“They try to equate Zionism and Judaism” – Interview with Eleonora Roldán Mendí­vil

The following interview with academic Eleonora Roldán Mendí­vil is here reprinted, translated from the German original. The original German interview was printed in Die Freiheitsliebe (The Love of Freedom), an anti-racist, anti-militarist and environmentalist web publication.

(Die Freiheitsliebe, 17 Jan 2017), https://diefreiheitsliebe.de/politik/sie-versuchen-zionismus-und-judentum-gleichzusetzen-im-gespraech-mit-eleonora-roldan-mendivil/

In this semester, a seminar entitled “Racism in Capitalism” is taking place at the Freie Universití¤t Berlin, conducted by Eleonora Roldán Mendí­vil. She was also expected to teach in the coming semester, but after media reported that she was anti-Semitic because she called Israel colonialist, this seems to have been put on hold. We talked with her about the allegations, the difference between Zionism and anti-Semitism and her view of the Middle East conflict.

Freiheitsliebe: A few days ago, it was announced that the Freie Universití¤t Berlin will not extend your contract. How did this happen?

Eleonora Roldán Mendí­vil: I only have a contract to conduct a seminar in the bachelor’s degree program in political sciences, entitled “Racism in Capitalism,” during the winter semester 2016 / 2017. This goes on to mid-February. There are still five more sessions remaining. The direction of this seminar has not been withdrawn from me. However, I also submitted two seminars for the 2017 summer semester. Weeks ago, I got an e-mail confirming that the OSI [Otto-Suhr-Institut] had included one of the two seminars, a critical introduction to intersectionality theory, into the curriculum for the 2017 summer semester. However, I have not yet signed a contract, as this is usually only done shortly before the start of the course. Lectures, generally, represent a very precarious kind of employment, although they constitute the majority of teaching in many institutes.

On Tuesday (Jan 17), the OSI management decided not to give me any new lectures until further notice, based on an article in a blog with avowedly rightist content. As a consequence my proposal for a seminar in the summer semester of 2017 was withdrawn. The article on the blog was republished in the “šJí¼dische Rundschau without any changes. Its insinuations were adopted by the “Group against any form of antisemitism FU Berlin”, an association of students representing, in my opinion,  nothing other than an uncritical pro-Israeli point of view.

Freiheitsliebe: You are accused of anti-Semitism by right-wing circles. What is the significance of that statement?

Eleonora Roldán Mendí­vil: It shows the renewed attempt to equate Zionism with Judaism. This is, of course, total nonsense. Not all Jewish people are Zionists. Political Zionism in its various forms has emerged as a response to European anti-Jewish racism. It was intended to create a state, a nation in which Jews formed the majority and thus put an end to their persecution as Jews. Many Jewish people have seen here a possibility of emancipation as Jews. But many do not. Vehement criticisms came from many Jewish communists and anarchists. Emma Goldman, a Russian anarchist and worker in the USA, was a determined opponent. And even today, there are various Jewish intellectuals firmly opposed to this equation. Well-known names include Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Moshe Zuckermann, Norman Finkelstein, and Ella Shohat. In addition, many civil society organizations of Jewish people as well as Israelis are involved in the fight against the massive human rights violations and the occupation. These include, for example, ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’, ‘Boycott from Within’ or the ‘Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East’. It is part of the Zionist historical myth that Zionism and now the State of Israel should be equated with Judaism. This argument is time and again adopted by right-wing circles – joined also, unfortunately, by a few confused subjective ‘leftists’ – in order to shut down any criticism of the State of Israel. So there is nothing in this statement, because, like many other critical scientists, I only represent positions resulting from a differentiated and critical analysis of history. In this sense, from an analytical point of view on racism there is much to be said to categorize Israel as a colonial power and from the point of view of international law as an apartheid state. This has nothing to do with defamation, but it is a political and legal assessment of the facts on the ground.

Freiheitsliebe: the student group “Against any anti-Semitism” writes about you, “With these comparisons and expressions, she does not only play down the historical crimes of colonialism and apartheid but also places the Israeli democratic constitutional state on the same footing as regimes of injustice.” How do you react to such statements?

Eleonora Roldán Mendí­vil: After my lecture last Wednesday, I had a discussion about it with some students from that initiative as well as with students from my seminar. The use of analytical concepts such as colonialism and apartheid does not constitute a trivialization of historical colonialism nor of South-African Apartheid. Israel has committed  historical crimes against the Palestinian population.

