Why Peter Schäfer’s Resignation as Director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin Matters

Exterior of the Jewish Museum of Berlin. Image courtesy of Dominic Simpson/Flickr.

A few days ago Peter Schäfer, one of the most influential and important scholars of Ancient Judaism and early Jewish mysticism, was forced to resign his tenure as Director of the Jewish Museum of Berlin, a position he held after his retirement as Director of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religion at Princeton. The ostensible occasion that precipitated the resignation was a tweet sent out from the museum office (not from him directly) that linked to a letter signed by 240 scholars of Judaica opposing the recent German legislation linking BDS to anti-Semitism. The letter signed by these scholars did not support BDS, and the museum has come out strongly against BDS. Rather, those who signed the letter opposed the language linking BDS to anti-Semitism by definition suggested in the German legislation. While one can certainly disagree with the letter, calling it a “pro-BDS letter” is a significant distortion. Yet that is precisely what Uwe Becker, commissioner of the “Hessian federal state government for Jewish life and the fight against anti-Semitism” did in his response to the letter and to the tweet stating that, “The Jewish Museum in Berlin obviously sees as its task to take a stand against Jewish life in our country and especially against Israel. The recent support of BDS is a disgrace!” Of course, there was no support of BDS, not in the letter and not in the tweet from the Jewish Museum. What this illustrates is that the more complex question equating BDS by definition with anti-Semitism has become fused with the support of BDS.

This all has a history that precedes this unfortunate event. In 2012 Gerald Steinberg, president of the NGO Monitor, labeled the museum before Schäfer’s tenure “the anti-Jewish museum” when it invited Judith Butler, a Jewish American scholar of philosophy and gender studies and supporter of BDS to the museum to speak about her views on Israel following the publication of her book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. Since when did Institutes have to agree with the positions of the speakers they invite? In addition, more recently the museum invited an attaché from Iran to the museum. All this resulted in Schäfer being labeled “pro-Iranian,” “anti-Jewish,” and even “anti-Semitic.” What is not often reported is that the Iranian’s visit was arranged as part of a museum project to create an exhibit of Iranian Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Much of this war against Schäfer comes directly from Benjamin Weinthal, a writer for the Jerusalem Post who has been attacking Schäfer for over seven years, even prior to his directorship. After Schäfer’s resignation, Weinthal has been taking a victory lap on Twitter, erroneously arguing, for example, that Schäfer “has endorsed Iranian regime antisemitism” simply because he invited an Iranian official to visit the museum as part of a museum exhibition on Iranian Jews. In Weinthal’s numerous essays attacking Schäfer he consistently refers to him simply as a “non-Jew” as if that has any consequence whatsoever in his directing the museum. Let us recall that Kivi Kaplan, a Jew, directed the NAACP for over a decade with the support of the NAACP’s African American constituency. And Morton Smith, a non-Jew, was a distinguished professor of Ancient Judaism at Columbia University and trained generations of Judaic scholars in that field. Or Yale University’s Christine Hayes, a non-Jew, who holds a prestigious chair in Jewish Studies, has directed their Jewish Studies program, and is one of the most prominent scholars in Ancient Judaism in America. The list goes on. The very inference that Schäfer’s lack of Jewish pedigree has any bearing on his fitness as director of the museum is outrageous.

When one reads through Weinthal’s numerous essays in the Jerusalem Post, Schäfer’s “non-Jewish” identity appears throughout, and it makes one wonder if that is really the crux of the matter. While this appears to be the case, I suggest it runs even deeper and this moment is yet another instantiation of a disturbing phenomenon in the Jewish world whereby pro-Israelness and Jewishness have become fused such that any deviation from the former is an attack on the latter, whether the ostensible perpetrator is Jewish or, in this case, not Jewish.

Before getting to the troubling consequences of this larger phenomenon of which Schäfer’s resignation is but one illustration, it is noteworthy that in Weinthal’s essays there is no discussion whatsoever about who Peter Schäfer is aside from the fact that he is a “non-Jew.” When one knows Schäfer and his career, however, the accusation that he is “anti-Jewish” or “anti-Semitic” becomes more than laughable and egregious; it becomes almost diabolical.

To give the reader a synopsis of Schäfer’s career and contribution to Jewish Studies, it is perhaps best to quote from the Introduction to a festschrift in his honor consisting of more than 1,300 pages entitled Envisioning Judaism: Studies in Honor of Peter Schäfer on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, published in 2013.

Schäfer’s training and teaching has crossed and connected continents. During the 1960s, he studied at the University of Bonn, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Freiburg. He pursued doctoral studies at Freiburg, where he received his Dr. Phil. in 1968 for a dissertation prepared under the mentorship of Arnold Goldberg (1928–1991). This was followed by his Habilitation from the University of Frankfurt, completed in 1973. From 1974 to 1983, he served as Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Cologne, after which he took up the position of University Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Institut für Judaistik at the Freie Universität Berlin. Beginning in 1998, Schäfer served also as Ronald O. Perelman Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Religion at Princeton University – initially splitting his time between Berlin and Princeton but eventually full-time at the latter. From 2005, he served as Director of Princeton’s Program in Judaic Studies as well. Alongside those appointments, he held visiting positions at Oxford, Hebrew University, Yale, JTS, and the Institute for Advanced Study.

In the forty-five years between his Dr. Phil. and his retirement from Princeton in 2013, Schäfer has published dozens of single-authored books and co-edited volumes, as well as nearly a thousand journal articles, book chapters, encyclopedia entries, and reviews. For these prodigious labors, he has received numerous awards – including the Leibniz Prize in 1994 and the Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award in 2006. He has been the recipient of honorary degrees from the Universities of Utrecht and Tel Aviv, and he is a regular member of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. His impact on international scholarship, however, has gone well beyond his trans-Atlantic institutional shifts and the reach of his ample publications. Schäfer’s integrative vision of Jewish Studies has been matched by his tireless dedication to supporting younger scholars and to establishing the infrastructure necessary for advancing and disseminating research. Throughout his career, he has overseen large-scale collaborative projects to produce textual editions and other innovative textual tools (e.g., Hekhalot literature, Talmud Yerushalmi, Jewish magical texts, Sefer Hasidim). He founded the journal Jewish Studies Quarterly with Joseph Dan in 1983. In addition, he created multiple book-series, including Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum/Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism with Martin Hengel in 1981 (TSAJ; Mohr Siebeck), Texts and Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Judaism with Ivan Marcus in 1986 (TSMJ; Mohr Siebeck), and Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World with Michael Cook and William C. Jordan in 2001 (Princeton University Press). Such efforts, moreover, represent only a fraction of his scholarly collaborations, which also include his organization of numerous conferences and his editing of volumes. Schäfer models an ideal of academic work that pairs intensive critical rigor with collegial generosity, even as he has helped to set key questions for debate in multiple subfields of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies. His interventions have ranged in topic from the appropriate forms for producing editions of pre-modern texts, to the challenges of situating rabbinic sources in their cultural contexts, to the historiography of Jewish mysticism, to the character of Jewish–Christian relations in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Since 2004, he has edited JSQ (Jewish Quarterly Review) with Leora Batnitzky, and since 2007, he has edited TSAJ (Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism) with Annette Yoshiko Reed, Seth Schwartz, and Azzan Yadin-Israel. In addition, he served as an editor for the Brill series Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums from 1976 to 2003. Also noteworthy are his editorships since 1975 with M. Hengel, H.-J. Becker, and F. Hüttenmeister of Übersetzung des Talmud Yerushalmi for Mohr Siebeck, and from 2001 to 2011 with Paul Mendes-Flohr of Martin Buber Werkausgabe for Gütersloher Verlagshaus.

In addition, Schäfer has been instrumental in reviving Jewish Studies in Germany through his directorship of the Institut für Judaistik at the Freie Universität Berlin that included bringing many Israeli scholars and funding their research. His ties to the Israeli academy are deep and broad, and at Princeton he trained a generation of Jewish Studies scholars in Ancient Judaism and Kabbalah. His scholarship has had a profound impact on the study of Judaica worldwide. This description of his work is not simply to use the weight of his expertise as an argument against accusations against him but to illustrate that Schäfer’s career as a scholar and administrator exhibits a deep commitment to study of Judaism and the proliferation of Jewish Studies. I hope the reader will agree that calling such a scholar “anti-Jewish” or “anti-Semitic” is both ignorant and ludicrous. It seems though, that Weinthal never took the time to look into his subject, or if he did, determined that such a career matters little juxtaposed to his office tweeting a letter signed by Jewish Studies scholars contesting the identification of BDS with anti-Semitism.

And it is here where the problem is broader than Peter Schäfer or the Jewish Museum of Berlin. It was only two years ago that David Myers, Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History in the UCLA, was appointed director of the Center for Jewish History in New York City that 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). Two protests outside the center ensued which I attended when I was a Senior NEH Fellow at the Center that year. Listening to the speakers at the protests one would have thought Myers was a deluded self-hating Jew who wished for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. One of the many comical posters at the second protest read “David Myers is Re-Writing Jewish History,” to which a senior colleague from the Hebrew University replied to me, “Of course he is, he is a scholar of Jewish history!”. More seriously, anyone familiar with Myers’ scholarly work, his directorship of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA, or his more topical essays will realize he is not only committed to Jewish history and is a self-described Zionist, but also an expert on the history of Zionism. In that case, the campaign failed, the board at the CJH continued to support him. Myers subsequently left the Center for both personal and professional reasons and returned to his professorship at UCLA and now also serves as the president of the board of the New Israel Fund.

These two incidents are part of a larger phenomenon that should concern scholars of Judaica as well as those who work for the flourishing of Jewish communities worldwide. One can disagree with the Judith Butler invitation and vehemently oppose BDS. One can oppose the letter signed by 240 Jewish Studies scholars contesting the reflexive identification of BDS with anti-Semitism. And one can oppose the invitation of an Iranian attaché to speak as part of an exhibit of the Jews of Iran, and one can oppose Myers’ essays against the occupation. But to label such acts “anti-Jewish” or “anti-Semitic” is a dangerous development of policing boundaries whereby distinctions between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism, between Jews and Israel, are erased. And when a deep critique of Israel is considered siding with the “enemy,” and when demanding fealty to a singular narrative that is defined and policed by a self-select group of individuals who claim the right to determine the boundaries of legitimacy, we have entered territory that is both dangerous and destructive. It is the collapse of pluralism into what Hannah Arendt called a kind of totalitarianism.

This is not to say that pluralism must accept all positions. But it is to say that the very hazards of intersectionality and anti-normalization that plague the far-left are no less evident in the “pro-Israel camp” here represented by Gerald Steinberg and Ben Weinthal. By deeming the museum “anti-Jewish” (as Steinberg did) because it invited a Jew who supports BDS, is falling into the same trap as real anti-Semites who equate all Jews with Israel. To reject any distinction between Jewishness and Israel exhibits a dangerous claim of cultural hegemony that weakens rather than strengthens Jewish existence. We have become plagued with an Ouroboros syndrome (the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail) consuming ourselves while thinking we are saving ourselves.

Peter Schäfer has exhibited in his work and contribution of the study of Judaism over the past half century a deep an unfailing support of what he is now being accused of undermining. It seems that we have climbed into a rabbit hole from which we cannot find an exit. Worse than that, this is actually counter-productive and contributes to the success of BDS—not in its intended results of marginalizing Israel but in undermining legitimate debate in the Jewish world, erasing distinctions, and proclaiming the boundaries of legitimate discourse that are policed through accusations of cultural heresy and disloyalty to one’s people.

Whether Schäfer returns to the museum or not is beside the point. One of the most important scholars of Judaica in our lifetime has been falsely maligned. This is a stain on the Jewish people that should concern anyone who cares about the study of Judaism and about the health and well-being of any human collective.

If you are a Jewish Studies scholar, click here to sign a petition in support of Peter Schäfer.

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2 thoughts on “Why Peter Schäfer’s Resignation as Director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin Matters

  1. All this is just another sad proof that Israel has become a Fascist/Stalinist country with Weinthal as Bibi’s Goebbels. More saddening though is that almost any of those “anti-Semitism-commissioners” that the 16 German states plus central legislation and government were forced to put into office to please the Israelis and their German propaganda force “General Council of Jews in Germany” are nothing but mouthpieces of the Israeli government. That becomes clear when you see how aggressive they fall upon Jewish oppositionals like A. Melzer, R. Verleger, the “Jewish Voice for a Just Peace”, Mrs. Hecht-Galinski, Judith and Reiner Bernstein. They see to it that Moshe Zuckermann or Gideon Levy may not talk openly in Germany as they did with Judith Butler. With the cry “No room for anti-Semitism” any controversial talk about Israel’s policy is banned or made impossible, because they put pressure on anyone not to provide lecture halls for any of those discussions. “No room” is to be understood in its literal sense. Practically that is nothing but unconstitutional censorship and opprression, but because it labels itself “fight against anti-Semitism” it in not only right what they do it is the ONLY thing to do that is right and any doubts are of course- anti-Semitism.
    Felix Klein, anti-Semitism commissioner of the German government, is a diplomat. In an interview on the radio he was asked about his future plans. His dream it is to become Geman ambassador in Israel. I think, he has already got Bibi’s approval.

    • Dear Eckart Christiansen,
      I couldn’t understand what you meant when you wrote that “this is just another sad proof that Israel has become a Fascist/Stalinist country.” Yes, Israel is somehow involved in the article because Peter Schafer studied in Israel and received an honorary degree from there, and Benjamin Weinthal, one of Schafer’s critics, wrote for the Jerusalem Post, and the article discusses criticism of Israel (but not Israel’s response); so why this article at “proves” Israel is a Fascist/Stalinist country is beyond me.
      Your comment does not prove that you are an antisemite, but since you appear to find baseless reasons to defame Israel, many people would assume you are one.

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