Bloomberg Opinion covered B'nai B'rith's condemnation of a pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) social media post from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Criticism from Jewish groups ultimately led to the resignation of the museum's director.
Sept. 1 is the deadline to apply for the post of director of the Berlin Jewish Museum. It could be the toughest job in the world: It involves maneuvering between the interests of the German government, the country’s Jewish community, international Jewish organizations, the Israeli government and diverse groups within academia. The previous director, Peter Schaefer, who resigned under pressure on June 14, failed to find the right balance.
The museum, Europe’s largest of its kind, attracts some 650,000 visitors a year. It’s housed in several buildings including a stunning modern one designed by Daniel Libeskind and built in 2001. The funding comes mainly from the state, and the board of the foundation that runs the museum is headed by Monika Gruetters, the German government’s commissioner for culture and media. At the same time, and perhaps in part for this reason, it’s watched scrupulously by much of the Jewish world: Any German government undertaking that has to do with Jewish history would be.
Schaefer, who isn’t Jewish, got interested in Judaism via Catholic theology and became one of the country’s top Jewish studies scholars, heading up the first department specializing in the discipline to be reestablished since World War II, at Berlin’s Free University. After he took over the museum in 2014, some of his moves were viewed warily by Jewish activists. He was criticized for inviting a Palestinian scholar to deliver a lecture at the museum; for giving a personal tour to an Iranian diplomat who then delivered an anti-Israeli tirade; for putting on an exhibition about Jerusalem that prompted an angry letter from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling on her to defund the museum.
But he ended up being forced to quit – “to prevent further damage” to the museum, as the official explanation went – because of a tweet he hadn’t even written (the museum’s publicist, who had, was fired, too). Actually, it was a retweet – of an article in the daily Die Tageszeituung about a statement signed by 240 Israeli and Jewish academics that criticized a German parliament resolution branding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as anti-Semitic. The movement, a loose alliance of groups that condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs and maintain a boycott of products made in Israeli settlements on the West Bank, denies accusations of anti-Semitism and argues that its quarrel is with the Israeli government, not Jewry. The academics, including prominent Israeli scholars, mostly from the left side of the political spectrum, argued that BDS has a right to its pro-Palestinian stance.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany decided the retweet, complete with a #mustread hashtag, went too far. “The cup is full,” it tweeted. “The Berlin Jewish Museum appears completely out of control. Under these circumstances one must consider whether the description ‘Jewish’ is still justified.” B’nai B’rith International, the global Jewish organization, joined the criticism. Eight days after the tweet, Schaefer stepped down: His apologies and explanations that the museum didn’t actually express support for the academics’ statement were deemed insufficient.
In an interview with Der Spiegel shortly before his resignation, Schaefer explained that in his view, the museum is Jewish in the sense that it deals with Jewish culture and history, “not because we aim to be a Jewish institution in the sense that we belong to the Jewish community and are its mouthpiece [...] not to mention the Israeli state.”
The question is, however, whether an institution linked to the German government can afford to take such a stance. In the context of Germany’s history with Jews, any attempt at neutrality is understandably taken as a flashback to the Nazi past.
In the 1970s and 1980s, as the U.S. planned the opening of a Holocaust memorial in Washington, the German government worked feverishly to make sure it wouldn’t be “anti-German.” It was important to the governments of Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl that the U.S., Germany’s biggest ally at the time, make a clear distinction between the Nazis and modern Germany. The official German concept of memory and repentance has changed a lot since then, to the chagrin of far-right politicians and some old-school conservatives. Berlin got its own Holocaust memorial and a permanent exhibition, the Topography of Terror, to document the atrocities of the Nazi secret police. But the words “Jewish” and “Berlin” in the name of an institution still make a sensitive mixture.
This begs the question of whether the German government hasn’t been overconfident in playing such a visible role in the running of the Berlin Jewish Museum. With all the politicians on its board, the institution cannot but take on the role of a government policy instrument. In today’s Germany, integrating a growing Muslim population and trying to keep the peace between Muslim immigrants and Jews is an important policy objective, and it calls for a more ecumenical approach to Middle Eastern history than understandably wary Jewish organizations are willing to accept. Add to this the natural tension between the city’s leftist bent and Netanyahu’s hard-right agenda, and it seems clear that any director will have a hard time making a go of it.
