Behind the scenes

After five years as director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Peter Schäfer has thrown in the towel. Agnes Monka explains what it's all about.

The former director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Peter Schäfer.
The former director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Peter Schäfer. dpa

“People will judge you by your actions, not your intentions.” So goes the adage that even well-meant behavior may result in unforeseen condemnation. Or, in other words: It’s not enough just to want to do the right thing. In this sense, the last few months must have been rather painful for Peter Schäfer, the highly esteemed German scholar of ancient religious studies. Indeed, the former director of Europe’s largest Jewish museum, himself a Catholic, has been accused of quite a few offenses of late: spinelessness, poor leadership and even anti-Semitism.

Bundestag rejects BDS movement

It all began with the best intentions, and in the German Bundestag, no less. In mid-May, parliament agreed – in a joint motion involving the CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP and the Greens – to resolutely oppose the BDS movement and to fight anti-Semitism, thus condemning the BDS movement itself as anti-Semitic. The resolution also demands that the German government provide no financial support to any project that “actively assists” BDS.

Cultural boycott against Israel

BDS stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions. The main goal of the movement is to use a financial, scientific and cultural boycott of Israel and/or the occupied territories to force changes to the country’s occupation policy. Reactions to BDS have run the gamut, a reflection of the enormity and complexity of this issue. In Germany, historical memory of the boycotts in the 1930s make supporting BDS a particularly difficult leap.

The fact that the Bundestag motion has had an outsized impact on the Jewish Museum Berlin is a consequence of the cultural center’s organizational form. While other Jewish museums across the globe tend to be municipal in structure, the JMB is a federal institution. There is a board of trustees appointed by the German president that comprises mostly politicians.

BDS is not per se antisemitic

Three-quarters of the museum’s budget comes directly from federal coffers. So, if the federal government approves and actually implements the motion at issue, it means that the museum may not make overtures to or support any person or project that “actively assists” BDS. In practice, this could mean that the museum must meticulously scrutinize every potential guest – artists, politicians, athletes, Jewish or non-Jewish – to discover where this person stands in relation to the BDS movement and what form their potential connections to BDS take.

Three weeks after the vote in the Bundestag, 240 Jewish scientists petitioned the federal government not to implement the motion. They issued a statement averring that BDS is not per se anti-Semitic and that the boycott is “a legitimate and non-violent means of resistance.” They expressed that the Bundestag motion does not help in the struggle against anti-Semitism and accused the body of letting itself be instrumentalized by the Israeli government.

JBM - misunderstanding of tolerance?

A day later, on June 4, the Berlin daily newspaper taz ran an article on the matter. Not long after, the Jewish Museum Berlin tweeted a link to the article and used wording from the letter of protest without citation or any indication of indirect speech. Over the years, the museum has rarely trafficked in reading recommendations on political themes, and never in such a polarizing way. Was it just an oversight? Or is this the expression of an opinion that, after months, has given Schäfer’s critics incontrovertible proof of their suspicions that the Jewish Museum, under his leadership, is courting anti-Semites in some misconceived notion of tolerance?

In any case, the muffed tweet was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. The previous year, Schäfer had already been the subject of all sorts of criticism. Under pressure from the Israeli ambassador, the museum disinvited the openly gay Palestinian peace researcher Sa’ed Atshan, presumably for his close ties to the BDS movement. Officially, however, the event was moved to a different location “for technical reasons.”

In December 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu complained to the German government: “The Jewish Museum, which is not connected to the Jewish community, regularly holds events with prominent supporters of BDS.” Another bone of contention was the “Welcome to Jerusalem” exhibition that, according to the Israeli prime minister, reflected a “Palestinian-Muslim view of Jerusalem.” He ultimately demanded that the German government discontinue funding for the museum. Although these statements were decidedly rebuffed by the board of trustees, the damage was done.

Read the whole text on The German Times website

Agnes Monka is a features editor for the Berlin radio broadcaster RBB.

© The German Times