The Controversies around the Jewish Museum

Update May-June 2019:

The German parliament (Bundestag) approved a resolution calling upon Germany's federal government to stop its continued support and financing of BDS activities. The resolution is the outcome of a long struggle led by Germany's Jewish community against political Antisemitism. In response to their success, the Jewish Museum issued a statement on its official twitter channel condemning(!) the resolution. A few days later, the Central Council of Jews Germany, the umbrella organization for Germany's Jewish communities, issued a press release saying:

Enough is enough. The Jewish Museum in Berlin seems to be completely out of control. Under these circumstances, one has to think about whether the term ‘Jewish’ is still appropriate.

The Central Council also stated that the museum’s management has lost the trust of the Jewish community in Germany.” Consequently, the museum's director resigned.

While the notorious exhibition about Jerusalem is now closed, it seems the chasm between the Jewish" museum and Germany's Jewish community has never been wider. For the broader context, please see the original article below.

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I would expect every museum in Germany not to propagate narratives that contribute to Antisemitism in Germany - especially a so-called Jewish Museum."
Prof. Julia Bernstein in the Jüdische Allgemeine", Germany’s Jewish weekly, March 28th 2019

Writing about the Jewish Museum in Berlin is anything but easy - hence the rather long article below. We were hoping to somehow be able to avoid addressing the issue, but as time went by and the Jewish criticism of the museum got louder and harsher, it became clear to us that we can't go on pretending it's the valued institution that many outsiders think it is. Since as tourists you probably don't read German newspapers, we feel obligated to at least inform you about the controversies and to provide you with some context for your potential visit of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Hardly any museum in Berlin is as controversial as the Jewish Museum - and none has been criticized by the Jewish community (and others) more than Berlin's Jewish Museum. This is, by the way, not our opinion, but a factual observation: Even the Jewish community's commissioner against Antisemitism expressed deep concerns about the Jewish Museum, and while not all the Jews" think alike, many have issues with the institution that pretends to offer some kind of representation of the Jewish community.

So why do Jews find the museum offensive?

To begin with, there's the name issue: The Jewish Museum" in Berlin is actually not a Jewish institution, but a German institution about Jews. In legal terms, the museum is a foundation funded by the federal government of Germany, completely unrelated to actual Jewish communities. 

Unlike other Jewish museums (e. g. the one on NYC's 5th ave.), Berlin's Jewish museum doesn't focus primarily on art, but on history and politics. By doing so, it purposefully creates and propagates a parallel narrative" about Jews and Jewish identity - a narrative that doesn't represent the local Jewish community and sometimes completely contradicts it, especially in political terms. By calling itself a Jewish museum" and by pretending to be a Jewish institution, many people are misled to believe the museum can or may speak on behalf of the Jewish community. Yet is it really up to a German institution to make claims about Jews?

Then there's the symbolism embedded into Daniel Libeskind's architecture, which is a good example for such claims: As famous and thought-provoking as the architecture is, it is also used, unfortunately, to convey extremely controversial notions about the Jewish people - specifically at the very beginning of the exhibition, in the so-called Axis of Exile" and Axis of the Holocaust". While the latter focuses on places of death by listing concentration and extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka, the former focuses on places of life by listing destinations of Jewish emigration like New York and Los Angeles. Although the two represent incredibly different fates, they are not portrayed as opposites, but almost as equally bad, using the very same design and font for both Auschwitz and New York, Treblinka and Los Angeles - as if it were regrettable that most Jews chose life. 

The Jewish Museum of Berlin - Daniel Libeskind Architecture

No visual distinction between life and death, good and bad, New York and Auschwitz

Even more disturbing is the framing of this tremendous exodus out of Germany as exile", a term otherwise reserved in Judaism for the Jewish diaspora. The museum even includes cities in Israel among the places of exile" - using, again, the very same font for Tel Aviv and Sobibor, Haifa and Maidanek, hardly differentiating between horrible places of Jewish suffering and hopeful symbols of Jewish revival. The museum also defines Jerusalem, the very center of Judaism, as a place of Jewish exile" - as if Jews wouldn't belong there and should get out, like some haters actually claim nowadays. Understandably, this alternative fact" seems to many Jewish visitors particularly sinister and offensive, especially in an institution that pretends to be a Jewish" museum. 

Jewish Museum of Berlin

Imagine yourselves as the common non-Jewish visitor learning in the Jewish Museum about the Jewish people:
Is Jerusalem for Jews really the same as Ankara or Buenos Aires, a place of Jewish “Exile”?

In a similar manner, the original permanent exhibition, which was closed in 2017, completely detached the history of Jews in Germany from the Jewish diaspora, its very direct and most substantial context since the middle ages. The museum gave a very German narrative on Jewish identity, emphasizing the perspective of some Jews before the Holocaust who saw themselves as German first", while marginalizing all other Jewish perspectives. Indeed, there were Jews before the Holocaust that actually wanted to become more German than the Germans" and redefined themselves as Germans of Jewish origin", rejecting Jewish peoplehood altogether in favor of an imaginary Jewish-German symbiosis. But this self-germanification" did not mean that they were actually accepted as Germans and was hardly more than a fantasy (which, of course, wasn't so clear in real time as it is in hindsight). Their rejection of fellow Jews was in itself a reaction to their own rejection by Germans, as if downgrading other Jews could somehow upgrade" them to the level of fellow Germans. As many Germans fell for racism at the time and were looking down on the Slavic nations of Eastern Europe as inferior", some Jews in Germany followed the German role model and began to imagine themselves as different and even better than Eastern European Jews, hoping that antisemitic ideologists would make the same differentiation and exclude the so-called Jewish Germans" from their general hatred towards the Jewish people (it never happened).