According to the historian Ilan Pappé, systematic ethnic cleansing was the case as well as, in addition to purchased land, land theft and systematic expulsion. Colonialism, occupation, and / or apartheid are not an embellishment but they are analytical categories, in order to make actual circumstances accessible to political science. And in the case of Israel we can specifically speak of settler colonialism, whose aim it is to subordinate the indigenous population to the immigrants or even to completely replace them. Why should we set other standards on Israel than in the case of other political analyses? Discriminatory laws, which distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish people in Israel / Palestine, are the most obvious example of a material apartheid which, of course, differs from South-African apartheid in certain details, but is in no way lesser to it in many respects.

Freiheitsliebe: The cause of the conflict seems to be that you call the treatment of the Palestinians as racist and their oppression as colonial. How do you come to this verdict?

Eleanora Roldán Mendí­vil: I apply an analytical approach to racism and colonialism in the same way that I also consider it necessary in the analysis of German society. The problem of the overwhelming majority of Germans, and this is more or less the case for other contexts as well, is that they want to look at Israel / Palestine only out of the German context. However, I start in Palestine on the ground and observe that there is a lot wrong here.

Freiheitsliebe: Is Israel, in your opinion, comparable to the South African regime?

Eleanora Roldán Mendí­vil: The standard here is not South Africa, but the Anti-Apartheid Convention of 1973, containing a very detailed definition of apartheid. As soon as the legal criteria of apartheid under international law are present, apartheid is involved. For Palestinians, a large number of discriminatory living conditions exist, depending on whether they live within the official borders of Israel, or in Gaza, or in occupied East Jerusalem, or in the different occupation zones in the West Bank, according to their identity cards and nationality, but fundamentally at their expense. There is a systematically unequal treatment of ‘Jewish’ and ‘non-Jewish’ people in almost all areas of life – in education, law, the labor market, working conditions, public infrastructure, access to natural resources, freedom of movement and medical care.

In its 2012 Concluding Observations on Israel the UN Commission (CERD) concluded that these practices represent at least a de facto segregation and thus are in violation of Art. 3 ICERD (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination). And we should not forget that many South-African anti-apartheid activists supported and support the Palestinian struggle against oppression and for a just peace – precisely because of the many parallels.

Freedom love: These statements are a harsh criticism of Israel, but why are they called anti-Semitic? How do you define anti-Semitism?

Eleonora Roldán Mendí­vil: I am primarily concerned with Marxist theory, as well as with anti-racist and anti-patriarchal theories and struggles. For me, however, my scientific activity is not limited to reading and writing. As intellectuals, we have a social mission. So it is also a question of engaging ourselves in practice for the things we have dealt with scientifically, which in turn give us the responsibility and the certainty of being able to take up political positions as well. I am only one among many people who have been dealing in the past years with the oppression of the Kurds and the Palestinians from a critical solidarity perspective, not because there are no other forms of colonial oppression in the world, but because these are topics which are of permanent relevance to many migrant groups in Germany.

Criticisms I expressed on my old blog are not particularly harsh. They are based on objective historical analyses. To be silent about injustice cannot be an option, especially with our (German) historical experience. To call this “anti-Semitic” is a well-known political strategy, which is unmasked by Moshe Zuckermann in his book “Antisemit!”, as a frequently used instrument of authority. It is about the tactical use of the anti-Semitism accusation in order to perpetuate a certain Zionist narrative. The basis of this narrative is a definition of anti-Semitism that makes a series of criticisms of Israel as a state impossible. I oppose to this a materialist-dialectical definition: I understand anti-Semitism as the wide concept of historically and geographically specific forms of racialization and discrimination of people because of their attribution to a supposedly homogeneous Jewry – this difference of treatment being positive or negative.

With this method the focus should be on the application of analytical categories that enable us to grasp anti-Jewish racism in its concrete social conditions, in order to understand, fight and overcome it.

Freiheitsliebe: In conclusion, do you believe it is difficult in Germany to be present in public space with positions that are critical of Israel?

Eleanora Roldán Mendí­vil: I think that the reactionary agitation that has struck me as a scientist in the past few days, and the affirmative and uncritical approval of this campaign by the Otto Suhr Institute, proves it sufficiently. The constitutionally guaranteed freedom of science is called into question with this. I would have preferred a constructive approach to it by the Otto Suhr Institute. However, I hope that this attack triggers a serious discussion about political censorship of critical analyses and positions, as well as about the rightward shift of the society and the academy. The petition organized by students from my current seminar “Racism in Capitalism” and the countless solidarity emails and letters from all over the world, which I have received in recent days, show me that I do not stand alone in the face of this attack. On the contrary, the defense of critical science and doctrine and the decisive criticism of any injustice remain important components of a critical consciousness.

Freiheitsliebe: We thank you for this interview.

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