Berlin Jewish museum director forced out by Israel lobby

Jewish Museum Berlin

Riri Hylton

The Electronic Intifada  /  June 20, 2019

The director of the Jewish Museum Berlin was forced to resign last week following pressure from Israel and its lobby.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany criticized the museum for tweeting an article on the 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars who signed a petition opposing the German parliament’s recent motion condemning the BDS – boycott, divest and sanctions – movement for Palestinian rights.

“We reject this motion, which is based on the false allegation that BDS as such equals anti-Semitism,” the petition reads.

“We call on the German government not to endorse this motion and to fight anti-Semitism, while respecting and protecting freedom of speech and of association, which are undeniably under attack.”

The motion in the lower house, the Bundestag, smears BDS campaigners by comparing their approach to the Nazi-era slogan “Don’t buy from Jews,” despite how the explicitly anti-racist BDS campaign targets institutions – not individuals – for complicity in Israel’s crimes.

The nonbinding parliamentary motion urges authorities to withhold funding from organizations that call into question Israel’s “right to exist,” that advocate for the boycott of Israeli goods and from individuals or groups which demonstrate support for BDS.

The motion has already been used to justify the barring of US hip hop artist Talib Kweli, who was disinvited from Germany’s Open Source Festival after he rejected a demand to denounce the nonviolent campaign for Palestinian rights.

Director forced out

Following the Jewish Museum Berlin’s tweet, the Central Council of Jews in Germany broke off contact with the museum, claiming that it was “completely out of control.”

“Under these circumstances, one has to think about whether the term ‘Jewish’ is still appropriate,” the council asserted.

Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told German newspaper Die Tageszeitung he had “no understanding how an institution that calls itself Jewish retweets criticism of the resolution of the Bundestag.”

Attacks from Israel and its supporters against Europe’s largest Jewish museum were immediate.

Benjamin Weinthal, an anti-BDS operative who has admitted to exaggerating claims of anti-Semitism in order to engineer crackdowns on supporters of Palestinian rights, published a scathing piece in The Jerusalem Post.

Israeli ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff called the museum’s tweet “shameful.”

US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell tweeted Weinthal’s Jerusalem Post article, stating that he stood with the council. “Their leadership is crucial in Germany,” he said.

In the face of this onslaught, museum director Peter Schäfer resigned on 14 June “to avert further damage to the Jewish Museum.”

Exploiting German sensitivities

Some groups are backing the museum, including Jewish Voice for Labour in the UK which launched an action alert in the support of the museum’s right to free speech.

“What we’re witnessing is pure incitement, designed to intimidate the [Jewish Museum Berlin] and others into silence,” the call states. “It’s an outrageous assault on the freedom of speech and on the principle and value of a free, fair and open discussion.”

This isn’t the first time the museum – which attracts around 700,000 visitors each year – has come under fire for daring to deviate from Israel’s official line.

In December, Israeli authorities wrote a letter to the German government demanding that it withdraw funding from the museum after it produced an exhibition titled “Welcome to Jerusalem.”

The exhibit explored the city’s historical significance for all three major monotheistic religions.

Israel claimed the exhibition was an example of “anti-Israel activity” and demanded that German authorities defund it. The request was ignored.

The sweeping stigmatization of the BDS movement, especially with false charges of anti-Semitism, has been the Israeli government’s main method to try to suppress support for Palestinian rights for some years.

But its brazen attempts to stifle discussion in other countries, including Germany, seems to be gathering momentum.

Amos Goldberg, a Holocaust scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and signer of the petition against the Bundestag motion, made the point in an interview with Die Tageszeitung.

“They abuse and exploit the German sensitivity to anti-Semitism,” he said. “That – not BDS – is a big threat to an open society.”

Riri Hylton is a freelance journalist/editor working in both print and broadcast journalism.