As odd as it might sound, such self-germanification" was quite common among Jews in Germany before the Holocaust, who - admittedly - didn't know and couldn't have known the outcome. But it was a very short-lived phenomenon, which requires, given the catastrophic outcome of the whole thing, a rather critical approach. More importantly, this phenomenon was very much the exception in centuries of Jewish life in Germany: Dozens of Jewish generations lived in German speaking countries without ever wanting to be more German than the Germans". Instead, they had very strong ties to other Jews and Jewish communities in other countries. Shortly put, the vast majority of Jewish generations through the history of this country did not understand themselves as Germans", but as an integral part of the Jewish people. And their story deserves to be told from a perspective that respects their heritage.

The museum, however, tried hard to retroactively germanify" this Jewish heritage by assuming the perspective of the exception, the Jewish Germans", while disconnecting the history of Jews in Germany from Jewish diaspora as a whole. This way, the museum propagated the narrative about Germans of Jewish origin" without any criticism, as if there was no Holocaust - thus creating and selling" a Jewish identity that hardly related to our post-Holocaust, disillusioned Jewish world. It was just odd and even bizarre that a Jewish" museum would do that, especially since the vast majority of local Jews are not from Germany - and their mostly Eastern European, ex-Soviet heritage has absolutely nothing to do with becoming more German than the Germans".

That permanent exhibition was finally closed in 2017 - raising hope that the museum would now adopt a more feasible and relevant perspective on Jewish history, bringing the institution closer to the Jews who actually live here. But instead, the museum decided to run head-on into the Middle East conflict with an exhibition about Jerusalem. Given the massive anti-Israeli bias in German media, one might have expected a Jewish museum" to counter the daily bashing with a pro-Jewish perspective. But Berlin's Jewish Museum didn't even try that. In fact, local Jews describe the exhibition as a great success to PLO propaganda: Under the pretense of a Jewish" museum, murderous organizations such as the Fatah and the PLO are shown as normal" political initiatives, while Jews are depicted as the aggressors provoking the terrorism of such organizations. In the central room of the exhibition, the museum even shows no other than Yasser Arafat - laying out his narrative, legitimizing it without any reference to his abhorrent career" as one of the worst terrorists of the modern era. There are so many pro-Arab organizations in Germany", local Jews were and still are wondering, why should the Jewish museum - of all places - be the one to honor and legitimize the most infamous murderer of Jews since 1945?"

Jewish Museum Berlin

Arafat smiling in the Jewish Museum:
Can you imagine an American museum displaying Osama bin Laden this way?
...neither can we.

Berlin Jewish Museum

One of the greatest Jewish visionaries of the modern era - right next to an archterrorist:
What moral values does this framing convey?
Herzl must be turning in his grave...

The scandal didn't end there, though. Alongside the new exhibition, the museum began a series of events about the conflict. In this incredibly difficult topic, one might have expected the Jewish museum" to show some respect to the Jewish community, but - well, you guessed it - the museum chose to act exactly the other way around, collaborating with supporters of BDS, which the Jewish community very much tries to fight against. The Jewish community was even successful in getting the local Berlin authorities to prohibit BDS activities from taking place in public facilities, yet the Jewish museum managed to get around that - being funded by the Federal Government means that it isn't subject to Berlin's local administration. But even if there's no legal obligation", you might be thinking now, shouldn't there be at least a moral obligation? It is, after all, the Jewish museum..."

Well, apparently the Jewish museum doesn't care much about moral issues: It turned directly against the Jewish community and made itself a platform for haters. While rejecting even the objections of Israeli officials that tried to help the Jewish community, the museum hosted on March 8th 2019 an official delegation of the Iranian regime (we kid you not!). The delegation was hosted by no other than the museum's director - Prof. Peter Schäfer - himself (who, as you can probably guess, isn't Jewish). The Iranian embassy issued a press release about the visit: Unsurprisingly, the Iranian dignitaries were pleased with the exhibition...

Jewish Museum in Berlin
Hate propaganda, not marked as such, on display in the Jewish museum

As you can imagine, this quickly turned into just another controversy. The German government, which funds the museum, has unfortunately very warm ties with the Islamist regime in Iran, and BDS is, admittedly, covered in Germany by free speech. But being legal is not the same as being morally acceptable. And for local Jews, not everything that may be said, should be said - let alone given a publicly funded stage in a Jewish" museum.

Indeed, the Jewish museum is not a Jewish institution and does not speak for the local Jewish community, but since it actually calls itself the Jewish Museum", does it really need to act so bluntly against the community and to undermine its efforts to combat Antisemitism? As the museum's behavior became increasingly controversial, the Morgenpost", a German newspaper, interviewed Sigmount Königsberg, the Jewish community's commissioner against Antisemitism, who put it very simplyThe Jewish museum should present, first and foremost, Jewish perspectives". It sounds so obvious - and yet in Berlin it is, unfortunately, anything but obvious. 

Eventually, the scandal was even discussed at the German Parliament, forcing the Federal Government to address the issue. To the dismay of local Jews, the government announced that the Jewish Museum may continue to collaborate with BDS initiatives (again, we kid you not). This might sound surprising to outsiders, who often believe the myth about Germany having learned its lesson". But for locals, it is just another chapter in the never-ending story of Berlin’s most controversial museum. 

It is unacceptable that statements downplaying the Holocaust are made in the Jewish museum."
Sigmount Königsberg, the Jewish community's commissioner against Antisemitism, in the Morgenpost", a German newspaper, January 23rd 2019