Dr.Gerstenfeld’s article “The Berlin Jewish Museum Scandal” was published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) and republished here with the author’s consent.
Decoding the Berlin Jewish Museum Scandal
The staff of the Jewish Museum in Berlin has a substantial record of provocations against mainstream Jewry. In 2012, under a previous director, this 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. 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 with the prestigious Theodore Adorno award for excellence in the field of humanities.
Another invitee was Farid Hafez who had published a book on ‘Islamic Political Thinkers.’ In it the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood were presented as democrats and anti-imperialists. Their fantasies about genocide against the Jews in Palestine were not mentioned. Nevertheless, he was invited to speak about Islamophobia.
In 2013 the keynote speaker at a conference on antisemitism in Europe was an Oxford senior research fellow of philosophy, Brian Klug. He contends that Zionism ‘prevents Jews from having a normal conception of their own life.’
In March 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 tweeted a recommendation to read an article titled “240 Academics against BDS Vote in the extreme left daily, TAZ. The paper reported that a group of Israeli and Jewish scholars criticized the German parliament over its motion on May 17 which 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.” As an aside: not surprisingly, both Butler and Klug were among the 240 academics the tweet had referred to. That list also included tens of other regular anti-Israeli hatemongers.
Earlier this year, Schäfer invited British journalist and Middle East expert, Tom Gross, to tour the museum’s Jerusalem exhibition. The latter subsequently criticized the exhibit in strong terms. He told the Jerusalem Post and wrote on his Facebook site: “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 had brought the scoop about the museum’s tweet. It then published additional criticism of the museum from various sources. Among these was the Mayor of Frankfurt, who is also Commissioner for Jewish Life and the Fight against Antisemitism of the Federal State of Hessen, Uwe Becker. He was quoted as saying: “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 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 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.
Like 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 award-winning scholar who has made substantial contributions to Jewish studies.This though is and was by no means the sole requirement for a 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 by far.
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. 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. It is well-known that biased criticism of Israel is a tool to give Germans the alleviating feeling that not only their grandparents but also contemporary Israelis are guilty. Those who wrote to support Schäfer do not seem to understand this, though they rightly say that he should not be personally attacked with radically false arguments.
There are many topics which merit attention or even exhibitions 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 the frequent comparisons 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 by the Nazis in which common themes such as promoting murder, animalizing the Jews and the blood libel could be shown. Yet another example of a worthwhile exhibition 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 to those among their citizens who murder Israelis.
There are also very different possible subjects of exhibitions such as the role of the church in creating the infrastructure for persecutions in Germany and what of that survives in the current German Christian environment, for instance among BDS supporting preachers.
And finally: An exhibition on Jews and German culture, including how antisemitism is interwoven in the fabric of contemporary German society.
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.