The saga of Peter Schäfer, who recently resigned as director of the Jewish Museum Berlin after the institution tweeted its support for the freedom of expression of the movement to boycott Israel, is at its height, so it’s worth examining the controversy from several angles that will provide context. The first concerns the man at the center – the (non-Jewish) scholar of German Jewry, Prof. Peter Schäfer.
Schäfer is one of the most important scholars of Jewish history and culture in the Second Temple era and of post-biblical literature in general (rabbinic parables, mysticism, Jewish law, philology). He has published dozens of very influential books in these fields. If he were Israeli, he would surely have won the Israel Prize.
Moreover, for decades, he has been a full participant in Israeli conferences and studies and has cooperated with leading Israeli researchers. He has held senior academic posts in Berlin, at Princeton and at a prestigious German publishing house, promoting the study of European Judaism and providing exceptional support for the achievements of Israeli scholars. I can’t think of another non-Israeli scholar who has done so much to promote Jewish studies worldwide.
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Thus to depict him as someone who hates Israel and works against it goes far beyond stupidity. It's pure evil.
Another angle from which this incident should be examined is that of the Jewish community in Berlin, whose leadership has voiced scathing criticism of the museum’s tweet. The fact that Schäfer – with all his academic status and prestige not just in Berlin and Germany but throughout Europe – was running the Jewish Museum should have been welcomed as an unprecedentedly courageous and important step.
Germany decided that the Jewish Museum would be headed not by a marginal figure but by someone who to many people symbolizes the new generation of Germans. This is a generation that has the personal and intellectual abilities to address the Jewish present through its rich, tumultuous past, not via empty slogans but via research and familiarity with this past in all its depth.
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A sober, fair view of the Jewish exile – which wasn’t merely a series of persecutions, as “Zionist” Jewish nationalism prefers to depict it, but a worthy alternative for a rich, creative and humane Jewish life – is an interest of the highest order for a Jewish community like that of Berlin. Therefore, it’s a mistake to depict Schäfer as someone who undermined the interests and worldview of Berlin’s Jewish community.
Moreover, the community is first and foremost hurting itself by effectively rejecting the new Germany’s outstretched hand and putting itself on the side of the nationalism and destructiveness that characterize today’s Israel.
There’s also another aspect to this, which is the most sweeping and painful for us as Israelis. When people like Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Amos Oz warned back in 1967 that the occupation’s damage wouldn’t remain solely in the borders of “Judea and Samaria” because such damage knows no borders, most Israelis viewed their words as the delusions of a wild imagination. To our misfortune, it’s now clear how right they were.
Religious and nationalist tyranny, shutting people’s mouths and indifference to the suffering of the other – Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, African refugees – have undermined the possibility of realizing Israel’s true Jewish character, which is open and liberal, not to mention its democratic spirit. The Israeli soldiers who return from years of serving the occupation regime in the territories can no longer sever themselves from what they did or saw there, so we shouldn’t be surprised that young people are more right-wing.
Still, what Leibowitz, Oz and others couldn’t foresee was that the occupation’s damage would spread not just beyond the Green Line but beyond Israel’s borders. When the U.S. Congress and the German Bundestag (I’m not counting regimes with fascist tendencies like Hungary and Brazil) act according to the dictates of Israel’s occupation government and try to silence any protest against the occupation, it should be clear to us all that this damage is spreading far beyond our borders.
When the prime minister of Israel, with great chutzpah, seeks to dictate how the German government runs its cultural institutions, there’s no longer any doubt that this ugly wave has already crossed the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. And this is the wave that drowned a lover of Israel like Peter Schäfer.
This must be said loud and clear: Criticizing the occupation and struggling against it reflect true love of Israel, while the occupation undermines Israel’s continued existence. To stand firm against the inhumanity of Jews oppressing another people is the most worthy battle against anti-Semitism.
This is what the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin tried to do, and for this he was punished. I have no doubt that when the history of modern-day Jewry is written, Schäfer will earn the recognition he deserves.
Eli Yassif is a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University’s school of Jewish studies.