U.S. Markets closed

World’s Toughest Job Is Open at the Berlin Jewish Museum

Leonid Bershidsky

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sept. 1 is the deadline to apply for the post of director of the Berlin Jewish Museum. It could be the toughest job in the world: It involves maneuvering between the interests of the German government, the country’s Jewish community, international Jewish organizations, the Israeli government and diverse groups within academia. The previous director, Peter Schaefer, who resigned under pressure on June 14, failed to find the right balance.

The museum, Europe’s largest of its kind, attracts some 650,000 visitors a year. It’s housed in several buildings including a stunning modern one designed by Daniel Libeskind and built in 2001. The funding comes mainly from the state, and the board of the foundation that runs the museum is headed by Monika Gruetters, the German government’s commissioner for culture and media.  At the same time, and perhaps in part for this reason, it’s watched scrupulously by much of the Jewish world: Any German government undertaking that has to do with Jewish history would be.

Schaefer, who isn’t Jewish, got interested in Judaism via Catholic theology and became one of the country’s top Jewish studies scholars, heading up the first department specializing in the discipline to be reestablished since World War II, at Berlin’s Free University. After he took over the museum in 2014, some of his moves were viewed warily by Jewish activists. He was criticized for inviting a Palestinian scholar to deliver a lecture at the museum; for giving a personal tour to an Iranian diplomat who then delivered an anti-Israeli tirade; for putting on an exhibition about Jerusalem that prompted an angry letter from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling on her to defund the museum.

But he ended up being forced to quit – “to prevent further damage” to the museum, as the official explanation went – because of a tweet he hadn’t even written (the museum’s publicist, who had, was fired, too). Actually, it was a retweet – of an article in the daily Die Tageszeituung about a statement signed by 240 Israeli and Jewish academics that criticized a German parliament resolution branding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as anti-Semitic. The movement, a loose alliance of groups that condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs and maintain a boycott of products made in Israeli settlements on the West Bank, denies accusations of anti-Semitism and argues that its quarrel is with the Israeli government, not Jewry. The academics, including prominent Israeli scholars, mostly from the left side of the political spectrum, argued that BDS has a right to its pro-Palestinian stance.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany decided the retweet, complete with a #mustread hashtag, went too far. “The cup is full,” it tweeted. “The Berlin Jewish Museum appears completely out of control. Under these circumstances one must consider whether the description ‘Jewish’ is still justified.” B’nai B’rith International, the global Jewish organization, joined the criticism. Eight days after the tweet, Schaefer stepped down: His apologies and explanations that the museum didn’t actually express support for the academics’ statement were deemed insufficient.

In an interview with Der Spiegel shortly before his resignation, Schaefer explained that in his view, the museum is Jewish in the sense that it deals with Jewish culture and history, “not because we aim to be a Jewish institution in the sense that we belong to the Jewish community and are its mouthpiece [...] not to mention the Israeli state.”

The question is, however, whether an institution linked to the German government can afford to take such a stance. In the context of Germany’s history with Jews, any attempt at neutrality is understandably taken as a flashback to the Nazi past. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, as the U.S. planned the opening of a Holocaust memorial in Washington, the German government worked feverishly to make sure it wouldn’t be “anti-German.” It was important to the governments of Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl that the U.S., Germany’s biggest ally at the time, make a clear distinction between the Nazis and modern Germany. The official German concept of memory and repentance has changed a lot since then, to the chagrin of far-right politicians and some old-school conservatives. Berlin got its own Holocaust memorial and a permanent exhibition, the Topography of Terror, to document the atrocities of the Nazi secret police. But the words “Jewish” and “Berlin” in the name of an institution still make a sensitive mixture.

This begs the question of whether the German government hasn’t been overconfident in playing such a visible role in the running of the Berlin Jewish Museum. With all the politicians on its board, the institution cannot but take on the role of a government policy instrument. In today’s Germany, integrating a growing Muslim population and trying to keep the peace between Muslim immigrants and Jews is an important policy objective, and it calls for a more ecumenical approach to Middle Eastern history than understandably wary Jewish organizations are willing to accept. Add to this the natural tension between the city’s leftist bent and Netanyahu’s hard-right agenda, and it seems clear that any director will have a hard time making a go of it.

One possible solution would be for the government to remove its representatives from the museum’s board and leave its management to a mix of intellectuals and Jewish community representatives. This doesn’t mean cutting the state funding – continuing with these contributions is part of what any German government must do. But a Jewish museum in Berlin doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as a state cultural institution; rather, it should reflect the historical perspectives, the thinking, the arguments, the contradictions within Berlin’s Jewish and Jewish studies communities.  That might give the next director a little more leeway to be creative rather than overcautious.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.