Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld
The recent resignation of Peter Schäfer, Director of the Berlin Jewish Museum, follows a series of missteps by the museum that have led the German Jewish umbrella organization to declare that the museum has lost the trust of the community. Schäfer, a respected scholar, resigned from a position that requires an experienced manager with profound political understanding and instincts who is able to operate in what is for German Jews a highly problematic reality.
The staff of the Jewish Museum in Berlin has a substantial record of provocation against mainstream Jewry. In 2012, under a previous director, this taxpayer-funded museum hosted a podium discussion with a leading American Jewish anti-Israel inciter, Judith Butler. She took that opportunity to call for a boycott of Israel. The audience was sold out. More than 700 attended the event and they frequently showered Butler with applause.
Butler said in 2006 that “understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left is extremely important.” A few weeks before the meeting at the Berlin museum, an agency of the city of Frankfurt decided to award Butler the prestigious Theodore Adorno award for excellence in the field of humanities.
Another invitee to the museum was Farid Hafez, who has published a book called Islamic Political Thinkers. In it, the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood are presented as democrats and anti-imperialists. Their fantasies about genocide against the Jews in Palestine are not mentioned. Nevertheless, Hafez was invited to speak about Islamophobia at the Museum.
In 2013, the keynote speaker at a museum conference on antisemitism in Europe was Oxford University academic Dr. Brian Klug, who contends that Zionism “prevents Jews from having a normal conception of their own life.”
In March of this year, museum director Schäfer invited Iranian diplomat Seyed Ali Moujani to the museum. At that meeting, the Iranian expressed his view that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.
The umbrella body of German Jewry, the Zentralrat der Juden, attacked the museum in June because it tweeted a recommendation to read an article entitled “240 Academics against BDS Vote” in the extreme left daily, TAZ. The paper reported that a group of Israeli and Jewish scholars were criticizing the German parliament over a May 17 motion that considered the boycott movement of Israel antisemitic. The Zentralrat wrote that the museum had apparently gone off the rails, adding that it “has lost the trust of the Jewish community in Germany.” (As an aside: not surprisingly, Butler was one of the 240 academics referred to in the tweet. That list also included many other anti-Israel hatemongers.)
Earlier this year, Schäfer invited British journalist and Middle East expert Tom Gross to tour the museum’s Jerusalem exhibition. Gross subsequently criticized the exhibit in strong terms. He told the Jerusalem Post and wrote on his Facebook page: “I was recently invited by the Berlin Jewish Museum Director’s office to tour the museum’s current ‘Jerusalem’ exhibition. I was shocked by the prevalence of the anti-Zionist, often anti-Semitic, fringe Neturei Karta movement in the Jewish part of the exhibit. The hateful placards of this group (who have supported Holocaust deniers in Iran) were on display without any contrary explanation for museum goers of who they are.”
Gross added: “When I expressed my dismay to the museum director’s office, even though they had invited me to the museum, they failed to respond. The Jerusalem exhibit presently dominates the museum since the permanent exhibition is closed for over a year while it is completely re-done. I just hope that when it reopens it will give an honest assessment of the Holocaust and antisemitism, and not some distorted version.”
The Jerusalem Post brought the scoop about the museum’s tweet. It then published additional criticism of the museum from various sources. Among these critics was the Commissioner for Jewish Life and the Fight Against Antisemitism of the Federal State of Hessen, Uwe Becker, who said: “The Jewish Museum in Berlin obviously sees as its task to take a stand against Jewish life in our country and especially against Israel. The recent support for BDS is a disgrace! After a total single-sided exhibition about Jerusalem now another scandal. This is not a Jewish but an anti-Jewish Museum.”
After the massive criticism, Schäfer announced his resignation on June 14 to “avoid further damage.” At the end of May his contract had been prolonged for a year until 2021. His departure led to a letter of support for Schäfer signed by museum officials from various countries. They expressed their concern about the attacks against Schäfer that had led to his resignation. The letter stated that he is a man of great personal integrity and an international scholar who had made important contributions in the field of Jewish studies. The signatories were shocked by the extreme personal attacks on Schäfer and his professional work. They added that they saw his resignation as an alarming indication of the stifling of free discussion and free debate.
As so often in Germany, the above collection of statements and counter-statements creates confusion and hides key issues. Schäfer, who is not Jewish, is indeed an important scholar who has made substantial contributions to Jewish studies. But this is hardly the sole requirement for a director of a Jewish museum in Berlin. That city is the capital of European antisemitism and is located in the country with the worst past concerning the Jewish people by far.
The position has many complex political and managerial aspects and Schäfer, primarily a scholar, never should have accepted it. It requires an experienced manager with profound political understanding and instincts who is able to operate in what is for German Jews a highly problematic reality. That is at least as important as organizing quality exhibitions. The record shows that the activities of the museum’s employees, some of whom seem to have problematic political views, have to be closely supervised. Those who wrote to support Schäfer do not seem to understand this, though they rightly say he should not be personally attacked with radically false arguments.
There are many topics that merit attention or even exhibitions by a Jewish museum in Berlin, but are taboo. For example: the mutation over the years of murderous antisemitism against Jews in Nazi Germany into the massive demonization of Israel in contemporary Germany. This expresses itself in the frequent comparisons of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians to those of the Nazis toward the Jews.
Another exhibition could compare the modern-day Arab demonization of Israel and the Jews to that conducted by the Nazis, in which themes such as promoting murder, animalizing the Jews, and the blood libel could be shown. Yet another example of a worthwhile exhibition would be a comparison between the reward system of Nazi Germany for those who betrayed Jews so they could be murdered and the Palestinian Authority’s financial rewards to those among their citizens who murder Israelis.
There are very different possible subjects of exhibitions as well, such as the role of the church in creating the infrastructure for persecution in Germany and how much of that survives in the current German Christian environment.
And finally: An exhibition on Jews and German culture, including how antisemitism is interwoven into the fabric of contemporary German society.
When the day comes that the Jewish Museum organizes such exhibitions, we will know the messianic age is dawning. In the meantime, it is unlikely that the Museum will tweet that anyone should read this article.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is a Senior Research Associate at the BESA Center and a former chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He specializes in Israeli–Western European relations, antisemitism, and anti-Zionism, and is the author of The War of a Million Cuts.