In December 2017, days after President Trump’s announcement of US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the prestigious Jewish Museum in Berlin opened an ambitious, multi-faceted exhibit on Jerusalem. This is how the Museum describes the exhibit:
“Synagogues, churches, and mosques shape our image of Jerusalem. The »Holy City« is an important center of faith for Jews, Christians, and Muslims from all over the world. Simultaneously, Jerusalem is home to extraordinary political tensions, claimed as the capital city by both Israelis and Palestinians. From the age of the second temple to the Roman conquest, from Ottoman rule and the British mandate until the present day, the exhibition Welcome to Jerusalem investigates the history of a city where daily life, religion, and politics are inextricably interwoven. “
The exhibit is accompanied by an Exhibition Catalog, which opens with the observation that:
“Jerusalem is a place of desire and longing for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Jerusalem is a sacred place, where the three great monotheistic religions are deeply rooted. Jerusalem is, however, also more disputed and contested than almost any other place in the world, since the visible sanctums of the three religions compete on the same territory for the veneration of their faithful.”
The Catalog includes commentaries from “twenty authors provide insights into the city, writing about historical and topical aspects, scientifically or personally, from Israeli or Arab viewpoints”. (NOTE: Terrestrial Jerusalem had the honor of providing the Museum its maps of contemporary Jerusalem, and TJ’s Daniel Seidemann wrote the epilogue of the Exhibition Catalogue).
While hardly a political exhibition or an ideological manifesto, the exhibit does not shy away from controversy, and takes on the thorny disputes regarding contemporary Jerusalem. As described in a review in the Forward, the largest U.S. Jewish newspaper, the exhibit is a “ clear-eyed, balanced and unsparing account of Israeli history vis-à-vis the Palestinians is the exhibit’s most courageous part…”.
All of which apparently was too much for Prime Minister Netanyahu to tolerate. Around the time of Chancellor Merkel’s December visit to Israel, the Israeli government sent a 7-page letter (original report in the German media is here; the letter is unsigned) to the German government, demanding that it cease funding a dozen or so organizations, mostly Israeli NGOs. Regarding the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the letter reportedly claims that its Jerusalem Exhibition, described above, stresses the “Muslim-Palestinian view of the city.”
In response to media reports about the letter, the Prime Minister’s Office commented:
“The prime minister raised the issue of defunding Palestinian and Israeli groups and non-governmental organizations that depict Israel Defense Forces as war criminals, support Palestinian terrorism and call for boycott of the State of Israel. Israel will continue fighting these organizations.”
The historical ironies of all this are staggering: by urging the defunding of the Jewish Museum of Berlin, the Prime Minister of Israel is, in effect, pressing the German government to delegitimze one of Germany’s most important Jewish institutions and to negate its fundamental freedoms. And he is doing so purely because that institution supports a pluralist vision of Jerusalem instead of blindly adopting Netanyahu’s mythical belief in an “eternal, undivided Jerusalem under exclusive Israeli rule” – a vision rejected by most of the enlightened international community, including Israel’s closest allies. This scandalous intervention in the activities of a Jewish institution in Germany demonstrates once again that, in Netanyahu’s view, dissenting views can and must be silenced, and highlights his belief (erroneous in this case) that his allies in the international community will concur and cooperate.
In response, the Jewish Museum of Berlin stated:
“We believe open dialogue on controversial issues is crucial to allow (the museum’s) visitors to form their own position on the matter and judge it for themselves.”