“Welcome to Jerusalem” in the Jewish Museum Berlin: Ideas, Reflections, Questions

Almost every exhibition of the Jewish Museum Berlin, both its temporary exhibitions and the former now-to-be-replaced permanent exhibition, is structured along identical lines: The three so-called “world-religions” each occupy one segment, and in each segment the respective religion’s “view on” dietary laws/circumcision/head-coverings etc. is being exhibited. Through this arrangement, the argument for, say, the legitimacy of head-coverings is made through pointing at Jews, who also (sometimes) use head-coverings. The argument for the legitimacy of ritual circumcision is made through pointing at Jews, who also perform ritual circumcisions, and so on. The protection, that Jews can invoke through calling upon the state’s historical responsibility in face of its genocidal history, is extended to include Muslims – simply because Muslims as Muslims and Jews as Jews are not granted such protection. [1]

In light of this pedagogy, the newly opened temporary exhibition on Jerusalem is necessarily challenging. Whereas it is relatively easy to make an argument for political equality as long as the debate circles around Jewish and Muslim practices, that run counter the normative claims of a (supposedly) homogenous German “value community,” Jerusalem is the point where political cooperation collapses, where a visitor cannot be educated to “tolerate Muslims, because they do things similar to Jews.”

In the following, I will first describe the segments devoted to the conflict and then move to the segments that exhibit “religious” Jerusalem, that is, the segments that entail the standard “Jewish/Muslim/Christian perspectives on Jerusalem” concept. I am adding, as a disclaimer, that my aim is not to give a comprehensive, all-inclusive documentation of the exhibition: I didn’t look at every object, didn’t read each and every text-tag, and am not even commenting on every segment. I am simply reflecting on the questions that the exhibition made me think of. Obviously, different visitors will see different things, and have different questions.


The conflict-section begins with a dark room, in which non-commented video-documentation is arranged in a full circle above the visitor. Flickering images of Balfour, massacres, the declaration of independence, refugee camps, wars, suicide bombings, the handshake of Oslo, the assassination of Rabin, the wall. The circle quotes the iconography of the conflict. A bird-eyed narrator, looking from above at devastation and triumph, arranges image after image, icon after icon, dryly, the only interference being very short phrases projected in between the video-sequences, such as: “The Partition Plan of the United Nations is adopted by 13 against and 10 abstentions.” Or “The British Troops leave Palestine. The State of Israel is declared.” In the end of the video-installation, a wall encloses the visitor, aggravating the feeling of suffocation, of being trapped – I am not trapped, I thought, I can go everywhere, almost, or maybe I too am trapped, in a different way.

Maybe in order to slightly lighten up the visitors’ moods, the next room features something like a Jewish “cabinet of curiosities.” One sees papier-mâché models of various Jewish sub-groups, such as Satmarim with anti-Zionist signs in their hands, the Women of the Wall, on screen: rages against the latter, messianic Jews advocating the rebuilding of the Temple, in the corner: a little sign by the Rabbanut prohibiting Jews from entering this area, a full-sized reconstruction of Miri Regev in her Cannes dress. None of these figures is contextualized: They appear as erratic groups, people with contrasting “issues,” that have no particular ideological genealogy, or represent different visions of the very essence of Jerusalem that would require an explanation.

The “cabinet of curiosities” does not include Palestinians, who are, however, subject of the next room, entitled “Traces of Memory.” This room is an exhibition of black/white photographs of places that once were inhabited by Palestinians, and are now wastelands, or the locale of new buildings. Next to each photograph is a tag, that shows the exact cartographical coordinates of the place, and next to the tag, another, larger tag with a first person narrative of an individual, who recounts his or her childhood memories of the depicted place. Even though this room is running counter the conventions of memory as cultivated and practiced in dominant political, scientific and medial (German) discourses, it seems important to note that Palestinians here do not appear as agents. In contrast to the activity depicted in the “cabinet of curiosities,” Palestinians here are framed as memory. I do not learn anything about the shifts and transformations of the Palestinian resistance movement, about internal struggles, about life in the refugee camps, about the Palestinian Diaspora, about the political claims engrained in memory. Crucially, I do not learn about Palestinian Jerusalemites’ legal status following the 67’ census and up to today. This room then seems to give memory a visual presence, but does so without spelling out the political implications of the latter: A bird-eyed narrator screens through the land, and peels layer by layer of the map, and finds another layer, and yet another layer, and in between them the ruins, which he marks by fixing a little needle on his map and recording a witness’s story. Palestinians are memory, while Jews (“pious protesters”) struggle over the way their state is supposed to look.[2]

This can be read, maybe, as an attempt to represent the conflict’s asymmetry. Yet, I’d like to think a bit about the representation of Jewish memory in this museological context, too. And just to be clear on this: my question about Jewish memory is not motivated by an attempt to undo Palestinian memory.

In its visualization of absence and loss, the “traces of memory” – inadvertently – seem to mirror another absence, one, which a visitor encounters in the beginning of the exhibition. Among the more central, eye-catching objects on display in the “religious” segment on Jewish Jerusalem is a model of the Temple, truncated in blue light – blue, probably in order to indicate its “fictive” character. It’s not really there, or as the exhibition catalogue puts it: “In medieval Jewish travel literature, the former temple area is described as a desolate desert – true to the memory image of the destroyed temple, and in contradiction to the architectural reality of the magnificent dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque.”[3]

Such separation between memory and reality is, of course, nothing spectacular, and part and parcel of a classic secular practice of separation of the “pious sentiment” from rational investigation.[4] The difficulty here is, that Jewish memory of the Temple and its destruction constituted Jews’ reality – a reality that cannot be represented, or measured, in a materially substantial presence, and as such, also cannot be juxtaposed and paralleled to the presence of other monuments (such as models of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Al-Aqsa). Given that Jews for most of the time had no access to Jerusalem in any case, it seems that Jewish Jerusalem consists not so much in buildings or souvenirs, but in a millennium and more of liturgical, theological, philosophical, and legal texts bespeaking an unbreakable attachment – that is, Jewish Jerusalem is about a certain way of being in the world.

