Peter Schäfer, the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, resigned last Friday, a year before he was due to retire, forced out after the backlash over a tweet from the museum’s official account that linked to a pro-Israel-boycott story. But since the controversy erupted, hundreds of scholars of Judaic Studies from around the world have been signing letters in his defense.
The often bitter debate centers on perceived support for the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement meant to pressure Israel in its dealings with Palestinians. The museum’s tweet shared an article that had appeared in the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung (TAZ) that discussed a June 3 letter signed by 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars delivered to the German government.
The scholars’ letter condemned a parliamentary proposition that had passed on May 17 that linked the BDS movement with anti-Semitism. The scholars argued that linking BDS to anti-Semitism was counterproductive, writing that doing so “does not assist” but rather “undermines” the fight against anti-Semitism.
A later tweet from the museum clarified that its aim was to share the arguments raised by these scholars about the problems with linking BDS to anti-Semitism, not to support the BDS movement itself.
But there was a storm of denunciations, many of them on social media, beginning with one that claimed, “The Jewish Museum in Berlin obviously sees as its task to take a stand against Jewish life in our country and especially against Israel.”
In his resignation letter Schäfer, who will be 76 this month, said that his decision to resign was “to prevent further damage to the museum.”
Following Schäfer’s resignation, Schäfer's supporters in the realm of Judaic Studies began to mobilize.
Two petitions were quickly organized. The first, signed by 50 Talmud scholars, including Ishay Rosen-Zvi (Tel Aviv University) and Moulie Vidas (Princeton University), read, “We are scholars of the Talmud and Ancient Judaism who hold diverse and even opposing opinions regarding the BDS movement. But we are united in our profound admiration for Prof. Schäfer as a scholar, academic leader, and public intellectual.”
The letter goes on, “For those of us who know Prof. Schäfer and his work, it is shocking to hear the claim that he is not committed to Jewish causes and the fight against anti-Semitism.”
A second letter, written by Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth), Shaul Magid (Dartmouth) and Annette Yoshiko Reed (NYU), got 322 signatories in two days. The petition includes an international group of Jewish scholars from Israel, Europe, Asia, South America, and the United States.
The letter asserts that “false accusations have been spread about Prof. Schäfer, and we are appalled that truth is no longer being upheld and that the reputation of a scholar devoted to Judaism would be smeared in public.” It demands “a public apology to him from those who have spread lies about him.”
One of the reasons for the academic backlash is the remarkable reputation that Schäfer has among his fellow scholars. It is not an exaggeration to describe him as a pillar in the field of Judaic studies. Prior to assuming his post as director of the Jewish museum in Berlin in 2014, he created the field of Jewish studies in Germany, was for years Director of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religion at Princeton, and authored numerous important books.
As the letter written by Heschel, Reed, and Magid notes, he “made an extremely important contribution to the revival of Jewish life in Germany in the postwar decades and to the fight against anti-Semitism. He has also worked tirelessly to promote a better understanding of Zionism and the importance of the State of Israel. Thanks to him, a new appreciation for Judaism and Jewish history has emerged among Germans, Jewish and Christian.”
Reed, a former student of Schäfer’s, told The Daily Beast, “He has worked for decades to counter anti-Semitism… and this is part of why it has been so shocking to hear recent accusations against him, rooted in such ignorance of his career and commitments.”
There is a genuine sense of outrage on the part of scholars of Judaic studies (both Jewish and not) that Schäfer has been unfairly accused.
In part the events of the past few weeks are the result of disagreements that have built up over the past few years about how the museum is run. Even before Schäfer took over as director there was an uproar when Jewish American scholar Judith Butler spoke at the museum in 2012. Butler, who has been supportive of BDS, was promoting her book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. Her appearance prompted Gerald Steinberg, founder and president of the Israel-based think tank NGO Monitor, to describe it as “the anti-Jewish museum.”
More recently the museum invited an Iranian attaché to the museum. The visit was related to an exhibit on 19th- and 20th-century Iranian Jews, but the invitation provoked strong feelings from those who were concerned about the museum’s mission.
The treatment of Schäfer is not, Magid told The Daily Beast, an isolated event. In an op-ed for Tikkun.org, Magid noted that two years ago when David Myers, the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA, was appointed director of the Center for Jewish History in New York City, it “sparked a campaign by ostensibly ‘pro-Israel’ activists to oust him from that position because of his ‘anti-Israel’ activities that included his role in the New Israel Fund and his topical writing criticizing the Israeli occupation. The campaign included articles in the press linking him erroneously to terrorist groups and claiming he was ‘pro-BDS’ (he is not).”
In the case of Schäfer, the accusations of BDS sympathies seem misplaced, and some of the press coverage has been misleading. The tweet that has become the focus of attention linked to a letter signed by Jews who were both anti-BDS and pro-BDS. “This is not a debate about BDS,” said Reed, “as much as the use of discomfort surrounding BDS among some Jews to try to paint their critics as anti-Israel.”
Magid told The Daily Beast, “This issue for me illustrates a much broader phenomenon, first regarding how one defines ‘Jewish’ in regards to a ‘Jewish museum.’ There is a real conversation one can have, and should, about that, but right now it is mostly just one side flexing its muscles by accusing those who disagree with their ‘definition’ as being ‘anti-Jewish’ or even ‘anti-Semitic.’”
For academics, stories like Schäfer’s are intimidating. Reed noted that she has heard some colleagues conclude that academics should try to stay out of public and political debate. “To retreat into silence, however, seems like the opposite of what we should be doing now, when more nuanced perspectives and critical lenses seem all the more necessary and pressing.”