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Decoding the Berlin Jewish Museum Scandal

avatar by Manfred Gerstenfeld


The Jewish Museum in Berlin. Photo: Studio Daniel Libeskind via Wikicommons.

The staff of the Jewish Museum in Berlin has a substantial record of provocations toward mainstream Jewry. In 2012, the German 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. Butler also said 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.”

In March of this year, the museum’s director Peter Schäfer invited Iranian diplomat Seyed Ali Moujani to the museum. At the meeting, the Iranian diplomat 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 had tweeted a recommendation to read an article titled “240 Academics Against BDS Vote” in the extreme left daily TAZ. It reported that a group of Israeli and Jewish scholars criticized the German parliament over its motion on May 17 that considered the boycott movement of Israel antisemitic. The Zentralrat wrote that the museum had apparently gone off the rails. It added that the museum “has lost the trust of the Jewish community in Germany.”

The museum’s director had invited earlier this year British journalist and Middle East expert Tom Gross to tour the museum’s Jerusalem exhibition. The latter subsequently heavily criticized the exhibit partly because of the importance it gave to the extremist anti-Zionist fringe group Neturei Karta.

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After the stream of criticism, Schäfer announced his resignation on June 14 to “avoid further damage.” The resignation led to a letter of support for Schäfer signed by museum officials from various countries. They expressed their concern about the attacks against Schäfer which 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 about 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 is indeed an important scholar who has made substantial contributions to Jewish studies. This, however, is not the sole requirement to make him suitable for the position of director of a Jewish museum in Berlin. That city is currently the capital of European antisemitism and is located in the country with the worst past concerning the Jewish people.

This is a position with many complex political and managerial aspects which Schäfer, primarily a scholar, should never have accepted. It requires an experienced manager with profound political understanding and instincts, able to operate in a highly problematic German reality as far as Jews are concerned. That is at least as important as organizing quality exhibitions. Those who wrote to support him do not seem to understand this, though they rightly say that Schäfer should not be personally attacked.

There are many topics which merit attention by a Jewish museum in Berlin, but are taboo. To mention a few: 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 frequent comparing of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians to those of the Nazis toward the Jews.

Another exhibition could compare the contemporary Arab demonization of Israel and the Jews to that of the Nazis in which themes such as promoting murder, animalizing the Jews, and the blood libel could be shown. Yet another example is a comparison between the reward system of Nazi Germany for those who betrayed Jews so that they could be murdered and the Palestinian Authority’s financial rewards for those who murder Israelis.

When the Jewish Museum will organize such exhibitions, we will know that the messianic age is dawning. In the meantime it is unlikely that the Museum will tweet that one should read this article.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is the emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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