignore that.”

“Driving force”

Indeed the matter is clear-cut, but not in the way Klein thinks: What is evident is that all the examples of alleged anti-Semitism he produced against Mbembe amount to criticism of Israel’s brutal system of military occupation, settler-colonialism and violent ethno-religious segregation.

The signers of the letter calling on him to resign call Klein a “driving force behind attempts to undermine free speech by categorically disqualifying the BDS movement, which has a minuscule footprint in Germany, as anti-Semitic.”

They note that this logic was rejected in a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights last month, which confirmed that Israel boycott activism is protected political free speech.

“You display a lack of awareness and respect for democratic values,” the scholars charge Klein. “You fail to distinguish between legitimate criticism and real anti-Semitism.”

As Israel moves towards annexing large parts of the occupied West Bank, the scholars say that “the need for loud international criticism and opposition is only growing,” but Klein keeps “chilling the public and political debate in Germany and beyond.”

Klein is one of several high-profile anti-Semitism officials appointed by European governments and the US who have used their positions as a cover to advance Israel’s campaign to muzzle supporters of Palestinian rights.

Prominent among them is Katharina von Schnurbein, a German functionary who leads the European Union’s effort to spread smears and lies against the BDS movement.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books