November 19, 2018

Jerusalem Filtered Through a German Museum

A German and an American watched the same clip shown toward the end of the “Welcome to Jerusalem” exhibition that opened at the Jewish Museum Berlin in December, coincidentally the same week U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

At the museum, videos screening on monitors mounted back-to-back told stories of Jerusalem residents via footage from a German documentary titled “24h Jerusalem.” One pair told the story of Zeruya Shalev and her survival of the Jerusalem No. 19 bus suicide bombing, and of Mahmoud from Shuafat, who hasn’t gone to school for several years.

In the video, Mahmoud complains about the “wall” that cuts into the land where he used to fly kites. He and a friend taunt the Israeli guard by flying a kite across the security barrier.

“The pigs and dogs would chase us,” he says in the film, referring to Israelis and suggesting they should throw rocks.

He slammed the museum for alleged anti-Israel bias as reflected in city ads featuring the Islamic crescent as the only religious ornament.

After watching it, the German woman, in her 70s, shook her head in dismay.

When asked why she disapproved, she said, “I don’t like what Israel is doing to the Palestinians,” and pointed to another vignette in which an elderly Arab longs for the home he lost in 1948, still holding the house key.

It didn’t bother her that Mahmoud referred to Israeli soldiers as “pigs and dogs” or that he threatened to throw rocks.

“They’re frustrated and have no weapons.” Like the German government, she’s displeased with Trump’s Jerusalem decision.

Then came Jake from Montana, a 20-something on a vacation break in Berlin.

“I’m not sure what to think,” he said, asking for more context. Was Mahmoud a high school dropout? Was he cut off from his school or home?

“What about his threat to throw rocks?” this reporter asked.

“I didn’t like it,” he replied. “That only brings more violence.”

Jake preferred not to comment on Trump, who was the subject of ridicule during his European travels. But he said he loves America.

Although the exhibition portrays itself as examining Jerusalem from the perspective of three monotheistic religions, the story it tells is really one of two sides: a showdown between Judaism and Islam, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, and these days, inadvertently, Trump and Germany.

In an interview with the Journal before my visit, museum director Peter Schäfer said the exhibition seeks to impose no political position and instead hopes to offer visitors enough information to reach their own conclusions.

“Having said that, of course, we have our opinions about this, and I have my own opinions about this, and my personal decision is that it’s not a wise decision by Mr. Trump, and that the status of Jerusalem can only be decided at the end of the negotiations in which all parties involved take part and come to discussion and compromise,” he said.

The Jewish Museum Berlin is a public museum with a largely non-Jewish staff. Schäfer is Catholic, having studied at Hebrew University in the 1960s. The exhibition was curated by Margret Kampmeyer, a German of Christian faith and an art historian, and Cilly Kugelmann, a German-born Jew and former museum executive who served in an advisory role. Kampmeyer first visited Jerusalem two years ago for research.

“Welcome to Jerusalem” serves as the main attraction while the museum remodels its permanent exhibition on German-Jewish history, and it features replicas, maps, photographs and artwork of prominent Jerusalem iconography. The topic was chosen because the museum often seeks to address themes of interfaith importance.

“One of our goals with the exhibition, if at all possible, is to address not just Judaism but also, if possible, Islam and Christianity,” Schäfer said, citing recent exhibitions on religious head coverings and on the binding of Isaac as examples.

Jerusalem fits this goal perfectly, but Eldad Beck, the Berlin correspondent for the Israel daily newspaper Israel Hayom, has publicly taken the museum to task for its extensive focus on interreligious themes at the expense of Jewish narratives. He slammed the museum for alleged anti-Israel bias as reflected in city ads featuring the Islamic crescent as the only religious ornament. Schäfer, in defense, told the Journal that the ad was the first of a series.

“If you ask me why did we start with the Islamic crescent, I cannot tell, but of course, the idea you could see easily,” he said. “The idea, of course, is to allude to the Dome of the Rock.” As the religious symbol topping this contentious landmark, he believes it is among the more recognizable Jerusalem icons.

But the same image also appears as the brochure cover, and Beck’s criticism goes further. In his book “Germany at Odds,” Beck dedicates a chapter to the museum, outlining Kugelmann’s affiliation with the “Israelkritik” movement in Germany, which largely blames Israel for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“It’s very typical of the German position, and they’re just using this museum to promote their distorted view of Judaism,” Beck said. “A country with such a history of the Jews should not be allowed to do it.”

He was particularly incensed by the exhibition climax: a short film titled “Conflict.”

“This is amazing because they took out almost everything that has to do with Arab-Muslim violence and put only the Jewish and Zionist violence,” Beck said. “Later on, during the Second Intifada, you have some mentioning of the bombings, but it’s so minor that the overall impression that you get from this film is that the Jews came, took the land, took the city, and the poor Arabs are there to suffer.”

Sympathizers with Israel’s claim to Jerusalem may be bothered by more than just the exhibition’s apparent bias. The portrayal of the Holy City lacks soul, coming across as a chore, a lecture, a collection of clichés — or worse, propaganda.

In my opinion, rather than exacerbate tensions by focusing on conflict, why not dramatize the beauty, depth and liveliness of a modern city that people of all faiths call home? Let’s see Jews and Arabs peacefully coexist. Let us enter the colorful Arab shuk or the happening Machane Yehuda Market. Let us sit at the cafes, bars or walk the rose-lined golden streets. And most of all, let us pray, hope and dream. Because what’s worse than leaving with the impression that Israel is the aggressor is leaving with: “What are they even fighting for?”


Orit Arfa is an author and journalist based in Berlin. For more on the exhibition, go to her blog on jewishjournal.com.