Ghassan Hage: Statement Regarding My Sacking From the Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology

Ghassan J. Hage is a Lebanese-Australian academic serving as Future Generation Professor of Anthropology at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He has held a number of visiting professorships including at the American University of Beirut, University of Nanterre – Paris X, the University of Copenhagen and Harvard. He has published several books on immigration, race and refugees in Australia.  Reprinted from his blog with permission.

On Wednesday 31st of January morning I woke up to an email from the right-wing newspaper Welt am Sonntag. They declared me to be ‘an activist for the BDS boycott movement for years’ which has never been the case. I take my job as an academic too seriously to have time to be an activist.

I was informed that the newspaper’s so-called ‘research team’ that ‘since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th, we have noticed that you have been making increasingly drastic statements towards the State of Israel’… It didn’t seem to occur to them that maybe this was because Israel was engaging in an on-going mass murder of Palestinians.

They had selected a few of my social media posts and wanted to know if I could understand if ‘critics classify your statements as antisemitic?’ I did not reply to this email. In my experience, the questions were a prelude to a fascistic ideological assassination job which was going to happen regardless of whether one says or does not say something.

Indeed, the article did happen. In it I was portrayed in conspiratorial terms as the henchman of some kind of BDS group. My job is to infiltrate academia. I had finished doing my job in Australia and was now set on infiltrating Germany.

But before the article was published, I sent the above email to the Directors of MPI (Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology in Halle) on the same morning I saw it. I was informed that a similar query was sent not only to them but also to the President of the Max Planck Society in Munich. I was also informed that the President has sent the email to the society’s lawyers. No one in Munich, lawyer or otherwise, contacted me or sought my opinion about the above. The next day, on Thursday morning, the directors of MPI informed me that there was a central decision requiring that MPI sever its relationship with me. The decision was based on the way antisemitism has come to be defined and institutionalised in Germany which has been analysed and critiqued by many.

For anyone who knows the German landscape at the moment, there is nothing surprising about this happening to me. Many people other than me have copped a variation on this same treatment. It does not make it less infuriating.

Needless to say, I stand by everything I say in my social media. I have a political ideal that I have always struggled for regarding Israel/Palestine. It is the ideal of a multi-religious society made from Christians, Muslims and Jews living together on that land. My academic writings on that matter, and they are considerable, attests to the way I have always struggled for this ideal. I have criticised both Israelis and Palestinians who work against such a goal. If Israel has copped and continues to cop the biggest criticism it is because its colonial ethno-nationalist project is by far the biggest obstacle towards achieving such aim. This is also true of my social media posts. My declarations of these ideals is there in my social media. My critique of Palestinians who work against such an ideal is there in my social media. And so is my critique of Israel’s ethno-nationalism. If some right-wing journalists who dislike my politics decide to pick from all what I have written my critiques of Israel and accuse me of antisemitism, I expect my employer to know or at least to investigate my record and defend me against such accusations. Believing in a multi-religious society and critiquing those who work against it is not antisemitism. I will not accept to be put in a defensive position where I have to justify myself for holding and working for such ideals.

As importantly, I have more than 35 years of writing and teaching behind me, I have taught whole courses and parts of courses on Middle East anthropology throughout the world, to students with all kind of political persuasions: Never, EVER, have I had a student or an employer come to me and tell me that anything about my teaching has offended them or hurt them. On the contrary, the list of those who praise me and my work for making them think harder despite disagreeing with me is very long.

This is why, when the Max Planck President’s Office treated me as a liability that needs to be managed, and proposed that I go silently with a non-disclosure agreement, I refused and asked to be unilaterally sacked. I felt it was important that they produce a document where they state why they have chosen to sack me. (this is yet to be sent to me btw)

Two months into the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and its killing of thousands of Palestinians, my colleague Livnat Konopny-Decleve, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, invited me to participate in an EASA (European Association of Social Anthropology)-organised debate on Violence and Postcolonialism. The thought came to me that if anthropologists have anything specific to add to the scholarly analysis of political violence, it probably had to do with trying to show that political violence is not something that is the same everywhere: there are different cultures of violence. Looking at a photo of naked Palestinian prisoners being led by Israeli soldiers in the ruins of Gaza, I began thinking about the relation between violence and humiliation. As I often do when I am writing, I posted the idea I had on Facebook:

The Israelis like to say that what they are doing in Gaza is like what the allies did in Dresden. But this is not true. The allies never tried to humiliate the people of Dresden. Israeli violence resembles far more Nazi antisemitic violence in this regard in its destructive power and desire to humiliate. It also resembles Nazi violence by its vulgarity.

I am taking my time contextualising this Facebook post as it is one of the posts that were deemed by the lawyers of the Max Planck Society to put me in contravention of the law in Germany: it is apparently antisemitic to engage in a comparison between Israel and Nazis. That is what I was told anyway. As far as I understand, this is, in a nutshell, what has put me at odds with Max Planck Society’s lawyers. What to me is a fair, intellectual critique of Israel, for them is ‘antisemitism according to the law in Germany’.

This is why, if Max Planck Society’s president limited himself to saying something like the above, I could have lived with it. I might not like the way the critique of Israel is conflated with antisemitism, and I find the German’s pseudo philosemitism self-serving, and at times racist, instrumentalised to racialize the Palestinian and more generally the Arab and Muslim community in Germany. But as a visitor there is a limit to the extent to which I feel entitled to critique this.

I cannot describe how saddened I am by this. I felt I was participating in and achieving some great things with some wonderful people at MPI. The fact that this intellectual world I was part of can be destroyed so easily and that the managers of academic institutions run scared and let it happen rather than defend the vitality of the academic space under their management is a real tragedy.