Cheetah and Crocodile Are Palestinian, Not Zionist: The Conflict Takes a Beastly Turn

Palestinian Education Ministry protests Tel Aviv University's exhibit of rare animals and plants ■ TAU says it wants to restore items previously stored in a basement ■ Palestinians: save our heritage

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In this Thursday, Oct 5, 2017 photo, a girl looks at taxidermy specimens in the collections storeroom of Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv, Israel. For decades the specimens resided below ground at Tel Aviv University. The creatures were meticulously labeled and maintained under a steady temperature to preserve them for research purposes.
A girl looks at taxidermy specimens in the collections storeroom of Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv, Oct 5, 2017.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A collection of rare Israeli animals and plants has found itself in an unusual spot: at the center of a battle being waged against Tel Aviv University by East Jerusalem high school girls and graduates backed by the Palestinian Education Ministry.

A few of the taxidermied animals in the collection are long extinct in this country. The collection was donated by the German Society for the Exploration of the Holy Land to the Tel Aviv University’s new science and nature museum, which has been exhibiting it for the last two weeks.

>> In Photos: Long-dead critters at Tel Aviv University's museum

But students and grads of the German-Catholic Schmidt’s Girls College (elementary, middle and high school) in Jerusalem run by the exploration society, and the Palestinian ministry too, protest the collection’s move to the university museum. Sources who know the collection argue that if it had stayed in Jerusalem, the objects would have crumbled to dust.

Called “Father Schmitz’s Collection,” it was put together by Ernst Schmitz, a Roman Catholic priest and naturalist who lived and worked in Jerusalem from 1908 to 1922. The collection has extremely rare specimens of beings that once lived here. Schmitz opened a museum in the basement of the St. Paul hostel across the street from the Old City of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.

Items from the Ernst Johann Schmitz collection are displayed at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv, April 22, 2018.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

The rumor got out that he paid well and hunters began bringing him animals, says Haim Goren, a professor at the Tel Hai Academic College who’s been researching Schmitz. He’d send the animals to Germany for stuffing; a third of them would be kept there, a third would be sold and the remaining third would be sent back to Jerusalem.

The collection remained in the hostel’s basement and was well-known to the girls attending the school next door, though its existence was only revealed publicly in 1978 by the zoologist Yossi Leshem, helped by the historian Yohanan Reiner. It includes the last crocodile and cheetah in Israel, both killed by hunters; a rare black eagle and one of the last oryxes. It also features insects, including butterflies and no less than 40 species of ant.

Negotiations between the society and Tel Aviv University about moving the collection took 15 years. Leshem and Goren worried throughout that inappropriate storage conditions would ruin the collection, which Leshem says had been in “catastrophic” condition. About a decade ago, after changes in the society’s management, agreement was finally reached for the collection to move as a permanent donation to the museum.

In return the museum undertook to restore the exhibits and have them highlight the importance of the history of German research of nature in Israel.

In recent years the collection was indeed restored, but after the museum’s inauguration, graduates of the German Catholic girls’ school and Palestinian activists in Jerusalem began to protest against the agreement.

A stuffed deer awaits installation in an exhibition at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv, April 22, 2018. Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

“The decision abandons the heritage of ties between the church and German people and the Palestinian people. Not only does it recognize the occupation and annexation of Jerusalem, it betrays generations of Palestinians who were educated in the school,” wrote a graduate of the institution, Nadia Harhash.

The Palestinian Education Ministry soon joined the protest and issued a condemnation of the decision of the German association: “The Al Quds Unit of the Ministry condemns the donation by Schmidt’s Girls College through the German Society for the Exploration of the Holy Land to the Zionist museum,” it said, arguing that the collection includes “Palestinian animals, including the cheetah of Be’er Sheva and the crocodile of Jisr al-Zarqa.” The ministry also claims that the museum at Tel Aviv University was built on the ruins of the village of Sheikh Munis.

Schmidt’s Girls College stated that it didn’t own the collection, the German Society did, and it was not part of the decision.

The German Association for the Holy Land issued a statement concerning the transfer of the collection of stuffed animals to the Tel Aviv Museum. The statement said that 25 years ago, the association had discovered that the stuffed animals were stored in unsuitable conditions. “The association's main concern was to protect the unique and valuable collection. The Society did not have the necessary resources to preserve the collection and wanted to avoid removing the collection from the Holy Land.” For these reasons, according to the association's announcement, the collection was handed over to a museum that renovated and rehabilitated it. The statement also said that the museum was asked to clarify in accompanying signs that the collection belonged to the German Association.

Exhibition designers carry a stuffed hyena to be displayed at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv, Sept 5, 2017.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

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