Berlin Jewish Museum's New Director: Only Education Can Stop New Phenomena of anti-Semitism

The new director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Peter Schäfer, gets a chance to shake up what's already a major tourist attraction.

Moshe Gilad

My talk with Prof. Peter Schäfer, the new director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, goes on for more than two hours. We’re sitting in his office on the top floor of the museum, and he insists on speaking Hebrew. His language is accurate and coherent, but it’s clear he doesn’t use it often.

He speaks slowly, chooses his words carefully and smiles when he can’t find the right one. But even when I suggest he switch to English for a tricky phrase, he refuses, thinks for a second and finds an alternative in Hebrew. It’s no secret he’s enjoying his chance to practice.

Toward the end of our talk, Schäfer recalls with a smile how in 1964 he was a young student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“I got a room in the student dorms and asked to have an Israeli roommate, a Hebrew speaker. I figured if I lived with an American student we’d speak English and I wouldn’t learn anything. But there was a problem. No Israeli students agreed to live with a German,” he says.

“It was a different time. In the end, they told me: ‘We’ve found a solution. You’ll live with a Druze. His Hebrew is excellent.’ That’s how I met Rafik Halabi, who became a famous journalist and is now the head of the Daliat al-Carmel Regional Council. We’re friends, to this day.”

Yves Sucksdorff for the Jewish Museum

When he sees the astonished look on my face, his smile grows especially large.

During a short talk I had a few weeks later, Halabi enthusiastically confirms the story and sings endless praise for Schäfer and the years they spent together. He’s also quick to bring up memories of amusing cultural differences between him and Schäfer, who went to sleep every night in button-up pajamas, something considered odd in 1960s Israel.

His appointment two months ago garnered lots of interest, both due to the institution’s status as a leading site in the German capital, and because of Schäfer’s presence itself. Throughout its 18-year history, the museum was run by its founder, Michael Blumenthal, a German-American economics professor and a U.S. secretary of the Treasury in the Carter administration.

Schäfer, who isn’t Jewish and was born in 1943 in the Ruhr region, is an outstanding choice for many reasons. After completing a degree in religious studies at the University of Bonn, he spent three years studying Judaism and Semitic languages in Jerusalem. Later he earned a doctorate in philosophy and Judaism at Freiburg and Frankfurt.

Until 1998 he worked as a Jewish-studies professor in Germany before taking a prestigious job at Princeton and living in the United States for 15 years. His English-language work “Judeophobia,” which has been published in Hebrew, addresses the way Jews and Judaism were seen by the Greeks and Romans. It identifies the sources of anti-Semitism in the ancient world.

Later in his academic career, Schäfer became the only scholar to win both Germany’s prestigious Leibniz Prize and the Mellon Award, considered the highest honor in the United States for humanities scholars.

Not a Holocaust museum

Schäfer has no experience in museums or administration but says there’s a great similarity between his work as a Jewish-studies professor and directing the museum in Berlin.

“My friends said I had gone crazy — what’s running a museum got to do with me? — but I think a professor who does good work passes his knowledge on to the community of students,” he says. “At the museum, we do exactly the same thing — with a much larger community. In both cases the most important thing is to fascinate the community.”

Early in our talk, Schäfer explains how the museum is truly unique.

It’s not a Jewish museum, but rather the national German museum for Judaism. The institution belongs to the federal government, and it’s completely independent, but its duty as a German institution is to present the history of Germany Jewry. In that regard it’s different from museums in Britain or the United States.

“In the past, there was a magnificent community in Germany. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism, which launched the Holocaust. But that’s not the end of the story — it’s also important for us to present Judaism in Germany after World War II and the connection to Israel,” he says.

“Our biggest department works to educate young people. A main aspect of our objective is to educate the German community and acquaint it with Judaism. That’s the only way to deal with new phenomena of anti-Semitism.”

Later, Schäfer highlights his main point. “We’re not a Holocaust museum, and we don’t want to be. The Holocaust is an integral party of Jewish history in Germany, and everything we do is related to that,” he says.

“As a German, I know full well that it doesn’t matter how old you are, that what happened more than 70 years ago in Germany is a part of your history, floating in the air like a cloud. It’s a shadow over Germans, and it’s important to know how to relate to it, to deal with it, because we will never get rid of it.”

So what’s his explanation for the museum’s immense popularity?

“The first reason is that many come to see the building itself, which is very famous. It’s magnetic. Architecture is a big thing in Berlin, and the museum building, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is an architectural fixture in the city,” he says.

“The second reason is the visitors’ desire to learn about Germany’s new take on Judaism. They want to know how Germans see German Jewry’s past and future.”

The museum building is a controversial subject. Schäfer recalls his first visit; he was excited and impressed by the large spaces. Then he makes a confession.

“The building is very impressive but I can’t say I like it. It’s clear to me today that the building is not so suitable for our exhibitions,” he says.

“This stands out especially in terms of our permanent exhibitions, where we haven’t managed, in my opinion, to fit in with the structure. It’s a huge challenge for us: adapting the contents to the architecture.”

Mainz and Worms

When asked about his plans for the museum, he’s full of ideas. His main objective is to renew the permanent exhibit. It’s time to make a change, he says, because it has been 14 years since the exhibit opened in 2001. (The building opened to visitors without exhibits three years earlier.)

“The first thing we’ll do is shore up the exhibit on Ashkenazi Jewry in the Middle Ages. The large communities in Mainz and Worms are not sufficiently covered. During that period, the positive connection between Judaism and Christianity is evident,”  Schäfer says.

“I think it’s important to further highlight the changes caused by the Zionist movement’s rise in Germany, and to show its influence on Israel’s founding. It’s important to include more about what happened to German Jewry after the war, and to present the connection with the young Israelis who come to Berlin. Anti-Israelism often turns into anti-Semitism these days, and that’s troubling for us.”

Aside from improving the permanent exhibits, Schäfer mentions his goal to include an exhibit on the Golem from Prague: “It was one of my most successful courses at Princeton, and I’m sure that there’s a basis for an exhibit — the Golem from the Bible to now, including movies, comics and countless stories. It’s fascinating.”

Schäfer is definitely aware of the phenomenon of young Israelis moving to Berlin, and he provides a clear explanation.

“Berlin, just like Tel Aviv, is a very young city that attracts young people. Yes, it sounds a little ironic to us, but think about it — Berliners are characterized by their chutzpah and humor; it makes them different from other Germans,” he says.

“The culture, the art and the architecture attract young people from all over the world. Life here is easy and cheap, and clearly that’s part of the city’s international popularity.”

Just before we part, Schäfer implores me to visit one of the museum’s temporary (until March 1) exhibits, “Snip it! Stances on Ritual Circumcision,” which focuses on circumcision as practiced by various cultures. He says the exhibit reflects the way he involves the museum in current affairs, as it has done since the debate on circumcision heated up in 2012.

The exhibition presents the tradition of circumcision as practiced by Islam and other religions. The poster for the exhibit, the work of artist Harley Swedler, depicts three versions of a naked man with his genitals covered by a different flag in the shape of a map — one of Germany, one of Israel and one of Turkey.