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Jewish Studies Scholars Support Resigned Director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum with Two Public Letters

Leading Jewish studies scholars came out in defense of Peter Schäfer, himself a prominent Talmud Scholar, and called accusations of anti-Semitism against him “false” and “outrageous.”

Peter Schäfer, former director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum. Photo by Jule Roehr (courtesy the Jewish Museum Berlin)

A group of 50 Talmud scholars have signed a letter in support of Peter Schäfer, former director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, who resigned this past Friday amid backlash over a controversial tweet from the museum’s official account. The tweet linked to a petition in defense of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), which calls for a cultural, economic, and political boycott of Israel.

“We are scholars of the Talmud and Ancient Judaism who hold diverse and even opposing opinions regarding the BDS movement. But we are united in our profound admiration for Prof. Schäfer as a scholar, academic leader, and public intellectual,” the letter says. “For those of us who know Prof. Schäfer and his work, it is shocking to hear the claim that he is not committed to Jewish causes and the fight against antisemitism,” it added. The letter, co-authored by Tel Aviv University professor Ishay Rosen Zvi and Princeton University Professor Moulie Vidas, was sent to the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media in Germany.

A separate letter, drafted by Professors Susannah Heschel from Dartmouth University, Shaul Magid of Dartmouth, and Annette Reed of NYU, was signed by a larger group of 322 Jewish studies scholars. The petition condemns the “False accusations” against Schäfer and regrets that “the reputation of a scholar devoted to Judaism would be smeared in public.” The letter was signed by 322 scholars representing over 150 institutions in the United States, Israel, and Europe as well as South America and Asia.

Schäfer, a prominent Talmud scholar, was fiercely criticized on Twitter after the Jewish Museum shared an article describing an open letter released in May against a then-proposed resolution in the German parliament to condemn the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. The open letter, signed by 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars, urged German lawmakers to vote against the resolution, saying that it “does not assist this fight [against anti-Semitism],” but rather “undermines it.”

Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, was one of Schäfer’s harshest critics in the past few weeks. “Enough is enough,” he said last Tuesday in response to the Jewish Museum’s post. “The Jewish Museum appears to be completely out of control,” he wrote, saying he doubted if it is still “appropriate” to call the museum “Jewish.” Israel’s Ambassador to Germany, Jeremy Issacharoff, followed up with more criticism, calling the museum’s sharing of the open letter “shameful.”

Schäfer, who joined the Jewish Museum in 2014, said in his resignation letter that he decided to resign immediately “to prevent further damage to the museum.” In a statement provided to the New York Times, Schuster welcomed Schäfer’s decision to resign, calling it “an important step.”

“We are deeply concerned about the growing censorship of free speech and the shrinking possibility of criticizing or even questioning government policies which are manifested in these recent developments,” the Talmudists’s letter said.

“To me, this was especially important because those specific fields are often associated with religious scholars or institutions, which in turn are associated with the right end of the political map,” Vidas told Hyperallergic in an email. “The signatures showed that while there might be divisions among us on the issue of BDS, we can stand united around support for a scholar whose work is of the highest quality and who has been so influential through his teaching and service to the field.”

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