Germany’s Council of Jews said Peter Schäfer “lost the trust of the Jewish community”
17th June 2019 10:19 BST
The director of the Jewish Museum Berlin stepped down on Friday after raising hackles among members of the Jewish community with a retweet that appeared to question the German parliament’s condemnation of groups that favour boycotts and sanctions against Israel.
Peter Schäfer, who has served as director since 2014 and whose contract was extended for a year in April, has come under intensifying fire for taking what critics say is an overly political position for his role as head of a cultural institution funded by the German government. He offered his resignation to Culture Minister Monika Grütters “to avoid further damaging the Jewish Museum Berlin,” according to a statement sent by the museum.
The museum’s official account on 6 June retweeted a report from the left-leaning Berlin newspaper, Tageszeitung, which described a letter signed by 240 Israeli and Jewish scholars who rejected a motion condemning BDS as an anti-Semitic movement adopted by the German lower house of parliament.
BDS, which stands for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, aims to use economic pressure on Israel to defend Palestinian interests in the Middle East. The museum used the hashtag #mustread in its retweet and added a quote from the letter: “Parliament’s decision doesn’t assist the fight against anti-Semitism”—without using quotation marks. The museum later defended its retweet, saying it was intended to provoke discussion rather than reflect a political stance.
But it was the final straw for Josef Schuster, the president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews. Last year, the Jewish Museum Berlin came under fire from the Israeli government for its exhibition Welcome to Jerusalem, which it accused of presenting a pro-Palestinian and Muslim narrative. Schäfer was also criticised for inviting Iran’s top culture official to the museum, a decision he later conceded in an interview with Spiegelmagazine was “stupid.”
“Enough is enough,” Schuster tweeted on 11 June. “The Jewish Museum Berlin seems to have spun completely out of control. Under these circumstances, we have to consider whether the term ‘Jewish’ is still appropriate. The museum leadership has lost the trust of the Jewish community.”
The museum’s executive director, Martin Michaelis, will take over from Schäfer with immediate effect. Grütters, who is the president of the foundation that oversees the museum, said she respects Schäfer’s decision and a search committee will seek a new director.
Located in a spectacular building designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Jewish Museum Berlin has become a city landmark since opening in 2001. It is structured as a foundation directly under the control of the federal government, which provides three-quarters of its funding. Future projects include a new permanent exhibition and a children’s museum modelled on Noah’s Ark to open across the road from the existing building later this year.
Director of Jewish Museum Berlin resigns
The director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Peter Schäfer, has resigned following criticism from the Central Council of Jews. At issue were a museum exhibition and a tweet seen to be critical of Israel’s occupation policy.
Berlin’s Jewish Museum said its director, Peter Schäfer, had resigned Friday to “prevent further damage” to the city’s drawcard that attracts 700,000 visitors annually and describes itself as a “place for reflection” on Jewish history and culture, migration and diversity in Germany.
The museum was criticized for the exhibition “Welcome to Jerusalem,” which focused on daily life, religion and politics in the city. Some said the exhibit was biased in favor of the Palestinian point of view.
The museum was also denounced this week when its Twitter account linked to a news article about Israeli academics who condemned a German parliament resolution that called the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement “anti-Semitic.”
German lawmakers said BDS uses anti-Semitic methods to promote its political goals — a claim firmly rejected by the movement, which calls for a boycott of Israel over its policies towards Palestinians and an end to the occupation of the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.
Schäfer, a well-known Jewish studies scholar and the museum’s director since 2014, told Berlin daily Tagesspiegel on Tuesday that he regretted the tweet, adding that the museum had never had the task of taking sides in current political debates. In a second tweet, the museum said it did not intend to take a position against the parliamentary resolution but to point out the input from the academics.
Netanyahu demanded exhibition closure
Schäfer defended the museum’s “Welcome to Jerusalem” exhibition, say it took neither an anti-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian line.
Last December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote to German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanding the closure of the exhibition. At the time, the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung quoted Schäfer as describing Jerusalem as a “place of longing for Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
Netanyahu’s assertion that the exhibition, which ran until April, amounted to a one-sided “Palestinian-Muslim view” was rejected as political interference by Schäfer and Monika Grütters, the German government’s commissioner for culture and the media.
On Friday, Schäfer again defended the special exhibition, saying it had not produced anti-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian propaganda.
Departure ‘respected,’ says Grütters
Grütters, who chairs the board of the museum’s foundation, on Friday said she respected Schäfer’s decision to step down.
“All those responsible must help ensure that the Jewish Museum Berlin can again concentrate on its important work in terms of content,” said Grütters.
Central Council of Jews in Germany chairman Josef Schuster, who earlier this week said the museum seemed “totally out of control” and questioned whether it could still call itself “Jewish,” said Schäfer’s resignation as director of the museum was “an important step in averting further damage to the institution.”
Schuster told Saturday’s edition of Berlin’s Tageszeitung newspaper that Judaism should in the future have “more influence” and that he would welcome a Jewish director for the federally funded museum.
In April, the museum’s board extended Schäfer’s contract for a further year, with Schäfer saying he was working on the opening in May 2020 of a new permanent exhibition and a museum branch for children.
In its statement Friday, the museum said its manager Martin Michaelis would head the facility until a successor was found.
Funded by federal budget
The Jewish Museum in Berlin opened in 2001 as a combination of old and new structures designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.
It was funded with €15 million annually from Grütter’s budget, the foundation stated at the time.
Since its opening in 2001, its initial exhibition of nearly two millennia of German-Jewish history has drawn 1.4 million visitors.
ipj/sms (dpa, KNA, epd, AP)