Jewish Museum, Berlin (Image credit: Jorge Royan / Wikimedia Commons)

Concerns raised over resignation of Jewish Museum Berlin director

Simon Stephens, 02.07.2019
More than 80 museum professionals voice support for Peter Schäfer
More than 80 museum professionals from across Europe have signed a letter raising concerns about the resignation of the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Peter Schäfer resigned in mid-June, following criticism that the museum received when it retweeted an article about an open letter by Jewish scholars urging the German government not to criminalise the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement or equate it with antisemitism. The BDS movement calls for a cultural, economic, and political boycott of Israel.

But the letter argues that Schäfer’s resignation is the culmination of a lengthy campaign to discredit the director and the museum.  

“Schäfer is a man of great integrity and an internationally renowned scholar who has made invaluable contributions to the field of Jewish Studies,” says the letter. “We are appalled by the outrageous personal and professional attacks to which he has been subjected. We totally refute public accusations that have tried to smear the Jewish Museum Berlin as ‘anti-Jewish’ or ‘non-Jewish’ under his leadership.”

The letter goes on to say: “We see Schäfer’s departure as an alarming example of the shutting down of debate, which threatens the core purpose of museums and is in firm opposition to the Jewish tradition which embraces intellectual enquiry and constructive argumentation (makhloket). This episode is part of a broader, worrying trend that sees the independence of universities, museums and cultural institutions severely compromised by routine interference from governments and campaign bodies throughout the world.”

The Jewish Museum Berlin has released a statement on its website in response to the letter and other comments: "We – the staff of the Jewish Museum Berlin – would like to express our deep gratitude for the support we have received in the past days and weeks. The encouraging words as well as productive criticisms that have reached us in letters and public statements, in personal conversations, in messages and on social networks have shown us that our work and programming is valued. It is wonderful to have you at our side as sympathetic and critical companions – throughout the past 18 years since the inauguration of the museum and into the future.”  

Schäfer became the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin in September 2014 and recently had his contract extended to 31 August 2020.

The Jewish Museum Berlin has started looking for a new director. In the meantime, Christoph Stölzl has been appointed as an adviser. Stölzl, the founding director of the German Historical Museum, will support the museum until a new director starts work.

Monika Grütters, the chair of the board of trustees of the Jewish Museum Berlin and Germany’s culture minister, said: “I respect the decision of Professor Schäfer to resign from his post as director of the Jewish Museum Berlin Foundation, with immediate effect. I thank him for his work, and I am confident that the team of the Jewish Museum will bring the projects initiated by Professor Schäfer – especially the new permanent exhibition and the construction of a children’s museum – to fruition. The board of trustees and the recently established selection committee will continue its search for a new director. All those responsible must ensure that the Jewish Museum Berlin can return to concentrating on its important work.”

The Jewish Museum Berlin is one of Europe’s largest Jewish museums, attracting about 650,000 visitors a year.

Read the full solidarity letter in support of Professor Schäfer and the Jewish Museum Berlin