The latter is referred to in a showcase that displays a Torah Scroll, a Yad (a Torah-pointer), Rimonim and a volume of the Talmud Yerushalmi, accompanied by a tag explaining that following the destruction of the Second Temple, exegesis of Scripture substituted the daily offerings. And again, while this is, of course, standard chronology, the destruction of the Temple and the lack of political sovereignty did much more than generate an exegetical project. They entailed a notion of history having come to an end, and God having exiled himself from the world, in the words of Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin: “[T]hough originally exile referred to the territorial situation of the Jews vis-à-vis the Land of Israel, it came to refer as well to the more distant position of God vis-a-vis the destiny of the Jewish people and the world as large. In this way, exile carries a temporal understanding according to which History (in its biblical understanding as sacred narrative) has come to its end. Thus the exile of the Jews and their dispersal were, in this conception, regarded as evidence of the condition of the entire world, and conserved the desire for its improvementAccording to this Jewish viewpoint, the exilic existence was not outside of history, but rather embodied the very state of “history” itself.”[5] The destruction of the Temple then engendered a concept of history, that differed from the Christian concept of progressive history, meaning, the time of Jerusalem was unlike the time of Rome, which became the fundament of the secular time as imposed by the nation-state.[6]

As a precondition for the toleration of the Jews and their assimilation into Europe, however, this notion of exilic time was denied: The idea of a Jewish nation-state emerged and gained political momentum with the fragmentation and de-politization of the Jewish tradition in pre-war Europe, that is, Judaism became a religion and the state (whatever state) the exclusive site of the political, when the Jewish nation was shattered (as in Clermont’s Tonnerre’s famous statement “It faut tout refuser aux Juifs comme nation et tout accorder aux Juifs comme individus”), when the aforementioned exegetical project lost normative binding, when rabbinic authorities lost political power, when Jews became individual citizens, or were supposed to become citizens. The emergence of the Zionist movement is captured, accordingly, by some scholars (along Zionists’ self-depictions) in anti-assimilationist terms, while at the same time it is pointed out, that this anti-assimilationist project was premised on the internalization of Christian ambivalence towards the Jews, an “extreme attempt to assimilate Jews into the Western narrative of redemption and progress,”[7] and it was initially contested by some Jews on these grounds (and by others with different rationales, of course). Wouldn’t it be important then to map the emergence of the Jews’ “return to (secular) History” and negation of exile not “only” vis-à-vis Palestinian memory and presence – as determining Palestinian exile –, but to situate it also as a response to (or adaption of) European secularization, nation-state building and “civil improvement,” thereby making a point for the state’s ambivalence qua state also for Jews?


When leaving the exhibition, visitors can place postcards of Jerusalem on a wall, one next to the other. It seems that besides “God bless the Jewish people” and “Free Palestine,” most visitors chose a line such as “Love is the answer,” or “Not Muslim, not Jewish, not Christian, only human” – the exhibition had apparently affirmed their sense of looking as “only humans” at Jews and Muslims fighting against each other instead of living, as humans do, in peace and harmony. One should not judge an exhibition by its guest-book, and I do not argue, of course, that this is the exhibition’s message – after all, the exhibition-space is relatively small, itself a contested territory. However, I suggest that a conversation about the exhibition could take as its starting point not the “view at Jewish/Christian/Muslim Jerusalem,” but alternatively, precisely the loss that occurred when Jerusalem’s Jewishness could be granted realness only on condition of its conceptualization as a nation-state’s capital. The motives of memory, loss, and destruction are, in different ways, woven into this exhibition, and maybe the political question at its heart then is: What kind of presence – political (not only museological-artistical) presence – can memory and loss have?

[1] Doughan/Tzuberi, „Säkularismus als Praxis und Herrschaft: Juden und Muslime im Kontext säkularer Wissensproduktion”, Der inspizierte Muslim. Zur Politisierung der Islamforschung, Schirin Amir-Moazami (ed.), Bielefeld: transcript 2018
[2] Palestinians as „not-memory“ appear in video-sequences depicting daily life in Jerusalem. The sequences are taken from the documentary 24h Jerusalem by Volker Heise and Thomas Kufus. These are uncommented portraits of individuals walking through their daily affairs, offering a “kaleidoscope of biographical insights” (https://www.jmberlin.de/en/exhibition-welcome-to-jerusalem). They are political in the sense that the very existence of Palestinians in Jerusalem and their existence’s representation in this documentary is itself political.
[3] Exhibition catalogue, pp. 13-14.
[4] Exhibition catalogue, ibid.
[5] Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “Secularism, the Christian Ambivalence Towards the Jews and the Notion of Exile,” in: Ari Joskowicz and Ethan B. Katz (eds.), Secularism in Question: Jews and Judaism in Modern Times, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, pp. 276-298 (https://bgu.academia.edu/AmnonRazKrakotzkin)
[6] See also Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, ibid., and the work of Ruth Mas and Johannes Fabian on secular time.
[7] Ibid., but see also the latest book of Cynthia Baker, entitled “Jew” and Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin’s article on “Diaspora.” On the civil improvement debates in imperial context cf. Jonathan M. Hess’ book on “Germans, Jews, and the Claims of Modernity,” Zygmunt Bauman’s “Modernity and Ambivalence,” Patchen Markell, “Bound by Recognition” and specifically on the entanglement of intellectual domination in biblical scholarship and political domination, James Pasto, “Islam’s Strange Secret Sharer.”

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