The Controversies around the Jewish Museum

Update January 2020:

This page was originally an overview of the Jewish community's issues with Berlin's Jewish Museum. Indeed, 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 the Jewish Museum in Berlin. We kept updating the page as more things happened, eventually resulting in the museum's director stepping down. At some point the page became quite long and somewhat complex, so we decided to reorganize the whole thing and to provide you with the summary below.

At the moment, the Jewish Museum is remodeling its main exhibition. Now led by a new director, it remains to be seen if the museum can become less controversial and more in accordance with its name. For a quick overview of the controversy, here are some quotes from our local newspapers:

“The Jewish Museum and the migration council of the federal government created an atmosphere, in which downplaying certain forms of Antisemitism became normal.”
Thomas Thiel in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung", December 17th 2019

“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.”
Press release of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, June 11th 2019

“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

“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

For the full story, read our detailed summary below.

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The Jewish Museum in Berlin opened in 2001. It is a federal institution whose goal, as stipulated by federal law, is to “research and represent Jewish life in Berlin and in Germany". Over the years it began to pursue other goals than the Jewish community and eventually became a very controversial institution, openly criticized by the community whose name it appropriates. The criticism resulted from the following aspects:

1. The Name

At the height of the conflict, the Central Council of Jews in Germany (our most important political representation) issued a press release openly suggesting to rename the museum. Although the German government did not follow the suggestion, it did replace the museum's director. The problem is that the so-called “Jewish Museum" is, in fact, not a Jewish museum at all, 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.

This appropriation of the term can be seen as the original sin of the endeavor, since many of the problems that emerged later on would not have been so problematic if the institution had not used the term Jewish. In fact, the current Jewish Museum is not the first one in Berlin. Before its closure by the Nazis, Berlin actually had a Jewish Museum (located right next to the New Synagogue, at that time still the largest in Europe). The original Jewish Museum was naturally a Jewish institution - created and maintained by the Jewish community. However, when Germany decided to revive that legacy, it was done in a very different, hardly comprehensible way, excluding the Jewish community. Nevertheless, precisely because this German museum calls itself the "Jewish Museum", it conveys the false idea that it would somehow represent the Jewish community and convey a Jewish narrative.

2. False conceptualization of Jewish identity in Germany

The main exhibition, which opened in 2001 and closed in 2017, emphasized the short era before the Holocaust, when many (though definitely not all) Jews tried hard to assimilate into the German people and culture. While this period was very dramatic, it was also very short in comparison to nearly two millennia of Jewish life in what we now call Germany. Being the exception in Germany's Jewish history, the attempted (and ultimately failed) assimilation is indeed a fascinating chapter. Yet the underlying message was: Look at how German they had become and how wrong it was to exclude, persecute and eventually murder those fellow Germans. At first glance, this way of thinking might make sense, but actually it's a very problematic narrative. Here are some of the questions raised by local Jews over the years:

a) If assimilation into the German people is so important, what does it say about the vast majority of Holocaust victims, who were not from Germany? Who never tried or would have wanted to assimilate into the German people? Was their suffering somehow “not as wrong" as the pain imposed by Germans on “fellow Germans"? Was their fate as non-German-speaking Jews somehow less tragic? Millions of Jews were murdered by Germans regardless of their language or level of assimilation.

b) If assimilation is so important, what does it say about the vast majority of Jewish people and Jewish generations in German history, who didn't try and never wanted to be Germans? Were they “not so good", “not so developed" or “not so cultural", just because they weren't so “German"? Through most of their history, Jews in Germany didn't write in German or read German - in fact, the Latin alphabet wasn't even taught in the Jewish education system for centuries, yet during all that time, literacy among Jews was much higher than among Germans.

c) If assimilation is so important, what does it say about the many Jews who, in spite of other Jews' great desire to become Germans, did not go that way and actually celebrated their different identity, including famous spiritual leaders such as Samson Raphael Hirsch and Azriel Hildesheimer, whom the museum conveniently forgot about in its original exhibition? Even at the height of the assimilation project, there was a substantial minority with foresight. Their story is just as important.

d) If assimilation is so important, what does it say about the vast majority of Jews in Germany today as immigrants who were not born in Germany, whose mother tongue is not German and who, in light of the Holocaust, often don't define themselves as Germans and don't want to be understood as Germans? It is not a coincidence that our political representation is called the “Central Council of Jews in Germany" and not “of German Jews", let alone “of Jewish Germans".

In fact, the museum lacked any critical perspective about Jewish assimilation, which didn't prevent the Holocaust although Germany hardly had any Jews to begin with (just about 0.7% of the population in 1933). And while celebrating assimilation, the museum did not address the real question: How come the Holocaust originated precisely from the country whose Jews were most assimilated? 

To sum it up: Conveying an “ideal" picture of Jews in Germany as a highly assimilated, deeply German group necessarily excluded most Jews in contemporary Germany and most Jews in German history - as well as most Jews in the Holocaust, which undoubtedly constitutes the main reason people visit the museum (as well as the main reason for having a federal Jewish museum to begin with). Instead of representing Jewish life the way it really is, as required by the institution's legally binding mission statement, it was instead focused on its own very German vision of how Jews should be - which, in hindsight, doesn't come as a surprise considering that it's a German museum about Jews and really not a Jewish museum.

3. The Jerusalem exhibition

When the original exhibition was finally closed in 2017, it raised hope that the museum would now adopt a more feasible and relevant perspective on Jewish history, bringing the institution closer to its mission statement and 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 described 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 were depicted as “normal" political initiatives, while Jews were depicted as the aggressors provoking the bloodshed and terrorism of such organizations.

In the central room of the exhibition, the museum celebrated 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 wondering, “why should the Jewish Museum - of all places - be the one to honor and legitimize the most infamous murderer of Jews since 1945?"

Although the Jerusalem exhibition only lasted two years, it very significantly widened the chasm between the Jewish Museum and the Jewish community. In the relationship between the museum and the community, the Jerusalem exhibition constitutes a relatively short, yet very traumatic chapter, whose repercussions can still be felt.

4. Supporting BDS

Alongside the Jerusalem exhibition, the museum began a series of events (lectures etc.) 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 the BDS movement, 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 didn'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 at the time (who, as you can probably guess, wasn't Jewish). The Iranian embassy issued a press release about the visit: Unsurprisingly, the Iranian dignitaries were pleased with the Jerusalem exhibition...

The straw that broke the camel's back happened in May and 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. This resolution was 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 stating that “the museum’s management has lost the trust of the Jewish community in Germany.” Consequently, the museum's director resigned.

While the museum now has a new director and is currently remodeling its exhibition, it seems the chasm between the “Jewish" museum and Germany's Jewish community has never been wider. It remains to be seen if the museum can make amends and justify its name.

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So, what is the bottom line? Should you visit Berlin's Jewish Museum or not? Our answer is: Yes, but don't take everything at face value. Maintain a critical perspective and, if possible, take a guide who can help you look behind the scenes.