Last Monday, after guiding hundreds of different tour groups from Germany and around the world to various exhibitions, I submitted my resignation as a guide at the Jewish Museum of Berlin in protest against the crass political intervention by the German government and the State of Israel in the work of the museum.
The Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by U.S. architect Daniel Liebeskind . Photo Markus Schreiber / ASSOCIATED PRESS
The shameful firing of Peter Schäfer, among the most important scholars of Judaism in the world, in the wake of an aggressive campaign of “fake news” conducted by the Israeli Ambassador to Germany, Jeremy Issacharoff, and Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, made it clear that the German government is not interested any more in guarding the artistic and academic autonomy of the museum. And I am not interested in working for an institution that relinquishes its independence to serve the political interests of this or that state.
From the beginning, working as a Jewish guide at a Jewish museum where most of the staff and visitors are not Jews presented personal, political and pedagogical challenges. Thus questions of representation of the other and of speaking in their name have accompanied the work of the museum since its opening in 2003.
Is it appropriate for a German state museum to be called a Jewish museum at all, or must it be under the complete control of the official Jewish community (that itself only represents part of German Jewry)? Is a Jewish museum, in the absence of a similar institution addressing the Muslim community or other minority groups, responsible for providing space for the perspectives of children of migrants in Germany, many of whom live in neighborhoods nearby, and for conducting Jewish-Muslim dialogue?
Should the museum function as a forum in which various opinions in the Jewish world can be heard, those touching on Israel as well? The answer of the head of the Jewish community, the Israeli ambassador and right-wing journalists, who for years have been running a toxic and untruthful campaign against museum staff, is an absolute no.
Thus a significant portion of the criticism of the museum suggests, or even declares openly, that the very fact that many of the staff members of the museum are not Jews negates their right to social activism that is not in keeping with the political preferences of the Jewish community’s representatives. This discourse reached the point of absurdity when Schuster, the leader of a community in which many members are not considered Jewish according to halakha, negated the museum’s right to call itself Jewish.
But we should not be confused by the legitimate criticism over the lack of Jewish representation in leading positions in Germany, because this criticism is raised only when non-Jews dare, even in the most sensitive way, to criticize policies of the Israeli government, or to come out against anti-Muslim racism. Proof of this may be seen in the Jewish community’s support for the 10 officials who have been nominated to fight anti-Semitism in the country: All 10 are non-Jews, and all 10 support the position that strong criticism of the occupation and of Israel’s religiously discriminatory character should be seen as an expression of anti-Semitism.
Not surprisingly, the extreme right-wing “Alternative for Germany” is the party that, by way of parliamentary questions, has been leading the campaign against the museum for the last year, as reported sympathetically by the house newspaper of Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite the Israeli Embassy’s contention that it is not in contact with members of the party, its opposition to museum activities is based on a fervent rejection of democratic discourse, and its absolute conflation of the interests of the Israeli government with those of world Jewry. Already in the past year, as part of an exhibition on Jerusalem and its significance to three religions, the museum was forced to cancel a lecture on the status of LGBTQ Palestinians in East Jerusalem because the Israeli ambassador suspected that the speaker, God help us, supports BDS.
Accusations of anti-Semitism, which carry enormous weight in Germany, lead more and more to censorship and self-censorship. Cultural institutions in Germany, which are supposed to provide a stage for critical positions, are threatened financially and politically if they even dare to host artists and musicians who at any time expressed support for non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. This policy of fear-mongering that Miri Regev leads in Israel is imported by supporters of Israel to Germany. Only in Germany, because of its great sensitivity to anti-Semitism and deep identification with Israel in the wake of the Shoah, are there politicians not only on the right but on the left as well who vehemently endorse the silencing of criticism of Israel.
The extreme right’s ascendance to power in places across the globe is based in great part on the constriction of democratic space and the intimidation and sanctioning of anyone who dares to oppose suppressive nationalist policies. The efforts of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the Foreign Ministry, in cooperation with Jewish and right-wing organizations around the world, to defame and slander anyone who refuses to join their campaign of incitement against human rights activists, has now led to the firing of an esteemed scholar, strictly because he chose to defend the rights of Israeli academics to oppose the designation of the BDS movement as an anti-Semitic movement.
Against this paranoid impulse toward purges, which to a great extent recalls the years of McCarthyism in the United States, one must take a clear public stance. If the firing of Peter Schäfer has a moral, it is that no matter how much approbation a person has received for his opposition to anti-Semitism and support for Israel, opposition to Netanyahu’s anti-democratic policies is enough to turn him into an enemy of the people and the nation.
If the German and Israeli governments are interested in the Jewish Museum representing only their narrow political interests and denying its staff members freedom of expression, I am not interested in having a part in it. So despite my deep respect for the museum’s staff, I proffered my resignation. I and many other Jews of my generation do not want or need a kashrut certificate from the State of Israel or the heads of the institutional Jewish community, nor, certainly, from the German government. Judaism, as a pluralistic and democratic world culture, will continue to exist after the racist, ultra-nationalist politics that has taken over many communal institutions passes from the world.