Louvre investigated for turning away Israeli students

After Tel Aviv U. prof. is told there is no room for his group, he pretends to represent European and Gulf schools — and is approved

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

The Louvre Museum with its Glass Pyramid in Paris, France (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA  Hteink.min)
The Louvre Museum with its Glass Pyramid in Paris, France (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA Hteink.min)

The governor of greater Paris has asked state prosecutors to investigate claims of anti-Israel discrimination after French media reported that two prominent cultural institutions, including the Louvre art museum, recently turned away a group of visiting Tel Aviv University students.

Last month, art history professor Sefy Hendler contacted the reservations departments at the world-famous museum and at Sainte-Chapelle Cathedral to book guided tours for a group of 12 students who are scheduled to visit Paris in late June. According to a report in Haaretz Monday, he was quickly turned away by both for lack of room, despite trying to make a booking on three separate dates.

“I was surprised to hear that a site that hosts over nine million visitors a year could not find a place for us — even though we offered to come mid-week,” Hendler told the paper.

After being turned away, the professor contacted the Louvre and Sainte-Chapelle again, and attempted to make reservations using false names of educational institutions from Italy and Abu Dhabi, on the same dates he had requested originally.

Shortly after, both institutions responded to Hendler that space was available on his requested dates.

Sefy Hendler (Facebook)
Sefy Hendler (Facebook)

Hendler, who said he considered canceling the trip altogether, ultimately transferred the correspondence to Francois Heilbronn, the president of the French Friends of TAU, who pursued the matter with both institutions, together with French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin.

The official statement released by the Louvre Monday called the incident “disturbing” and said that it would investigate the details — although its reservations system was entirely automated.

The communique wrote that an overflow of reservations on the system was responsible for initially turning down — and then ultimately approving — Hendler’s separate reservation requests.

“In a way, we are victims of our success. We receive on average 400 reservation requests per day and offer 15-minute-long visits. But demand is twice as large as supply,” the statement said.

The report explained that the computerized system didn’t create a “waiting line” for turned-down requests, and that Hendler’s test reservations were “lucky” to receive the free slots. “In any event, a second reservation — by the Hebrew University — was later accepted,” said the management of the Louvre.

At Sainte-Chapelle, where the reservation system is not automated, the president of National Monuments admitted to the French daily Liberation that an internal investigation found “repeated errors” in its reservations department and said that “disciplinary measures” would be taken.

Philippe Beleval emphasized that it wasn’t possible to ascertain if discrimination was a factor in the decision, but made assurances that the person responsible for turning down the reservation request “never expressed hostility towards Israel.”

Beleval expressed regret over “compromising the treatment of requests” and a lack of “rigor and professionalism.”

Heilbronn dismissed both responses as disingenuous.

Hendler also rejected the explanations, claiming that “it’s obvious that when they said no to the Israelis, it’s an act of discrimination and racism. They don’t care if you’re left-wing or right-wing — they just don’t want any Israelis, in the narrow meaning of the word.

“What’s the point? If we don’t see the Mona Lisa, is the occupation going to end? The minute you start deciding who you will let into your museums, the only visitors left will be Westerners who think exactly like you,” he added.

Jonathan Beck contributed to this report.

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