Jean-Francois Carenco, the governor of the Ile-de-France region with includes Paris and its environs, has asked the prosecutor's office to launch an investigation over suspicions of illegal discrimination against a group of Tel Aviv University art-history students, France’s Liberation newspaper has reported.
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The group is due to visit the French capital at the end of the month, but requests to arrange visits for its members at major cultural institutions there, including the Louvre, have been turned down.
The visit by the group of 12 students to these leading institutions was funded by French Friends of TAU, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting the university.
Last month, Sefy Hendler, who teaches in the university’s art history department, began finalizing the itinerary. Hendler, who also writes for Haaretz, contacted the administration of the Louvre and of Sainte-Chapelle, the medieval Gothic chapel, to schedule visits there. Both institutions declined his request. Sainte-Chapelle responded that there was no space available on the date requested. The Louvre refused to allow the visit even though three possible dates were proposed for it.
“It surprised me that a place that receives nine million visitors a year didn’t find room for us,” Hendler told Haaretz, referring to the Louvre, “even though we asked to tour in the middle of the week.”
After being turned down, Hendler attempted to make arrangements for a visit on the same dates and times, using names of fictitious educational institutions from Italy and Abu Dhabi in the Persian Gulf – and was told that space was available.
At that point, the TAU faculty member said he considered cancelling the entire tour, but ultimately he decided to provide details of the incident to the president of French Friends of TAU, Francois Heilbronn, who pursued the matter with the institutions involved, as well as with French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin.
The administration of the Louvre responded that it was “disturbed” over the incident and initiated an internal investigation into the matter, but told Heilbronn added that the reservation system at the world-famous museum is almost entirely automated. By contrast, reservations for visits to Sainte-Chapelle are handed manually by staff.
Philippe Belaval, the president of the National Monuments Center, which administers Sainte-Chapelle, said his organization conducted an internal investigation that revealed recurring irregularities, but at this stage it was not clear that the incident involving the TAU students constituted a case of discrimination due to their origins.
Hendler said he does not accept this explanation. “It’s clear to me that when you say no to Israelis, it’s a discriminatory and racist act. They don’t care whether you’re left- or right-wing. They simple don’t want the Israeli in the narrow sense through which they view him. It’s an incident that I simply don’t understand,” he noted.
The TAU administration said that the university works to ensure that its students have free access to anywhere in the world where research activity is being conducted, and that includes the case at hand. The university expressed appreciation to the French Friends group for its vigorous pursuit of the matter and would await its findings.
“What was the idea? That if we don’t see the 'Mona Lisa' [at the Louvre] then the occupation [of the West Bank] would end? It’s completely foolish,” Hendler said, adding: “Beyond the Israeli question, France has extraordinary cultural treasures, and the French conception is a universal conception – that we are opening culture to everyone, including Russians, even though there are those who don’t like [President Vladimir] Putin, and to Israelis, even though there are those who don’t like [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu.
"From the moment that you start choosing whom you are opening the museums to," he noted, "ultimately, you will admit only citizens of the Western democracies who think exactly as you do.”