What I Learned at the Louvre About Boycotts and 'Evil Israelis'

To ensure that Israelis won't be prevented from visiting the museum, it’s not enough to dismiss the worsening BDS situation with the usual responses.

Ten minutes before the appointed time, two members of the Louvre Museum administration stood at the staff entrance with our tickets. The group that had arrived from Israel was not forced to endure the exhausting security checks outside the glass pyramid entrance. “To avoid delays and waiting,” explained the hosts, who gallantly opened the side door that the group led within 30 seconds minute to the marvelous Grand Gallery, containing masterpieces by Leonardo and Raphael.

“Lady Gaga came through this entrance,” revealed the woman in charge of the media division of the world’s largest museum, to emphasize the uniqueness of the occasion.

My colleagues and a dozen students from the program for outstanding students in Tel Aviv University’s art history department traveled to a seminar in France –– an event that, to our regret, turned into a source of controversy.

The attempt to book a place for a group from TAU at the Louvre and the Sainte-Chapelle church was turned down ostensibly due to lack of space. Reservations for an identical date that I made on behalf of a fictitious university in Abu Dhabi were immediately honored.

The governor of the district of Paris ordered an investigation, and a major uproar ensured. After the peaceful conclusion of the visit we now await the result of that inquiry, which I’m sure will be taken seriously.

An internal investigation ordered by the French culture minister seemed thorough in the case of our visit to the Louvre (which claims an unfortunate coincidence), and less convincing, to put it mildly, in the case of the Sainte-Chapelle, which is under the aegis France’s National Monuments Center.

But even before the conclusion of the judicial investigation we can offer several cautious conclusions. The total condemnation of the affair in France and the vigorous response of the legal authorities are not a result of the actions of the anti-BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) unit established by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is no point in saying anything more about the dubious logic of transferring the handling of this matter from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Nor is there any point in discussing the outrageous sums for operating the new unit that were given to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (100 million shekels, according to reports).

Only two people were involved in the Louvre affair (the representative of the Tel Aviv University in France and yours truly,) with no budget or assistance. The French representative, Prof. Francois Heilbronn, also took a step that would be inconceivable for the troops combatting BDS in Israel: He didn’t even mention the boycott. He approached the local authorities about a case which he said involved “discrimination based on nationality,” which is of course forbidden in France, and is viewed mainly as a blow to the principle of equality, which is sacred to the French.

Israeli discourse, which is sometimes clumsy, is unsuccessful for the most part in explaining the fine line between a boycott, which some people support, and discrimination, which is very hard to justify.

In one of the earliest descriptions of the "Mona Lisa," 16th-century Italian historian Giorgio Vasari wrote that anyone who looks at it carefully “can see the pulse beating on her throat.” The tourists who crowd around the most famous painting in the world make it impossible to get such a close look. But to ensure that Israelis will not be absolutely prevented from visiting the Louvre, which hosts the work with the virtual pulse – it’s not enough to dismiss the worsening BDS situation with the automatic responses to which we have become accustomed.

Upon seeing the breathtaking works of art, and hearing the students’ fascinating lectures, I couldn’t help but feeling somewhat sad. Such a banal thing, arranging for an art student to lecture in front of a masterpiece, becomes an uphill battle the moment the students are Israeli. It’s clear that those calling to boycott Israel are not at all interested in the identity of the students or their opinions, except for the label “evil Israeli” that they attach to them, in their foolishness.

At the same time, it would be irresponsible to think that Israel’s behavior has no influence over the growing response to the calls for a boycott. We should all know how to feel the pulse.