How the Berlin Jewish Museum became a political lightning rod

“The Jewish Museum Berlin sees itself as a forum for discussions and conversations about socially relevant questions… And in this case, it has gone very badly wrong.”

June 20, 2019 03:10
How the Berlin Jewish Museum became a political lightning rod

The exterior design, which forms a zig-zag design (forming the Star of David from the air. (photo credit: DOMINIC SIMPSON/VIA FLICKR)


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The Berlin Jewish Museum, in the center of Germany’s capital, catches the eye with a zinc-plated, jagged facade that invokes a shattered Star of David.

Now it is drawing attention for another reason: Its director, Judaic scholar Peter Schafer, stepped down last week – a year earlier than planned – after a tweet went badly wrong. The staff person who sent the tweet was summarily fired.

But the tweet, which made it seem as if the museum was sympathetic to the anti-Israel boycott movement, or BDS, was merely the last straw in years of contention over the institution’s role and image. Critics in particular alleged it lacked neutrality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This may be a case of an institution that got too far ahead of its stakeholders or, as critics charged, too far to the left of the communal consensus on Israel. Others see a museum trying to balance traditional roles with new demands for relevance.

“Societies want museums to be more interesting, more involved and more vulnerable; we cannot avoid it,” Emile Schrijver, chair of the Amsterdam-based Association of European Jewish Museums, said in a telephone interview. The 30-year-old association has more than 60 members.

Museums today play a democratizing role, said Daniela Eisenstein, director of the Jewish Museum of Franconia, in the German state of Bavaria. They “are important spaces of public debate,” where “all aspects of a topic may be openly and publicly discussed.”

Are there any boundaries?

An answer was provided by Schafer himself in an interview he gave to Spiegel magazine before he quit.

“The Jewish Museum Berlin sees itself as a forum for discussions and conversations about socially relevant questions,” he said. “We want to offer ourselves, we want to moderate.”

But, he added, “Our task is not to spread our own political opinions on these questions. … And in this case, it has gone very badly wrong.”

Since it opened officially on Sept. 11, 2001, with a mandate to present nearly 2,000 years of Jewish history in Germany, the Berlin museum has developed a distinctive personality. Like the angular building designed by Daniel Libeskind, the museum tries to be edgy. It has been wildly popular, drawing more than 600,000 visitors per year.

One of its best-known successes was its 2013 exhibit, “The Whole Truth,” which journalists nicknamed “Jew in a box” and featured a transparent in which special guests sat and answered visitors’ questions. A 2014 exhibition, “Snip It!” delved into circumcision and efforts in Germany and elsewhere to ban the practice.

But the museum has come under fire — in 2011 for hosting anti-Zionist scholar Judith Butler for a talk on “tensions a globalized world creates for national identities”; mounting an exhibit about Jerusalem that some said favored a Palestinian narrative; and recently for welcoming an Iranian delegation to discuss a possible exhibit on Iranian Jewish culture.

“It was stupid of me to receive them,” Schafer, who turns 76 later this month, told Spiegel last week. Though he hadn’t wanted to give the Iranians “a forum for political tirades,” that is what happened.

“One cannot receive a delegation from Iran without being associated with the mullah regime and being instrumentalized by them,” Sigmount Koenigsberg, the commissioner on anti-Semitism for Berlin’s Jewish community, said in a telephone interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The directorship of the Jewish museum had no antenna.”

Then came the tweet.

On June 6, the museum Twitter account shared an article from the left-wing daily newspaper Taz about opposition to a May 17 Bundestag resolution branding the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. The museum declared it a “must read.”

The tweet also repeated a line from the article without using quote marks: “The decision by parliamentarians does not help in the fight against anti-Semitism.” That line “could have been read” as the museum’s opinion, Schafer acknowledged to Spiegel before stepping down to prevent further damage. Supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — or even questioning efforts to fight it — has become taboo on the Jewish right and center.

Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called the tweet “the last straw” and wondered whether the museum should even have the word “Jewish” in its name.

The museum’s connection with official Jewish institutions appears thin. Some observers have pointed out that the museum is not even closed on most Jewish holidays and has a nonkosher restaurant.

Following Schafer’s departure, Schuster commented to Taz that the museum needs more Jewish involvement – either in the person of a new director or some other manner.

But Schrijver, the museum association’s chair, said Jewish museums are neither Jewish nor are they for (and by) Jews alone. He said they get public and private funding, input from Jews and non-Jews, and come in all shapes and sizes, from those with only a few thousand visitors per year to “large institutions where it is only natural that a tweet can get sent out without the director knowing about it.”

Intentions are important, too, said Eisenstein of the Jewish Museum of Franconia. The “tweeted link was sent as a recommended read and not meant as a political statement,” she said.

The role of European Jewish museums today has evolved far from what it was in the immediate postwar decades. The first ones to open were mainly reincarnations of prewar institutions created to preserve the memory of a Jewish world that was already disappearing before the war, explains Schrijver, who is also the director of Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum and Jewish Cultural Quarter.

The 1970s brought a sea change in Holocaust awareness, which led to the creation of Holocaust museums, many of them publicly funded.

“There is pressure on European Jewish museums to be inclusive,” said Schrijver, who has faced questions “such as ‘why do you only deal with the Holocaust when there are also other genocides, what about today’s refugees who are in trouble too,’ etc. We will always have to deal with some sort of societal pressure, and that is not a negative issue, it is just a fact. I don’t mind; that is why we are there.”

But “I am not interested in sharing my views on the State of Israel with the public,” he added. “People should [rather] speak about my programming with me.”

It’s not just Jewish museums wrestling with questions of mission. In September, in Kyoto, Japan, the International Council of Museums will propose a new definition of the museum’s role at its General Conference.

That role includes confrontation with today’s “global concerns and conflicts over climate change and the destruction of nature, over displacement and migration, over wars, inequality and de-colonisation,” as the council says on its website.

The Berlin Jewish Museum has been a forerunner.

“They have done a lot of good things, for example in the circumcision exhibition: It was both funny and historical,” Green Party politician Volker Beck said in a phone interview.

But, he added, “I would say this museum has an orientation problem … a very negative attitude toward Israel.”

The issue is not that the museum grapples with controversial subjects. Rather, Beck said, it is that “they give support to anti-Israeli attitudes.”

Criticism has come from politicians, journalists — even from the Israeli government, which last year called on Chancellor Angela Merkel to withdraw funding from the Berlin museum and other institutions.

Such tensions could have been prevented, lamented Koenigsberg, who has offered to talk with museum administration in the past.

”Somehow,” he said, “they are in their own bubble.”

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