One possible solution would be for the government to remove its representatives from the museum’s board and leave its management to a mix of intellectuals and Jewish community representatives. This doesn’t mean cutting the state funding – continuing with these contributions is part of what any German government must do. But a Jewish museum in Berlin doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as a state cultural institution; rather, it should reflect the historical perspectives, the thinking, the arguments, the contradictions within Berlin’s Jewish and Jewish studies communities. That might give the next director a little more leeway to be creative rather than overcautious.
The Jerusalem Post quoted B'nai B'rith International President's Charles O. Kaufman's letter decrying the actions of the Jewish Museum Berlin's Director Peter Schäfer in its coverage of Schäfer's resignation from his post.
The director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Peter Schäfer, announced his resignation on Friday “to avoid further damage,” a week after The Jerusalem Post first reported that the institution endorsed the BDS campaign on the museum’s Twitter feed.
“All those responsible must help ensure that the Jewish Museum Berlin can again concentrate on its important work in terms of content,” German Culture Minister Monika Grütters, who oversees the board of the museum foundation, said on Friday. Schäfer’s deputy, Martin Michaelis, will assume responsibility for running the museum until a successor can be hired.
Pressure to remove Schäfer grew over the past week, and experts in the field of antisemitism told the Post that they implored Grütters to take action against Schäfer and the antisemitism scandals at the museum.
“What’s crucial now is for the museum to identify leadership that commits to professionalism and the truth of sharing the long and rich Jewish life of Germany,” B’nai B’rith International president Charles O. Kaufman, who sent a letter last week to Schäfer about the museum’s anti-Israel direction, told the Post on Friday. “This museum must earn the name Jewish Museum, and in doing so, earn the trust of the country, Europe and all visitors from around the world. It must not immerse itself in politicizing history, stooping to propaganda, and worse, revisionism.”
British journalist Tom Gross was invited to tour the museum by Schäfer’s office last year and expressed his dismay afterward at some of the anti-Israel political aspects he saw.
“The important thing now, since the museum is currently replacing its permanent exhibit, due to reopen next year, is to make sure Schäfer’s replacement is someone who is more interested in remembering the enormous contributions of Berlin’s Jews to German and world history, and in accurately explaining the sheer sadistic horrors of the Holocaust, rather than engage in anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, extreme left-wing posturing,” Gross told the Post.
Katharina Schmidt-Narischkin, spokeswoman for the museum, was summarily dismissed, according to a Munich-based media outlet. The paper reported that she had written the anti-Israel tweet.
The Post asked Schmidt-Narischkin numerous times last week for a comment, but she declined to respond. The museum is widely considered a hot-bed of anti-Israel resentments.
“Enough is enough,” said Dr. Josef Schuster, president of the nearly 100,000-member Central Council of Jews in Germany. “The Jewish Museum Berlin seems to be completely out of control. Under these circumstances, one has to think about whether the term ‘Jewish’ is still appropriate.”
His comments came after the museum tweeted an article from a left-wing Berlin-based paper calling on the Bundestag to reverse its anti-BDS resolution, which classified BDS as antisemitism.
The council added that the museum’s management “has lost the trust of the Jewish community in Germany.”
Schuster said on Friday that Schäfer’s decision to toss in the towel was “an important step.”
Schäfer has been facing criticism over the years for promoting a one-sided exhibit on Jerusalem that plays down the role of Jews in the city, according to critics. In March, Schäfer invited the antisemitic Iranian regime diplomat Seyed Ali Moujani to the museum. Ali Moujani used the meeting to promote the view that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. Schäfer regretted the interaction last week, but in March he welcomed the anti-Israel tirade against the Jewish state.
Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, first coined the phrase the “anti-Jewish Museum” in 2012 in connection with the institution hosting the pro-BDS academic Judith Butler, who promoted BDS at the museum in 2012, after having expressed support for the terrorist entities Hezbollah and Hamas in 2006.
“Understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important,” said Butler at the time.
The Jerusalem Post covered the news that the Texas House of Representatives passed an anti-BDS bill, quoting B'nai B'rith International CEO Dan Mariaschin welcoming its passage and mentioning senior B'nai B'rith leader Charles Kaufman for testifying in its favor.
