Berlin Jewish Museum director quits over tweet supporting Israel boycott

Peter Schafer also criticised for inviting Palestinian scholar to give lecture at museum 

Melissa Eddy
Saturday 15 June 2019 17:35
comments
Peter Schäfer is accused of taking an inappropriate political stance as head of the Jewish Museum Berlin
Peter Schäfer is accused of taking an inappropriate political stance as head of the Jewish Museum Berlin

The director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum has quit amid criticism that he had become too politically involved in the battle over the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Peter Schafer was criticised for taking an inappropriately political stance as the head of a cultural institution tasked with explaining Jewish traditions, history and art.

An exhibition that opened last year about Jerusalem was accused of being anti-Israeli in a prominent, unsigned letter, criticism that Israeli officials said they agreed with at the time.

And Mr Schafer himself was criticised last year for inviting a Palestinian scholar to give a lecture at the museum and giving a personal tour to the cultural director of the Iranian Embassy.

But it was a post by the museum’s Twitter account last week that sparked the backlash that Mr Schafer could no longer withstand.

The post linked to an article from a German newspaper that cited an open letter signed by 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars. In the letter, which was issued before parliament acted, the scholars urged lawmakers not to sign the resolution declaring the BDS movement antisemitic.

The resolution “does not assist this fight”, the scholars said. “On the contrary, it undermines it.”

The BDS movement seeks to put economic and political pressure on Israel. It is especially sensitive in Germany, where responsibility for Israel’s right to exist is a cornerstone of foreign policy and where calls to boycott the Jewish state carry historical associations with the Nazis.

The movement was recently designated as antisemitic by the German parliament.

The museum sought to defend the Twitter post, saying that it was only trying to point out the scholars’ argument that the resolution in parliament would not help in the fight against antisemitism. But the post proved the last straw.

“Enough is enough. The Jewish Museum appears to be completely out of control,” the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, wrote in a response published on Tuesday. He went on to question whether it was still “appropriate” to call the museum “Jewish” and said the council no longer trusted the institution.

In his resignation announcement, Mr Schafer said he had decided to quit immediately “to prevent further damage to the museum”.

The museum opened in 2001 with the mission to reflect Jewish life and culture, as well as diversity and the diaspora in Germany. It is in the process of developing a new permanent exhibition, as well as a children’s museum, both of which were started under Mr Schafer’s direction.

Germany’s culture minister, Monika Grütters, who heads the board of the museum foundation, said she had accepted the resignation of Mr Schafer, who took over the position in 2014. Mr Schafer’s deputy, Martin Michaelis, will run the museum until a new director can be found, she said.

“All those responsible must ensure that the Jewish Museum of Berlin can return to concentrating on its important work,” she said.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Mr Schuster, of the Central Council of Jews, said in a statement that he welcomed Mr Schafer’s decision to resign, calling it “an important step”.

Cultural institutions have recently become a battlefield for the fight over the BDS movement in Germany. Last summer, the Ruhrtriennale, an international arts festival in western Germany, rescinded an invitation to a Scottish rap group after pressure mounted surrounding the artists’ association with the BDS movement.

Antisemitic crimes and hate crimes against Jews have been on the rise in Germany, with crime statistics released last year showing they had increased by almost 20 per cent last year compared with 2017.

The New York Times

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments