The internationally renowned Jewish Museum in Berlin hosted a podium discussion on Saturday with US academic Judith Butler, who renewed her calls to boycott Israel. It appears to be the first anti-Israel event held in the Jewish museum since its opening in 2001 with the aim of exhibiting the 2,000- year history of Germany’s Jews. At least 700 people attended the event.
The German taxpayer-funded museum’s decision to showcase a speaker in the capital city, which during the Nazi period served as the launching pad for a boycott movement against German-Jewish businesses, has raised eyebrows about the management’s direction of the museum.
In an email to The Jerusalem Post on Saturday, Professor Gerald Steinberg, who heads the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, termed the cultural institution the “Berlin anti-Jewish Museum.”
Butler, a professor in the rhetoric and comparative literature departments at the University of California, Berkeley, told a sold out audience in the courtyard of the museum that she accepts a “version of a boycott” against Israel, and stressed that the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement is “non-violent resistance” against Israel. She claimed that “1,000 Jewish groups” agree with her.
The largely German audience frequently showered Butler with applause during the two hour podium discussion titled “Does Zionism belong to Judaism?” The panel discussion with Butler sparked controversy ahead of Saturday, prompting the scheduled moderator Jacques Schuster, a journalist with the daily Die Welt, to walk away from the event because a “balanced discussion” with Butler is not possible and her views toward Israel are more than “odd.”
The city of Frankfurt has been engulfed in a nearly three week row over the city’s cultural agency decision to honor Butler on September 11 with its prestigious Theodor Adorno award for excellence in the field of humanities.
Steinberg, whose organization serves as a watchdog of publicly and privately funded anti-Israel organizations, wrote to the Post that “the award of the Adorno prize to Judith Butler is a moral travesty, and the Berlin Jewish Museum\’s decision to host her is an additional gross insult to the Jewish people."
He added: "Butler espouses causes such as the BDS campaign, erasing mass terror (‘ her version of non-violence‘) and, like Hamas and Hizbollah, explicitly seeking Israel\’s destruction. This platform embodies the antithesis of the universal human rights principles adopted in the shadow of the Holocaust."
In an email to the Post, Cilly Kugelmann, the museum\’s director, wrote "We understand ourselves… as a forum for discussion and debates with respect to historical and relevant topics.“ She wrote that the museum views its mission to address "Jewish life at home and abroad, as well as the relations between Jews and non-Jews.”
When queried by the Post about Butler’s support for boycotts against Israel and her ostensibly cordial words for Hamas and Hezbollah, Kugelmann added that “in our team there are certainly many attitudes and positions.” She declined to return calls and additional email queries about whether museum team members share Butler’s pro-BDS views and descriptions of Hamas and Hezbollah as progressive left-wing groups.
Katharina Schmidt-Narischkin, the Jewish museum’s spokeswoman, told the Post on Friday that attendees are not allowed to ask Butler questions about Hamas and Hezbollah. She wrote the Post on Saturday that ”audience questions” will not take place. The museum did , however, collect written audience questions at the end of the event and assessed which questions to permit.
Butler triggered intense criticism in Germany, Israel and the US because of her 2006 comment at a “Teach-in Against War “ event that “Understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.” In an August email to the Post, she watered down her assertions and said her description does not mean she endorses Hamas and Hezbollah and she rejects violent movements. “I have never taken a stand on either organization,” wrote Butler. She declined to answer Post queries about her exact view of the two radical Islamic organizations.
In a letter to the Post, Michael Blumenthal, the American who oversees the executive direction of the museum, wrote "the museum takes no positions on political issues, whether in Germany, Israel or anywhere else.“ He added that "we believe a balanced and fair discussion of issues related to our mission is important and in the public interest. The Berlin Jewish Museum always makes it unmistakeably clear, however, that the opinions they express are the speakers’ own—and only their own. "
Steinberg responded that “Blumenthal\’s attempts to justify such behavior on the grounds of‚ balance, democratic debate and free speech are as morally hollow as Butler\’s defense. As long as Blumenthal remains, this institution will be known as the Berlin anti-Jewish Museum.”
Blumenthal noted in his letter that the appearance of Dr. Micha Brumlik at the discussion serves as a counterweight to Butler. Brumlik, a liberal German Jewish professor of pedagogy, argued against BDS actions targeting Israel at the event but was drowned out and not taken seriously by the largely pro-Butler audience.
A German Jewish academic at the event expressed dismay over the discussion at the museum. She told the Post that “Anti-Zionism is enormous in Germany,” and the political and historical context is different in Germany.
Critics in the Federal Republic have long argued that non-Jewish organizations and politicians frequently award prizes to anti-Zionist and anti-Israel Jews to vent their biases against the Jewish state and thereby avoid accusations of anti-Semitism or prejudice.
Phyllis Chesler, an emeritus professor of psychology and women’s studies at City University of New York, wrote the Post via email ,”What Berkeley and the Adorno Prize committee do understand are her very high profile and public anti-Zionist politics which, in these historical times, constitute part of what the ‘new anti-Semitism‘ is about.”
Chesler, who has written about anti-Israel professors, added that academics like Butler “are being rewarded for their political views—which is their real work.”