Scroll down to read the story or click below to read it on JerusalemPost.com.
In a groundbreaking legislative act to blunt economic warfare against Israel, the Texas House of Representatives unanimously passed on Thursday an anti-boycott bill that bars the state from engaging in business with companies that are involved in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement targeting the Jewish state.
The bill was passed 131-0 and the author of the legislation was Representative Phil King. Pro-Israel organizations welcomed the vote.
Joel Schwitzer, the Regional Director of the American Jewish Committee in Dallas, told The Jerusalem Post, "AJC together with other community leaders worked diligently to ensure that every legislator received multiple contacts about the importance of passing this bill. We’re excited that this brings this legislation one step closer to being law of the land in Texas, strengthening its relationship with Israel, Texas’ 4th largest trading partner. We appreciate the leadership of Representative Phil King in authoring the bill. It is gratifying to see our elected officials sending such a clear and principled message that Texas will not do business with those who boycott our friend Israel."
Sen. Brandon Creighton, the author of the Senate anti-BDS bill, said Texas should not do business with companies that participate in the BDS movement.
“I want to thank the government of Texas for seeing the true, hateful intentions of BDS and banning such state-sponsored bias,” said The Israel Project CEO and President Josh Block. He added, “The people of the Lone Star State and Israel share an unbreakable bond based upon mutual values, and by passing this legislation – ensuring that taxpayer dollars do not fund discrimination – Texas has reaffirmed this important friendship."
Christians United for Israel (CUFI) said in a statement that ," CUFI has been working closely with lawmakers in support of the legislation since its conception. These efforts included bringing Texans from across the state to Austin to lobby lawmakers in support of the bill, testifying before both the Senate and House committees to which the legislation was assigned, and distributing an action alert earlier this week letting Texas State Representatives know that CUFI’s membership is behind the bill."
CUFI founder and Chairman Pastor John Hagee said “Texas is CUFI’s home state and among the most pro-Israel states in the union. The relationship between the Jewish State and the Lone Star State is built upon shared values, including a rock-solid commitment to standing up for liberty – especially when it is threatened by radical Islamic extremism."
“I am very proud that Texas will join with those states that have told the BDS movement that America is unimpressed by efforts to demonize Israel. And I am equally proud of the hard work CUFI members, leaders and staff have done in order to see this and similar legislation advance in state capitols around the country,” Hagee added.
The Texas State Senate passed its version of anti-BDS bill in March. Texas Governor Greg Abbott is expected to sign a merged version of the anti-BDS bills in early May.
“In addition to the unwavering support of Gov. Abbott, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, this legislation would not have been possible without the steadfast leadership of the bills’ authors, State Sen. Brandon Creighton and State Rep. Phil King,” said CUFI Action Fund Chairwoman Sandy Hagee Parker.
CUFI has 3.3 million members in the United States. Daniel S. Mariaschin, the CEO of B'nai B'rith International, told the Post, "We are grateful by the overwhelming support for this measure in the Texas Legislature. It remains vitally important for government figures and legislative bodies to join the growing number of people who recognize the abject injustice of the BDS movement."
Charles Kaufman, who chairs B’nai B’rith’s International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy and is based in Austin, delivered testimony in the Austin legislature in support of the anti-BDS bill. Mariaschin told the Post last month that the Dallas-based bank Comerica should close an account that it maintains with the pro-BDS organization the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL).The IADL ”excuses the actions of terrorist organizations and denies Israel’s right to defend itself," Mariaschin said.
B'nai B'rith International CEO and Executive Vice President Dan Mariaschin was quoted in The Jerusalem Post article on a bill in the Texas legislature that would prevent the state from doing business with companies that support the BDS movement.
“Comerica should close the account,” said Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith, an organization that testified on Wednesday in Texas in support of the anti-BDS bill. The IADL 'excuses the actions of terrorist organizations and denies Israel’s right to defend itself.'"
Check out the article, that includes testimony from the B'nai B'rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy Chair Charles Kaufman given at the Texas legislature in support of the bill.
Scroll down to read the piece or click here to read it on JerusalemPost.com.
