By Melissa Eddy and Isabel Kershner, New York Times, December 23, 2018
Photo by Daniel Modjesch
BERLIN — This city’s Jewish Museum prides itself on stirring things up. In recent exhibitions exploring Jewish stereotypes and attitudes to circumcision, the museum pushed visitors to question what it means to be Jewish in Germany, and the world.
Its latest show, “Welcome to Jerusalem,” also got people talking. And it appeared to draw criticism from an unlikely source: the highest levels of the Israeli government.
The exhibition, which presents Jerusalem’s role as a crossroads of the world’s three monotheistic religions, is singled out in a letter that surfaced this month, with the title, “German Funding of Organizations Intervening in Israeli Domestic Affairs or Promoting anti-Israel Activity.”
The seven-page paper, which was first reported by the daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung, is unsigned and gives no indication of who wrote it, or who was the intended recipient. But Israeli officials, while not owning up to having written it, say they agree with its message: that the German government should halt any financial support to organizations or institutions the Israeli government views as undermining the Jewish state and siding with the Palestinians.
The letter singled out several organizations that it said supported the global movement to boycott, divest from and place sanctions on Israel, known as B.D.S., as well as other activities described as “anti-Israel.” The most prominent was the Jewish Museum, which the letter said “often hosts events and discussions with prominent B.D.S. promoters.” It also said its current exhibition about Jerusalem “reflected mainly the Muslim-Palestinian narrative.”
The Berlin Film Festival and Germany’s federal board for film funding were also listed, along with several German organizations that provide financial support to partners in Israel, such as the magazine +972 and the Coalition of Women for Peace.
The Jerusalem show, which opened a year ago and runs through April, explores the city’s role as the center of religious and political tension between Christians, Jews and Muslims over the centuries. Historical objects, artworks, documents, video installations and models are presented in a series of rooms, each with a theme, such as “Mapping the City,” “Both Sides of the City Wall” and “Artistic Responses.”
One room, “Conflict,” features a 20-minute montage of film footage about disputes over the city from 1917 to the present. The movie strives for balance — but ends with an acknowledgment that the footage came mostly from Israel.
At the heart of the exhibition, a room called “The Holy City” features a large, detailed model of 19th-century Jerusalem, made by the German-born architect Conrad Schick, with the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock towering at its center. Flanking it on either side are models of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall.
Although the holy sites of all three religions are represented, Schick’s masterpiece dwarfs the other two models, and this was interpreted by some Jewish bloggers and critics as giving an impression of Muslim dominance.
The wrangling over the Jewish Museum comes amid a broader campaign by the conservative government of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to combat forces it deems hostile and accuses of defaming, delegitimizing or otherwise harming Israel.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office did not respond to questions about the paper, which The New York Times has obtained. According to German media, he handed it to Chancellor Angela Merkel when the two met in October.
When asked at a news conference in Jerusalem this month about the paper’s focus on the museum, he said he remembered speaking with Ms. Merkel about “the fact that Germany and the E.U. fund organizations that openly call for boycotting Israel.” They also supported “Palestinian terrorist organizations, that masquerade as human rights organizations,” he added.
Battles over the right to boycott Israel have raged at college campuses and statehouses across the United States, where efforts to outlaw support for B.D.S. are being contested by civil-rights advocates on free speech grounds. In Washington, Congress is weighing legislation that would keep American companies from participating in boycotts — primarily against Israel.
In Germany, where calling for a boycott against the Jewish state carries historical associations with the Nazis, the movement is widely viewed as anti-Semitic. Issues involving Israel are especially fraught, given the country’s commitment to atone for the Holocaust.
Responsibility for Israel’s right to exist is a cornerstone of German foreign policy and cultural institutions have become a proxy battlefield for the fight here over B.D.S. This summer, the Ruhrtriennale, an international arts festival in the former industrial Ruhr region, rescinded an invitation to a Scottish rap group after pressure mounted surrounding the artists’ association with the B.D.S. movement.
Germany’s culture minister, Monika Grütters, whose department provides 14 million euros, or about $16 million, of the Jewish Museum’s budget, acknowledged the concerns of the Israeli government regarding the museum and its Jerusalem exhibition. But she “does not share these concerns,” a spokeswoman said.
Ms. Grütters rejected any suggestion that the Jewish Museum had offered a platform to “enemies of Israel, or fundamentalist, anti-democratic groups,” the spokeswoman added.
Israel maintains that, with the show in Berlin, and tours, lectures and events to accompany it, the museum has overstepped “the boundaries of the definition of its activities,” Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, said. “The purpose and the reason of existence of the Jewish Museum is to preserve and show Jewish life in Germany throughout the centuries, and not to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and certainly not to take sides.”
Peter Schäfer, the museum’s director, said he realized that with such a fiercely debated topic, the show would not be able to please everyone. “Our exhibition does not aim to offer solutions. Instead, we hope it will generate an understanding of Jerusalem’s special situation and help visitors to form their own opinions,” Mr. Schäfer said when “Welcome to Jerusalem” opened.
In an interview on Thursday, he rejected the charge that the museum was offering anyone aligned with the pro-Palestinian sanctions movement a platform. “We do not offer a forum for activists of any political orientation, which goes in particular for supporters or activists of the B.D.S. campaign,” Mr. Schäfer said.
But one speaker who drew attention in 2012 was Judith Butler, one of the most influential feminist scholars and an early supporter of the B.D.S. movement, who took part in a panel discussion at the museum. Mr. Schäfer was not the director of the museum at the time.
Mr. Schäfer refused to comment on reports in the German media that the museum’s decision in July to relocate a lecture by Sa’ed Atshan, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore, had been in response to pressure from Israel’s embassy in Berlin, which says Mr. Atshan supports a boycott. Mr. Atshan declined to be interviewed.
His lecture on L.G.B.T. life in Jerusalem, part of the program accompanying the exhibition, was held elsewhere in Berlin, but the museum was sharply criticized for the last-minute change of venue. It said the lecture was moved because of “technical problems.”
The paper also singled out the Berlin Film Festival, known as the Berlinale, as an organization that “frequently hosts B.D.S. activities,” but did not provide any examples.
Dieter Kosslick, the festival’s director, said that his office had not received the letter. Nor had the German government ever put conditions on the €8.2 million, or about $9.2 million, in annual support that it provides for the festival, he said.
“The founding idea of the Berlin Film Festival was to contribute to international understanding by presenting the different perspectives of artists from around the world,” Mr. Kosslick said. “These viewpoints may be controversial, but our role is to support freedom of the arts within the bounds of the democratic principles as enshrined in the German constitution.”
There has been some pushback in Israel, too. Tamar Zandberg, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, which sits in the opposition, decried what she called Mr. Netanyahu’s “obsession” with pursuing and censoring ideological opponents all the way to the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
“Israel was founded, among other things, to protect the Jews against persecution,” she said. “Now the Israeli government is coming out against a place and an exhibit most identified with the history of that persecution.”
She added, “The Israeli government — not the B.D.S. supporters and not the neo-Nazi organizations — is the one calling for a boycott of an important Jewish institution.”
Melissa Eddy reported from Berlin and Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem.