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.
In the News
B'nai B'rith International is the Global Voice of the Jewish Community.
All rights reserved. Stories are attributed to the original copyright holders.