Texas has been a hotbed of anti-BDS activity in recent days, with the passage of a bill in the Senate on Wednesday that will bar state contracts and investment in companies that boycott Israel, and mounting criticism by Jewish organizations of a local bank’s BDS activity.
Chuck Lindell from the American-Statesman paper reported that the Texas Senate passed the bill opposing BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) by a 25-4 vote and that it was sent to the Texas House of Representatives for a vote. “No senators spoke in opposition to [bill] SB 29 before the vote,” the paper reported, adding that the bill’s author, Sen. Brandon Creighton, said Texas should not do business with companies that participate in the BDS movement.
One such company, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), maintains an account with the Dallas-based Comerica bank.
“Comerica should close the account,” said Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith, an organization that testified on Wednesday in Texas in support of the anti-BDS bill. The IADL ”excuses the actions of terrorist organizations and denies Israel’s right to defend itself.”
Like other financial institutions, Comerica does not have to provide everyone with an account or a loan, he said. “Banks have recognized that they should not truck or have business with these types [BDS] of accounts.”
The IADL supports Iran’s nuclear program and has a chapter in communist North Korea.
Jan Fermon, the secretary-general of IADL and a Belgium-based lawyer, wrote the The Jerusalem Post by email in early March that, “Regarding BDS, IADL supports this movement.”
He added, “IADL engaged in solidarity with the Palestinian people in a very early stage of its existence because it considers the violations of international law and human rights law... by the Israeli authorities as a major obstacle to a just and lasting peace in the region.”
Charles Kaufman, who chairs B’nai B’rith’s International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy, delivered testimony in the Austin legislature in support of the anti-BDS bill. Kaufman, who lives in Texas, said, “In another time, in another place in history, people who wanted to rid the earth of the Jewish people boycotted their businesses. Filled with fear, these good citizens, stripped of their possessions, separated from their families, would subsequently fill boxcars... and you the know rest.
“Today is different, the Jewish people have a state, Israel, their ancestral homeland, a home shared with Christians and Muslims and many other faiths,” he said. “And yet, there are people who still want to rid the earth of Israel and demonize Jews in a shocking reply of antisemitism. The talk of a boycott is back. It is back in the form of an appalling spreading disease called BDS – against Texas’s fourth largest trading partner.
“The BDS movement would like you to believe that this effort will pressure Israel to make existential concessions to enemies who seek its destruction. This is simply the latest in a litany of false narratives that is threatening a democracy and a free world,” said Kaufman.
“Do Texans share the values of individual freedom, tolerance, mutual respect and pluralism with Israel? Absolutely, yes. Do we share a spirit of discovery, enterprise and security with the State of Israel? Yes. Do we need an anti-BDS law in Texas? In the face of a threatening movement? Sadly, yes.”
Joel Schwitzer, the American Jewish Committee’s regional director in Dallas, told the Post: “AJC recognizes that Comerica Bank, and other financial institutions, are clearly free to do business with whomever they choose. AJC urges banks to consider carefully what it means to extend an account to a discriminatory movement like BDS, which seeks to de-legitimize a single country – and that often intersects with antisemitism.”
Wayne Mielke, a spokesman for Comerica, responded to the Post by email, saying, “We don’t discuss customer relationships, and want you to know (again) that we have a robust compliance program at the bank.”
Mielke’s response is “not good enough. It is a legalistic answer,” said Mariaschin. The question for Comerica is: “Do you want to do business with an organization [IADL] that engages in this type of activity?” Mielke declined follow-up Post queries about whether the bank had launched an investigation into the IADL account and about Comerica’s views on BDS.
B'nai B'rith International led a chorus of Jewish organizations denouncing the recent vote by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to divest from three corporations that do business with Israel.
The news was covered internationally, picked up by the Jerusalem Post, which quoted B'nai B’rith on the issue.
Read an excerpt of the article, below:
Numerous Jewish organizations have denounced the actions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) following its Friday vote to divest from companies that do business with Israel in the West Bank.
Though the Presbyterian Church has maintained that it is not in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, Jewish agencies agree that the divestment is in clear alignment with the BDS movement.
“It is not possible to single out companies doing business with Israel for divestment and not be complicit in the BDS orbit,” B’nai B’rith stated.
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