Monday, June 17, 2019

Berlin's Jewish problem

The director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Peter Schäfer, resigned last week following severe criticism from Germany’s Jewish community over the museum’s support for BDS efforts in the country. At issue was Schäfer’s behavior amid incidents that stretched back years, but “the final straw,” according to Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, was a tweet sent out June 6 by the museum’s spokeswoman, encouraging Twitter followers to read an article critical of the German parliament’s passage of a resolution declaring the BDS movement antisemitic.Putting aside the issue of BDS itself, what does it have to do with a Jewish museum? And not any Jewish museum, but one in Germany – and not just one in Germany, but the Berlin showcase, ever since Daniel Libeskind first sketched his plans for the celebrated zigzag-shaped building. Opened in 2001, it now attracts 700,000 visitors annually, a destination it itself describes as a “place for reflection” on Jewish history, culture, migration and diversity in Germany. So what does that have to do with the Bundestag voting on the BDS movement? At a time when Germany’s government commissioner on antisemitism suggests that Jews should not always wear their kippah in public, in the wake of a spike in anti-Jewish attacks in Germany, the BDS resolution should have nothing to do with a cultural institution whose mission is explaining Jewish traditions, history and art. We again salute the Bundestag for its courageous action, for becoming the first European parliament to officially define and state clearly how BDS uses antisemitic methods to promote its political goals. “‘Don’t buy’ stickers of the BDS movement on Israeli products remind one of inevitable associations with the Nazi call ‘Don’t buy from Jews,’ and other corresponding graffiti on facades and shop windows,” said the non-binding parliament resolution. Schäfer at first tried to explain the tweet as merely encouraging discussion of the boycott campaign, rather than endorsing the substance of the article – which was a petition by 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars criticizing the May 17 Bundestag resolution. The tweet included the hashtag, #mustread. This was not the first time Schäfer’s actions were called into question. After the original tweet blew open the storm, he was quoted as saying that he regretted the tweet – and adding that the museum was never tasked with taking sides in current political debates. But it did. Time and again, the Jewish Museum Berlin got involved in politics, even before Schäfer came on board, though he continued the dishonorable tradition. In 2012, the museum hosted the pro-BDS academic Judith Butler, after she expressed support for the terrorist entities Hezbollah and Hamas in 2006.Under Schäfer, the museum invited the antisemitic head of the cultural affairs department at the Iranian Embassy in Berlin, Seyed Ali, for a personal tour. Schäfer was also slammed for promoting an exhibition on Jerusalem that included a work depicting “the new outlines of Palestine” on a mosaic consisting of square pieces of soap. In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote to German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanding the closure of the exhibition, saying that it amounted to a one-sided “Palestinian-Muslim view.” Objecting to Israeli policy is political criticism, and there’s nothing inherently antisemitic about that. But depicting a political issue using the hot-button item like soap – in Germany! – is inherently antisemitic. Then came the June 6 tweet – first reported by The Jerusalem Post’s Benjamin Weinthal – and Central Council chairman Schuster responded forcefully. “Enough is enough,” he wrote. “The Jewish Museum Berlin seems to be completely out of control. Under these conditions, one has to wonder whether the term ‘Jewish’ is still appropriate.” Shuster welcomed Schäfer’s resignation, saying that Judaism should have “more influence” in the building in the future. In his statement of resignation, Schäfer said he was doing it “to avoid further harm to the Jewish Museum Berlin.” He should have done it a long time ago.

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