Diplomatic response by Jewish students to BDS supporters' Graffiti
SAUJS Diplomatic Response to BDS Supporters' Graffiti. Courtesy SAFI.

Following the interim cancellation of the Ruhrtriennale arts festival due to the Coronavirus outbreak, and the official call to exclude proposed speaker, Professor Achille Mbembe, from this festival due to his alignment with the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel), an all-too-familiar debate has erupted.

The Ruhrtriennale arts festival is held in Ruhr Valley, Germany. Of all the European arts festivals, meant to bring people together in expression and connection, this one is said to be the most political. Approximately a year ago, the German parliament passed a resolution designating the BDS movement as antisemitic, correctly stating that the campaign to boycott Israeli products, including the movement’s use of “Don’t Buy” stickers, recalls the most horrific chapter in German history. Germany is in good company, as many European countries and most states in the United States, for example, have passed similar resolutions. Germany is particularly sensitive and aware of what the results of unchecked antisemitism are.

Who is Professor Achille Mbembe?

Professor Achille Mbembe is a renowned and respected scholar. He is currently a staff member at WISER (the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research) at the University of Witwatersrand, and has an annual visiting appointment at Duke University, North Carolina, United States. This is a man who has received multiple international awards for his work and in one of his reports discusses “Palestine and South Africa as examples” of how “the power of sovereignty is enacted through the creation of zones of death where death becomes the ultimate exercise of domination”. A man, especially a renowned, respected scholar, spreading the lie that Israel has “death zones” where it “kills in order to dominate” is not a man who should be speaking at, let alone opening, such a festival. Conjuring up images of the Nazi Death Camps, cheapening the Holocaust and dishonouring all Germans who have worked hard to come to terms with their history and eradicate racism, in order to lie about Israel, is hardly a way to connect and promote peace.

The Debate

Over the course of the last few weeks, several articles have been released and debates abound around whether it is acceptable to exclude Mr Mbembe from this festival. Various organizations and individuals have accused Germany of shutting down free speechfalling for “Jewish lobbyists” and shutting down the voices of those who are merely attempting to defend the defenceless and fight for justice and peace for the oppressed. South Africa’s own Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, of which Mr Mbembe is a board member, stated that “…it is alarming that some have equated being critical of the Israeli state to being anti-Semitic”. The defenceless, oppressed people with whom Mr Mbembe is purportedly aligning are, of course, the Palestinian people.

Before responding to the above accusations, let us explore what happens, especially to Jewish communities, in countries where the BDS movement has been allowed to flourish.

The Effects of the BDS Movement on Society

Below are examples of incidences which have occurred in South Africa. Some occurred during events supposedly organized as gatherings or protests standing for the freedom of the Palestinian people, others occur because of the constant images and messaging the BDS movement promotes.

  • Here, at the University of Witwatersrand, the South African Union of Jewish Students stand peacefully, genuinely wanting dialogue. This is their response to the awful graffiti spray-painted on university property by the BDS movement and its supporters
  • At one of South Africa’s leading grocery stores, Woolworths, members of COSAS (the Congress of South African Students) left a pig’s head in the Kosher meat section in a prominent area of Cape Town. They openly vowed to continue this act as a protest against the store stocking Israeli products. “We believe Woolworths is continuing to buy products from Israel, the very same Israel killing school children in Gaza. That’s why we’re taking drastic action,” they stated, “Woolworths has betrayed school children and is a very dirty apartheid-supporting store.” These are the lies believed by BDS-supporters.
  • Israeli-born pianist Yossi Reshef had to abandon his concert at a university, just after he had started, because a mob had forced their way into the hall and harassed audience members.
  • Hezbollah and Hamas flags were waved at pro-Israel students during the infamous Israel Apartheid Week event.
  • During Israel Apartheid Week, Jewish students were harassed and given a Hitler-salute.
  • Demonstrators at this same university sang a song “Dubula e juda” which translates to “shoot the Jew”, yet BDS leader Muhammed Desai told the university newspaper that “the whole idea of antisemitism is blown out of proportion.”
  • Other businesses and events having anything to do with Israel have also been the targets of antisemitic rants and demonstrations which cannot be described as “peaceful protests”.

It is clear: wherever BDS has been allowed to thrive and spread its falsehoods, the Jewish community is in danger and fear.

Not only does the Jewish community suffer, but undoubtedly the society at large.

  • Hijacking South Africa’s history of Apartheid and using it as a tool to denigrate the Jewish State of Israel, is a lie that has cheapened all lessons of Apartheid making them void, and deeply insults all those who know how horrific Apartheid was.
  • Hijacking the Holocaust and using it as a tool to compare the free democratic State of Israel to Hitler’s Nazi regime, is a vile lie that has cheapened the Holocaust and deeply insults and hurts the soul of the Jewish nation and puts Jewish communities around the world in danger.
  • Hijacking the Palestinian people struggling under their abusive terrorism-supporting leadership and using them as a tool to demonize the Jewish State, is a tragedy. The Palestinian people deserve better than this. They deserve freedom-loving people to stand against Hamas and the corruption within the Palestinian Authority.

There is no need to use other tragedies to get people to support a cause. If something is real, it stands on its own merit.

Let us be clear that not allowing Mr Mbembe to speak at this festival, has nothing to do with stifling freedom of speech or stopping academic freedom, as the defenders of BDS would have you believe. (Mr Mbembe himself threatened to withdraw from a conference in South Africa because a leading Israeli psychologist, Professor Shifra Sagy, was among the invited speakers). It also has nothing to do with not allowing him to ‘criticise the State of Israel’, as his writings and teachings are a far cry from criticism of Israel and are, simply, dangerous lies. It also has nothing to do with Germany “falling for Jewish lobbyists”. This is yet another lie insulting the intelligence of the German people and conjuring up age-old anti-Jewish sentiments. There is no good reason to allow for dangerous lies to be spread, for hatred to rise, for violence to increase. Not allowing him to speak and not allowing the BDS movement to have an open platform, is an act of standing for the truth. That is the only thing which will help the oppressed.

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